Noah Brier | December 9, 2019

Why is this interesting? - The Macro Edition

On optimism, realism, and global progress

Recommended Products

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress

A book by Steven Pinker that argues the world is significantly better, safer, and healthier than it's ever been.

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Noah here. Beautiful News Daily from the folks at Information is Beautiful has been making the rounds over the last few weeks. The site aims to raise awareness of all the positive things happening in the world as an antidote to the negative stories we all encounter on a day-to-day basis. “We’ll be releasing a chart every day for a year to move our attention beyond dramatic news headlines to the slow developments and quiet trends that go unseen, uncelebrated,” the About page explains. The project is similar, albeit far easier on the eyes, to Our World in Data, which also seeks to highlight the slow-moving positive trends in the world. 

These sites are unquestionably good reminders, but they’re also cited frequently to make an argument that we should focus less on the local negative and more on the global positive. It’s essentially a macroeconomics trumps microeconomics approach to talking about the world’s problems: Prioritizing the greater good of the global populous over the individual good of a person, city, or even country. It’s a story told by Steven Pinker and his book Enlightenment Now, which argues that on aggregate the world is significantly better/safer/healthier than it’s ever been despite the individual experience of millions who may be worse off. Or even more specifically in the data of Branko Milanovic’s “elephant graph” and the updated version from Thomas Piketty, Emmanuel Saez, and Gabriel Zucman:

The chart tells two stories: The first is a familiar one about growing inequality and skyrocketing incomes in the 99th+ percentile, while the second is the smaller, but not inconsequential, income growth of the 10th through 40th percentile worldwide. The good news of the graph is that the poorest in the world are doing better than they ever have. The bad news is that while the global economy isn’t quite zero-sum, some of that growth seems to have come from those living in the 60th to 90th percentile, or most of America and Western Europe. It’s this story that Pinker and friends focus on when they argue that we should appreciate the incredible moment of the progress we’re experiencing. 

Why is this interesting?

While it’s undoubtedly the best moment to be born in history, that’s not true if you zoom in on specific regions or groups worldwide and in the United States. A recent study in JAMA, for instance, found life expectancy decreasing in America, particularly for working-age people in the Rust Belt and Appalachia. No matter how much better the world is getting it will remain hard to convince individuals in the midst of decline that they should feel optimistic. There’s a disconnected, intellectual air to the argument that likely falls on deaf ears for those who are struggling to pay medical bills, are laden with predatory loans, or are having trouble keeping their family in safe housing. 

The macro argument pushed by Pinker has a tendency to underestimate individual realities, particularly those that sit outside easily measurable categories. This point was made incredibly well in a review of Pinker’s book by psychology researcher and professor Allison Gopnik. She describes Pinker’s thesis like this: “For thousands of years before the Enlightenment, the speed limit was the pace of a fast horse, and children died all the time. Now ideas move at the speed of light, and a child’s death is an unthinkable tragedy. Democracy has eclipsed tyranny, prosperity has outpaced poverty, medicine has routed illness, individual liberation has uprooted social convention. Come join us!” However, she sees strengths and weaknesses in the book’s arguments.

The strength of Enlightenment Now, Steven Pinker’s new book, is that it articulates the [“Come join us!”] conversation. Pinker is a psychology professor at Harvard and a wide-ranging public intellectual, and his book is an extended brief for liberal Enlightenment values. He makes his case with masses of data, compelling arguments, and considerable eloquence. At a moment when those values are under attack, from the right and the left, this is a very important contribution.

The weakness of the book is that it doesn’t seriously consider the second part of the conversation—the human values that the young woman from the small town talks about. Our local, particular connections to just one specific family, community, place, or tradition can seem irrational. Why stay in one town instead of chasing better opportunities? Why feel compelled to sacrifice your own well-being to care for your profoundly disabled child or fragile, dying grandparent, when you would never do the same for a stranger? And yet, psychologically and philosophically, those attachments are as central to human life as the individualist, rationalist, universalist values of classic Enlightenment utilitarianism.

I think about this a lot. The strength of Beautiful News Daily and Enlightenment Now is that they’re a good reminder of how, particularly for many of the poorest people in the world, things really are getting significantly better and we are far from exhausting all the possible moves to keep up the momentum. As an optimist, I find this compelling. But these arguments can’t be made in a vacuum. It’s hard to get people to listen when you tell them “sometimes you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet” if the eggs are their life and the omelet is a prosperous global society. Or, as Gopnik says to conclude the paragraph above, “If the case for reason, science, humanism, and progress is really going to be convincing—if it’s going to amount to more than preaching to the choir—it will have to speak to a wider spectrum of listeners, a more inclusive conception of flourishing, a broader palette of values.” (NRB)

Strange Idea of the Day: 

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Thanks for reading,

Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN)

PS - Noah here. I’ve started a new company and we are looking for a sr. backend engineer to join the team. If you are one of those or know anyone who is great, please share. Dinner’s on me at a restaurant of your choice if you help us find someone.

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