Tag Archives: inequality

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Remembering the Man Who Turned Numbers Into Hope – Article by Steven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire

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Categories: Economics, Education, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSteven Horwitz and Sarah Skwire
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After the spate of celebrities who died in 2016, the death of a Swedish professor of international health might not seem very newsworthy. However, Hans Rosling, who died of pancreatic cancer on February 7th, was no ordinary or obscure professor.

The story of his life and career can be found both at Wikipedia and in this marvelous Nature profile. What those sources cannot quite convey is Rosling’s importance as a role model for intellectual honesty, personal warmth and charisma, and a willingness to go where the facts took him, regardless of whether those facts adhered to any simplistic political narrative of humanity’s past and future. Both Rosling’s intellectual fearlessness and the substance of his work have importance for those who care about human freedom and progress.

Intellect and Humanity

But it isn’t just the content of Rosling’s work that matters. He was an amazing rhetorician. He had a unique ability to use and present data in easy to understand and visually appealing ways that were very effective at conveying an argument. He also was able to think creatively about the linkages among the various causes of wealth and the improvements they made in human well-being. His natural storytelling ability gave him the capacity to put those complex historical factors into narratives that not only got the history right, but did so in a way that appealed to our shared humanity.

All of these skills are on display in his two most famous videos, both of which impart lessons in presenting ideas and interpretations of data that classical liberals will find very useful.

Underlying much of Rosling’s work as a public intellectual was a concern with how we enable all of humanity to share in the health and wealth that has come to characterize the Western world.

With his background in health and demographics, Rosling was interested in the factors that led to the rising health and longevity of the West. First, of course, he had to document just how much better things had become in the West, then he had to explore the causes.

Presenting the raw data about the improvement of the West was the centerpiece of his BBC video “200 Years, 200 Countries, 4 Minutes.” Using real-time data visualization techniques, he shows how every country in the world was poor and sick 200 years ago and then showed the path by which so many countries became wealthy and healthy. There is no better visualization of the progress of humanity than this one.

For those of us who work with students, this video gives us the opportunity to talk about the factors that made that growth happen, including the role of liberal institutions and the rising moral status of the individual in that process. It is a great complement to the work of Deirdre McCloskey.

The video also provides a way to talk about global inequality. What is clear from the visualization of the data is that 200 years ago, countries were far more equal than now, but they were equally poor.

It’s true that the gap between rich and poor countries is greater now than back then, but everyone has improved their absolute position. And two of the countries that have improved the most are two of the most populous: China and India. Rosling’s presentation opens up countless useful discussions of the importance of economic growth for increases in life expectancy, as well as what exactly concerns us about growing inequality.

As he concludes, the task before us now is to figure out how to bring the rest of the world up to where the West is. Though he does not discuss it, the economic evidence is clear that those countries that have experienced the most growth, and therefore the biggest increases in longevity and other demographic measures of well-being, are those that have the freest economies. By giving us the data, Rosling enables classical liberals to engage the conversation about the “why” and “how” of human betterment.

Inspirational ‘Edutainer’

But our favorite video of Rosling’s is definitely “The Magic Washing Machine.” Here Rosling uses the example of the washing machine to talk about economic growth and its ability to transform human lives for the better.

Rosling’s focus is on the way the washing machine is an indicator of a population that has grown wealthy enough not only to buy such machines, but also to provide the electricity to power them. The washing machine is a particularly valuable machine since it relieves most of the physical burden of one of the most onerous tasks of the household, and one that has historically fallen entirely to women.

No one who has seen the video can forget the story of Rosling’s grandmother pulling up a chair in front of the new washing machine for the sheer joy of sitting and watching while the clothes spin. Her excitement becomes even more poignant when one considers that this must have been the first time in her life when she was able to sit while laundry was done, instead of standing over a tub of hot water and soap.

Rosling points out, in a moment of calling his fellow progressives to task, that while many of his students are proud of biking to class instead of driving, none of them do their wash by hand. That chore, though green, is simply too onerous for most moderns to take on. He then goes on to discuss how we have to find ways to create the energy needed as billions of people cross the “wash line” and start to demand washing machines.

The video ends with him reaching into the washing machine and pulling out the thing that the machine really made possible:  books. The washing machine gave his mother time to read and to develop herself, as well as to read to young Hans and boost his education as well.

The visual image of putting clothes into a washing machine and pulling out books in exchange captures all that is good about economic growth in a succinct and unforgettable way. Rosling concludes the video with a heart-felt roll call of gratitude to industrialization and development that has been known to reduce free market economists to tears.

