Human Progress is not linear. The curve of human progress is a jagged one. Many of us are convinced that the world is worse, but as Tupy explains, that is due to one of our many biases. It seems as though our memory of bad events outweighs our memory of all the good we see on a daily basis. For example, what took you 60 minutes of work to buy in 1980 took only 21 minutes of work to buy in 2017.
What is the goal of humanprogess.org? Why do we notice bad occurrences throughout our lives more than good ones? What is negativity bias? Why is everyone so convinced that the world is getting worse if that is not what the statistics show?
Human Progress website
Simon Abundance Index
The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, written by Steven Pinker
The State of Humanity: Steadily Improving, written by Julian L. Simon
The Reality of Moral Progress, written by David Boaz
Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, Free Thoughts Podcast
00:07 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I am Aaron Powell.
00:08 Trevor Burrus: And I am Trevor Burrus.
00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: And joining as today is Marian Tupy, editor of HumanProgress.org and a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Marian.
00:18 Marian Tupy: Thank you for having me.
00:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Why start HumanProgress.org?
00:24 Marian Tupy: Well, it had many causes but let me focus on three. First was the Great Recession, the financial crisis of 2008. And the newspapers were filled with stories like Washington Post carried a headline, “Is This the End of American Capitalism?” The New York Times had a very famous contribution from Tom Friedman, “Should We be China for a Day?” In other words, liberal democracy itself was being questioned. And it seemed to me that part of the reason why people were so willing to talk about the demise of capitalism and liberal democracy was because they didn’t quite appreciate the tremendous accomplishments of liberal democracy and free market capitalism, basically the spread of economic and political freedom over the last 200 years or so. I’m talking about political and economic freedom in its broadest sense.
01:27 Marian Tupy: The second reason was that I read Matt Ridley’s, Rational Optimist. The book was filled with very interesting statistics that were new to me, such as the cost of light, which I later found out was based on the famous Nordhaus paper from 1998 that I didn’t know about, and everybody should know about, so it seemed to me. So why not put it online because we wanted to really democratize access to information. And the third and last point I would mention is that big data became, first of all, freely available for the first time and the graphics revolution was advanced to a point where big data could now be readily made available. And the amazing thing is, Matt Ridley’s newest book, which was The Evolution of Everything, he mentions that when an idea is ripe a lot of people will come up with it. And as it turns out, 2013 also marked the launch of Gapminder online by Hans Rosling and his team, and also Max Roser’s Our World in Data. So they all… Three people in different parts of the world had a very similar idea.
02:47 Aaron Ross Powell: The first of the three that you mentioned, you talked about articles about “Is This the End of Capitalism?” and then Tom Friedman’s yearning for a totalitarian regime [laughter] that could… I think it was institute green energy policies without worrying about this fussy democracy and what not. But in light of that, in light of that particular part of the motivation and that HumanProgress is a project of the Cato Institute, does HumanProgress have a view or an ideological perspective or a policy goal? Is this a libertarian website trying to push libertarianism?
03:21 Marian Tupy: Right. So we are very open about what we are doing on the About Page. That’s very important because so many times online you find people saying, “Oh well, you are in the pocket of big corporations.” Or “The Koch brothers are paying your way.” And things like that. So we are very clear about what we are doing and I’m gonna get there in a second. What I wanted to start with is to say, “What do we think is the value added of HumanProgress?” And the value added of HumanProgress, as I see it, is to contextualize HumanProgress within the broader framework of human freedom. So Max Roser in Our World in Data, he’s a great scholar, but his website is primarily about the data. He doesn’t really go into what has brought all of these tremendous advancements in human well-being about. And I had a similar complaint about Hans Rosling, a great man who has accomplished much more than I could ever hope to accomplish, but again, if you are listening to him, good things happen sort of they’re like being pulled… Like rabbits being pulled out of a hat. He doesn’t contextualize it whatsoever.
04:37 Marian Tupy: Now, I’m convinced that the spread of human freedom, political and economic, played a very large part in what’s been happening essentially since the late 18th century. And so we are not… And now I’m finally getting to your question. So we are not explicitly libertarian but we do encourage people to think about the roles of economic and political freedom. The data itself, of course, is all produced by third parties so we have nothing to do with the data. When people interact with our data, it’s the same way they would interact with the World Bank, the IMF, with EUROSTAT or what have you. But then, we’re also producing our own original context… Content, content, and that is precisely where we try to put a sort of freedom spin on it but hopefully in a justifiable way. In other words, if there is a link between say, increased intellectual freedom in Europe in late 18th century and greater scientific experimentation, which then leads to certain scientific improvements such as discovery of the germ theory of disease. We think that there is a clear link between, for example, abandonment of religious dogma and embrace of science, but embrace of science itself is a result of greater freedom.
