Cross-posted from my blog here.

One of the greatest successes of mankind over the last few centuries has been the enormous amount of wealth that has been created. Once upon a time virtually everyone lived in grinding poverty; now, thanks to the forces of science, capitalism and total factor productivity, we produce enough to support a much larger population at a much higher standard of living.

EAs being a highly intellectual lot, our preferred form of ritual celebration is charts. The ordained chart for celebrating this triumph of our people is the Declining Share of People Living in Extreme Poverty Chart.

Share in Poverty


However, as a heretic, I think this chart is a mistake. What is so great about reducing the share? We could achieve that by killing all the poor people, but that would not be a good thing! Life is good, and poverty is not death; it is simply better for it to be rich.

As such, I think this is a much better chart. Here we show the world population. Those in extreme poverty are in purple – not red, for their existence is not bad. Those who the wheels of progress have lifted into wealth unbeknownst to our ancestors, on the other hand, are depicted in blue, rising triumphantly.

Triumph of Humanity2

Long may their rise continue.




Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 1:39 AM

Great chart, and I've never seen it displayed that way. It really puts humanity's progress into perspective. Thanks for sharing.

I really like this. It did make me wonder how bad life really was for those in what the graph calls 'absolute poverty'

My initial response is 'quite bad' and, quoting Hobbes, that life was 'nasty, brutish and short'.

By then I thought about it a bit more and number of considerations occurred to me:

  1. Most people adapt to most things that happen. There's evidence lottery winners and those who get disabled return to their pre-event level of life satisfaction after 6 months.

  2. People make mistakes when imagining their future lives or the lives of others. There's also evidence we engage in a 'focusing illusion' and only consider the differences between our life and some other life, rather than the similarities or how it would be to actually live that life. For example, Bill Gates (probably) doesn't wake up every morning and shout "I'm the richest man in the world!" he gets up, has coffee, gets stuck in traffic, goes to meetings, etc..

  3. Most people report being happy (or, more specifically, about 7/10 say they are satisfied with their lives). I'm critical of this sort of data, as well as the fact it's mostly from people outside of poverty, but it's still striking, at least to me, how pervasive this is.

  4. The preceding three points make evolutionary sense: if we didn't want to be alive, we probably wouldn't try to be. It also follows changes, rather than objective conditions, are often most relevant (think about how you're sensitive to small noises when alone at night, but not in a night club). Natures fits creatures to receive pleasure from that which is essential to their survival. I now wonder if, actually, day to day, hour by hour, Agricola would probably have reasonably happy unless he were cold, hungry or unwell. I'm not saying I would chose his life over mine, only that it probably wasn't as bad I automatically thought it was.

What do others think?

I can provide references for anyone who wants to quibble with my empirical claims

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