Despite all the poverty, famine, disease, terrorism, and war in the world today, things are actually really good and they’re only getting better, according to Bill Gates.
“We’re on this rising tide that’s not recognised. It’s overwhelming how prosperity is spread around the world,” the ex-Microsoft CEO who is the world’s richest man said in a conversation at the American Enterprise Institute.
One reason that people don’t appreciate global gains is our obsession with GDP, which doesn’t account for many ways our lives are getting better in the modern era. Even when it comes to GDP per capita, however, Gates is optimistic.
[T]oday 45 countries that are still in that low-income category. And what I’m saying is that, by 2035, there should be less than 10, and they will mostly be either places like North Korea, where you have a political system that basically creates poverty, or land-locked African countries where the geography, the disease burden, the disparate ethnicities mean that they haven’t been able to bring together a government that in terms of education, infrastructure, health does even the most minimum things for them.
And so we’re on this rising tide that’s not recognised. It’s overwhelming how prosperity is spread around the world, say from 1960, where there were very few rich countries and a gigantic number of poor countries. Now most countries are middle-income countries, and poor countries are much smaller. Now, just saying that they will all move up past that threshold doesn’t mean they won’t have poor people within the countries; it doesn’t say their governments will be fantastic, but it will be a lot better on average than it is today.
He says people tend to be irrationally pessimistic:
I think that a deep problem in perception is that if you want something to improve, you have a tendency to be bothered by the status quo and to think that it’s much worse than it is. And that can be beneficial because you don’t like, say, the level of violence in the world, the level of poverty, the level of — number of kids dying. But if you divorce yourself from the true facts of improvement and look at the exemplars, look at what’s worked — if you get sort of a general despair about is the world improving, then you won’t latch on to those examples.
The Steven Pinker example, one of my favourite books of all time, is that if you ask people, “Is this one of the most violent eras in history?” they will say yes. Overwhelmingly, Americans say yes. Well, it’s overwhelmingly the least violent era in history. And so what it means is your disgust with violence actually increases, and that’s partly why we take steps and why within our own society and the world at large it’s come down so dramatically.
And here’s more on the world getting better in ways not captured by economic data:
You know, I’m not a fan of the way time-series adjustment for comparing GDP between various points in time is done. I think it meaningfully understates the rate of progress. If you take, say, how you get news, your ability to get news, as far as the GDP is concerned, the news business is down. It’s employing less people. It’s gathering less money. And are you impoverished in terms of your ability to search and read articles today versus, say, 30 years ago? Probably not.
You know, buying encyclopedias, you know, I bought it — my parents bought a World Book. I read it. You know, I had to learn the world alphabetically. Very weird way to learn things. You know, now, every kid who has Internet access has Wikipedia. And so whether it’s in the area of technology or medicine or various things, you’re — there’s a lot of a qualitative nature that’s not captured in those things. So whether the gross number goes up or not, the rate of improvement in livelihood, you know, I think will be very rapid in the future.
Now just because things are getting much better, doesn’t mean all of the world’s problems are going away.
Gates says there will still be poor people and disease, and that problems like inequality and unemployment could keep getting worse. Speaking about the replacement of workers with software, he had a worrying prediction: “20 years from now, labour demand for lots of skill sets will be substantially lower. I don’t think people have that in their mental model.“
Indeed, the $US76-billion-man says we have a lot to do when it comes to charity, education reform, and tax reform to keep society moving in the right direction. But he wants people to remember the big picture: The world has never been better.
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