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.


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).


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.)


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, (April 5, 2018).






World Faces Demographic Challenges

“The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being,” 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.

Important aspects of this “spectacular progress,” he says, are world-wide increasing life expectancy, declining maternal mortality and declining birth rates (pp. 53-57, 125-26, 273).

Unless I missed it in the 453-page book, however, Pinker does not grapple with the problems created by lower birth rates coupled with longer life spans. Examples of such problems are seen in Iowa and Minnesota in the U.S. and Brazil, Japan and Cuba.

Iowa [1]

For the Wall Street Journal, Iowa is an example of “a problem playing out in many parts of the Midwest, a region with lower unemployment and higher job-opening rates than the rest of the country. Employers, especially in more rural areas, are finding that there are just too few workers.” In fact, if “every unemployed person in the Midwest was placed into an open job, there would still be more than 180,000 unfilled positions, according to the most recent Labor Department data. The 12-state region is the only area of the country where job openings outnumber out-of-work job seekers.”

This problem is associated with low birth rate coupled with and an outflow of people. A net 1.3 million people living in the Midwest in 2010 had left by the middle of last year, according to census data. The area also attracts fewer immigrants than the rest of the country.”

Minnesota [2]

A similar problem exists in Minnesota. Last month, its unemployment rate dropped to 3.2%, compared with 4.1% nationally. This has made it difficult for “manufacturers, construction firms and repair-service firms to fill job vacancies and replace departing retirees try to meet the need for more employees, some firms, “employer associations and cooperating unions are working jointly to expand the labor pool.”

For the tech sector of the economy, last year Minnesota added 3,500 jobs, up 1.4% to 250,000 and constituting around 8% of the state’s total work force. And there is demand for even more such workers.

Minnesota’s need for immigrants is especially pronounced in the assisted-care industry. In late March the Trump Administration announced that it was ending, effective March 31, 2019, the Deferred Enforcement Departure program for certain Liberians in the U.S. One of the largest communities of Liberians lives in Minnesota and at least 1,000  are members of a local union that provides workers for assisted-care facilities.


“Retirement outlays already eat up 43% of Brazil’s national budget, and health care about 7%, while two expenditures that are critical to economic development—education and infrastructure—claim only about 3% each.” Its “social security system’s revenue shortfall widens each year as the worker-to-pensioner ratio shrinks.” This problem is exasperated by decisions last century to grant pensions to millions of peasants and informal workers who hadn’t paid [into the pension system]. . . . Rural workers paid about $3 billion in social-security taxes for the 12 months through September 2017, while rural retirees drew about $36 billion in benefits.”

The solutions are obvious. “They can raise the minimum retirement age, increase the number of years that workers must pay into the system, or reduce payouts. The bad news is that such measures tend to repel voters.”

Other Countries[4]

Brazil is not alone.

Japan has a very low birth rate, very high life expectancy and very low immigration. As a result, it has an aging, declining population, which should lead to declining economic and political importance in the world.

Cuba has the same sort of problems. It has a declining birth rate associated with readily available abortion services, longer life-spans associated with good health care and many younger people leaving the island to find greater economic opportunities elsewhere.

 More generally, “throughout Latin America and Asia, decades of falling birth rates and growing life expectancies have produced more retirees with fewer workers to underwrite their care. For government policy makers, this means challenges as burgeoning pension and health costs leave less money for economic development.”

“The United Nations projects that by 2050, the number of potential workers per retiree in upper-middle-income developing countries such as Brazil will tumble from the 2015 figure of seven to just 2.5.”

“Credit-rating firms are getting anxious. Standard & Poors estimates that unless there are major changes to publicly funded pension and health-care systems, population aging will help drive net government debt in the biggest emerging economies to extraordinary levels—307% of gross domestic product in Brazil, 274% in China, 262% in Russia and 341% in Saudi Arabia by 2050.”


The U.S. now has a fertility rate below the replacement rate. It, therefore, needs foreign immigrants to sustain population growth, especially in the rural parts of states like Iowa and Minnesota.[5]

Such immigration also would provide workers to pay into the Social Security trust fund and thereby help to finance the increasing number of older Americans who now draw benefits from that fund and who face rising costs of medical care.


[1] Raice & Morath, Iowa’s Employment Problem: Too Many Jobs, Not  Enough People, W.S.J. (Apr. 1, 2018).

[2] St. Anthony, Horizon Roofing lures workers with higher pay, training, as industry embraces apprenticeships, StarTrib. (Mar. 25, 2018); St. Anthony, Twin Cities tech employment grew 1.6 percent last year, but many jobs go unfilled, StarTrib. (April. 2, 2018); Trump to end deportation protection for Liberians, StarTrib (Mar. 27, 2018); Koumpilova, Local Liberians rally to salvage deportation protection program, StarTrib (Mar. 16, 2018);Koumpilova, Trump administration announces end of deportation reprieve for Liberians in Minnesota, elsewhere, StarTrib (Mar. 28, 2018).

[3] Kiernan & Magalhaes, These Developing Countries Are Getting Old Before They Get Rich, with Dire Consequences, W.S.J. (Apr. 2, 2018).

[4] See n.3 supra; these posts to dwkcommentaries: The Importance of a Growing U.S. Population, (Mar. 27, 2017); Projected Cuban Population: Stabilizing and Aging (Sept. 6, 2016); Cuba Addresses Its Declining and Aging Population (Oct. 17, 2016); Cuba Faces Economic Challenges (Dec. 14, 2016); Comment: Cuba’s Economic and Political Challenges for 2017Comment: Cuban Government’s Bleak Economic Assessment for Cuba (Dec. 28, 2017); Economic Problems Bedevil Cuban government and President Raúl Castro (Mar. 23, 2017); Comment: Elderly Cubans Unable To Retire (Mar. 26, 2017); Cubans Want Economic Growth and Opportunity (Mar. 22, 2017).

[5] The Importance of a Growing U.S. Population, (Mar. 27, 2017).