What Rosling does in that video is to effectively communicate what classical liberals see as the real story of economic growth. He gets us to see how economic growth, driven by markets, has enabled women to live more liberated lives. Classical liberals can talk endlessly about the data, but until we talk effectively about the way in which industrialization and markets have made it possible for women (and others) to be freed from drudgery that was literally back-breaking, we cannot win the war on the market.

Thank You

Bastiat said that “The worst thing that can happen to a good cause is, not to be skillfully attacked, but to be ineptly defended.” Hans Rosling’s work is the best possible example of the best kind of defense of a good cause. He was a model and an inspiration.

Rosling ends “The Magic Washing Machine” by saying “Thank you industrialization. Thank you steel mill. Thank you power station. And thank you chemical processing industry that gave us time to read books.”

We say, “Thank you, Dr. Rosling. Thank you, data visualization. Thank you TED talks. And thank you, Mrs. Rosling, for buying a washing machine and reading to your son.” We are richer for the work he did. We are poorer for his loss.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. He is spending the 2016-17 academic year as a Visiting Scholar at the John H. Schnatter Institute for Entrepreneurship and Free Enterprise at Ball State University.

He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

Sarah Skwire is the Literary Editor of FEE.org and a senior fellow at Liberty Fund, Inc. She is a poet and author of the writing textbook Writing with a Thesis. She is a member of the FEE Faculty Network. Email

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author. Read the original article.

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Public Opposition to Biotech Endangers Your Life and Health – Article by Edward Hudgins

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Categories: Culture, Science, Technology, Transhumanism, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatEdward Hudgins
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Do you want to be smarter, healthier, and live longer? Remarkably, a new Pew survey found that most Americans answer “No!” if it requires using certain new technologies. This is a wakeup call for scientists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, transhumanists, and all of us who value our lives: we must fight for our lives on the battlefield of values.

CRISPRWorries about human enhancement

We all understand how information technology has transformed our world with PCs, smartphones, the Internet, and Google. Nanotech, robotics, artificial intelligence, and, especially, genetic engineering are poised to unleash the next wave of wealth creation and improvements of the human condition.

But a new Pew survey entitled U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities found that “Majorities of U.S. adults say they would be ‘very’ or ‘somewhat’ worried about gene editing (68%), brain chips (69%) and synthetic blood (63%),” technologies that in years to come could make us healthier, smarter, and stronger. While some say they “would be both enthusiastic and worried … overall, concern outpaces excitement.” Further, “More say they would not want enhancements of their brains and their blood (66% and 63%, respectively) than say they would want them (32% and 35%).”

Simply a reflection of individuals making decisions about their own lives, as is their right? Not quite. Their concerns about technology are already causing cultural and political pushback from left and right that could derail the advances sought by those of us who want better lives.

The Pew data reveals two ideological sources of opposition to new technologies.

Religion and meddling with nature

brain.chip_.grids_The survey found that 64% of Americans with a high religious commitment say “gene editing giving babies a much reduced disease risk” is “meddling with nature and crosses a line we should not cross.” Are you stunned that anyone could prefer to expose their own babies to debilitating or killer diseases when a prevention is possible?

And 65% with such a commitment have a similar opinion of “brain chip implants for much improved cognitive abilities.” Better to remain ignorant when a way to more knowledge is possible?

Obsession with inequality of abilities

When asked if “gene editing giving babies a much reduced disease risk” is an appropriate use of technology, 54% answered “Yes” if it results in people “always equally healthy as the average person.” But only 42% approved if it results in people “far healthier than any human known to date.” Similarly, 47% approved of synthetic blood if it results in physical improvements in individuals “equal to their own peak ability,” while only 28% approved if it results in improvements “far above that of any human known to date.”

Here we see the ugly side of egalitarianism. Better for everyone to be less healthy than for some to be healthier than others.

synthetic_blood-alamy_SmallThis inequality concern is another aspect of warped values we find in economic discussions. What if everyone enjoys rising levels of prosperity in a free-market system, but some individuals—Steve Jobs? Mark Zuckerberg?—become much wealthier than others through their own productive efforts? It’s win-win! But many would punish and demonize such achievers because they are the “top 1 percent,” even if such treatment means that those achievers produce less and, thus, everyone is less prosperous. Better we’re all poorer but more equal.

A disappearing digital divide

We saw this inequality concern in the 1990s when desktop PCs and the Internet were taking off. Some projected a “digital divide.” There would be more intelligent and advantaged individuals because they could access a universe of information through these technologies. And there would be those with little access who would fall further behind. Of course, what fell was the price of those technologies, which even then were accessible for free at most local libraries and now are in laptops, tablets, and smartphones, and affordable to most low-income individuals. The divide disappeared.

