The great convergence?

Apologies that I’ve been so silent of late on this blog. I’m afraid my book-writing chores are consuming almost all my desk-time at the moment and posts will probably continue to be sporadic at best until my submission deadline in the autumn. But let me at least bring you a sneak preview of some graphs I’m planning to present in the book (…and a couple that I’m not … thanks are due to my editor Brianne at Chelsea Green for allowing me to let the cat out of the bag). I’d be interested to hear any comments on my interpretations of the data I present below.

First, some context. I’ve long expressed my skepticism on this blog for various types of business-as-usual solutionism that suggest the numerous problems we face in the world are fixable within existing political and economic paradigms, usually through some kind of high-tech whizzbangery associated with the capitalist political economy, a broad current of thought sometimes known as ‘neo-optimism’. I don’t necessarily think all neo-optimist whizz-bangs are intrinsically a waste of time, but we need a Plan B … and this, I think, is a small farm future, which I suspect may well become Plan A. What would stop it from becoming Plan A is if someone could convincingly demonstrate that (a) the existing capitalist political economy is clearly the best bet for improving general human wellbeing, and (b) it can do so long-term in a planetarily sustainable way. Neither of these are easy to prove or disprove, especially (b) as it involves projecting into the future. I’m not going to address (b) here – perhaps I’ll try to answer it in a future post (Spoiler: … my guess is that the answer is a two-letter word beginning with ‘n’). But I’d like to say a little about (a).

A staple of neo-optimist fare is that we no longer live in a binary world of rich and poor countries – “the west and the rest”. Hans Rosling calls this binary view a “mega misconception” that belies the catch-up that’s been occurring in recent decades. “Poor developing countries no longer exist as a distinct group…” Rosling says, “there is no gap…This is not controversial. These facts are not up for discussion” and so on1. Along similar lines, Steven Pinker writes “Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st2.

There are many ways of trying to prove or disprove such statements. Saying they’re not up for discussion is a neat one, because it exempts you from any dialogue about the limitations of your analysis and whether you’ve cherry-picked your examples. But let me discuss these assertions anyway – I’m going to put it to you that Rosling and Pinker are wrong.

Exhibit A in my argument is a plot of Gross Domestic Product per capita. Now, I know that GDP is widely and rightly criticized as a measure of human wellbeing (I’ll look at a different measure of wellbeing in a moment), but it’s not so shabby as a measure of the formal economic output that the industrial capitalism of which Pinker speaks excels. So if a Great Convergence is occurring within humanity in the 21st century fueled by industrial capitalism I think it would be reasonable to expect to see it in GDP per capita at the country level. What I’ve done in Exhibit A is take GDP per capita (in constant 2010 US$) for every country in the world from World Bank data and ranked them from highest (which, as it happens, is Luxembourg at $191,587) to lowest (Burundi, $219). Then I aggregated them into five groups on the basis of this ranking and calculated the average GDP per capita for each group for every year between 1960 and 2016 (the full time-range available in the World Bank data), weighted by the population sizes of each country in the group. So that’s what you’re seeing in the graph.

Exhibit A:

I struggle to reconcile this graph with Rosling’s pronouncement of the death of the gap and Pinker’s pronouncement of a ‘great convergence’. Each of the five groups has improved its GDP per capita, and Groups 2, 3 and 4 show some evidence of a climbing rate in recent years. But it seems to me that the most compelling story told by the graph is how much Group 1 has pulled away from the others. In 1960 the ratio between Groups 1 and 5 was 30. In 2016, it was 55. The ratios between Group 1 and Groups 2-4 over the same timeframe have narrowed, but the differences have greatly increased. I often commit what Rosling calls the ‘mega misconception’ of talking in binary terms about ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries. This graph makes me feel justified in doing so.

Rosling cautions in his book against the way that averages can mislead us, so lest Exhibit A leaves you in doubt I present Exhibit B which shows the full ranked distributions of GDP per capita for every country in 1985 and 2016 (the 2016 data in the red stretches out rightwards because there were more countries and less missing data in 2016 than in the blue 1985 line). Again, the picture seems pretty clear to me – a long shallow slope suggestive of lots of countries with similarly low GDP per capita, then a steep uptick on the right for a small number of countries with very high per capita GDPs. Maybe it’s reasonable to talk of ‘middle income’ countries in the light of Exhibit B. But I think talking in binary terms of ‘rich’ and ‘poor’ countries is eminently justifiable on the basis of these figures too. Perhaps it’s worth noting that of the forty countries in Group 1 all but six of them are either West European ones or postcolonial inheritors of a West European legacy (like the USA and Australia) – the six exceptions are Qatar, Singapore, Japan, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Brunei, which have their own historical stories to tell.

Exhibit B:


I’d suggest that there are usually different stories one can weave around data, and it surprises me that the likes of Rosling and Pinker who are supposedly expert data analysts don’t make more concessions to this. Is there a fitfulness to their factfulness?

So much for GDP. Let’s move on to life expectancy – a more direct measure of human wellbeing, albeit still of a rather crude and basic kind. In Exhibit C, I present population-weighted average life expectancy at birth for the same five groups defined in Exhibit A from 1960 to 2017. Here, there does seem to be some evidence of convergence – in 1960, average life expectancy for Group 5 was 42 whereas for Group 1 it was 70. By 2017 the corresponding figures were 65 and 81.

Exhibit C:

What to make of this convergence in life expectancy set against the non-convergence of GDP? Since GDP is a reasonable measure of industrial capitalist output I’d venture the hypothesis, pace Pinker, that whatever’s causing the convergence in life expectancy probably isn’t industrial capitalism. But let’s probe a little more at the life expectancy data.