06:18 Trevor Burrus: In what way? Can we expound that a little bit? Is it just greater freedom to read, greater freedom to…
06:23 Marian Tupy: Thats right.
06:24 Trevor Burrus: I guess religious freedom in the sense of not having heresy laws or blasphemy laws…
06:29 Marian Tupy: Yes. Well, that’s exactly right.
06:30 Trevor Burrus: Or things like this.
06:31 Marian Tupy: That’s exactly right. So in so far as we can identify Western Europe in 18th century as being crucial. Now, I’m not suggesting that there weren’t technological, scientific and cultural advancement in the Middle East, in Asia especially in China, but certainly the Industrial Revolution which marks the break with the time of Popery in human history is a Western European phenomenon. And you can point to a lot of things which happened before the Industrial Revolution which increased freedom of conscience in Europe. Certainly the discovery of printing press, the spread of, first, the Bible but also then other texts throughout Europe. Also, I would say that in addition to printing press, it would be the fragmentation of the European political scene.
07:47 Marian Tupy: And the fact that you had much more of a political and economic competition in Europe which then led to different city states providing their citizens, their inhabitants with different sets of political rights and responsibilities and people could choose where to live in order to experience greater freedom. So that’s why you have so many thinkers of the Enlightenment ending up in Switzerland for example or in the Low Countries, it’s because that’s where they were permitted to say more than they would be in their home countries. So yeah.
08:22 Trevor Burrus: It also seems that you can connect it to economic growth like in just personal wealth because in, say the year 800, every one basically, except the ones living in the castles, were farmers who were living lives of poverty and they had to farm enough for them to eat in a day and it took a lot more work for them to do that. So if you were the best thinker of the time, if you were a possible scientist or some sort of possible innovator but you were out there farming because no one could produce enough economic surplus for you to contribute without farming, or if you were the best opera singer at the time, or any of those professions that contribute to arts, and science, and culture they wouldn’t seem to arise if you’re just doing subsistence level agriculture.
09:07 Marian Tupy: Yes, so freeing of the labor from the land and the move of the European populace from the farm to the cities which then has its own positive effects was also important, but no doubt that political liberalization and economic liberalization… Well, let me put it to you this way. The rise of the bourgeoisie in 18th century, perhaps even sooner, was kind of important because you had this previously unknown force being introduced into European politics. So before then, what you have is the aristocracy on top, you have the peasants at the bottom, between 80% and 90% of the population are peasants, and then you have a tiny sliver of people in the middle who are the traders, but then in 18th century you do have the rise of the bourgeoisie. And as these people become wealthier, they start to resent the fact that they are being taxed without having any political representation. So you could certainly say that economic empowerment of the bourgeois leads to political rights for the first time being given or are being obtained by the people in the middle. Yeah, I say that’s part of it.
10:54 Aaron Ross Powell: The broad takeaway when one goes and visits HumanProgress.org and clicks through on all the graphs and reads the articles about the original content and you guys link to a lot of articles elsewhere that are kind of on brand, is this progress, is that the world is getting better, but that’s not the way most people feel. Most people, if you ask them, “Is the world getting better?” They’d say, “No.” If you asked them in specific, “Is the world getting safer?” “No.” “Are people getting healthier?” “No.” “Are we getting wealthier?” “No. Maybe some of the rich are but everyone else is not.” And so on the one hand, is it actually the case that the world as a whole, things are getting… This is the story of broad human progress. Or to ask, maybe to sound unfair, are you just kind of cherry picking the handful of good things amidst all of this terrible trends? And if you’re not, if the world actually is getting better, why are so many of us convinced that it’s not?
12:01 Marian Tupy: Well, let’s start with the, “Is the whole world better?” Unambiguously, yes. The list of things which are getting worse in the world is much shorter than the list of things in which the world is getting better. And that list, the second list, includes the most important elements of human well-being, that I think most reasonable people would agree on. First of all, we are living longer. As late 1950… Sorry, as late as 1900, in the richest countries in the world, life expectancy was below 50 years, and now it is 70 years globally. In other words, your median global citizen living somewhere in Malaysia, lives 20 years longer than a Western European did 120 years ago. And in the West life expectancy is 78 years or so, or 80. So life expectancy, we are living longer and most people tend to sort of cling onto their life as long as possible. That gives us an indication that people prefer to live than being dead.
