Never before have so many humans enjoyed longer and healthier lives. Across the world, even in some of the poorest countries, deaths from most infectious diseases are declining precipitously, while every region is seeing increased longevity. The data are resoundingly clear:
Today is Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind to enshrine a global standard of moral principles and norms for all humanity. It is predicated on the simple but important notion set forth in Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Continue reading
For the myriad of problems we face as a species, we have made incredible strides over the last two centuries, especially since the mid-twentieth century, shortly after the world nearly destroyed itself in the second global conflict in less than thirty years.
Contrary to what we see on the news, there are ample data proving how far we have come in the hundreds of thousands of years in which we’ve existed (and in which the vast majority of the estimated 106 billion people who have ever lived on Earth suffered untold misery, fear, ignorance, and hardship).
Here are twenty charts, courtesy of OurWorldInData.org, that should make us grateful for living in this remarkably progressive, free, peaceful, and prosperous period of human existence.
Global poverty, maternal and child mortality, global hunger, battle deaths, and child labor are just some of the negative socioeconomic problems that have declined swiftly and significantly.
Meanwhile, literacy, formal education, women’s rights, economic growth, and life expectancy have increased exponentially. The developing world — where the vast majority of humans live — has seen the fastest and greatest gains.
To be sure, these gains by no means diminish the very real problems we must still resolve; far too many people remain poor, hungry, diseased, oppressed, and exploited. Yet, remarkably, it is far fewer people — both proportionally and in absolute numbers — than ever before in our history.
While we no doubt still have a ways to go, let us be thankful for our species’ boundless capacity to keep preserving despite our faults and challenges. Imagine how much more progress we will see in our (ever increasing) lifetimes if we just stay the course.
Iran hardly comes to mind when it comes to testing bold new ideas (never mind its various scientific and technological achievements in the face of sanctions and a reactionary theocracy). But since 2011, it has been testing and monitoring one of the most generous basic income schemes in the world, joining the likes of Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands (among others) in exploring the merits of an idea that has been gaining traction amid concerns about mass unemployment from advancing automation.
The program, which is ongoing, was launched during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself hardly a progressive (to put it mildly). But it was ideal timing, as it followed cuts to subsidies for bread and fuel, which disproportionately impacted the poor. Participants received a monthly cash transfer equivalent to 29 percent of the country’s median household income — which would amount to over $16,300 a month in the U.S.! This is far more generous than the $1,000 or so monthly stipend that is typical in most basic income schemes. Even advocates of the idea might think it is far too much to sustain a productive population.
Despite reports in local press that the poor were forgoing their jobs to spend the extra money, the investigators found no such evidence.
“Our results do not indicate a negative labor supply effect for either hours worked or the probability of participation in market work, either for all workers or those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution,” they wrote.
They did find people in their twenties tended to work a bit less. But “this is not surprising since the attachment of Iranian youth to the labor market is weak,” they wrote, and many young people may have used the money to enroll in higher education they otherwise couldn’t afford.
In other cases, the extra money appeared to increase how much time people spent working. Service workers, such as housekeepers, teachers, and deliverymen, upped their weekly hours by roughly 36 minutes, “perhaps because some used transfers to expand their business.”
In other words, people were empowered to invest the money they received in ways that created greater values for themselves and, by extension, their loved ones and community. This comports with the results of the basic income experiments conducted in Canada and Namibia, as well as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, which is one of the few examples of a full-fledged cash-transfer scheme (although not quite a basic income, since it is conditional on children attending school and being vaccinated).
Unfortunately, Iran’s experiment also proved another common feature of the basic income idea: widespread negative attention and cynicism, in this case by both politicians and the general public. Across different societies and cultures, the idea of handing people money with no string attached strikes a visceral chord.
But given where automation and economic innovation are heading, it seems inevitable that mass unemployment — and the massive wealth imbalance that would follow — will need to be corrected. Not only would a guaranteed income provide for people’s basic needs, but as these pilot programs are thus far proving, they would empower individuals with the resources they need to unlock their own potential, whether it is freeing up time for socially valuable work (caregiving, volunteering, etc.) or investing in their own creative or commercial ventures.
What are your thoughts?
Iraq hardly comes to mind as a pioneer in humanitarianism, especially as far as warfare is concerned. Yet in the midst of its now six-month campaign to take back the ISIS stronghold of Mosul, the Christian Science Monitor reports that Iraqi armed forces are collaborating with the U.N. and other partners to deliver an unprecedented amount of care and protection to the tens of thousands of civilians caught in the middle (bolding mine): Continue reading
Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:
As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading
I think people are too quick to invoke World War Three after every diplomatic scuffle, arms race, or rising tensions.
Over the last two centuries, since the advent of the international system, there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of potential flash points for global war. Only twice did it result in global conflict, and each of those were interrelated and stemmed from the intersection of factors unique to that time and place. Plus, it is obviously easier to notice the wars that occurred rather than the numerous potential wars that were averted or preempted.
Granted, those two wars killed over 70 million people and unleashed a level of destruction and barbarity that still remain incomprehensible. So, fear of something like that happening again is perfectly justified, and we mustn’t be complacent – war has long been the natural state of humanity, and the last few decades have been unusual in their relative peacefulness.
But we should be measured in our caution and tone down the apocalyptic rhetoric, which all too often feels dangerously fatalistic, if not eager (there is a subset of people, generally religious, who seem to welcome world-ending events).
What are your thoughts?
Having been one of the first countries to test out a guaranteed basic income back in the 1970s, Canada is once again planning to experiment with this idea, via a proposed pilot program wherein low income participants will receive an average of $1,320 monthly without conditions.
The project, which is to be launched in Canada’s largest province, Ontario, in fall of 2017, is laid out in a paper authored by Hugh Segal, a former senator and now special adviser to the province. According to the official proposal, the program’s aim will be to answer the most common questions and concerns regarding a basic income, including:
- Can basic income policies provide a more efficient, less intrusive, and less stigmatizing way of delivering income support for those now living in poverty?
- Can those policies also encourage work, relieve financial and time poverty, and reduce economic marginalization?
- Can a basic income reduce cost pressures in other areas of government spending, such as healthcare?
- Can a basic income strengthen the incentive to work, by responsibly helping those who are working but still living below the poverty line?
It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz when it came to public advocacy and education.
Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.
After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.
In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.
In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.
Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.
Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.
It pretty much goes without saying that 2016 has been a rough year for a lot of people and for a multitude reasons, none of which need to be rehashed here. Suffice it to say, I am all the more grateful to have had a largely great year, due in no small part to the support and companionship of loved ones and the good fortune of my life circumstances.
And contrary to popular belief, there was more to 2016 than celebrity deaths and political decay. As Swedish writer and historian Johan Norberg reminds us, the past year has seen plenty of amazing progress in areas as wide ranging as conservation, public healthy, and conflict resolution. Here are just ten examples: Continue reading