Mothers and babies. A common misconception about life expectancy is that it tells us the age when most people die. In fact, life expectancy at birth averages out death over the life course – and people are much more likely to die in infancy or, for women, in childbirth than at other times in the life course up until old age. The deaths of these young and relatively young people (infants and mothers) pulls overall life expectancy radically downwards, so relatively small improvements in infant or maternal mortality can have relatively big effects on life expectancy. It’s harder to improve life expectancy at the old age end of the life course, and it gets progressively harder to improve infant mortality the lower it is, as is demonstrated by the flattening slope of the curves in Exhibit D which presents infant mortality rates from 1960-2017 for the five groups. Therefore the convergence in life expectancy shown in Exhibit C is to some degree an artefact of the fact that infant mortality was already quite low in the richer countries in 1960.

Exhibit D:

China. The most striking improvement in life expectancy shown in Exhibit B occurred in Group 3 in the 1960s, and this largely reflects the influence of China in view of its huge population. This was the China of Chairman Mao and his Cultural Revolution – which hardly seems a good advert for Pinker’s view that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But maybe there are some complexities here. The improvements in China came hard on the heels of Mao’s disastrous ‘Great Leap Forward’ which was the cause of probably the biggest famine in human history, so the thought occurs that the 1960s uptick could be a kind of rebound from the famine. However, this paper at least seems to suggest otherwise – infant mortality in China crashed during the 1950s, spiked during the Great Leap famine (though without reaching pre-1950s levels) and then further crashed in the 1960s. Lynn White has argued that the roots of China’s recent economic miracle lie ‘bottom up’ in the chaos of the 1960s in the context of the Cultural Revolution and the aftermath of the Great Leap when the lack of political control from the center enabled rural people to engage in economic development that was later coopted by the state and is now often presented top-down in terms of Deng Xiaoping’s reforms3. In that rather special sense, perhaps it would be possible to assimilate the Chinese data to Pinker’s claim that the convergence results from ‘industrial capitalism’. But I think that would be quite generous to Pinker. I’d be inclined to say instead that “rural self-reliance launched a great escape from poverty in China”.

What’s the cause of declining infant mortality? Having trawled around various academic papers on this subject the tentative answer that I’ve come to turns out to be the same as the answer to most things – it’s complicated. Relevant factors seem to be things like access to basic primary health care, vaccination and mother’s education. I’d welcome further input on this. Possibly, one could argue that such factors have been delivered by ‘industrial capitalism’, if not in the relevant countries themselves then at least in the accumulation of global surplus that enables multilateral agencies, NGOs and other such organizations to intervene. But I think this would be tendentious without further substantiation, and it would require a good deal of detailed analysis that tracked the historic flows of resources into and (mostly) out of the poorer countries with high infant mortality. As I’ve written about in more detail elsewhere, the history of capitalism and ‘modernization’ generally seems to involve processes of huge immiseration that then prompt counter-movements and efforts towards humanitarian mitigation – to chalk these up as the positive achievements of capitalism is provocative, to say the least. Basically, capitalist societies are ones that entrust general social wellbeing to a small number of capital owners who compete to maximize their profits with fairly minimal restrictions on what they’re entitled to do with them. Industrial capitalist societies are ones where the competition is focused around manufacturing rather than, say, speculative finance as is now the case in many of the Group 1 countries (here I’m paraphrasing some of Wolfgang Streeck’s definitions4). Nothing much to write home about in all that about converging life expectancies… In fact, if we’re going to talk about a ‘great convergence’ in the 21st century we probably also need to talk about the ‘great divergence’ of the 19th century diagnosed in a 2001 book of that name by historian Kenneth Pomeranz.

The inefficiency of capitalism. In 1960 world GDP was $11.3 trillion in constant 2010 US$, while in 2017 it was $80.3 trillion – so in less than 60 years the global economy has grown to fit more than seven world economies of 1960 within itself. In per capita terms the corresponding figure is an almost threefold rise from $3,700 to $10,700. Infant mortality rates in 1960 averaged 28.4 deaths per 1,000 live births in the Group 1 countries and 174.3 in the Group 5 ones, whereas by 2017 the gap had narrowed to 4.0 in the Group 1 countries and 45.7 in the Group 5 ones – a welcome convergence, certainly, but a “great” convergence, in view of the fact that the global economy is more than seven times bigger? I’m not so sure. Going back to my original question, if we have to grow the global economy seven times over in order to move from 146 excess infant deaths between Groups 1 and 5 to 42 excess deaths, I’d question the view that industrial capitalism is the best bet for improving human wellbeing – especially when it’s not even clear that the convergence results from capitalism as such.

I’d welcome any comments.


  1. Rosling, H. 2018. Factfulness. Sceptre. p.22, 28.
  2. Pinker, S. 2018. Enlightenment Now. Penguin. p.364.
  3. White, L. 2018. Rural Roots of Reform Before China’s Conservative Change. Routledge.
  4. Streeck, W. 2016. How Will Capitalism End? Verso.

41 thoughts on “The great convergence?

  1. I share your analysis. Somewhere else I read that the global economy needs to grow by 100 dollars in order to raise income of the poorest with one dollar or something like that. Clearly, capitalism isn’t efficient in raising income for the poor.
    It is common for capitalist-huggers to point to increase life expectancy and similar as a proof of the superiority of capitalism. But one can easily see that many of those factors also improved in socialist or various despotic societies.
    I don’t think capitalism can claim that it is the cause of most progress in medicine or science. It is another thing that capitalism is very good at transforming scientific progress in society to things that can generate profits.
    There are many examples of how progress has been driven by governments and unfortunately the military and other non-capitalist institutions.
    I think it is also easy to demonstrate also theoretically that capitalism is bound to produce increasing gaps and inequalities. And that its lifeblood is the liquidation of natural resources.

  2. Any discussion of the relationship of social progress to economic system should include an analysis of Cuba. While it is true that much of the energy that underpins the Cuban economy has been imported, that is true of many capitalist economies as well.

    But even though Cuba is definitely an outlier, the relationship between GDP and life expectancy is very non-linear, which only shows that a great deal of economic activity has little relation to human well-being. And since that “surplus” economic activity is destroying the planet, we should stop engaging in it as soon as possible.

  3. Child mortality rates decline when safe drinking water and sanitation is made available. Fairly low-tech solutions. Yet, capitalism might be most notable for what it doesn’t fund, even though it could.

