The View

Statistics show us that things are not as bad as they seem

Compared with historical norms, most people are richer, healthier, more educated and freer

PUBLISHED : Monday, 28 December, 2015, 12:44pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 December, 2015, 6:41pm

Last week’s deadly collapse of a sludge pile in Shenzhen seems symbolic of the year we are about to put behind us. Economic conditions are anaemic, middle classes are shrinking, terrorist attacks have occurred on almost every continent, intolerance and political tensions are deepening around the globe. On a personal note, a trip home for Christmas revealed that half my relatives want to vote for Donald Trump.

What can we possibly toast to this year? It will have to be statistics. Ignore the headlines and seek comfort in the numbers, because they remind us that on the whole, life is getting better. Compared with historical norms, most global citizens alive today are richer, healthier, more educated, freer and at minimal risk of war or deadly violence.

A good place to view data-rich charts on improving material conditions is at Our World In Data, put together by the economist Max Roser. One can find on this site, for example, that in 1820 some 94 per cent of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty. That share has progressively been falling, and is currently below 10 per cent.

In the modern world, most of us are more likely to die from diseases related to surplus (like obesity) than want

Some of the data Roser has collected are approximations that go back centuries, showing everything from the rate of violent death among the Crow Cheek tribe in North America in the 14th century based on archaeological diggings – a gruesome 60 per cent – to the fact that wages and food prices are much less volatile now than over the long arc of history. The crazy ride in commodities we’ve seen in the past decade is in fact tame compared with how, say, wheat prices in Pisa performed for much of the past millennium, according to the number-crunchers at Our World In Data.

Why then are so many of us feeling that things are getting worse? For those in the rich world, many jobs and opportunities are moving to the emerging world – and the capitalists who execute, or otherwise benefit from this transition are stupendously compensated. Thus the widening wealth gap in the mostly rich-world OECD member countries. Still, globalisation has helped lift millions in the developed world from rock-bottom poverty. There is more wealth equality among nations than in the past.

As countries get richer they tend to invest in education, and more educated populations agitate for political freedoms. At the beginning of the 20th century only 10 per cent of the world’s population lived in democracies, today it is more than 50 per cent.

Unfortunately, some things that appear to be getting worse really are. According to statistics from the Institute for Economics and Peace, a think tank, deaths due to terrorism have jumped in the past two years, as the headlines suggest. This is tragic and unsettling but, again, it is necessary to put the numbers in perspective. For most of the OECD, the likelihood of becoming a victim of terrorism, or any kind of violence, is extremely low statistically.

Steven Pinker, in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, has controversially argued that the modern world is, on the whole, very loving and peaceful in historical terms. He says this even while including the first and second world wars, which produced the largest absolute number of war-related deaths. Yet on a proportional basis, the percentage of populations killed by military conflict in Europe in the 20th century is still lower than the percentage killed through war from 1400 to 2000. Life used to be even more nasty, brutish and short.

Modern technology has created the tools for mass destruction, but so far, humanism has won out. There has been no direct war between the great powers since the second world war, nor another deployment of nuclear weapons. In the modern world, most of us are more likely to die from diseases related to surplus (like obesity) than want. Even as recently as 1913, just before the first world war, the average global life expectancy was only 34 years.

Statistics help us keep things in perspective. After a recent US presidential debate, someone tweeted: “‘Nothing works in this country’ Donald Trump tells an audience of well-fed people in large homes watching on high-definition televisions.”

Things could be worse – let’s drink to that this New Year’s Eve.

Cathy Holcombe is a Hong Kong-based financial writer