Jan 17, 2017

The Light in Baltimore

Malthus was wrong.

In the early 1880s my great uncle thrice removed lived in a log cabin cut into a mountainside in a remote valley of West Virginia. His memoirs record roughly the living conditions that the large majority of rural America living at the time experienced. He and the other 12 occupants of the household had no electricity, had running water only from a spring on the mountainside, and shared both living and bedding space. He and the family hunted wild boar during the summers, cured hams in a smoke shack with alum and salt for the winter, and the only source of hard-currency income came from a once-yearly drive of the spring lambs they raised in the high valley to the B&O railroad head, from where one of the boys would ride to Baltimore and sell them off.

The education he and his siblings had was by the standards of the time and place very good. It consisted of a weekly Sunday school course with readings from the bible, one of only five or so books in the household, and a once- or twice-monthly visit during the warmer months by a school house attendant the head of the family hired at the insistence my great, great, great grandmother. At the time he reflected upon in his journal, he did not know that only 40 years later my family would become one of the largest landowners in southeastern Virginia, and less than 100 years later would operate one of the largest nursery farms in the world.

Sitting here in a place very far away from where, five generations ago, my family lived, I find myself thinking about a very important thing a few friends of mine mentioned to me yesterday. I enjoy a standard of living that would be considered entirely alien to my great uncle: even hardly 40 years ago technologies such as virtual reality and same-day delivery of products were only a dream, and yet today I have access to them at minimal cost.

Last night, after a dinner with two friends I hold in very high esteem, they asked me what I made of the line of reasoning popular among the political fringes of both the left and the right that, in its intellectual form, might be described as neo-Malthusian: the thought that humanity is heading unstoppably towards overpopulation, starvation, and destruction.

I responded to them that as an economist this line of reasoning is perhaps one of the best tells that its advocate is ignorant to either history, theory, or both. Wealth, while not guaranteed to always grow, is not a fixed sum merely divided by the rules of title ownership and holding. Instead it is an increasing stock of any variety of stores, whether experience, material possession, or abstract capitals such as knowledge or social status. The economic process adds to this stock by converting prior stocks into unique and new things; by innovation and entrepreneurship it renders more wealth than previously existed. Whereas in the past, on that lonely mountainside where my family lived, they subsisted on what was essentially ham and potatoes, through the economic miracle of development, market access, and entrepreneurship, my family has been given, over the last century, broad, immediate access to a world of abundance. The great body of our history over the past two or three hundred years stands starkly and profoundly against the suggestion that we are somehow destined for starvation, poverty, and destruction. Innumerable times since the dawn of the Enlightenment, though population has risen, the extensive economic dynamo of western civilization and the woolly notion of liberalism attendant to the gradually increasing dominion of individualism have increased rather than decreased, in both relative and absolute terms, the wealth, comfort, material, and social success of mankind. Even within my lifetime the amount of starvation-level poverty has fallen in both absolute and relative terms throughout the world.

Today, relative to 1990, fewer people starve in Southeast Asia and much of Africa, and as incomes throughout the developing world rise, birthrates, as they did in the west, plummet. Families, no longer harassed by starvation and infant death thanks to rising access to markets, accumulate wealth and invest more into their families. As the certainty that posterity is secure develops, the family no longer must produce a surplus of new mouths in hopes some will outlive childhood. The children experience longer, safer childhoods at higher degrees of intellectually stimulation, and parents, now no longer exposed to the unpredictable and cyclical nature of agrarian life or idyll destitution, invest more into the education of their children, thereby raising the productivity and cultivating the greatest asset of man, the mind. This story, having played out previously in the west, now unfolds as the great promise of uplifting, upwelling, and enrichment of billions of people globally. We become more worldly in our exposure to foreign things: no longer bound by feudal or political dictate to their land of origin, people move, interact, and add into the extended order of man nearly without design.

The evidence is so entirely clear that on face value the suggestion that we are to expect some great “crunch” is not quite excusable. One might perhaps gesture to the other periods in history where civilizations have stalled and failed to grow and sometimes, such as with the Soviet and Maoist experiments, achieved substantial impoverishment due to violent and destructive economic policies. However, the examples of collapse we might imagine—such as Ming-era China and Imperial Rome—took place under unique circumstances: the intrusion and extension of the bureaucratic state in the case of Ming China, and the tax-sucking militarism of Imperial Rome (something that is not entirely unimaginable in this country). Yet in both instances, perhaps moreso with China, the standard of living stalled instead of falling massively.

