We're Getting Richer

From Editorial Team of The Intelligent Optimist, www.theoptimist.com

Think about it: These days, most poor families in the West have phones, TVs, washing machines and cars. The tap water is clean, and the food is safe to eat. We’re not trying to play down the problem of poverty, but these conditions are a vast improvement over those in, say, the 1950s.

The value of the global economy hardly changed  before 1800. Though there were periods when things got a bit better or worse, the average person in 1800 wasn’t much better off than the average person in 100,000 BC. British journalist Matt Ridley has sought  to show that people today are actually richer than Louis XIV was in 1700, when he was the world’s wealthiest man. He ate off gold plates, true, but his array of choices was startlingly paltry compared to the overwhelming selection in your average grocery store. King Louis might have had a tailor, a chauffeur and 500 other servants, but today we all do, in the form of clothing stores and budget airlines.

The Industrial Revolution changed everything. People moved to the cities. Public health improved. Schools were built. In the last two centuries the economy has grown spectacularly and everyone has profited. We at The Intelligent Optimist know full well there’s more to life than a big bank balance, but we recognize that economic growth is an important precondition for the pursuit of happiness.

Of course, the recent crisis has left its mark on global economic figures. But those numbers aren’t actually that bleak. In 2003, the per capita gross national product in the global population was below $6,000; eight years later, it topped $10,000. It fell in just one year, 2008. Most of that growth has occurred in countries like China, India and Africa, where approximately half the world’s people live.

And we can expect more growth. The fourth Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s climate report sketched a few possible future scenarios. In even the gloomiest—in which the authors assumed a population explosion, minimal technological progress and the lowest standard of living—the forecasted annual growth was 1 percent in rich countries and 2.3 percent in poor ones. At that rate, by century's end our great-grandchildren in rich nations will be two and a half times wealthier than we are, and those in poor countries will be at least nine times wealthier than their counterparts today. That strikes us as reason to be hopeful. In our opinion, the world is getting richer.

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