Austin Bay
Last week, when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released its 2014 Gates Annual Letter, doom-and-gloom headline writers reacted with astonishment.

The annual letter, titled "3 Myths That Block Progress For The Poor," begins with four simple and, to my mind, factually incontestable sentences: "By almost any measure, the world is better than it has ever been. People are living longer, healthier lives. Many nations that were aid recipients are now self-sufficient. You might think that such striking progress would be widely celebrated, but in fact, Melinda and I are struck by how many people think the world is getting worse.

This good news is old news. For the last two centuries, the material quality of human life has improved dramatically, and that is a blessing. The letter elaborates on Gates' laudable goal: to extend the trend to the world's hard corners. The Gates advocate smart development. They see 2035 as a date for effectively eliminating poverty in several places on the planet -- the poor are not condemned to perpetual poverty (myth No. 1). Even though a billion people remain in "extreme poverty" (which is a reason to act), why will countries that are poor not remain poor? The Gates invoke the obvious: Because they haven't. "Incomes and other measures of human welfare are rising almost everywhere, including in Africa," they note.

Unfortunately, as the letter acknowledges, an ingrained perception of grand decline doom and perpetual poverty is prevalent and a political factor. In my view, "doom vision" is not simply a political factor, but a source of political friction hindering economic development.

I'll expand on the Gates' anti-poverty goals and the doom industry. I pegged the up-trend's origin as 1800, give or take. I'm a steam engine, electricity and Adam Smith guy, which in some circles, makes me a pessimist. But steam ships and railroads substitute fairly reliable, mobile mechanical power for body-breaking biological power (camel, horse and human) and iffy wind power. (Water power isn't very mobile.) Trend optimists argue that that the "better off" trend starts earlier. The 15th century's information and transportation revolution has fans. Practical printing presses spurred the spread of literacy (knowledge for the masses, not just elites). Portuguese sailors pioneered practical global trade. (Simplistically stated, that's more stuff from more places, and some of it will be "more better," to bend a phrase.)

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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