Rationally Speaking #234 - Dylan Matthews on "Global poverty has fallen, but what should we conclude from that?"Rationally Speaking Podcast
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- 28 May 2019
The global poverty rate has fallen significantly over the last few decades. But there's a heated debate, between people like psychologist Steven Pinker and anthropologist Jason Hickel, over how to view that fact. Is it a triumph for capitalism? Should we celebrate it, or lament the fact that rich countries aren't doing more to close the poverty gap faster? Vox journalist Dylan Matthews explains the disagreement. He and Julia discuss the strengths and weaknesses of each side's argument.
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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and my guest today is Dylan Matthews. Dylan is senior correspondent for Vox and the head writer for Future Perfect, which is a subsection of Vox devoted to ways to do the most good and looking at the news through an effective altarock lens. And Dylan is, as of recently, the host of The Future Perfect podcast about philanthropy and ways people try to do good.
It's now in its just beginning, its second season. Dylan, welcome to Rationally Speaking or welcome back. I should say you're on our show a few years ago.
Many, many years ago. But yes. No, I'm grateful to have you back. Yeah.
That that earlier episode was about about your experience donating a kidney and the science and sort of ethical philosophy around that choice. It was as great we should link to that for any guests who missed it. Yeah, it was a fun time.
The context for this episode today is that Dylan wrote an article a few months ago now, I guess it was in February, and I read it then. I liked it. I tweeted about it. And my mind has just been returning to it repeatedly since February, in part due to two recent episodes of the show. That sort of sparked my thinking and I think changed my take on his article. So. So that's what we're going to talk about today.
The title of the article was Bill Gates tweeted out a chart and sparked a huge debate about global poverty. This is on February 12th. So, Dylan, just to give you the brief skeleton's summary and then you can sort of fill in some of the details. The article was about this debate that had been sparked, I guess, the previous week when Bill Gates tweeted a graph showing a dramatic decline in global poverty. A lot of our listeners may have seen that online.
It's been shared widely. It was put together by Max Roeser at Our World and Data. So this graph showed that the percentage of humanity living in extreme poverty, which is living on a dollar 90 day or less, had gone down from about 94 percent back in 1820 to about nine percent or 10 percent in 2015. So Bill Gates tweeted this graph and then a an economist named Jason Hickel writing in The Guardian, wrote a kind of scathing critique of this graph.
Dylan, this topic is general fact that a lot of things in the world have gotten a lot better over the last hundred years. And people don't really realize that is something you've written about before, right?
It is, yeah. I did a sort of compilation of graphs showing various positive trend lines, mostly in global public health and global poverty. And it's something that I agreed with and continue to serve under appreciated. And so I saw Hickies article and some degree of book he had written called The Divide as as the Beast, the first big serious challenge to that narrative in the popular press.
Yeah. So the article that you wrote, what really what I really liked about it was it was this very thorough, careful analysis of why Bill Gates and and the people in Bill Gates's camp who are excited about this, you know, dramatic decline in poverty, like Steven Pinker, who focused on this fact in enlightenment. Now are walten data, a lot of other people, why that camp disagrees with Jason Hickel and and other people in his camp. And you really kind of got into the meat of the disagreement and tried to break it down and and really understand what the cruxes of disagreement were, which, as you know, all our listeners know is something I love.
But before we get into the specific critiques that Jason made and and your analysis of them, one thing that you talked about in your earlier articles about the, you know, improvement and in these various metrics is how little awareness people have of them. In a recent poll, only eight percent of U.S. residents knew that that global poverty had actually gone down since 1996. The vast majority thought it had gone up. Why do you think that is?
I think some of it is negativity bias in news media, which is something that as someone who writes headlines on a regular basis, I've sort of had some exposure to the causes of that bias. And I don't think it's nefarious. I think people get frustrated for news consumers when they see sort of a torrent of negative headlines. But I think there there are financial incentives. People are drawn to stories about conflicts are more likely to click on things about or fear or arguments often than they are about or positive stories.