    Price of Safe Water for All: $10 Billion and the Will to Provide It
    By The Associated Press, Nov. 23, 2000

    “Forty percent of the world’s six billion people [in 2000] still lack sanitation though it could easily be provided, according to a United Nations report issued today.

    More than a billion people lack the most basic water supply, said the study, backed by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund.

    ”It is not a question of cost but of priority,” said Richard Jolly, chairman of the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council, sponsored by the W.H.O.

    Bringing water and sanitation to all would cost $10 billion a year, Mr. Jolly said. That, he added, is ”one-tenth of what Europe spends on alcoholic drinks each year, about the same as Europe spends on ice cream and half of what the United States spends each year on pet food.”

    • I agree entirely , clean water and basic hygiene have saved more lives than the entire pharmaceutical industry , industrial society is to blame for the pipes and pumps but basic , very basic education on personal cleanliness can be traced to religion .

  4. I certainly agree with your conclusion that capitalism is not the best system for lifting people out of poverty, but when it comes to engaging with these new-optimist arguments, I wonder if it’s best to accept the likelihood that globalised capitalism has had at least something to do with lifting people out of poverty.

    In my experience arguments in this vein often shy away from the increase in relative inequality that is often apparent in capitalist economies, and focus on the fact that even the poorest in these societies are often better off than their forebears. I haven’t read the Pinker or Rosling books, and I’m not entirely sure I understand what’s converging in the Great Convergence, but I wonder if Pinker would be happier had you plotted the rate of increase in GDP per capita, rather than the increase (is that what you mean by ratios)? The fact that most countries in the world are increasingly increasing their GDP per capita might be enough for him, especially as it looks like the rate is a little higher for Groups 2 to 4 than it is for 1. Convergence?

    The point is that different levels of GDP per capita are acceptable to capitalists, who expect larger capitals to make larger profits, and therefore to conserve structural inequalities – the poverty argument only requires that everyone be lifted out of poverty, not that wealth be redistributed. If economic systems and structures across the world are ‘converging’ in the globalised market place, and thus increasing their GDP per capita profiles by monetising more and more of their productivity, that is probably enough for the globalists.

    The link between capitalism and improvements in mortality rates relies, I think, on the kind of linkages between access to health care, education, water, etc, that you quite rightly claim cannot be directly linked to capitalist investment without further research. However, the general trends are suggestive, and arguments along the lines of capitalist investment enabling the movement of resources to where they need to be have some foundation – even if not everywhere all the time. Conversely, I think you need to be careful with your argument about rural self-reliance in China, as on the face of it, it looks like a similar off the cuff attempt to link two trends without enough research into the nature of the link. I’d be interested in the details of that argument.

    None of this matters a damn before the facts that the profit motive is obviously not the best way of making everybody’s lives better, because that is not its intention – capitalism is always a game of winners and losers. And most importantly global capitalism’s ‘externalities’ are causing the Sixth Mass Extinction. I think you can accept capitalism’s role in lifting people out of poverty but argue that it’s one of the worst ways of doing it, essentially because we’ll all be a lot poorer again when the planet gives up on us.

  5. Chris wrote:
    I’d be inclined to say instead that “rural self-reliance launched a great escape from poverty in China”.

    Sounds about right. Though, by increasing the prices that the farmers received for their crops, the Chinese state had a role in the escape from rural poverty, but the state was also cutting back on funding for rural education and other services, which made the escape from rural poverty more difficult. Other policy changes also contributed to an accelerating growth of inequality.

    “From the perspective of scale and speed, in the years 1978-85, China’s poverty reduction has perhaps no historical precedent… This achievement was not the result of far-reaching poverty alleviation programmes directly targeting the rural poor. Indeed, there were none at the national level in the period under consideration… China’s rapid growth and job creation together with direct and indirect subsidies in the form of significant increases in state purchasing prices for grain and crops, brought large-scale income gains that included substantial numbers of the chronic rural poor…”

    “While the numbers of those living in poverty fell sharply in the years 1978-85, significant factors worked to the detriment of the rural poor. The plight of the rural poor then and subsequently was exacerbated by the reduction of central resources allocated to rural education. Many rural schools sharply increased fees, thereby raising dropout rates. Budget constraints resulted in greater inequality in the provision of public goods and services… In short, from this perspective, the burden on the rural poor increased.”

    “The yigong daizhen (YD) programme, literally meaning public work in lieu of relief, linked work relief with public works projects to stimulate local economies… Since 1986 YD has been China’s most important poverty alleviation programme.”

    “… the pace of poverty reduction and the increase in rural per capita income slowed dramatically in the years since 1985 (according to Chinese government figures) or virtually ground to a halt (by World Bank Calculations). [‘The data reveal sharp reductions in poverty in the years 1978-85 and little or no subsequent reductions in the number of people below the poverty line.’] This might appear to reinforce the views of those neoclassical economists who would eliminate the state’s redistributive role while leaving issues of equity and welfare to the market. A closer look at the outcomes in rural China, however, suggests otherwise.”

    Selden, Mark. “Poverty Alleviation, Inequality and Welfare in Rural China.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 34, no. 45, 1999, pp. 3183–3190. JSTOR,

  6. Shrinking child mortality due to sanitation, neonatal health care, postpartum care, and general societal health care improvement owes something to advances in technology. Whether these technological improvements are the result of capitalism, socialism, populism or some other ‘ism’ seems a search to assign credit (or blame) which will be fraught with difficulty.

    The Measles outbreak in the US – laid against the ongoing efforts in Africa to stem the spread of Ebola might serve as a cautionary example of how complex the overall health care situation is. Measles is a preventable disease. Nearly eradicated in the US, the current outbreak is typically laid at the feet of anti-vaxxers. Technology to come up with a vaccine, herd immunity through widespread adoption of vaccine, and careful monitoring across the population lead to very high levels of success in prevention; now a first world (or global north) success story gone sideways. Still, this might be considered a too simplistic description of the Measles experience. Anti-vaxxers exist for religious reasons, and for fear of autism. Population density also plays a role – through contact frequencies among suscepts.