 Computers

There were early adopters prosperous enough to try new information technologies. Similarly, there will be early adopters of biomedical tech, which later will become accessible to all—but only if enough people value it rather than fear it and demand that the government stop it.

The fight for values

In a companion piece to the Pew survey, entitled Human Enhancement: The Scientific and Ethical Dimensions of Striving for Perfection, Pew senior writer David Masci offers a good overview of serious moral issues raised by biotech and other exponential technologies. And those of us who welcome these technologies must fight for the moral values on which they are based.

We truly value our lives, and the happiness and flourishing that we as individuals can get out of them through our own achievements. We must shake others out of their spiritual lethargy so that they too will not let their precious lives waste away.

We must promote the values of reason and science as the means to better technology and as guides for our individual lives. Misguided dogmas, whether religious or political, lead to social and personal stagnation.

We must develop and implement strategies to promote human achievement, including enhancement of our capacities, as a value in our culture through our institutions—schools, media—and our aesthetics—movies, art, music.

We must offer an exciting and compelling vision of a fantastic, nonfiction future, of a world as it can be and should be, especially to young people who thirst for a future that will be worth living.

The values on which this future is based will not sell themselves. We must not only create the technology that will allow us to live healthier, smarter and stronger. We must also create the culture that will encourage and celebrate the creation and use of such technology.

Edward Hudgins is the director of advocacy for The Atlas Society and the editor and author of several books on politics and government policy.

Copyright The Atlas Society. For more information, please visit www.atlassociety.org.

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What Are Your Odds of Making It to the 1%? – Article by Chelsea Follett

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Categories: Business, Economics, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatChelsea Follett
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They’re better than you think

Your odds of “making it to the top” might be better than you think, although it’s tough to stay on top once you get there.

According to research from Cornell University, over 50 percent of Americans find themselves among the top 10 percent of income-earners for at least one year during their working lives. Over 11 percent of Americans will be counted among the top 1 percent of income-earners (i.e., people making at minimum $332,000) for at least one year.

How is this possible? Simple: the rate of turnover in these groups is extremely high.

Just how high? Some 94 percent of Americans who reach “top 1 percent” income status will enjoy it for only a single year. Approximately 99 percent will lose their “top 1 percent” status within a decade.

Now consider the top 400 U.S. income-earners — a far more exclusive club than the top 1 percent. Between 1992 and 2013, 72 percent of the top 400 retained that title for no more than a year. Over 97 percent retained it for no more than a decade.

HumanProgress.org advisory board member Mark Perry put it well in his recent blog post on this subject:

Whenever we hear commentary about the top or bottom income quintiles, or the top or bottom X% of Americans by income (or the Top 400 taxpayers), a common assumption is that those are static, closed, private clubs with very little dynamic turnover. …

But economic reality is very different — people move up and down the income quintiles and percentile groups throughout their careers and lives.

What if we look at economic mobility in terms of accumulated wealth, instead of just annual income (as the latter tends to fluctuate more)?

The Forbes 400 lists the wealthiest Americans by total estimated net worth, regardless of their income during any given year. Over 71 percent of Forbes 400 listees — and their heirs — lost their top 400 status between 1982 and 2014.

heirsSo, the next time you find yourself discussing the very richest Americans, whether by wealth or income, keep in mind the extraordinarily high rate of turnover among them.

And even if you never become one of the 11.1 percent of Americans who fleetingly find themselves in the “top 1 percent” of US income-earners, you’re still quite possibly part of the global top 1 percent.

Cross-posted from HumanProgress.org.

Chelsea Follett (Chelsea German) works at the Cato Institute as a Researcher and Managing Editor of HumanProgress.org.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.

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Why Is the Middle Class Shrinking? – Article by Steven Horwitz

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Categories: Economics, History, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

The New Renaissance HatSteven Horwitz
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Two Arguments in Favor of Economic Inequality

Economic inequality continues to be a major political issue even as the headlines scream about terrorism and climate change. Bernie Sanders has made it a centerpiece of his presidential campaign, and other candidates have addressed it along the way. And a recent study by the Pew Research Center has added new, though misplaced, fuel to the fire of those concerned about inequality.

The Pew study has been discussed in the media, and one key point has been grossly misunderstood. Among other things, the study found that the American middle class is shrinking and is now just under half of the population. Commentators quickly began to refer to the “hollowing out” of the middle class and to tie this study to the concerns about growing inequality.

