I don’t mean to be Pinker’s Fanboy, but I’ve had some recent correspondence with him that I thought would be enlightening to readers, and got his permission to share it. (The first exchange was about Pinker’s supposed misuse of quotations in Enlightenment Now, which turned out to be a kerfuffle about nothing.)
Now we’re on to a Guardian piece that claims that Bill Gates—and by extension, Pinker—are wrong to claim that poverty has decreased in the world over the last two centuries. It started with this tweet from Bill Gates, who, on the way to the Davos Summit, summarized in a tweet six indices of improvement that he saw on the Our World in Data site. Here’s Gates’s tweet:
— Bill Gates (@BillGates) January 19, 2019
Well, Jason Hickel couldn’t let the poverty thing stand, and so published a critique in the Guardian, which identifies Hickel as “an academic [a lecturer in anthropology] at the University of London and a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.” Click on the screenshot below to see the piece:
Hickel objects to the “extreme poverty” graph that shows a decrease in that figure from 94% in 1820 to 10% today. Hickel says this:
These figures have been trotted out in the past year by everyone from Steven Pinker to Nick Kristof and much of the rest of the Davos set to argue that the global extension of free-market capitalism has been great for everyone. Pinker and Gates have gone even further, saying we shouldn’t complain about rising inequality when the very forces that deliver such immense wealth to the richest are also eradicating poverty before our very eyes.
It’s a powerful narrative. And it’s completely wrong.
Why is it wrong? Well, Hickel says that real data on poverty has been collected only over the last four decades, that it wasn’t collected worldwide but for only “a limited range of countries. ” Most important, he claims that income wasn’t really a good index of poverty in the past, since people had natural resources independent of income—resources that were supplanted by “colonization” that forced people into capitalism and perforce into poverty:
The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.
Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.
In other words, Roser’s graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.
Hickel’s other beef is that the “poverty line” is based on $1.90 per day, and should be much higher: around $7.40. If you use the higher figure, says Hickel, then the “number of people” (not the proportion of people) living below the line has increased since 1981, and the gains—people rising above that line—have taken place mostly in China.
What this suggests, and what Hickel admits, is that income inequality may have increased, not average well being. For example, if you put the poverty line at, say, $100,000 (just for grins), then yes, the number of people living below that line may have increased due to an increase in inequality of income since 1981. But that tells us little about the average well-being of people.
Hickel winds up arguing that the claim that poverty has decreased is therefore “madness—and no amount of mansplaining from billionaires will be adequate to justify it.”
I was a but suspicious not just about the data, but about Hickel’s motivations: the phrase “mansplaining from billionaires” suggests a social-justice agenda and perhaps an anti-progressivism associated with the Authoritarian Left. I realized that a response to Hickel’s “poverty has increased” claim was probably in Pinker’s last two books, but I didn’t have them in my office when I read the Guardian article. I therefore wrote Steve this email:
I won’t bother you (for a while) after this, but presumably you saw the Guardian article by Jason Hickel on why world poverty isn’t decreasing: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/jan/29/bill-gates-davos-global-poverty-infographic-neoliberal
I can’t remember the data about this you adduce in your books, but in view of what you said there should be something wrong with this. What is it?
Steve wrote me a long reply (kvetching in the first sentence!), but nevertheless defended in an email the global consensus of decreased poverty. And again I asked him for permission to put up his email here, and he kindly agreed. As before, there was no understanding that what he was writing would appear on this site, but I asked and he allowed it to appear. I think this is good, for normally Steve wouldn’t publish a response to an article like this, but the informality of this site allows me to put up his email take on what seems to be a misguided argument.
As usual, Pinker answers in perfect, publishable English. (Nobody writes better emails!) Here’s his response to Hickel’s piece.
Not sure why I should be the one to defend the consensus on global economic development against a Marxist ideologue enabled by the Guardian—I’m just a cognitive scientist who cites data from the real experts—but here are some observations (all of them made in the chapter on Wealth in Enlightenment Now).
1. The massive fall of global extreme poverty is not a claim advanced by me, Bill Gates, or people who go to Davos, but every politically neutral observer who has looked at the data, including the Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton in The Great Escape, the United Nations (which declared its Millennium Development Goal of halving extreme poverty as having been met five years ahead of schedule), and other experts in global development (who bolster their data with observations they have made while they spent time in the poorest countries), such as Stephen Radelet, Charles Kenny, and the Roslings. A comprehensive overview can be found (as always) in Max Roser’s Our World in Data in the entry on Global Extreme Poverty.
2. The level at which one sets an arbitrary cutoff like “the poverty line” is irrelevant — the entire distribution has shifted, so the trend is the same wherever you set it.
3. It’s not just China, or even China plus India — many poor countries have seen spectacular poverty reductions, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Georgia, Mongolia, Mozambique, Panama, Rwanda, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. This is on top of rich countries that not so long ago were dirt-poor, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
4. Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence, and flatly contradicted by historians such as Fernand Braudel who have examined contemporary accounts of life in previous centuries, and economic historians such as Angus Maddison and his students who have tried to quantify it using wills, government records, and other data.
5. The drastic decline in extreme poverty is corroborated by measures of well-being other than income that are correlated with prosperity, such as longevity, child mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, basic education, undernourishment, and consumption of goods like clothing, food, cell phones, even beer—all have improved.
6. It’s also borne out by a sanity check from people who have actually spent time in poor countries and have observed what life is like in them—not just development experts, but also biologists I know who have visited their field sites in Africa annually for many decades, and who have remarked on changes that can be seen with the naked eye: stores that have food, kids that wear shoes, people that are overweight rather than starving, shanties replaced by cinderblock, poor people with bicycles and TVs.
7. The political agenda of Hickel and other far leftists is obvious: it’s humiliating to their world view that the data show massive improvements due to markets and globalization rather than an overthrow of capitalism and global redistribution (see the quote by David Graeber in “Enlightenment Wars,” and the back story on Hickel’s radicalism in this article, originally published in The Telegraph).
As always, you be the judge.
UPDATE: Hickel has replied to Pinker’s criticisms on his (Hickel’s website): go here to see them.