    Contrast this with Ebola outbreaks in Africa. The two viruses are extremely different, Ebola being much more dangerous for us given our present experience and technology. But even in the African environment where the domestic health infrastructure would struggle to handle outbreaks there are international efforts to assist and incredibly sophisticated technology deployed to do battle with the virus. This is not a purely altruistic investment by the developed world to be sure, but the capabilities on display do demonstrate how far science and tech have brought us. Perhaps fair questions to ask include: How did science come to its current level of sophistication? How is science paid for? How has it been paid for in the past? Beyond the sciences and the technological sophistication in the global north, what cultural phenomena play a part in disease occurrence? Anti-vaxxer numbers persist despite science; religious beliefs are protected (to a point).

    In this comment I’d like to return to an issue I think I’ve brought up before… how IS science paid for? In much of the global north the most sophisticated science is practiced in capitalist democracies such as the EU and the US. China is making very real strides in science now and her ascendance in this realm is the clearest exception to the generalization just made. Two primary avenues of scientific pursuit exist – public and private. There is a trend (in the US particularly) for science to be paid for by private interests. Patent protections on intellectual property lay the foundation for this risk taking. I don’t mean to suggest this is a marvelous approach – only that this is the predominant mechanism at work today to find answers and to make findings available to a market. Once answers are available (at some price) then public and non-profit mechanisms can take advantage by either offering subsidized or free solutions where poverty or insufficient income levels would otherwise preclude deployment.

    Long term historical tables on US government budget figures are available here:
    The levels of government investment in research and development can be teased out there. And for those wishing to delve into commercial R&D investment there is an InfoBrief from the NCSES (part of the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) from September of ’18 that one can google – it provides insights on trends from the private side of the ledger [google: Businesses Spent $375 Billion on R&D]

    • In my childhood years measles was a ” mild childhood disease ” TPB did not close schools , death rates were miniscule .

      • School age kids are least affected by measles – I believe it’s infants who are most susceptible to serious complications from measles. Worldwide measles remains one of the leading vaccine preventable disease causes of death – about 1 in 500 of those infected will die from measles – most deaths are among under 5’s and those weakened by malnutrition. ‘Atkinson, William (2011). Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (12 ed.). Public Health Foundation. pp. 301–23.’

    • Considering the impact that human population and activities are having on the planet, you may want to reconsider your implicit assumption that science is good. It is becoming more and more apparent that the level of intelligence, and the science that goes with it, found in homo sapiens is maladaptive. It might be true that a species with considerably more intelligence than humans might be able to have science and also avoid the predicament we have created for ourselves, but it is pretty clear that we humans didn’t make the cut.

      • Oh I’ll stand by a “science is good” assertion – even for a potentially “missing the cut” crop of Homo sapiens. And I won’t argue that we might well do still better with the knowledge to hand that has been rendered through discovery. But I can’t get to a reasoning of our curiosity being a maladaptive trait. One can argue, as you have, that we are making a mess of our habitat. But I can’t fault our science or the curiosity that leads us to discovery. Laziness, greed, and a serious lack of compassion for each other and the other critters about us demonstrate a sufficient worthiness for blame IMHO.

        Perhaps I could move toward your point of view a tiny bit by acknowledging that science, in the wrong hands, can be a bad thing. But here I’m still of a mind that the scientific method isn’t the cause – but merely the tool. On several occasions in the past our species has closed in on the abyss and managed to step back. And science can’t claim credit for all our escapes. But neither should science shoulder blame for applications meted out by the miscreants among us.

        • I’m mostly with Joe on the question of the adaptive or maladaptive nature of science. I would say that many of the most serious problems we face are a result of the unintended consequences of our application of science/technology. And I don’t really buy the idea of the disinterested scientist and the purity of the scientific method. As I understand it the idea of the disinterested scientist has its roots in the need for the scientists of the early modern period to not appear to be challenging the authority of the Church (did I get that from Morris Berman? Can’t remember). Anyway – the point is that from it’s inception science wasn’t disinterested and was always focused on the application of it’s findings for the benefit of humanity. I think Berman makes much of this in ‘The Reenchantment of the World’ suggesting that it represented a clear break in humanity’s understanding of its place in and relationship to the rest of creation. Berman also makes the point that science and the roots of modern capitalism arise together in early modern Europe. So ‘Who pays for the science’ is a good question as it leads directly to the ends to which interested parties are directing it – I was reading Vadana Shiva on Bill Gates and his Foundation’s funding of research into the use gene drives to eradicate mosquitoes in order to control/eradicate malaria – apparently he owns the companies that control the patents on the genetic modifications involved and so his philanthropy dissolves into….

          The other problem with the scientific project is that it refuses to acknowledge human ignorance – Wendell Berry has written on this – that what we don’t know/understand is always larger than what we do – but the scientific project, with its glorification of human knowledge and ingenuity can’t recognise that and so is incautious – how else did we convince ourselves that spraying poisons on our food was a brilliant idea and would have no adverse consequences. And as the pace of technological innovation increases the risks of us encountering a catastrophic unintended consequence (if we haven’t already) also increase.

          I’m going to pause here and say I love the things science has given us – to be able to engage in this conversation with people from across the world is a miracle and delight. My partner is having chemotherapy at the moment – thank God for modern medicine (although the increase in the incidence of cancer may have the same roots as that medicine). I could go on.

          I simply think we judge the success of our scientific ‘breakthroughs’ on a timeframe that is too short – DDT was brilliant until it wasn’t, thalidomide was a miracle until it was a nightmare and we’ve no idea what today’s technologies may have seeded our future with. I think any culture that’s going to survive long term simply can’t embrace the creative disruption of science/technology/capitalism because that disruption unleashes forces we don’t see and consequences we can’t predict. I accept that such forces are out there anyway but adding to them seems unwise.

          • DDT is still used in some third world countries and thalidomide is now used to control leprosy .