13:14 Marian Tupy: Famine and calorie intake. Today, in sub-Saharan Africa which is the poorest continent in the world, people have access to equal number of calories that the Portuguese did in the early 1960s. So you and I, well certainly me, I am old enough to remember in the early 1980s the images from Ethiopia and Eritrea and we thought this was the future of humanity. It’s not. Famine is gone from the world outside of war zones. 20% of African women, a recent Kenyan study showed are obese. Now, I’m not saying that’s a good thing, what I’m saying is that it’s preferable to famine. We have 80% literacy, we have close to universal access to primary school. Women or rather girls and boys attending primary school, we have a gender parity for the first time in human history. Something like 70% of girls in Afghanistan now attend primary school which is remarkable by itself.
14:19 Marian Tupy: What else? We have a decline in a variety of types of violence. Steven Pinker of Harvard has a 800-page book devoted to showing how violence has decreased. And we don’t need to go into numbers, you just have to think about things which used to be normal parts of human existence such as breaking people on the wheel, quartering and beheading your criminals in the middle of town squares. This is very unusual outside of Saudi Arabia. People used to engage in and delight in a variety of cruel sports. Nailing cats to wooden poles and…
15:11 Trevor Burrus: Bear beating.
15:13 Marian Tupy: Lowering cats into fires and things like that.
15:16 Aaron Ross Powell: People just didn’t like cats much.
15:17 Marian Tupy: Bears and so forth.
15:18 Trevor Burrus: They really didn’t. Medieval people did not like cats, this is true.
15:21 Marian Tupy: No.
15:24 Marian Tupy: Oh, and for the first time in recorded history, we don’t have a hot international war between two countries that have declared war on each other. We have frozen conflict, such as the US versus North Korea. We have clandestine or maybe not so clandestine invasion of Eastern Ukraine by Russia but even there… What is it, that vice pays to virtue. Hypocrisy is what… That the complement that vice pays to virtue, even there, Putin has not declared war on Ukraine. So those would be some of the most important aspects of human evolving and it’s all getting better. Now, your second question is about why don’t people necessarily perceive that, and again, there is a massive amount of thinking and research on what psychologists call negativity bias. And if you want, we can talk about negative bias in greater detail.
16:28 Trevor Burrus: It’s also politically interesting. One of the things I do here, doing gun policy, everyone seems to think that it’s worse now than it’s ever been and we have people who think it’s less safe for kids to go out and play in the streets or in the park without supervision, that it’s less safe, that kidnappings are more common. And so then you get this idea where it becomes politically salient and you have a president who ran on the idea of make America great again, which seems to say that he’s confirming that it was worse. It’s getting worse, everyone thinks that it’s getting worse, he’s confirming it and he’s gonna come in and fix this stuff. So it actually has meaningful political implications if people don’t realize that things are getting better.
17:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Given all of that, yeah, let’s follow up on this negativity bias which is what Trevor has just described, but then, described how people’s negativity bias can be kind of operationalized or even weaponized in the political sphere, but what is this bias and what drives it?
17:31 Marian Tupy: It’s… There are a number of aspects to it. The first one, the most obvious one, is that news is about stuff that happens. So shooting up a high school is stuff that happens. You never have a journalist, again as Pinker likes to say, who is in the middle of a city that is at peace, say Luanda, the capital of Angola, which had civil war for something like two or three decades. You never have a journalist standing there and reporting to you from a city that is not at war. They tend to go to places where terrible things happen and it’s in the nature of news that what bleeds leads.
18:12 Marian Tupy: So that’s one aspect of it. The second aspect of it is that, bad and good news tend to happen along two different time dimensions. Good stuff tends to happen in incremental step over a long period of time. Let’s take something like HIV drugs, antiretroviral drugs. We started talking about HIV/AIDS in 1980, it was only in 1994 that we have the first antiretroviral drugs. They have terrible side effects and so on and so forth. Today, in 2018, things are much better but again it took 28 years to get to a point where HIV/AIDS is no longer considered to be either a death sentence or a terrible impediment in terms of how people live their lives. So it’s incremental. On the other hand, bad news or bad things tend to happen very quickly. Airplanes flying into skyscrapers.
19:05 Marian Tupy: Thirdly, you’ve got a problem with bad being more powerful than good, which is to say that people tend to feel a loss much more than they tend to feel gain. I like to think of my annual reviews with my boss, where he can give me a 10-minute narration about all the successes that we have committed, but it’s that one thing that I messed up that he brings up, that sticks with me for the whole year until the next annual review. And the reality is that people feel loss much more than gain, so that’s a problem. What are the other ones? The availability heuristic, terrible things have a greater imprint on our minds and we tend to pull them up from that, from the memory folder, with greater ease than good things.