However, a close look at the data shows that the middle class has shrunk since 1971 because more members of the middle class have moved up the income ladder than down it.

Don’t believe me? Look for yourself at the terrific graphic that the Financial Times created to illustrate the data:

ft2015inequalitygraphYou can watch as the folks on the left slowly slide to the right over 44 years. When you compare the 1971 distribution with the 2015 one, what do you see? A growth in households earning around $80,000 or above, adjusted for inflation, since 1971 and a significant decline in those making less than that amount (with the exception of the folks right around $0). It’s true that there’s not a fat middle class anymore, but why should that trouble us if there are more high-income households and fewer low-income households overall?

The funny part of this is that if you read the story in the Financial Times that accompanies this graphic, it’s as if they never actually looked at the graphic they produced. Their narrative is at odds with it, as the narrative proclaims the doom-and-gloom story that the graphic actually refutes. As they say, never let the facts get in the way of a good story.

This growth in household income may, to some extent, be a by-product of the same economic processes that have produced the concerns about inequality, illustrated in this graphic by the significant growth of the ultra-rich.

There are far more very rich people today than there were 44 years ago, but the growth of the upper class has gone hand in hand with the enrichment of a large number of less-well-off households. Are there ways in which economic inequality is good, then? I think the answer to that question is yes. If so, then, what are they? Here are two defenses of economic inequality that proponents of the free market could make.

First is the more obvious one: growing inequality is good because it might be a consequence of economic institutions that produce all kinds of results that we think are desirable. For example, if competitive markets lead to peace and rising prosperity for all but also create inequality along the way by allowing some folks to get very rich, then we should at least tolerate that inequality because the things that produce it also produce other things we like.

This is the usual defense libertarians invoke, and it’s a good argument. The critic, however, might say that even if the defense is true, it doesn’t prove that inequality is necessary for that result. There’s a difference between saying, “Good economic institutions will produce inequality while creating good economic outcomes for all,” and saying, “Good economic outcomes for all can’t be produced without inequality.” The critic would likely ask how reducing the inequality that markets produce will harm their ability to produce those good results.

And here is where we come back to the Pew study and get a second defense of inequality. One way the middle class (and all of us) has become richer in the last generation is that the cost of so many goods and services has dropped in terms of the number of hours we have to work at the average wage in order to purchase them. The lower price of basic goods has enabled more and more people to afford things like large TVs, smartphones, and new, cheaper medications.

One thing that has made this process happen is inequality. In The Constitution of Liberty, F.A. Hayek argued,

A large part of the expenditure of the rich, though not intended for that end, thus serves to defray the cost of the experimentation with the new things that, as a result, can later be made available to the poor.… Even the poorest today owe their relative material well-being to the results of past inequality.

Having a group of very rich people is what enables yesterday’s luxuries to become today’s basics.

There are two parts to this process: cost bearing and discovery. The very rich are able to afford the high prices of new technologies, thereby providing an incentive for firms to market new and expensive products. Once the rich pay the high initial price and cover the fixed costs of research and development, sellers can begin to price closer to the much lower marginal cost of producing additional units, making the good much more affordable to more people.

But the rich are also an economic canary in the coal mine that informs producers whether they are getting it right.

For example, a critic of inequality might complain that no one “really needs” a $100,000 luxury car with all kinds of new high-tech gadgets on it. But the fact that some can afford it and want to buy it helps the car companies figure out which new features might be popular. Rear-view cameras were once only available on top-end cars, but they have slowly become a standard feature. The same may soon be true of collision warning systems now available on high-end models of some cars.

In fact, everything we think of as basics today was once the province of only the well-off. The first microwaves were expensive and bought mostly by the rich. I can remember my parents paying about $900 for a VCR in the late 1970s. VCRs, of course, fetch a price close to zero these days. The rich who bought the early LCD TVs helped manufacturers defray the fixed production costs and figure out what people wanted, and now these TVs are in the vast majority of houses at a more affordable price.

The inequality at any point in time is a key part of the process that creates wealth for the rest of society over the years to follow. The very rich enable producers to experiment and cover their costs, and that makes more goods more affordable for the rest of us, from fun toys to life-saving necessities.

The inequality produced by the market is a key part of how the market moves forward, enriching all of us in the process. And that’s why the middle class is shrinking: the rich, through the competitive market, have helped make the middle class richer.

Steven Horwitz is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University and the author of Hayek’s Modern Family: Classical Liberalism and the Evolution of Social Institutions. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.

This article was published by The Foundation for Economic Education and may be freely distributed, subject to a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which requires that credit be given to the author.