  7. Thanks for the comments. Only time for some brief points, mostly in relation to Andrew’s comments.

    First, bear in mind that we’re only looking at country averages here, not at individual level distributions, so these data don’t tell us anything in themselves about whether people have been raised out of poverty. They only tell us whether countries have been raised out of poverty – to which I think the data I’ve presented here suggests the answer is “no, not many of them”. At the individual level we can talk about absolute vs relative poverty, but can we do so at the country level? The implication of Pinker’s analysis is that once industrial capitalism spreads around the world then economic wellbeing evens up everywhere, and I think I’ve shown here that that is clearly not the case. We live in a world of capitalist cores and peripheries, which sometimes change a little, not one of a ‘great convergence’.

    Country level GDP data and disaggregated income data can tell different stories. For example, between 1979 and 2012 GDP per capita in the USA increased by 70%. For the lowest income quintile change in average household real income over that period was minus 12%. For the top 1% it was plus 185%.

    Andrew, I don’t really understand your interpretation of the data or your point about convergence, which the first graph shows clearly isn’t happening in absolute terms. Relative terms is the story the rich want to dwell on. If last year you earned $1 a day and this year you earned $2, doubtless you’ll be happier. If last year I earned $100 a day and this year I earned $150, you did a lot better last year in relative terms than I did – and it’ll be in my interests to make a big deal about that, which I think is why books like Pinker’s sell so well among the kind of people who can afford to buy books. You’re right that inequality often increases when general prosperity increases, so there’s an argument for trading off the former for the latter. The argument gets weaker when inequality increases a lot, while general prosperity increases only a bit.

    I’m happy to go with Clem’s point that finding the right ‘ism’ to praise or blame for secular change is a fraught business. So I don’t think Pinker should single out industrial capitalism – and if he does, then he really needs to explain events in 1950s/60s China. My comments about rural self-reliance in China were based on White’s book, which has extensive empirical documentation. Arrighi’s ‘Adam Smith in Beijing’ makes a similar argument. I daresay other interpretations are possible, but I think this claim is a darned sight less empirically dodgy than Pinker’s championing of industrial capitalism.

    To really explore the relationship between capitalism and wellbeing historically we’d need to go a lot further back than 1960. Alex de Waal writes for example that “British rule in India in the 18th & 19th centuries caused one of the most dramatic de-industrializations and pauperizations in history”. I’ll take a lot of convincing that some piffling around with the MDGs by multilateral agencies in the last couple of decades somehow evens the score for capitalism.

    But while Britain was impoverishing India, it’s certainly true that some of its leading scientists were laying the foundations for modern public health – partly because its industrial cities were so lethal that something had to be done, and they also provided some good natural experiments for figuring out what the problems were (John Snow with cholera and all that). That brings us to Clem’s interesting and tricky point – was the capitalism worth it for the science? And also to Joe’s point about Cuba, which has health indicators superior to the USA with GDP per capita at 14% of US levels (but much more economic equality). Is Cuba’s success ultimately down to the capitalism that’s gone on elsewhere in the world? Well, for me that’s the wrong question to ask…

    In summary, while the long-term prognosis for capitalism in terms of its effects on earth systems is certainly one ground for critique, its endogenous logic is another one, for numerous reasons that the data I present above barely begin to reveal…

    • Some years ago I heard someone make the observation that globalisation wouldn’t raise the third world to first world levels of prosperity but that it would lead to some people in third world countries having first world levels of prosperity and some people in first world countries to be reduced to third world standards of living. If that’s the case, and I think it probably is, then looking at countries average GDP per capita is probably going to show convergence while hiding much of what is happening to individuals living within those countries.

      • Yep, I think that’s about the size of it – except that as I show above there isn’t even convergence at country level. Milanovic’s ‘elephant’ graph that I discussed here bears on this point:

        But again the figures look a bit different depending on whether you consider absolute or relative income.

        Basically what’s happened is that the rich in both rich and poor countries have got richer, while the poor have pretty much stagnated. But there’s (arguably) been a little movement out of extreme poverty, and in a few ‘middle income’ countries some growth in the size of the middle to upper income bracket. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the sevenfold GDP growth.

    • Thanks Chris, just to re-state, I don’t disagree with your readings of the graphs, and obviously I think your conclusions are more true to our global situation than Pinker’s assertions. My earlier comments were guided by a suspicion that Pinker and his ilk would read your data differently.

      Graph A certainly demonstrates the continuing unequal distribution of global wealth creation, which is what you focus on. But it also shows that the GDP of groups 2 to 4 started to rise in the 1980s, and whereas the rate of increase of GDP in group 1 has stayed more or less constant, the rate of increase in groups 2 to 4 has increased (even though it’s not yet as high as the rate of increase of group 1). If we were to extrapolate these trends, we (or perhaps Pinker) could claim that a convergence was beginning to occur in the rate of GDP growth.

      So I think the graph can be interpreted in a way that would appeal to Pinker. He would probably claim that the rates of increase of GDP would eventually converge, and that the whole world will one day be able to create wealth at the same rate in some kind of globalist Shangri La.

      The crucial point is that I don’t think he’s that interested in inequality – in fact, having scrabbles around on the internet for a summary of his book, I know that he thinks that “economic inequality is not a fundamental component of well-being” (somewhere around pp 98 to 102), so the element that you choose to focus on (rightly in my view) isn’t one that he’s bothered about. For him, the important point is that the increase in global GDP, however minuscule it’s effects, does lift some people above some notional poverty line.

      It seems pretty uncontroversial that the uptick in GDP in groups 2 to 4 is in some sense due to economic globalisation (synonym for industrial capitalism?), if only because GDP is pretty much designed as a metric to correspond to people doing capitalism. Weather you actually want to link a definition of human well-being to it is another issue, and one which I think we all here view with suspicion. Pinker, of course, would not care for arguments that increases in relative inequality reduce well-being.

      So although I very much agree with what you say, I’m not sure it scuppers Pinker’s argument on his own terms. And despite the meagre gains most of the world’s population has seen from globalisation, Pinker would probably argue that no other system allows such gains without a loss of ‘freedom’, defined in the self-interested liberal individual sense, which he would probably see as more important. I think you would have to return to this political terrain to truly defeat him.