20:00 Marian Tupy: And because I like evolution and because I think that so much of human persona and humanity is really a result of how we have evolved, I think that there’s probably a very good reason why we tend to be pessimistic and why we are on the lookout for bad things and that is because that’s paid off in the years of yore, namely that an overreaction to a perceived danger was less costly than under-reaction to perceived danger. If you all reacted to, I don’t know, a noise and it turned out to be benign, well, nothing happened. You just got a little freaked out. But if there was a lion hiding behind that bush and made the noise and you didnt react, you under reacted, then you were dead. And so optimistic genes presumably would have been weeded out of the gene pool.
21:08 Aaron Ross Powell: So those explanations tend to focus on the behavior of… So we kinda notice, like you said we notice the bad stuff more, the bad stuff sticks more in our memory. We have this incentive to, if we’re not quite sure, to assume it’s bad because it’s a survival thing. But there seems to be this other phenomenon that doesn’t quite get explained by those but seems very widespread and somewhat troubling, which is, that someone comes to say a site like Human Progress. So you think things are bad but you ought to then be really happy to find out that things aren’t bad.
21:46 Aaron Ross Powell: It ought to be great. So someone tells you, “Oh, that noise was just the wind, it wasn’t a lion.” You ought to be just, “Yay, that made my day.” But it seems that people’s reaction to being told it was just the wind and not a lion is to get mad at the person telling them or to get mad at you or to say that you’re trying to push some agenda or things really are… It’s like people want to hold on to the badness too in light of all the evidence, against all the evidence to the contrary, when it seems like we all wanna… Why wouldn’t you want to know that the world is better than you think it is? That seems like the best possible thing that you could know.
22:22 Marian Tupy: Well, let’s explore that a little, because actually I could use your help in thinking through this. So what we are talking about so far is what I call, the software of negativity, the programs that are being run in our minds how to react to things. Then there’s also hardware of negativity, and that’s the amygdala. That is actually a part of our brain that is responsible for rage and fear and things like that and that’s part of it. Environment also plays a role. And don’t worry I’m gonna get to the point that you were making. But environment also plays a role. So for example, social media enables us to feel negative news much more immediately and much more intimately. You can watch a tsunami kill 10,000 Japanese in real life. Of course it makes you feel very unsafe. But now let’s get to the last point. So I’ve talked about hardware; amygdala. I was talking about software; the psychological processes, the environment. But let’s talk about something else and that’s philosophies or rather maybe ideology.
23:26 Marian Tupy: Okay, so let me give you an example of what I mean, and maybe you two can opine. There’s this man called Graeber, who started the whole; we are the 99%. And the story was told to me by Charles Kenny of Central Global Development. And basically this guy Graeber sent out a bunch of tweets, about a year ago, asking people to provide him with basically evidence that the world is getting worse and his tweets went something like this; I keep seeing statistics which are showing that the world is getting better.
24:10 Marian Tupy: And this seems to confirm the validity of what he called, Neo Liberal Order, okay, which is basically what I’m saying is that capitalism is not bad, right. Does anybody know any statistics to counter that? And can anybody supply me with those statistics? Okay. So here you have a person who did what you Arron, what you were driving at, okay, here you have a person who is philosophically committed to a certain vision of the world, which is that, to the extent that the world is dominated by free market capitalism everything must be going to hell, because we know that capitalism produces hellish outcomes, right? And a person like Graeber will then actively ignore positive news and search for news to confirm his opinions. And I have seen this happen before. I don’t see it happen amongst normal people; ordinary people.
25:28 Marian Tupy: I see it happening amongst smart people, intellectuals, who come to the table with a pre-conceived notion capitalism bad. Let’s find the evidence for it. Do you think this is happening?
25:44 Trevor Burrus: Absolutely yeah.
25:44 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah, you can certainly… One reason you can see it happening among, say intellectuals, is that intellectuals have a public brand. So to speak, right, and so if you’ve built your public brand… It would be the same as… So a scientist who has built her career around advancing a particular theory, she’ll say, “My ultimate commitment as a scientist is to discovering the truth and discovering how things really are.” But if people come along with evidence that the theory that she’s built her career around is not, maybe is not as good as she thought, the inclination is to fight that because you’ve basically, if you are wrong, not only are you wrong, and none of us like to be wrong, but you have been discredited.
26:30 Aaron Ross Powell: You’re no longer kind of the expert or the person that you’ve presented yourself as. And so in the ideological space that certainly makes sense. Like I would, naturally my inclination would be to push back against evidence that libertarianism is wrong or bad or makes the world worse, in part because we push back on stuff we don’t immediately believe but also because I have built a career at the Cato Institute in advancing a set of ideas, and if it turns out I was advancing the wrong ideas that’s gonna hurt, and so hopefully you can do a good job of not letting those things. But that makes sense within that context.
