A Secret, Silent Miracle

August 7, 2022
My title references Hans Rosling, who Lewis Chapman channels to remind us of the dual realities of human progress and human pessimism.
His opening paragraph is one of the most succinct, yet colorful, summaries of the Great Enrichment I’ve read:
Progress that is both rapid enough to be noticed and stable enough to continue over many generations has been achieved only once in human history: right now. Around 1800, humanity made a stark turn from misery and stagnation to prosperity and progress. This is a truly unique moment in time, and yet one that most of us aren’t even aware of.
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Regardless of whether one accepts the McCloskey explanation whole-cloth or not, the Great Fact raises the most important question in the social sciences.
Chapman’s contrast of linear vs. exponential growth is also quite startling:
If you were to place a drop of water in the middle of London’s Wembley stadium, wait for a minute, place two drops, wait for another minute, place three drops, then 4 drops and so on, it would take 11 years to fill the stadium. If instead the number of drops increased exponentially; in other words, you place one drop, then two drops after a minute, then four, then eight and so on, the stadium would be full by the 48th minute.
Someone once famously quipped about the obsession with GDP that you “can’t eat growth rates.” That retort misses the mark. GDP gets translated into all the good things in life, including life itself. Chapman again:
It’s not just GDP. Poverty and child mortality rates over the last two centuries have dropped while literacy and vaccination rates have climbed. Many more people live under democratic forms of government.
Were these facts less secret and less silent, they’d instill much gratitude.
Yet, people are remarkably pessimistic:
The world today finds itself atop this upward march of progress, but we think we’re going the other way. When surveyed, only 6% of Americans think the world is getting better, while in Australia and France the figure stands at an even more ominous 3%.
As Max Roser helpfully put it in a recent post: “The world is awful. The world is much better. The world can be much better.”
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