Steven Pinker’s Analysis of Wealth and Inequality

“The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” as noted in a prior post, is the cheery synopsis of the new book, “Enlightenment NOW: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress “ (p. 52)  by Harvard University’s Johnston Family Professor of Psychology, Steven Pinker.

Two of the measures that he examines are wealth (Ch. 8) and inequality (Ch. 9), both of which illustrate his overall analysis over long periods of time and for the whole world with unusual sets of data and graphs.

Wealth

For wealth, he starts with the proposition that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it” (p. 80).

His graph of Gross World Product, 1-2015 (p. 81) shows virtually no change from year 1 through the middle of the 19th century and then virtually a straight-upward line through 2015. This “Great Escape” from poverty was due to “the application of science to the improvement of material life,” “the development of institutions that lubricated the exchange of goods, services, and ideas” and “a change in values” or “endorsement of bourgeois virtue” (pp. 80-85).

The next graph–GDP per capita, 1600-2015 (p. 85)—shows, Pinker argues, that “starting in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence. This is also shown, according to Pinker, by data and graphs of World income distribution, 1800, 1975, and 2015; Extreme poverty (proportion of world population), 1820-2015; and Extreme poverty (number), 1820-2015 (pp. 86-88).

For Pinker, the following are the three major causes of this Great Convergence:

  1. The “decline of communism (together with intrusive socialism).” Market “economies can generate wealth prodigiously while totalitarian planned economies impose scarcity, stagnation, and often famine. Market economies, in addition to reaping the benefits of specialization and providing incentives for people to produce things that other people want, solve the problem of coordinating the efforts of hundreds of millions of people by using prices to propagate information about need and availability far and wide.” Moreover, many market economies also “invested in education, public health, infrastructure, and agricultural and job training, together with social insurance and poverty-reduction programs.” (Pp. 90-91.)[1]
  2. Better leadership in developing countries (p. 91).
  3. The end of the Cold War (p. 91).
  4. Globalization through an explosion of international trade (p. 92).
  5. Advances in science and technology (pp. 94-96).

Inequality

The initial premise of this chapter is that unlike “health, prosperity, knowledge, safety, peace “ and certain other factors, “economic inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being.” The contrary view confuses inequality with poverty. (Pp. 98-102.)

Here Pinker asserts that inequality comes with modernity and refers to the Gini Coefficient as the usual measure of economic inequality with 0, when everyone has the same as everyone else and 1, when one person has everything and everyone else has nothing.  (Pp. 98, 102.)

He then displays three graphs of the Gini Coefficient: International inequality, 1820-2013 (population weighted and unweighted), Global inequality, 1820-2011 and Inequality, UK and US, 1688-2013. These graphs demonstrate, he says, that “inequality in the world is declining.” (Pp. 98, 103-06.) An historian, Walter Scheidel, is said to have identified the Four Horsemen of Leveling: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics by obliterating wealth and killing large numbers of workers. (Pp. 106-07.)

Moreover, “modern societies now devote a substantial chunk of their wealth to health, education, pensions, and income support (the Egalitarian Revolution).” This has “redefined the mission of government to include such social spending to inoculate citizens against the appeal of communism and fascism, to benefit the entire society, to indemnify citizens against misfortunes against which they can’t or won’t insure themselves and to assuage the modern conscience.” (Pp. 107-08.)

The conclusion from Pinker on this issue is the following:

  • “As globalization and technology have lifted billions out of poverty and created a global middle class, international and global inequality have decreased, at the same time that they enrich elites whose analytical, creative , or financial impact has global reach. The fortunes of the lower classes in developed countries have not improved nearly as much, but they have improved . . . The improvements are enhanced by social spending, and by the falling cost and rising quality of the things that people want. In some ways the world has become less equal, but in more ways the world’s people have become better off.” (P. 120.)

Conclusion

The overall thesis of this book– The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being—is very attractive. What are the counter arguments?

The above summary of Professor Pinker’s analysis of wealth and inequality raises at least the following questions:

  • Many of the data sets used by Pinker are not well known. Therefore, do they accurately and fairly depict what they purport to depict?
  • It seems valid that “wealth is created . . . primarily by knowledge and cooperation: networks of people arrange matter into improbable but useful configurations and combine the fruits of their ingenuity and labor . . . [and] that we can figure out how to make more of it.” Any legitimate objections to same?
  • Is it valid to state that “in the late 20th century, poor countries have been escaping from poverty in their turn,” thereby converting the Great Escape to the Great Convergence?
  • Are Pinker’s reasons for the Great Convergence valid?
  • Is economic inequality not a fundamental component of wellbeing?
  • Is the Gini Coefficient a valid measure of inequality?
  • Are the major causes of Leveling or reduced inequality these factors: mass-mobilization warfare, transformative revolution, state collapse and lethal pandemics?

Comments from others who know more about these data sets and analyses are earnestly solicited.

=============================

[1] Right now we are seeing Cuba struggle with whether and how it will modify its communist economic system to allow greater private enterprise. See Economic Challenges Facing Cuba’s New President, dwkcommentaries.com (April 5, 2018).

