Opinion

Pessimism Amid Plenty

By A. Michael Spence

A. Michael Spence

While there is no shortage of challenges facing economies and societies today, they should not be allowed to obscure positive long-term trends.

A few years ago, I wrote a book called The Next Convergence, about how developing economies were “catching up” to their advanced counterparts in terms of income, wealth, health, and other measures of wellbeing. I looked not just at how these countries had achieved rapid growth – including the central role played by an open global economy – but also at the opportunities and challenges this process of convergence would bring.

In writing the book, I had planned to include a lot of data in visual form. But a respected literary agent told me that using graphs was a bad idea, because only a small share of people absorb quantitative information better when it is presented visually. I came to realize that graphs are, in a sense, answers to questions. If you don’t pose a question, a graph is somewhere between uninteresting and meaningless.

Recently, the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker published a book documenting long-term positive trends in multiple dimensions of wellbeing, which he calls “the fruits of the Enlightenment.” Progress is not, Pinker acknowledges, consistent; there have been significant setbacks as new challenges, such as climate change, have emerged. But, generally, wellbeing has been improving since at least the mid-eighteenth century, with the Industrial Revolution bringing a sharp acceleration in welfare gains. Since World War II, 85% of the world’s population living in developing countries have benefited as well.

Read the full article as published in Project Syndicate

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A. Michael Spence is a William R. Berkley Professor in Economics & Business.