Microsoft Contra Malthus

Posted: Jan 29, 2014 12:01 AM
Microsoft Contra Malthus
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.)

However, fear sells, and doom is fear on steroids. Numerous economically successful authors, academics and, yes, politicians have forged (in all senses of the word) economically rewarding careers based on predicting future doom. Paul Ehrlich serves as an example. Ehrlich's "Population Bomb" sold millions of copies, but the world was supposed to be starving and lightless by the end of the 1970s -- or was it the 1980s?

Foreign Affairs noted in its January 2010 issue that, "Thanks to innovations and efforts such as the "green revolution" in farming and the widespread adoption of family planning, Ehrlich's worst fears did not come to pass. In fact, since the 1970s, global economic output has increased and fertility has fallen dramatically, especially in developing countries."

In the 21st century, Ehrlich fights a rearguard action. Eventually, he says, he and other Malthusian doomsayers will be right.

Yeah, Thomas Malthus. Death by famine and disease, he argued, will eventually curb over-population. To his credit, Reverend Malthus (1766-1834) confronted idiot utopianists. He advocated economic policies that favored long-term stability over short-term needs. However, Ehrlich's bestseller is re-worked Malthusian catastrophe. Resources are limited. There is only so big a pie. When the resources run out, the future is hand-to-mouth Pleistocene subsistence.

However, the trend is bigger pie, whether the trend is two, six, or 100 centuries old (rough end of the Pleistocene, beginning of the Agricultural Revolution). Human creativity discovers new resources. Silicon chip? Silicon is sand.

The Gates letter contends foreign aid is not a waste (myth No. 2). For me, this is a bit of a straw-man argument, but a straw man with a point. Few people argue that aid is a total waste. The smart guys have always favored targeted aid. Many religious groups specialize in targeted aid, and their efforts have produced great successes. The Gates say their foundation focuses on "hard nosed" results. OK, the best targeted aid operations always have. Accountability matters, and it helps avoid the nemesis of corruption.

Gates' myth No. 3 is "Saving Lives Leads to Overpopulation." The Gates write: "Going back at least to Thomas Malthus, who published his "An Essay on the Principle of Population" in 1798, people have worried about doomsday scenarios in which food supply can't keep up with population growth." A bit later, Mr. Gates writes, "The planet does not thrive when the sickest are allowed to die off, but rather when they are able to improve their lives. Human beings are not machines. We don't reproduce mindlessly. We make decisions based on the circumstances we face."

Indeed we do. Take that, Malthusian Catastrophe.