27:09 Trevor Burrus: You also see environmentalists I think probably have a difficult time believing that many environmental indicators are getting better. If it’s the case that runaway capitalism, if their belief that consumption is what is going to destroy the environment, that’s a hard one to believe. I’ve seen it in debates about… This happened in Boulder when Aaron and I were at Boulder, the campus rape question, where I remember a specific incident, this occurred recently, but also years ago, of like how many women are being raped on campuses and many people on the quote/unquote “feminist” side of the that, but I don’t like that characterization, but pushing that agenda, want that number almost. It seems like they want the number to be as high as it possibly can. And I’m putting “want” in scare quotes. They don’t want women to be raped. But if you say, “I think one in four women is a little bit inflated. But one in four women confirms the patriarchy and how much women are oppressed by men. And so, what if it’s like one in nine? Which is still a huge problem, but they would get mad at some other study that said it might be less. So I think Aaron’s exactly correct.
28:14 Aaron Ross Powell: But I guess I would push back. So you said we see this among this intellectual class or the professionals or there’s certain people with expertise or whatever, but not among ordinary people. But I think we do see it among ordinary people.
28:26 Trevor Burrus: Oh yeah, absolutely.
28:28 Aaron Ross Powell: Trump’s entire campaign. So Trump would fit, not the public intellectual side of things, but he’d fit the model of someone who’s building a professional career around this, everything’s bad. But his voters were very convinced, remain convinced, that America is going to hell and that everything’s getting worse, and they are ordinary people. And I wonder how much of it is… So I remember a discussion on Twitter a while back. I think it was Robin Hanson asked why it was that science fiction was always about dystopias; that it wasn’t about utopias.
29:07 Marian Tupy: That makes me crazy.
29:09 Trevor Burrus: Star Trek is the one example.
29:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And to me the answer is obvious is because if you’re telling a story, you need conflict. A story without conflict is not a very interesting story and a world where everything is perfect doesn’t have any conflict in it. And so it simply is more interesting to tell stories in a dystopia where there’s conflict baked into everything than in a happy-go-lucky, everyone is nice to each other world. So it’s just bad storytelling is utopia equals bad storytelling. And I think that there’s a, I wanna say there’s a sense of that in our own lives. We like to see ourselves as kind of part of a narrative; we have a narrative of our lives and this, we are the ones… It’s always like things are bad but I am one of the few who can see how bad they are and I’m one of the few. Like, I can do something about it. I can vote for that guy or I am the one who’s out changing the world. So you’re kind of making yourself the central character in this dystopian fiction.
30:01 Aaron Ross Powell: Whereas saying, well things are good and I’m just part of it, doesn’t make you feel as important or with that sense of purpose of like, “I’m gonna strive to overcome this awful stuff.” And which, on the one hand can be good, like it’s good that I think we’re motivated to try to make the world better, or want to overcome obstacles, but if we’re kind of overcoming imaginary obstacles, and especially if we’re in the process of doing so we’re making things worse, then that is a pretty poor application of it but I do think there is this kind of natural tendency to wanna see some conflict or to like it.
30:36 Trevor Burrus: Well, and one last point on that. In the personal narrative you’re telling one thing that you see is nostalgia bias. So many people are like, “Man, the world was so much better when I was between 12 and 20 years old.” I’m like, “Yeah. What a shock, you were being taken care of by other people. You didn’t have a care in the world.” But that’s a very common belief too.
30:55 Marian Tupy: Yeah. Nothing is as responsible for the good old days as bad memory right? The one qualifier to human progress which ties to what you are saying Arron is that human progress is not linear. It is not universal, in the sense that, yes the world on average is getting better but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the world is getting better. I keep on quoting Pinker just because I guess I was so heavily influenced by him and also because he is a member of my board. But he likes to say that if everything was getting better for everyone, everywhere that wouldn’t be progress. That would be a miracle, right? And so we are not in a world of miracles. And it may well be that the crucial aspect to Trump’s victory was that we did have a very deep recession, that the economy was quite sluggish for a very long time, that a lot of people felt left behind, that you had the rise of the opioid crisis. Which means that in America today for the second or the third year in a row, I think maybe third year in a row, we have life expectancy which has declined by about a month.
32:21 Marian Tupy: Okay, so we need to acknowledge that, and I think we all would, that countries can go through these dips, so to speak, and maybe Trump’s election just came at a time when people were feeling in a bit of a funk. That does not detract from the fact that an American today is much better off than an average American was 20 years ago or 30, 40 or 50 years ago. Life is improving along a lot of dimensions and those are quite impressive. It’s just that the line of progress is a jagged one. If you are going to compare your… Let’s say that you were comparing your standard of living in 2009 to your standard of living in 2007. Was there a dip? Yes there was, but we bounced back. The issue is to step back and to look at the curve of human progress over a longer period of time. It goes for just about everything. It goes for car accidents. It goes for school shootings. You really need to… Or crime. You really need to go back and look at a couple of decades and see which way things are heading. The curve of human progress is a jagged one.
