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RS 234 - Dylan Matthews on “Global poverty has fallen, but what should we conclude from that?”

Release date: May 27th, 2019

Dylan Matthews

The global poverty rate has fallen significantly over the last few decades. But there's a heated debate between people like psychologist Steven Pinker and anthropologist Jason Hickel, over how to view that fact. Is it a triumph for capitalism? Should we celebrate it, or lament the fact that rich countries aren't doing more to close the poverty gap faster? Vox journalist Dylan Matthews explains the disagreement. He and Julia discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side's argument.


Dylan's Vox article explaining the debate over the falling global poverty rate

Jason Hickel responds to Dylan's article

Our World in Data responds to the critique of the poverty estimates

Dylan's past Rationally Speaking episode on kidney donation

Future Perfect podcast

Scott Alexander's blog post on Conflict Theory vs. Mistake Theory

John Nerst's analysis of the disagreement between Ezra Klein and Sam Harris over IQ and race, through the lens of decouplers vs. non-decouplers

"Reasons and Persons" by Derek Parfit

"Gang of Five: Leaders at the Center of the Conservative Crusade" by Nina Easton

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science

Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (11)

Liberal Capitalism does in fact work extremely well. Welfare Programs, including Education and Healthcare, can also have a tremendously positive impact on the economy if well designed and on a reasonable budget. Socialism, state control of production, fails miserably.

World per capita GDP has increased rapidly from 7K in 2000 to 17K in 2017:

Furthermore, If you follow the same ppl over the course of time, the poor get most of the gains of the economic growth:

To avoid the Malthusian overpopulation trap, always introduce female education and make contraception available. Family planning will modulate the birth rate and lifespan increases concomitant with technological advances.

Implementing a global minimum wage would produce unemployment and take away one of the precious few advantages developing world workers have to offer prospective employers: lower wages. Developing world workers lack the education, infrastructure, and other resources that developed world workers have ready access to. So this would increase unemployment and exacerbate poverty in the developing world.

Parfit correctly labeled the Repugnant Conclusion as "repugnant". Such a conclusion requires acceptance of actions that would increase the number of ppl but lower the average quality of life. Since average quality of life matters, the repugnant conclusion remains incompatible with maximizing social utility.

Increasing factory farm chickens from 10B to 20B whilst also increasing home pet egg laying chickens from 1K to 5K does increase average quality of life for the world chicken population. However, adding 10B miserable creatures hardly benefits the world. So even with a slight increase in average quality of life, such an action remains repugnant. Only actions that significantly increase the average quality of life w/o also massively increasing the number of miserable creatures makes sense.

That the world poverty rate has declined means that world average quality of life has increased. We may also have more net ppl in poverty, but we have also brought more ppl into economically sufficiency than we have added ppl in poverty.

Off topic, but Dylan Matthews also wrote a good Vox article about how the Fed should not have raised interest rates as it did recently.
We presently do not have inflation in wages or commodities. We only have asset inflation, and even that has started to subside.

Great podcast, and good Vox articles.
May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
I don't see how repugnant conclusion is relevant. It compares low population high average utility world with a high population low average utility world. Whereas the question is of increase of both population and average utility. Repugnant cocqlusion seems orthogonal to this.
May 29, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterhxka
You need to be very edumacated to see why a big drop in extreme poverty rate is not something to celebrate.

If you bite the bullet on the repugnant conclusion, then a population increase is good regardless of poverty rate, since even the poorest people would rather be alive than not.
May 29, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMax
I really like this podcast and I enjoyed the discussion. Curious about whether this whole debate should be scored in favor of conflict theory though. The many lives that have been improved over the past decades is effectively an N=2 event, as was made evident very early in the podcast. Shouldn't we mistake theorists say, "well, we thought there might be meaningful country-level information in the poverty data but, given the numbers being driven by two outliers, there isn't."?

That is, the reduction in the poverty rate is a major story... but it's a fairly minor intellectual question regarding economic policy, quickly dismissed as not updating our posterior probabilities much at all. This is pretty close to the critique Dylan applies to Niall Ferguson's 'counterfactual history.'