 

 

 

 

 

President Obama’s Audience with Pope Francis

President Obama & Pope Francis
          President Obama &               Pope Francis 

On March 27th U.S. President Barack Obama had an audience with His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican followed by the President’s meeting with His Eminence Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, and Archbishop Dominique Mamberti, its Secretary for Relations with States.

Afterwards the Vatican issued a press release that said, “During the cordial meetings, views were exchanged on some current international themes and it was hoped that, in areas of conflict, there would be respect for humanitarian and international law and a negotiated solution between the parties involved.”

The press release continued, “In the context of bilateral relations and cooperation between Church and State, there was a discussion on questions of particular relevance for the Church in that country, such as the exercise of the rights to religious freedom, life and conscientious objection, as well as the issue of immigration reform. Finally, the common commitment to the eradication of trafficking of human persons in the world was stated.”

Also afterwards at a joint news conference with Matteo Renzi, the prime minister of Italy, President Obama said the Pope and he “had a wide-ranging discussion.  I would say that the largest bulk of the time was discussing two central concerns of his.  One is the issues [sic] of the poor, the marginalized, those without opportunity, and growing inequality.”

“[T]hose of us as politicians have the task of trying to come up with policies to address issues, but His Holiness has the capacity to open people’s eyes and make sure they’re seeing that this is an issue.  And he’s discussed in the past . . . the dangers of indifference or cynicism when it comes to our ability to reach out to those less fortunate or those locked out of opportunity.”

The President continued, “[W]e spent a lot of time talking about the challenges of conflict and how elusive peace is around the world.  There was some specific focus on the Middle East where His Holiness has a deep interest in the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but also what’s happening in Syria, what’s happening in Lebanon, and the potential persecution of Christians.  And I reaffirmed that it is central to U.S. foreign policy that we protect the interests of religious minorities around the world.  But we also touched on regions like Latin America, where there’s been tremendous progress in many countries, but there’s been less progress in others.”

“I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a belief that in politics and in life the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk like you or share your philosophy — that that’s critical.  It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars.  It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets.  And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me.  And . . . [what has] created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”

“In terms of domestic issues, the two issues that we touched on — other than the fact that I invited and urged him to come to the United States, telling him that people would be overjoyed to see him — was immigration reform.  And as someone who came from Latin America, I think he is very mindful of the plight of so many immigrants who are wonderful people, working hard, making contribution, many of their children are U.S. citizens, and yet they still live in the shadows, in many cases have been deported and are separated from families.  I described to him how I felt that there was still an opportunity for us to make this right and get a law passed.”

The President added that the Pope “did not touch in detail on the Affordable Care Act.  In my meeting with the Secretary of State, Cardinal Parolin, we discussed briefly the issue of making sure that conscience and religious freedom was observed in the context of applying the law.  And I explained to him that most religious organizations are entirely exempt.  Religiously affiliated hospitals or universities or NGOs simply have to attest that they have a religious objection, in which case they are not required to provide contraception although that employees of theirs who choose are able to obtain it through the insurance company.”

The President said, “I pledged to continue to dialogue with the U.S. Conference of Bishops to make sure that we can strike the right balance, making sure that not only everybody has health care but families, and women in particular, are able to enjoy the kind of health care coverage that the AC offers, but that religious freedom is still observed.”

In addition, the President said we “actually didn’t talk a whole lot about social schisms in my conversations with His Holiness.  In fact, that really was not a topic of conversation.  I think His Holiness and the Vatican have been clear about their position on a range of issues, some of them I differ with, most I heartily agree with.  And I don’t think that His Holiness envisions entering into a partnership or a coalition with any political figure on any issue.  His job is a little more elevated.  We’re down on the ground dealing with the often profane, and he’s dealing with higher powers.”

“I do think that there is a potential convergence between what policymakers need to be thinking about and what he’s talking about.  I think he is shining a spotlight on an area that’s going to be of increasing concern, and that is reduced opportunities for more and more people, particularly young people — who, by the way, have more and more access to seeing what’s out there and what’s possible because they have access to the Internet or they have access to other media, and they see the inequality and they see themselves being locked out in ways that weren’t true before. And that’s true internationally, not just within countries.”

Moreover, according to the President, for the Pope “to say that we need to think about this, we need to focus on this, we need to come up with policies that provide a good education for every child and good nutrition for every child, and decent shelter and opportunity and jobs . . . reminds us of what our moral and ethical obligations are.  It happens also to be good economics and good national security policy.  Countries are more stable, they’re going to grow faster when everybody has a chance, not just when a few have a chance.”

The President concluded his press conference comments on the audience by saying the Pope is “hopefully, creating an environment in which those of us who care about this are able to talk about it more effectively.  And we are in many ways following not just his lead but the teachings of Jesus Christ and other religions that care deeply about the least of these.”

The President also separately stated the following after the audience:

  • “I think the theme that stitched our conversation together was a  belief in politics and in life, the quality of empathy, the ability to stand in somebody else’s shoes and to care for someone even if they don’t look like you or talk liked you or share your philosophy—that that’s critical. It’s the lack of empathy that makes it very easy for us to plunge into wars. It’s the lack of empathy that allows us to ignore the homeless on the streets. And obviously central to my Christian faith is a belief in treating others as I’d have them treat me. And what’s I think created so much love and excitement for His Holiness has been that he seems to live this, and shows that joy continuously.”