Better World or Worse World?

June 26, 2017, from Da Lat, Vietnam

My brother and I often debate this. Are the people of this world better off today than before, or worse off? He’s on the positive side of this and I am on the negative side.

The answer is both, of course, depending on what segment of our global population, what factor of progress, and what two points in time are being compared.

In my brother’s defense, there is indeed a very long list of improvements the world has enjoyed, say over the last 50 years: All manner of health outcomes, literacy, transportation, access to technology, constantly reducing prices for physical products, even less conflict in many regions of the world. A very poor family in 1967 might not have had a TV, air conditioning, a decent refrigerator, and no mobile phone, of course, just to mention a few of the notable advancements almost everyone can enjoy.

My concern starts with economic inequality. Global poverty has declined dramatically but most of the reduction is in China and India. In the US, poverty has not declined measurably. In 1967, we had 11.4% of our US families in poverty, and in 2015, 10.4%, a negligible improvement. We have about 40 million Americans living under $25,000 for a family of 4, as an example. I’m sure all will agree it’s really tough to survive on that, no matter where you live in the US. Wages for the bottom 20% of our population have not increased in real terms since 1967.

Of course, I acknowledge that a family of four may have better health care, better 2nd hand car, and TV than the same family had in inflation adjusted equivalent wages in 1967.  They may have a mobile phone. You may hold that such a family is better off in eking out an existence.

But two major intangible elements swing the evaluation negative in my opinion: inequality and mobility. Please see previous posts in which I argue that relative status matters, inequality matters. Inequality has skyrocketed across this period. High levels of  inequality are tied to slower economic growth, impaired health results, more crime, and other negative outcomes.  Even those who continue in disbelief as to the negative impacts of inequality, all seem to believe mobility matters. But in tandem with the increase in inequality, mobility (ability to earn more than your father) has steadily declined across the last 50 years in the US.

While physical products cost less, the important costs have increased dramatically–housing and education.  That family of 4 cannot even consider college for their kids. Primary and secondary education is in starved public schools which have deteriorated. They can’t afford to even consider owning a home, and costs in the city have pushed them to slums or to distant suburbs far from good jobs. We’re about to make health care a lot more expensive.

My brother, my sisters, and I are clearly better off than in 1967. We had good public educations, went to college, landed good jobs, enjoyed improving health care, raised families, all of whom went to universities. We clearly enjoy a much better life than my parents’ family did in 1967. But I see how much harder it is for my children to find and land solid jobs, how much more in annual income equivalent is necessary to buy a home and to send my grandchildren to the best schools.

Will the future be better or worse? Climate change, terrorism, global conflict, inequality, mobility…?  At the end of this semester, I discussed my primary concern with a Harvard professor I respect. “Will inequality increase because of robotics, automation, self driving vehicles, artificial intelligence, machine learning, etc.?” He said he’s cautiously optimistic that will not happen. He referred to the way the abundance of agricultural workers no longer needed (when automation came to farming) were absorbed over a few decades into factory jobs. But as to how something like this could happen in the advancing digital age, he did not have a theory. I’m worried.

Whether you think we’re better off or worse off, whether the future will evolve beneficially or harmfully, without intervention, what difference does it make? The implications of taking a stance are probably significant. If you think we’re better off, perhaps you don’t see a need to invest heavily in fixing the problems. If you think the opposite, perhaps you are more motivated to influence change.

I want change. Hoping for a miracle is not satisfactory.

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