We can even think back within the more recently documented historical record. Thomas Malthus, the economist after which Malthusianism is named, famously argued that the natural carry capacity of the arable land of the world would soon be outstripped and that by the end of the 19th century the world would suffer from incessant food riots and devolve into an autocratic dystopia of starvation and destruction. Yet how wrong he was. By the end of the century, crop yields had risen immensely, first with the advent of Mendelian genetics, second, with the establishment of agricultural industry journals (an area of economic research in which a professor who influenced me immensely, Mr Joseph Reid, specialized), and third, with two important technological innovations. These were the widespread use of the coal and the advent of industrial farm practices, including such agricultural implements as standard plows, the McCormick reaper, and new planting apparatuses which would hardly be recognized as industrial by today’s standards but were for their time cutting-edge. Coal supplanted animal and manual labor, new industrial machines and tools allowed for standardization and predictable yields, and improved seed stock allowed for the first rudimentary breeding of specialist varieties of corns, grains, and vegetables. Ultimately a combination of these factors drove the development of regular food delivery, predictable harvests, and diversification of diets. The end result of all of this was an immense rise in the standard of living throughout first Britain, then the United States, and finally Western and Central Europe.

By the time when he alleged humanity was to have fallen into desperate starvation, Malthus’s dreary prediction he was definitively and flatly proven wrong. Starvation was not merely being staved off at the end of the 19th century; it was heading instead, in the hundred years that followed, toward being eradicated in the west. Ultimately, the 20th century would see an even greater extension of the 19th century’s success. As the pernicious and destructive influence of colonialism was gradually scrubbed from much of the Earth, the extension of markets and western liberal thought supplanted piecemeal the autocratic ideologies that kept people poor. The 20th century would see the development of the Haber-Bosch process, antibiotics, and the “Green Revolution.” The “Green Revolution” was ushered in by sophisticated agricultural processes, industrialization of farms, and scientific breakthroughs such as those by biologist Norman Borlaug (who arguably enabled more lives in the last century than any one man ever has in history). As I said earlier, now in the second decade of the 21st century we can look around the world and conclude that, conspicuously, starvation and abject poverty as the condition of man is being aggressively eliminated. Today, wealth is so conspicuous that even the middle class can afford food grown through alternative farming methods, such as those advocated by people like Sean Brock that focus on old and difficult to find and grow varietals of seeds.

Why, then, do Malthusian suggestions persist? What makes the notion that we’re destined towards something awful, something so terrible as starvation and wretched poverty, persist? Maybe it is that we’ve grown so removed from the material experience of how wealthy we really are that the imagination must manufacture fanciful narratives of the threats we face. There is good evidence that psychologically we are predisposed to see those threats with which we are familiar as being lesser threats and those with which we are unfamiliar as greater ones. In a paradoxical way, the thought of cataclysm appeals precisely because it is so remote from the actual state of both our local and worldly conditions. This explanation appeals to me; though recently I’ve become more hesitant to generalize the theory, it does seem to hold for a great number of cases. Many highly-feared threats pose no direct systematic risk to us as a society, do not threaten to destabilize us at the base, do not (taken separately or all together) erode the extended order. Consider illegal immigration, terrorism, “the 1%,” “the banks,” perhaps global warming (though I am open to being persuaded this last case is neither a simple nor small problem, and perhaps even one which is unsolvable—except at the immense expense of the world’s poor). Our world-views seem, as Jung said, to rely on specters. Without the form of an animus in mind we become somewhat baseless: lacking form, without coherence. Without an “other,” we struggle to define an “us.” As Johnathan Haidt puts it, we rely on the tribal identity of in-groups in opposition to out-groups to render identity and context. However pre-modern, this predilection means we depend on identifying a kind of threat to remain cohesive.

I find my thoughts finally turning back to my relative’s memoirs. How bizarre and strange the world today might have looked to even my recent ancestors! Nearly everyone has access to an automobile that routinely drives at speeds scarcely found in nature; to a cornucopia of foods from all corners of the world, available year round at the grocer; to furnishings, silken or made from fantastic synthetics that were reserved for the very height of society only decades ago. We have lighted images, projected on liquid crystal displays, of the past, of the present, and of our fanciful imaginings of the future.

Sam Thrasher wrote that he was hopeful for a good price on that year’s spring lambs when he arrived in Baltimore on the B&O. Their lamb drive was early that season, and the calving was quick and not interrupted by harsh weather. Robert had told him to take a nickel or two off the proceeds of the lamb sale and spend the weekend in the city—where he saw, that night, the first gas streetlight he had ever seen.