      • I enjoyed this: “GDP is pretty much designed as a metric to correspond to people doing capitalism.”

        I have argued in debates with people that argue against the use of GDP that GDP is just a measure and a reflection of underlying processes. Countries may adopt various growth inducing policies, but in the end policy makers are rather helpless in their pursuit of growth, even though they try to convince voters of the opposite. It is actually a lot easier to stop growth than to make it happen….

  8. Having made at least some of a case for curiosity and scientific discovery, and still willing to go to bat for such enterprise, next I’d like to play the devil’s advocate in this space and wonder aloud whether a small farm future could potentially lead to farms being TOO small.

    Not trying to poke anyone in the eye… much of the modern farming effort seems to be entrusted to too few hands. But progress in food production per person has enabled hands, hearts, and minds not otherwise encumbered in the field to search for solutions beyond carrot culture and pig husbandry. And my pushback to Joe’s point that science isn’t some panacea not withstanding – he and others frequently make the quite valid point that fossil fuel has allowed us great latitude in how we approach the chore of provisioning our daily bread. If and when we come to point where exogenous power supply is unobtainable then a serious back to the land journey is obviously in store.

    My query comes down to this then. At what level of labor deployment have we rightsized our agricultural pursuits? One can easily hearken back to Chris’ Wessex model as starting point (perhaps my favorite aspect of that whole endeavor). By asking to speculate about what might be an appropriate farm size (a three bears inquiry such as too large, too small… just right) I don’t want to intimate there is an answer to fit. But my hope is that we can as a species spare some hands and minds to pursue discovery, improved technologies, and a peaceful means of living with each other and those fellow critters which happen to yet exist.

    • It seems pretty clear that the “right” farm size would be situational, depending on (among other factors) available energy sources and labour. A country with predominately small farms, and half the population working in agriculture, could produce enough to feed itself while consuming only 10% of the total energy (per capita) consumed in the USA, and still have universities, scientists, engineers…

      • By the way, the type of country I described isn’t just hypothetical; an example currently exists:  India, which has been a net exporter of food in recent years.

        “As per 2018, Agriculture employed 50% of the Indian work force… The average size of land holdings is very small (less than 2 hectares)…” [Wikipedia]

        • Great illustration Steve – India was quite self sufficient before the British Empire struck; fell on hard times and was then in dire straits. Science pitched in (Norman Borlaug and others) and some aspects of international effort have helped. Still not a Shangri La by any means, but is a net food exporter. A sign of convergence? Maybe, or maybe not… but alongside the example of Cuba it can offer a glimmer of hope. Capitalist democracy too…. hmmm

        • Incidentally, and smaller still, I have a pamphlet on the how and why of compost toilet building which states one adult’s ‘waste’ being enough, annually and combined with crop residue, to fertilise 500m2 of land (it gives rough figures of 10kg nitrogen, 1kg phosphorous and 1kg potassium per annum). For some scale, Simon Fairlie in Eating the Platter Clean (The Land issue 24) mentions 1400m2 as adequate to feed one person a very basic vegan diet, an area I assume is split 50/50 for food and fertility building. No surplus to sell, no farm, perhaps, but personal experience of gardening around 500m2 for food equates to around a good steady hour a day, leaving plenty of time for more gardening, farming, or some other way of securing your daily bread.

      • THE right farm size depends on soil and climate , with irrigation california is the garden of the world , without it its desert , this year climate variables will destroy some US farmers , here in TX temperature is two degrees lower than normal , ( 76 degrees has been the highest ) warm / hot weather crops are looking sick , heavy rain has drowned our large areas , IF you are a small farmer depending on the bounty of the earth this year you are out of luck .

  9. TFTFC.

    Clem, funnily enough I was just writing up my notes to Robert Allen’s book ‘Enclosure & the Yeoman’ when your comment pinged through. Allen argues that the ‘agricultural revolution’ in 18th century England was to a small extent a revolution in labor productivity and to a large extent a revolution in redistributing a largely fixed quantum of agrarian income from small farmers to rich landowners. So the loss of labor from agriculture didn’t translate into people finding other things to do, creating a division of labor that improved society overall – it just resulted in rural poverty and unemployment. I suspect some of the folks represented in the lower echelons of my first graph are in a similar situation – their hands haven’t been spared from agriculture for some higher purpose, their hands are idle and their pockets are empty because of the wealth-concentrating dynamics of the global economy that are on display in the graph.

    Allen further argues that most of the yield improvements achieved between medieval times and the dawn of the industrial age in England were achieved by small farmers in the 17th century, not large-scale farmers in the 18th. To generalize from that, I’d say that while getting people out of farming and doing something else isn’t *necessarily* bad, we tend to slip too easily into the assumption that it’s necessarily good. Imagine if we put modern science and political economy at the service of labor-intensive small-scale farming … now that might be a way to prove Joe wrong…

    Andrew – thanks for your further comment. I’ll try to respond tomorrow if I get the chance or as soon as I can if I don’t. I think you’re being quite generous to Professor Pinker, but it’s good to hear an alternative case…

  10. Just time for a quick response to Andrew:

    “If we were to extrapolate these trends, we (or perhaps Pinker) could claim that a convergence was beginning to occur in the rate of GDP growth”

    Yes there’s been a convergence in GDP growth since 2000, with Groups 2-5 exhibiting higher growth since then than Group 1. But what Pinker wrote was “Industrial capitalism launched the Great Escape from universal poverty in the 19th century and is rescuing the rest of humankind in a Great Convergence in the 21st”. To my mind, that implies a convergence in absolute levels … escaping from poverty … not a convergence in rates. And to some degree the convergence in rates must be an artefact of the huge absolute difference – in 2017, Group 1 countries added another $764/capita to GDP from the previous year, a growth rate of 1.6%, while Group 5 countries added $29, a growth rate of 3.3%.

