Sunday, May 19, 2013

you have it good

Consider human history. For all but a fragment of it, about half of all children died before their fifth birthdays. Of the ones who survived, life was nasty, brutish, and short. According to data compiled by economist Angus Maddison, the total world population grew at an annualized rate indistinguishable from zero over the period from A.D. 1 to A.D. 1820.

Over the millennia, there were pockets of progress, some lasting for centuries. The ones we know of included the Roman Empire in Europe, the Tang and Song dynasties in China, and the Inca, Aztec, and Maya civilizations in the Americas. However, these civilizations, for the most part, did not set growth on a permanently higher trajectory. They usually ended in the sacking of great cities and the burning of books. Humanity didn't convincingly break out of this cycle until a couple of centuries ago.

Even narrowing our scope to the 20th century, our current prosperity looks surprisingly fragile and uneven, the outcome of a series of contingent events that plausibly could have led to far worse outcomes. The future of democratic capitalism was up for grabs during the Great Depression. World War I and World War II devastated Europe twice over and Asia once. The Cold War risked nuclear apocalypse. If we could reroll the 20th century many times, creating slightly different starting conditions each time, some outcomes surely would have led to regress (the probability of such outcomes is unknowable, of course). If you were born to a random family in the first half of the 20th century, chances are you would have experienced privation or total war. Even today, the majority of humanity lives in poverty by the rich world's standards. Bad things happen more often than not.

I don't write to frighten you but to let you know how good you've had it these past few decades. They were the most peaceful, stable, prosperous period humanity has ever experienced.

[I'll stop here, but the author makes the case that things will regress from here.]

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