Seeing Like a Neoliberal, Part 3: the Trend Bias

“Am I getting better, Coach?”

“Well, you’re sure as cuss not getting any worse.”

“Really? You think I’d end up being as good as my dad if I keep practicing?”

“Your dad? Your dad was probably the best whack-bat player we ever had in this school. No, you don’t wanna have to compare yourself to that.”

“Yeah, but I think I’ve some of the same raw natural talent, don’t you?”

“You’re improving. Let’s put it like that.”

- Fantastic Mr Fox (2009)

As the above quote illustrates, an improvement may not be especially comforting if the level remains undesirable. For example, global slavery is probably the lowest it’s ever been as a proportion of the population— and certainly the lowest in modern history. The rate of slavery has declined hugely over the past few hundred years, and is now under one-hundredth of the world.

While this decline is some sense a good thing, most peoples’ answer to ‘how many slaves should there be in the world?’ is simply ‘0’. That slavery has declined does not mean the problem has been solved, and proclamations of progress would ring hollow in the face of the continued existence of slavery. Furthermore, despite the low % of people in slavery, the absolute number — 45 million — remains incomprehensibly high to us, and retains its force as a negative stain on humanity.

Presuming that a decrease in something bad — or an increase in something good — is cause for celebration is a common theme in the view which celebrates progress. Although I’m not usually keen on coining new terms, I am going to call this the ‘trend bias’ in the post. After all, the perspective I am criticising often attributes excess negativity to various cognitive biases such as the effects of the media, so…backatcha.

The Trend-Bias

Sometimes an obsession with trends can mean that undesirable levels are not given the attention that they need, painting a misleadingly positive picture of the state of the world. One particularly egregious example of this was highlighted to me via Raj Chande on Twitter in an article called ‘Five Graphs Celebrating Women’s Progress’ which literally truncated the y-axis on their graphs, which showed things like increases in female schooling and declines in rape:

As Raj said, there is still a long way to go if we think that rape, like slavery, should be at zero — the fact that it is still at 80,000 in the US gives us limited cause for celebration.

Justifying the trend bias requires a commitment to two points: firstly, that the previous level is in some sense natural or normal; secondly, that it can only be solved gradually. The first is often stated explicitly: for the case of global poverty, Zach Beauchamp asserts that “For most of human existence, our species was dirt poor” while Nicholas Kristof echoes “For nearly all of human history, extreme poverty has been the default condition of our species”. Although I don’t want to dwell on this point too much, there are well-known objections to the notion that life before modern production was impoverished.

The initial onset of agriculture saw huge declines in height, increases in famine and disease as formerly mobile humans settled down and started producing homogeneous crops. The early onset of states was similar, and although there is some debate about the impact of industrialisation on standards of living, it was far from a smooth ride. We can certainly say that global living standards have improved over the past few decades, but the statement ‘agriculture, states and later industrialisation first reduced living standards and now they have recovered’ has less of a ring of progress to it than the usual narrative.

In any case, one does not have to be an anarcho-primitivist or even an anti-capitalist to object to the idea that these problems are best solved gradually. While it is rarely stated that gradualism is the only way out of poverty, it is implicit in celebrating economic growth as the means to get there, which even at its fastest can take generations to work. We might instead ask — as so many critics of the status quo do — why over 8 million people a year starve and around 800 million (12% of the population) are undernourished despite the fact that we produce enough food to feed 10 billion people. Several million more die from preventable diseases and lack of access to clean water.

The question is what we expect, or can reasonably expect, of our economic system. It is all very well to say that global poverty and hunger are declining, but if you see food and health as basic human rights which it is well within our capacity to fulfil, this is not enough - they should be eradicated completely. This could be achieved through direct, bottom-up social programs (as many such gains have been) or through higher or more equitable economic growth. The bottom line is that doing better is not only within our reach; it is a moral imperative.

To be sure, there are practical constraints and things cannot change instantly — but they can still change much more quickly than they are now. And there is precedent for this kind of rapid change in the treatment and vaccination of major infectious diseases such as Polio. Although the vaccine for Polio was invented in the 1950s — much as with many treatable but still prevalent diseases such as, as well as food availability — it remained restricted to the western world until the 1980s, an initiative called the ‘Global Polio Eradication Initiative’. From 1980–1990 the global number of vaccinations went from about 20% to about 75%, and these days we are closing in on complete eradication of serious ‘paralytic’ cases (this decline has occurred even as methods of measurement have improved, suggesting it is robust):

More generally, neglecting levels due to the trend-bias obscures the fact that even if we take the data at face value, the number of people living on below $3.10 a day (a paltry $1131.50 a year) is around 2 billion, while the number living on below $10 a day (still a very low $3650 a year) is around 4.5 billion, the majority of the world’s population.

Again, celebrating the status quo tends to introduce an implicit assumption: that this level of inequality is either necessary or inevitable and there is no scope for more drastically reducing the level. (We see something similar when the global poor are pointed to in response to the western poor experiencing stagnation over the past few decades). One suggestion for improving things-on top of direct redistribution-would be unrigging the global system and allowing countries more policy space to pursue their own development agenda.

The point is that we should be having a conversation about how fastest to eliminate these injustices rather than letting the trend-bias make us complacent. As if on cue, just as I was finishing this blog the /r/neoliberal twitter posted this image:

Choice of variables aside (hello ‘legal slavery’ rather than ‘actual slavery’), I’m not arguing all of these are Actually Bad (smallpox and plane crashes are actually two candidates for the kind of rapid reduction I’d like to see more of). Nevertheless, ills like child labour, hunger and SO2 emissions have fallen too slowly and are still at unacceptable levels, so we would be right to ask why they are not falling much faster.

The next and final post in this series will try to address the ‘Seeing Like A State’ theme directly, in the context of metrics and modern economic institutions which target and celebrate progress.