    If you project growth rates only since 2000 forwards for all the groups – which is a very generous projection of what’ll happen for Groups 2-5 – then Group 3 is the only one that catches up with Group 1 in the 21st century (it takes Group 5 until 2273 to do so).

    “It seems pretty uncontroversial that the uptick in GDP in groups 2 to 4 is in some sense due to economic globalization”

    Well, ‘in some sense’ yes, but what’s really going on in each of groups 2-4 is the economic rise of a single country – respectively South Korea, China and India. If you exclude those three countries, then there’s no convergence even in GDP growth rates from 1960-2017, which is probably the most relevant timeframe. So what we’re seeing isn’t a ‘great convergence’ that’s rescuing the rest of humankind, but a shift in focus from a few core countries to a few other ones.

    ***Meant to add: but thanks for alerting me to a likely neo-optimist counter-argument. Forewarned is forearmed!

    Might be worth mentioning also the point made by Robert Allen whose book I referred to above – a trade-off between equity and growth often gets invoked, but his research shows there wasn’t one in the English 18th century agrarian economy … and I wonder in how many other cases?

    • Thanks Chris, especially for crunching the numbers. I’ll climb out of Pinker’s brain now (not the most pleasant of places!), and I can’t really claim to know how he’d respond to your argument (perhaps I should actually read his book…), but I do think the significance given to inequality represents an important crux in any debate with the neo-optimists (nice label by the way).

      The more I think about it, your point about global cores and peripheries seems particularly important. Neo-optimist thinking seems to envision a future in which globalisation has spread the capitalist economy evenly across every part of the world (as in the ‘global middle class’ you critique in the post you linked to earlier), so that, even if we accept the inequality that comes with it (as I think the neo-optimists do), everyone, no matter where they are, has an ‘equality of opportunity’ to move up the hierarchy by engaging in the system.

      But as your analysis makes clear, actually-existing capitalism hasn’t worked like that, and whilst we might be moving towards a globalisation of capitalism-induced inequalities, they are spread very unevenly in a geographical sense, meaning that many are prevented from taking up such opportunities even if they wanted to. Given the evident tendency of capital to concentrate, this situation will not ‘rectify’ itself. This, from the point of view of the neo-optimist global vision, is a real problem – I think that’s the line of attack I would emphasise.

    • Theoretical GDP is a good talking point , what happens when it runs into reality ?
      Up north small square bales ( 60 / 70 pounds ) are fetching $ 65 EACH , 30 million acres have not been planted and the planting window is now closed , estimates of TX grain production is going to be around 60 % of average , according to the AG press China has lost half its pig’s to swine fever and its grain production is heavily hit by army worm , Australia is in drought . If you have any livestock Chris better get in some feed before prices go up , they are allready moving up here , farmers produce 60 million gallons of milk a day here in this county, they are beginning to get concerned and are talking about culling cattle .

      • Times are challenging, yes… but I think you want to check your decimal places. From the June 6, 2019 USDA for Alfalfa hay in Missouri:

        Supreme quality Alfalfa (RFV <185) 185.00-225.00
        small squares: 7.00-9.00 per bale
        Premium quality Alfalfa (RFV 170-180) 170.00-200.00
        Good quality Alfalfa (RFV 150-170) 120.00-160.00
        small squares: 5.00-7.00 per bale

        This is for the highest quality hay… still a bit pricey compared to recent years – but not by the order of magnitude you’ve suggested.

        As for the planting window being closed – this is a political window, not a biological one. Times are tough, but when times are tough, the tough get going. Perhaps folks will stop wasting so much food now.

        • I’ve stopped cutting hay because essentially it’s a major nutrient export off-farm for (most of the time) poor returns after paying for cutting/baling/transport back to the hayshed etc

          Having said that, large rounds of meadow hay have been selling for north of $100/bale during winter at times during recent years due to dry conditions.

          Small squares locally mainly go to the horse folks. They will pay well but are very particular about the quality of the hay. It’s getting difficult to find contractors to cut small squares as most of the hay crop is cut and traded as rounds.

          IMO there’s definitely a market for retro-kit like haybalers at the right price as spare parts and as complete units. CNC machines to use in fabrication have dropped in price remarkably since the one I worked on as a young software engineer 30 years ago.

          That tractor I mentioned some time ago on this blog:

          is an interesting step in this direction.

          As is this:

          and because it wouldn’t be a post from me without something to encourage gnashing of teeth/extensive vituperation etc from the doomers and gloomers about how we’ll all be rooned and fighting over particularly tasty morsels of muck and all this technology stuff will evaporate I think what these folks are doing is fascinating:

          I’m planning to do some IoT work on sensoring up our block once I have some spare time again



  11. Thanks Andrew – I’ll bear your thoughts in mind. It’s good to have the chance to hone the analysis.

    And thanks to Clem & others for the debate on science. I think I’ll hold off on any major contribution to it – here’s another fence I like to sit on. My general take is that science illuminates the world we live in, but it can never instruct us in what we ought to do … and I’m with Bruce and Joe on the notion that taking a long-term view of those ‘oughts’ is wise.

    All best wishes to your partner, Bruce.

      • How many hours do you work a week Chris ? Could you do it all in the mentioned Swedish number of 12 hours , my homestead takes around 70 hours a week to keep on top of and just about breaks even if I dont pay myself , biggest single cost is $25 a week for local taxes , perhaps taxes would drop if schools only worked one and a half days a week , and the cops / courts do the same , at least its the first discusion on a fast crash scenario .
        Oh and by the way , glacier national park has removed its “gone by 2020 ” signs replaced by ” gone sometime ” signs , the glaciers are actually growing .

