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Earlier this week, Megan McArdle made a point that cannot be emphasized enough: that the material luxury most of us take for granted — indeed, that most of us still find worth grumbling and fretting over — is not only unique in human history, but still relatively rare in the world:
The cutoff for the global 1 percent starts quite a bit lower than the parochial American version preferred by pundits. I’m on it… [a]nd if your personal income is higher than $32,500, so are you. The global elite to which you and I belong enjoys fantastic wealth compared to the rest of the world: We have more food, clothes, comfortable housing, electronic gadgets, health care, travel and leisure than almost every other living person, not to mention virtually every human being who has ever lived. We are also mostly privileged to live in societies that offer quite a lot in the way of public amenities, from well-policed streets and clean water, to museums and libraries, to public officials who do their jobs without requiring a hefty bribe. And I haven’t even mentioned the social safety nets our governments provide.
As she later describes, this is not to say that we one-percenters are free from anxiety and scarcity, though a little perspective and gratitude for our fortune — in both senses — would suit us well.
What makes this all the more spectacular is that the rest of the world is getting richer as well, or at least less poor. As the Economist reported last year, noting that capitalism and freer markets were largely responsible, the number of people living in abject poverty has fallen dramatically:
Between 1990 and 2010, their number [those making less than $1.25/day] fell by half as a share of the total population in developing countries, from 43% to 21%—a reduction of almost 1 billion people.
Poverty rates started to collapse towards the end of the 20th century largely because developing-country growth accelerated, from an average annual rate of 4.3% in 1960-2000 to 6% in 2000-10. Around two-thirds of poverty reduction within a country comes from growth. Greater equality also helps, contributing the other third. A 1% increase in incomes in the most unequal countries produces a mere 0.6% reduction in poverty; in the most equal countries, it yields a 4.3% cut.
Of course, trajectories are never constant and, as the Economist piece notes, it’s probable that making similar improvements will be tougher in the future, as much of the low-hanging fruit (e.g., China) has already been gathered.
Improvement is improvement, however, and should be celebrated. We’re rich and the rest of the world is — unevenly, and in fits and starts — going in the same direction. With all the murder, suffering, and evil in the world, it’s worth remembering that.Published in