A conflict theory view would, I think, predict that warring political sides would each want to grab a great story and spin it in their direction. Hickel calls this a victory of industrialization to be celebrated, Pinker also wants to celebrate it but perhaps ascribe it to specific policies/values. This mostly feels like a priors-driven discussion and so the volume and tenor seems more suited to a conflict theory analysis. And this is very evident in the debate itself:

Pinker's "it’s humiliating to [Hickel's] world view that the data show massive improvements due to markets and globalization rather than an overthrow of capitalism and global redistribution."
Hickel's "[Pinker] and Gates like to invoke the poverty numbers to make claims about the legitimacy of the existing global economic system."

I honestly think both of them are probably right here. We all kind of know we are de facto debating the legitimacy of the existing global economic system when we talk about issues like this and it heavily colors the nature of our discussions (even to the point where we'll spend hours debating what conclusions to draw from the two outliers of a questionable dataset.)
May 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMattH
First, I really enjoyed this one!

About Mistake vs Conflict - I think people are mistake theorists when discussing economic or social systems they support and conflict theorists when discussing economic or social systems they do not support.
May 30, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEran
The article is really nice and interesting. I have searched for this type of information and would love to read this information. I hope you will share more useful articles like that. Thanks for sharing!
I find it hilarious that someone like Bill Gates would applaud this story when he or other elites like him could reduce the Global poverty rate all by themselves! LOL

I totally agree with Hickel on this. We shouldn't be happier just because people are a little less poor? We should be happy when they are tremendously less poor meaning that we no longer have people struggling/suffering to meet their Basic Needs. Period! All these little insignificant stories about "reduced poverty" do nothing to free these people from a life of hardship and misery. It's easy for upper class society to use these stories to feel good about themselves but the fact is, we are still a long ways away from any genuine, significant, tangible changes and improvements in the lives of those in poverty.

And no.... Capitalism is not the answer here. It will never be because Capitalism actually makes this poverty exist in the first place by the incentive and competitive structures built in it. And people getting mad when others don't behave fair and ethically in this System is absolutely laughable and pointless because they are only behaving in the way that Capitalism has rewarded them the most. Isn't that the name of the game? To acquire as much wealth(Money) for ourselves and family while we can??

Capitalism isn't our savior but our destroyer. It destroys the possibility and potential in all of us to create and live in a World with Lives full of security, abundance and well-being.
June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterErnesto
Why and How Capitalism Needs to Be Reformed
must read article by Ray Dalio

"In this report I show why I believe that capitalism is now not working for the majority of Americans"

Robert Reich ("The Common Good") and Anand Giridharadas ("Winners Take All") discussed their books with Kat Taylor, CEO of Beneficial State Bank.

America The Farewell Tour
Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges examined the fate of American democracy
June 17, 2019 | Unregistered Commenteranon.
The global poverty rate has fallen as the ubiquity of fossil fuel and it’s subsequent industrial and agricultural bonanza has seeped into the lives of the world’s masses. This, unfortunately is but a temporary occurrence. For a complete and thorough explanation go to Gail Tverberg’s site “Our Finite World” if you dare...a tour de force of rational thought. She would be a great guest for this podcast and a rarity.... a female over 60 years old.
June 20, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkevin moore
I really enjoyed the conversation!

As noted by Kevin above, the decrease on poverty is highly related to fossil fuel consumption and technology advances.

But, do people live happier lives now than before?
We could check other numbers for that (mental health data could be a way), but my hypothesis is that the way we encourage consumption and publicly praise enrichment stories does impact the overall happiness (for the poor and the rich).
Liberal Capitalism are increasing our perception of inequality (and often the inequality itself) more and more, which frustrate our egos and compromises our happiness.

Also, we'll face many environmental tragedies in the following years, which will impact mainly the poorer. How can we account for that?

So, are we richer? Yes, we are.
Should this be sufficient to keep us on this track? I don't think so.
June 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarcel Barros
Great episode. Thanks.

Dylan commented on negativity bias in the press and that it doesn't necessarily appear 'nefarious'. I agree only to the extent that negativity bias can arise without malicious intent. Can we also agree that society has identified negativity bias exists in the press and that this bias is detrimentally distorting world views?

Given this, can we not conclude that the reasons news creators and publishers do not address this clear bias, allow it to perpetuate as a mechanism to generate profit at the expense of journalistic integrity is reason enough to update our opinion that continued negativity bias in the press is and should be seen as nefarious? Should we then not view those that peddle such news as a means of enriching themselves with no small amount of contempt?
July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDarren Evans

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