  12. The argument that we need capitalism to reduce infant mortality rates is really silly when you look at how serious the various State-Socialist countries in the Soviet era took their completely State-owned medical systems. (It worked kind of like the NHS in the UK. My father was a doctor and led a small ambulatory clinic with a couple dozen nurses and specialists, designed to serve the workers in the local factories. But he was officially still a State employee. Dito my mother who worked as a pharmacist in the local hospital.) They were especially serious where child healthcare and pre-natal / post-birth care were concerned – in East Germany at least, a schedule of vaccines against half a dozen different viral childhood diseases were mandatory (starting with the smallpox vaccination at birth, which the Eastern Bloc governments kept performing well into the 1980s, even though the US stopped routine vaccination in the early 1970s), as were a few prenatal tests and a schedule of infant check-ups throughout the early years to make sure the kid was thriving and developing at a normal pace. (I think most of these childhood vaccinations were also mandatory in West Germany and they still are. That’s part of the reason why home-schooling is illegal in Germany, so no kid can slip through the cracks with regards to basic health care. Though I remember being vaccinated by my dad after the Reunification, not in school, so apparently you could make other arrangements, as long as you did get those vaccinations done (there’s a “vaccination passport” where the vaccinations are registered to prove this). And there was a mandatory and thorough general check-up at age 14 that was organized by my highschool (that’s when they realized that I need glasses, which I hadn’t noticed myself), which I couldn’t get out of and which may or may not have been a residue policy from the Socialist years. (School policies are decided by the individual governments of the federal states in Germany, so the rules in Bavaria can be completely different from what happens in Saxony, for example. And of course most of the teachers working in the 1990s in the Eastern German states were still Socialist-trained.) I never even heard of any kid getting anything other than the usual flues, colds and upset stomachs, plus usually one round of chicken pox and perhaps lyme disease. (Though I think the awareness of lyme disease in the general population is a newer thing.) Tuberculosis and serious bacterial epidemics caused by bad public hygiene (dysentery, cholera, etc.) were long a thing of the past by the time I was a child in the 1980s. In fact, the only time I ever got seriously, life-threateningly sick was in university. (Probably a really bad case of salmonella I got from chicken meat that I bought at the supermarket; or possibly something nastier from shared bathrooms with students newly arrived from all over the world – the doctor couldn’t find out because I had to take antibiotics that my pharmacist mother gave me to get the high fever and cholera-like diarrhea under control in order to be able to go to the doctor) And similar epidemics of food-borne E. coli that sent lots of people to the hospital only seemed to show up 15 years after the Reunification. (Usually the original cause was bad worker health care and food safety measures in the country where the food was produced, leading to stuff like whole shipments of salads being contaminated by a badly infected wound on someone’s finger. So much for capitalism improving public health…) Though of course, the state-controlled media probably wouldn’t have announced this sort of thing under the Socialist regime.

    Anyway, I don’t know details about health care in the other Eastern Bloc states, but I expect at least childhood routine health care was similarly organized there, as the Socialist governments of the Eastern Bloc prided themselves on being able to provide a decent standard of living to their citizens, at least insofar as basic necessities were concerned. (Food, health care, housing, heating, electricity, public transport and education were all heavily subsidized to make sure everyone could afford them. Though luxury or imported things like coffee, citrus fruit and personal cars were very expensive, only briefly available, or involved waiting lists.) And even now, Cuba is famous for having a remarkably good health care system (and as a result, about the same life expectancy as in the US), especially considering that the country has been suffering for over half a century under a trade embargo specifically designed to harm the population enough that they would try to topple Castro. And they’re even managing to invest the funds to educate extra health care professionals to send to the rest of South America, as development aid and in exchange for oil and other resources.

    My father was sent to Vietnam to help the post-war rebuilding effort in a similar “Socialist brother country” support scheme. But in general, Socialist East Germany was educating only as many doctors, nurses and pharmacists as they planned to need in their economy in the following years. That’s why the regime built the Iron Curtain – they couldn’t afford the brain drain of losing highly educated professionals to a Capitalist country with the same language and culture but much higher pay for such professionals (a doctor in the Socialist East got paid about 1.5 times what a senior factory worker got, so the doctor was middle class in terms of culture, but there wasn’t any huge wealth gap between the middle and working class), especially not after providing the education completely free of charge, so kids born from worker families had a chance of reaching their intellectual potential.

    And that is why State-Socialism doesn’t work: Even if you start with the best of intentions, as left-wing revolutionaries usually do, sooner or later your government has to become repressive because people’s normal individual selfishness (as in: “I want the best for my family.”) would lead to a breakdown of the system. And as long as there are still Capitalist countries around you, they will do their best to make life hell for your population through economic warfare and media propaganda (West Germany retained and expensively supported West Berlin precisely to be able to broadcast radio and TV to the East German population and show how much more affluent people in the West were), in order to try to get the population to revolt against the Socialist government, even if said government is fairly elected and not repressive (yet).
    See also: The coup that the US and its allies try to push through in Venezuela right now. (The reason it’s not working well is that the population of Venezuela – and Cuba, for that matter – were mostly still very poor peasants at the point of their Socialist revolution, so the improvement of their lives through the health care / education / other social investments made by Chavez and his goverment was very obvious for them and is still well-remembered, even if his successor is not nearly as good at managing things and the oil price crash meant that the money dried up before the economy could be sufficiently diversified to make the country less dependent on that income source. Sure, the urban middle and upper classes oppose the government, but in a developing country like Venezuela, the rural peasants and urban poor still decide elections.)

    • Addendum: Well, Wikipedia says that the childhood vaccinations are voluntary now and that the goverment only issues “recommendations”. Also, they’re not paid for by the government anymore (though I cannot believe that they wouldn’t be covered by basic public health insurances) and 90% of all vaccinations are given in the office of a private doctor, with only 10% organized through schools, public health clinics or similar. And apparently West Germany only ever had mandatory vaccination against smallpox, which ended in the 1970s. So there you have it. Free Market Capitalism in action… (Thankfully. the anti-vaxxer attitude isn’t very wide-spread in Germany, so most people do get their childhood vaccinations, at least against the incurable viral diseases.)

      Though even the Capitalists seem to be coming around a bit. There has been public discussion recently and CDU politicians (Christian Conservative Capitalist) calling for a reintroduction of mandatory vaccination at least against Measles, because of increased outbreaks in the last 20 years or so. And apparently at least my East German state of Brandenburg has written this into law earlier this year.

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