33:42 Trevor Burrus: You have just released a new index called, The Simon Abundance Index. What is that? Where did it come from? And what does it tell us?
33:52 Marian Tupy: Thank you very much. So I guess we are shifting to the part of the debate which is also centering on the criticism of economic development and how everything will… That we cannot sustain progress.
34:07 Trevor Burrus: Sustainability is a word that, in the last 20 years is a part of every conversation, I’m not even sure exactly what it means, but yes, sustainability.
34:15 Marian Tupy: Yeah. There is certainly a part of the, or the clerisy that acknowledges that things have gotten better. But now the argument is that that cannot possibly last and everything is going to end up in tears anyway. And that leads us to the Simon Abundance Index. Now the Simon Abundance Index and the Simon Project, which we’ll be launching soon, is based on the work and in memory of Julian Simon, who was a senior fellow at Cato before he died in 1998. And he was the original optimist. He was the original optimist. I cannot stress this enough, because in 1960s, the 1970s and the 1980s, when things really seemed to be going very poorly, you have the quadrupling of the oil price in 1974 I think it was. Then you have the oil embargo in 1979 and the ’70s in general seemed like a very fertile ground for the opinions of people like Paul Ehrlich and his famous book, The Population Bomb, which came out in 1968 and which seemed to confirm, and then the subsequent events in the 1970s, seemed to confirm his biggest worries, which is that, a rising population was going to result in depletion of natural resources, and then widespread global famine and economic collapse.
35:56 Marian Tupy: And Simon really opposed that. He was the central figure in opposing that during the ’70s and ’80s. And what Simon was saying was, “No, that’s not gonna happen for the following reason: With every hungry mouth comes a pair of hands and a mind, minds which are capable of innovating our way out of scarcity.” So, human beings are really quite different from all the other animals because we can innovate our way out of shortages. And in that sense, Simon actually believed that the more people we have the better because in every additional billion people will bring with it a certain number of Einsteins and Newtons and Louis Pasteurs and things like that. And so, what Simon argued was that we are not going to run out of resources. In fact, resources are going to become cheaper. And he and Ehrlich had a famous bet which started in 1980 and ended in 1990. Ehrlich was asked to pick five commodities. He picked tin, and I think he picked zinc and tungsten, maybe copper I…
37:17 Trevor Burrus: Nickel maybe, yeah.
37:18 Marian Tupy: Nickel yes. And if the price went up in the succeeding decade Simon would pay him, if the price went down, then Ehrlich would pay Simon. Well, at the end of those 10 years, the real price of resources fell by something like 57% and Ehrlich sent Simon a check for something like $570 or something. Now Simon and Ehrlich only looked at real prices of resources. In order words, they adjusted the price of, nominal prices of resources, by inflation and that’s valuable, but we felt that it was insufficient, for the following reason, and that is, that incomes tend to increase at a faster pace than inflation. As individual people become more productive, they earn more money and then humanity as a whole on average becomes more productive with time, and so, wages tend to increase, and income tends to increase at a faster pace than inflation.
38:24 Marian Tupy: So what’s really important is to see how expensive resources are relative to income. And so what we calculated was, that between 1980, which was the starting date of the original wager, and 2017, hourly income, average hourly income of a notional inhabitant of the world, increased by something like 80%. So relative to the hourly income the price of resources, which we call the time price of resources because we are trying to price resources in terms of time that you need to work in order to earn enough money to buy a resource, so we found that time price of resources have fallen by 65%. So just to make it a little less verbose. In our basket of 50 commodities which includes, chicken, zinc, uranium, oil, gold, platinum, what have you. There are 50 of them. This basket of commodities became 65% cheaper which means that what took you 60 minutes of work to buy in 1980 took only 21 minutes of work to buy in 2017.
39:52 Aaron Ross Powell: Who’s the you in that? Because what I can buy in 21 minutes of my work is very different from what Jeff Bezos can buy in 21 minutes of his work. So is this… Was it 65% cheaper? It can’t be for everyone. Or was it 65% cheaper for a bunch of people who make a bunch, and then not necessarily cheaper for the people who don’t have as much income?
