In Defense of Utopia (Part II): The Whole World Is Getting Much, Much Better

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"In Defense of Utopia (Part II): The Whole World Is Getting Much, Much Better"

In Part I of this essay, I argued that we need a new way of thinking about utopia that is appropriate to today’s modernizing progressive coalition. That approach should start by embracing new findings on human nature and economics that provide the basis for an expansive vision of humanity’s future (see related posts here and here).  And it will reject the left’s currently gloomy view of progress, which confuses current problems with long-term trends.  It is true that rising inequality in the US and some other countries has limited the benefits of economic growth.  It is true that globalization has produced its share of losers in the US and that globally many nations are still mired in poverty.  It is true that world economic progress is promoting serious climate problems.  But economic growth and globalization as long term trends are still far more beneficial than harmful, a fact which resonates with this emerging coalition, even if it no longer does with the traditional working class.

The last point is critical.  For many on the left, a positive attitude toward economic growth and globalization seems counterintuitive.  After all, isn’t there a basic lack of progress in the world today—aren’t things just getting worse rather than better?

No, in fact they’re getting better — much better — and that is despite trends toward increased inequality which have damped down economic advance for average citizens in some countries.  Consider the American case, where trends toward inequality have been particularly serious.  In 1947, the median family income in the US was around $27,000 in today’s dollars.  Today, median family income is around $61,000. Looked at another way, in 1947, 60 percent of families made under $30,000.  But today only around 20 percent make less than that figure and 40 percent make over $75,000, a figure that was exceeded by less than 5 percent of families in 1947.

By 2040, median family income should be considerably higher , though how much higher depends on economic policy and choices we make as a society.  But if we see growth that is merely average for the post-World War II period, the median family could be making close to $100,000 in today’s dollars.  American GDP will be around 27 trillion dollars, more than double its current size, for a population that will be only a third bigger.  American will not just have a mass middle class, as was created after World War II, but, in living standards terms, a mass upper-middle class.  What is privileged today will be commonplace tomorrow.

Switching to a worldwide view, since 1955, the average person earns three times more today than they did back then and eats one-third more calories of food.  The percentage living in absolute poverty has dropped by more than half, down to under 18 percent.  If current trends continue that percent will soon be in single digits and could even approach zero in the decade of the 2030’s.  The UN estimates that that poverty has been reduced more in the last 50 years than in the previous 500.

These trends are part of a long-range shift that has transformed world society starting with the 17th century.  In that century, world GDP per capita rose about 20 percent, followed by another 20 percent rise in the 18thcentury.  Then, with the 19th century, the GDP per capita growth rate exploded to 250 percent, followed by a stunning 900 percent in the twentieth century (growth was even higher in Europe and North America, reaching perhaps 2000 percent in the last century).  Based on current growth trends, by the time the current century is over, the average person in the developing world could have an income of $100,000 a year in today’s dollars — that is, a living standard equivalent to that of an upper-middle class person in our country today.

Of course, there’s more to material progress than just incomes. But judging by non-monetary metrics, the changes have been even more spectacular.  Start with life expectancy.  In England, the average life expectancy was 37 in 1750, 40 in 1850, 48 in 1900 and 75 in 1990.  Across the world, life expectancy has doubled since 1800, even as population has increased six-fold.  The average Mexican today lives longer than the average Briton did in 1955.

Then there is how people live those longer lives.  The decline of punishing manual labor and debilitating disease is well-known.  Less well-known is that 99 percent of poor people in the US today have running water, electricity and flush toilets, 95 percent have a television, 88 percent a telephone, 71 percent a car and 70 percent air-conditioning. These are all things that the fabulously wealthy 19th century robber baron Cornelius Vanderbilt lacked.  And these great advances leave out cheap consumer electronics and the internet — an explosion of information, connectivity and entertainment available to larger and larger segments of the US and world population.

There’s also less violence in those longer lives (one reason why those lives are longer).  Despite the horrendous wars of the 20th century, the death toll per capita was still far lower than it was in our supposedly idyllic past.  Indeed, if the warfare death rate of hunter-gatherer societies had prevailed in the 20th century we would have had 2 billion war-related deaths rather than 100 million,  not to mention the high rates of torture and enslavement that would have gone along with them.

The economic progress underpinning these positive developments has been driven by at least four underlying trends: increased educational levels, technological innovation, increased economic interconnectedness and the rise of mixed capitalist economies that facilitate both growth and a more egalitarian distribution of its fruits.  Could these trends continue?  Absolutely. Educational levels around the globe have been rising at a startling rate for a long time and show no signs of stopping. In the US, adults’ average years of schooling has rise from 2 years in 1820 to 4 in 1870, 7 in 1913, 9 in 1950 and around 13 today.  Globally, just since 1970, the illiteracy rate has dropped from 46 to 18 percent.  In roughly the same time period (since 1965), the proportion of the relevant global population enrolled in tertiary (some form of college) education has risen from 7 to 26 percent.  UNESCO estimates that in the next 30 years, more people will receive formal education than in all of human history thus far.

By the end of the 20th century, more technological advances had been made in the previous hundred years than in all of history before 1900.  There is no good reason to believe that this breakneck pace will slow in the 21stcentury, since we are just on the verge of mastering knowledge gleaned from technological revolutions in three interwined areas: computer science, biomolecular science/engineering, and quantum physics.  Indeed, as we transition from an era where we have discovered the basic laws and building blocks in these fields to an era where we apply that knowledge, the pace of innovation, if anything, may accelerate.  Currently underdeveloped fields like biotechnology, nanotechnology and quantum computing may leap forward in ways we cannot exactly anticipate but are likely to have a big impact.

On economic interconnectedness, the increasingly thorough integration of the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India. China) is bringing 42 percent of the world’s population into close contact with the world economy.  And the overall process of globalization shows no signs of slowing down. Since 1950, the volume of world trade has increased 27 fold, three times faster than world output.  Exports as a percentage of GDP have tripled over the same period.  The weight of trade in the world economy now far exceeds levels reached at any point in the past, including the classical free trade period of the late 1800s and early 1900s.

In terms of mixed economies, the last several decades has seen the profound transformation of almost all planned economies to some sort of mixed capitalist economy.  Some of these countries (e.g., China) retain considerable state control but the shift toward market capitalism is nevertheless undeniable.  The mixed economy has become dominant across the world and, based on its track record, should become even more so over time.

Therefore, let us bet on optimism.  The contours of what is possible are just becoming visible.  It is time for the left to take off its blinders and start sketching these contours.  Living in the past helps no one and simply slows down our progress toward a qualitatively better society — a goal that is more attainable today than it ever has been before.  Utopia is within our grasp.

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