Life is good: economic growth, war, and $1

The unfriendly face of economics is the bland incantation “economic growth”, which, following the “show, don’t tell” principle, means “more stuff”. Sounds a bit unpalatable, does it not?

We’re in measurement-problem-land again, unfortunately. I think a careful normative economist would define “economic growth” as either an increase in the resources (of whatever type) at people’s disposal, or some development that helped people get the things they liked (whatever they are). Unfortunately, again, we get stuck a little on what we can measure, using the amount of measurable stuff like income, goods or services to proxy what we’d really like to achieve.

On top of and related to that, there’s the diverse backlash against “materialistic” economic growth. My own belief – for what it’s worth – is that it’s a bit weird that economic growth ascended to such dominance as a policy goal. Being anti-growth is something different entirely, though; by any definition, the role of growth is radically different for the world around me than for the poor.

This recent Economist article argues forcefully that the world is headed in a historically pleasant direction. It’s too rich in detail to do justice to here, but among other things it offers a version of the most compelling defense of economic growth: some people are really, really struggling. It stretches empathy to its absolute limit to try to imagine the most crushing poverty in the world, and if that sounds like a cliché, tough.

“In China 25 years ago, over 600m people—two-thirds of the population—were living in extreme poverty (on $1 a day or less). Now, the number on $1 a day is below 180m. In the world as a whole, a stunning 135m people escaped dire poverty between 1999 and 2004. This is more than the population of Japan or Russia—and more people, more quickly than at any other time in history.”

I remember vividly the slow, horrifying process of understanding what $1 a day means. No jargon: it means that the amount of stuff – any stuff – that a person living on $1 a day can afford is equivalent to the amount of stuff I could afford to buy if I had one US dollar in my pocket every morning, and nothing more. It’s not about exchange rates or the price of stuff or anything like that: it’s real That’s very close to being literally unthinkable.

Yes, the figures quoted in the Economist article are averages, and yes, measurement is a problem. But still:

“A World Bank study of 19 poor countries concluded that every 1% increase in national income per head translates into a 1.3 point fall in extreme poverty… The result [of economic growth] is that the number of very poor people in the world is falling fast—even though many critics continue to believe that the poor have not really benefited from growth. In 1990 those on $1 a day accounted for more than a quarter of the population of developing countries. By 2015, on current rates, the proportion of very poor people should have shrunk to 10%. Moreover, these monetary measures probably understate the real gains from things such as lower child mortality, safer water, literacy and other social achievements. A rich man appreciates his extra cash but this does not compare with what a poor family gains from seeing an infant survive childhood or learn to write.”

If you tell me you oppose “economic growth”, you’d better be damn specific. I doubt anyone opposes this. This is the variety of difficult that led Robert Lucas to famously declare that “Once you start thinking about economic growth, it is hard to think about anything else.” Here‘s a nice quotation about that quotation:

“The Nobel laureate economist Robert Lucas once said “Once you start thinking about economic growth, it is hard to think about anything else.” Non-economists, especially those associated with the environmental movement, regard this as evidence that economics is a form of brain damage, a cancer on our earth. But rural Chinese peasants surviving on less than a dollar per day do not regard economic growth, or Wal-Mart factory jobs, as a cancer.”

There are a lot of “development economists” out there these days, and it’s easy to be facetious and question the real value in what they do, but goodness, they’re dealing with issues whose importance is overwhelmingly difficult to comprehend. I hope they find success.

Not, of course, that economic growth is ever all that matters. The Economist article concludes with the argument that the incidence of war is declining, representing another huge boost to the wellbeing of people around the world. The picture presented there is slightly less rosy than on poverty, but still unusually optimistic. I like the big-big picture view of global trends; putting the modern era in the broadest historical context is a great way to make our problems seem petty and life seem good.

The war talk reminded me of the excellent book “The Bottom Billion” by development economist (the label is mine) Paul Collier, which is a kind of synthesis of much of his, and related, research into the causes of extreme poverty. From the FT review of the book:

“About 80 per cent of the population of developing countries lives in countries whose populations are becoming better off. Billions live in countries that are developing very swiftly. But almost a billion people – 70 per cent of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa – are in economically stagnant or declining countries. In all, 58 countries are in this desperate condition. Yet, as Collier remarks: “An impoverished ghetto of 1bn people will be increasingly impossible for a comfortable world to tolerate.”

Collier argues that these countries have fallen into one, or more, of four traps from which it is virtually impossible to escape. These are the “conflict trap”, the “natural resources trap”, the trap of being “landlocked with bad neighbours” and the trap of “bad governance in a small country”.”

Among other things, Collier investigates the link between conflict and poverty. His book is, to me, a triumph of realistic but fundamentally optimistic policy debate founded on careful, broad scientific research. The world is moving in the right direction, argues the Economist, and Collier and his kind are desperately throwing the line to the most impoverished, the most vulnerable. Think of this next time you read the words “economic growth”. Whatever it is, it need not be the ultimate goal of human endeavor, but is it an evil?

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