40:18 Marian Tupy: So what we did was to use the World Bank’s per capita incomes. The World Bank traces per capita, average per capita income in the world, from I think it’s 1980 or perhaps even goes back to 1960, and we have adjusted it by number of hours worked, because the numbers worked by a typical laborer in the world is actually declining. It has declined by something like 9% over the last 37 years. So we looked at that average per capita income as tracked by the World Bank adjusted by the number of hours worked, and that is what’s gave us the 80% increase in hourly income. So, who would be making that money, who would be that notional person in the middle of global income distribution, let’s say somebody living in, I don’t know, Indonesia.
41:21 Trevor Burrus: I think Brazil is like the average income for the whole world. [41:25] ____.
41:27 Aaron Ross Powell: And then I’m imagining someone who is not as optimistic about all these trends and maybe on the environmentalist side saying, isn’t this bad if this stuff is getting cheaper, because, say, we’re not making more oil, there’s only so much oil, and if oil has suddenly become 65% cheaper than it was, doesn’t that mean we’re just gonna burn through the oil that we have even quicker, ‘cause people are just gonna be buying even more of it?
41:55 Marian Tupy: Oil is a bad example because the earth continues to produce oil [chuckle], but never mind, you can certainly make that case for, say, copper yeah, you can certainly make that case for copper or gold or platinum or whatever. And yes, there are people who are arguing that the increasing abundance of resources is something to be worried about because that contributes to increasing consumption. But that’s a second objection, that’s a separate objection, something that we will no doubt be working with in the future. And my initial comment about that is two-fold. One is that, let’s look at the problem of consumption from the perspective from moral as well as practical perspective.
42:53 Marian Tupy: The first is the moral perspective. Here in the West we have obviously reached a certain level of abundance; on average, people are living, historically speaking, very prosperous lives, and it would be a mistake, or rather it would be quite immoral, in my view, at least, to deny that sort of economic development to people in the developing countries, in poor countries. I don’t think it’s a starting point to say to the prime minister of India, “I think that you should cap your per capita income at $2000 a year because it would be bad for the planet.” So that’s a non-starter. These countries are never going to put up with that. So let’s then switch to developed countries or rich countries, and here I think that the problem is one of democracy, combining limits on consumption with democratic decision-making. What is Paris all about right now? The tremendous outpouring of animus toward the governing elites, toward Macron etcetera.
44:08 Marian Tupy: What broke the proverbial back of the camel was an attempt by Macron, since reversed, to impose new taxes on gasoline. That comes on the heels of an already stagnating economy with very high taxation. And what we have seen in Europe, not so much in the United States, but what we have seen in Europe is this very difficult combination; on the one hand you’ve got economic stagnation, or growth which is maybe at best half the rate of what we have in the United States. But we do have increasing demands on the income of a typical European, increased taxes for utilities, for example.
45:01 Marian Tupy: A friend of mine just came back from England. His parents live near Oxford. They spend, and they have the house, a modest house, it’s just two retirees living together, they run it on gas. Most of the utilities are sort of gas-oriented. They spend £15 a day to heat their house in the middle of winter. Now, that amounts to £450 per month, about $500 a month. So what there has emerged in Europe is the concept of energy poverty, where people in the first world, people who are driving fancy cars and are able to communicate with one another on sophisticated technology and so on, cannot heat their homes because the price of heating has become prohibitively expensive.
45:57 Trevor Burrus: But just because of taxes not because of…
45:58 Marian Tupy: Because of taxes.
46:00 Trevor Burrus: Resources, prices going up.
46:01 Marian Tupy: That’s right. My energy bills come to about $50, my gas bill is about $50, so that’s one-tenth of what it is in Europe and so, people are in revolt. And so the question once again becomes how do you deal with consumption limits within the democratic context, and the answer is that if it is a question of limiting consumption or winning the election, it’s one or the other, right. So then I think that really the fall back position has to be we are not, realistically speaking, we are not going to limit consumption. What we have to figure out are ways in which we can produce energy more cheaply, come up with technologies which use less energy, sort of take the optimist answer to the question of consumption rather than a command and obey answer to consumption.
46:55 Trevor Burrus: Well, it also seems that with Aaron’s question about sustainability or we might run out of copper, I remember there was a copper shortage about 10 years ago, maybe, and the price went up, and people started using other things other than copper.
47:09 Marian Tupy: Yes yeah.
47:10 Trevor Burrus: So the amazing-ness of conservation occurred.
47:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Also people would steal the copper wire out of the box behind where I was living.
47:17 Trevor Burrus: Yeah, they would… Or go to houses and steal the pipes out of the… Okay, but people would also go and buy copper from those houses, say I’m gonna switch over to steel rather than copper. And I haven’t heard about the copper shortage since, so the price does indicate its scarcity or its perceived scarcity right now.
47:33 Marian Tupy: Yeah, yeah, so in this paper we don’t look at the available of resources from the point of view of quantity, that’s what engineers do, we look at it from the perspective of price, which is what economists do, because at any given point in time the price reflects the totality of human knowledge as to the availability of that particular resource. Now, in terms of copper or anything else, let’s take the most famous example and that’s the rare metals. Rare earths, sorry, rare earths, which China is a huge producer of. So there was this diplomatic incident in 2011 between Japan and China and China decided we are not going to export rare earths to the rest of the world as a punishment. And the prices skyrocketed and since then it has collapsed, and it has collapsed because the market forces have reacted to a very high price of the resource by looking at ways around it.
48:41 Marian Tupy: And partly what happened was that when the price went up, people had more of a fiscal incentive or a profit incentive to go and search for new deposits of rare earths, and they found them. Actually, there’s this patch of earth just off the coast of Japan, which is supposed to contain 800 years worth of rare earths and that was discovered only last year. People have come up with substitutes, people have become more judicious when using something or other, and the reality is that, as I said, 50 foundational commodities, all of them are cheaper than what they were in the 1980s. I think that uranium was the biggest decline and that has declined in price by 95%, which is quite extraordinary.
49:29 Trevor Burrus: So you’re an optimist about things, probably many things, humanprogress.org. What are you pessimistic about?
49:39 Marian Tupy: Well, I don’t discount the possibility of some sort of existential threats, and they could be as simple and commonsensical as a nuclear conflict between super powers. One thing which I would like to discover, and I encourage all of your listeners to come back to me on that, is if anybody has done research on how many nuclear bombs or how many kilotons of nuclear stuff could go off for the world to survive, because it would be quite an interesting research project for physicists, because for the following reason. At the height of the Cold War the world had something like, goodness, what was it? 45, maybe 70, no, you’re right, there was over 70,000 nuclear warheads.
50:32 Marian Tupy: We are now down to roughly 5,000, I think, and it would be very interesting to see how far would we have to reduce the number of warheads possessed by individual countries in the world for them to still keep the deterrent, but basically ensuring that if there is an accidental conflict, all the nukes could go off and we would still survive as a species. So this would be a very interesting sort of an intellectual exercise. So nuclear war is a good example. An asteroid, I know it sounds like sci-fi, but if the asteroid is big enough and we find about it…
51:20 Trevor Burrus: But then we need the nuclear weapons, at least for Armageddon time or anything.
51:24 Marian Tupy: But if we spot it late enough, all the nukes in the world will probably not help us. I don’t know if they would. I’m not particularly worried about germs, because I think that technology today enables us to break down the DNA of any kind of virus very rapidly and we’d be able to react to it very quickly, so I’m not particularly worried about that. But certainly an accidental war would be something that would greatly worry me.
51:54 Trevor Burrus: What about political trends?
51:57 Marian Tupy: Political trends. So there is this debate between me and Andrei Larionov, my esteemed colleague, who thinks that democracy is in decline, and certainly if you look at the data from the Freedom House, it looks like the number of democracies has experienced a slight dip in the last decade or so. But then if you look at data from the Center for Systemic… What is it, the Systemic Peace… Center for Systemic Peace, they do something different. Instead of assigning free, un-free or partly free to individual countries, they give each country a score from minus 10 to plus 10. And once you add up all the positive scores, and once you add up all the negative scores, you actually see that democracy is at an all-time high.
52:56 Marian Tupy: Now, to simplify that point, you could certainly have a situation where one country gets a dictator, let’s say Erdoğan in Turkey, but two or three countries improve from scoring 6 to scoring 8. And so on balance, the people in those countries that have improved the quality of their democracy will be better off, and that will offset the number of people in Turkey who have gone from living in a partially free society into a dictatorship. Put it differently, in 1989, which was the last year of Communism, roughly half of humankind lived in democracies. Today it’s two-thirds of humankind. So even though democracy’s certainly not expanding in the way that it was during the 1990s, it’s still in a much better situation than what it was in the ’80s, or for that matter in the ’70s. I think the ’70s was really the nadir of democracies in the world.
54:13 Marian Tupy: Now, then the question becomes, can political freedom continue to expand indefinitely? Well, it certainly can expand, but not indefinitely. At some point, diminishing returns will kick in, and it will be very difficult to scoop up the places that are not democratic. But even last year, as Turkey became a dictatorship, Nigeria became a democracy. For the first time this most populous of African countries has actually experienced a peaceful transition of power through democratic means from a party that was in opposition position to become a party of government. Now, I didn’t see that coming. I thought it was pretty cool, because Nigeria, by 2050 there will be more Nigerians than Americans.
55:12 Aaron Ross Powell: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate and review us on iTunes. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.