And also because some of these problems. These stories are very slow, gradual processes, and I think another reason is it's it's hard to tell or dig through the progress without getting into the details of what happened in individual countries. I think one of his goals points in this debate was the trend line is down, but that's the chart that's showing a lot of really complex historical processes, many of which were not pleasant to endure for the people experiencing them.
And so there is a way in which taking that step to zoom out and say, OK, in the span of of if you're looking just at material living standards, what has happened can be harder to do than to dive into the circumstances with individual countries.
Yeah, and that relates to a hypothesis I had about why why so many people think poverty has actually gotten worse in the last 20 years instead of better, which is that I, I fear that these kind of factual questions about trendlines over time have become a kind of polarised pawn in a bunch of political and cultural conflicts like climate change before this or immigration more recently, where there are you know, obviously there are differences in values that people have or differences in epistemology and, you know, what kinds of expertise do we trust?
But there are also just a lot of factual questions that are hard for people to think about as straightforwardly as they otherwise might be able to, because your position on these topics has become this kind of referendum on on which camp you're in. And I think the camps here aren't exactly red and blue right and left. But there are something like, I don't know how how would you describe the camps of people who are enthusiastic about the decline in poverty and the people who are annoyed at the ENTHUSIAST'S?
Well, I think the people who are enthusiastic, it's a mix of a bunch of different groups. I think one group is just Gazal and an economist, because if you're a professional development researcher, one thing you care about is that you're making progress. No one wants to be in a field where you feel like everything is stagnating. And I think for people who work at the World Bank or work at the IMF, who work in universities doing kind of field research on ways to accelerate this process, it's sort of a proof point of what we're doing matters.
We can make some progress. So I think that's one group. And think about the background to a certain extent. The next research comes from Pinker. Has this are more ideological project that he's trying trying to do, that he views certain enlightenment values associated with free inquiry, but also through free markets and industrial capitalism as subject to unfair negative critique on environmental grounds for leftist grounds, on social conservative grounds. And that was a big theme of the menow.
And as a part of his argument for something like the liberal order is a very vague phrase. But for something like the liberal order or something like the world created post, enlightenment is a track record of success at reducing poverty. And I think part of why this got so heated is that we got in direct conflict with what Hickel wants to be saying in a way that I don't think rozzers goals are as much. So Hickel himself is is a bit of an idiosyncratic.
These are definitely on the left. I think I associate him with a kind of soft, anarchistic tradition within anthropology that the people like like James Scott at Yale or David Graeber are part of where there is skepticism of the process of state formation in early human civilization, skepticism of technical ways of looking at the world and building knowledge about things like poverty reduction. Anderson, Hinkle's case, he specifically is is part of one of the sort of degrowth segment of of the environmental left that he does not believe modern economic growth is compatible with preventing catastrophic climate change and thinks that Green New Deal types and other people who think that you can have quick economic growth and correspondingly quick poverty reduction without destroying the environment are kind of fooling themselves.
And so he wants to build a model where it's not that this sort of capitalism fueled economic growth, reduce poverty, but you still have millions of people, entire material needs. And the thing that would actually bring them out is not just kind of everyone wins up. Capitalism process, but sort of radically reconstituting the world order, and he's less specific about what that radical reconstitution would look like. But I think in the tradition of many people in that school of thought views his role more as a critique than than trying to construct the alternative.
Yeah, that's very well put. And I have to say, when I read Heckles Katik, I had a very bad reaction to it. It was it's just very I mean, I'm not predisposed to agree with him on the, on the merits of his argument and his tone was also just very sort of dripping with kind of like disdain and contempt and did not come off as someone who was trying to be, you know, careful and an objective and intellectually honest and things like that.
So one thing that really impressed me about your article is that you seem to either not have that reaction or managed to overcome it admirably to really do a careful analysis of the discourse. Yeah, and as I mentioned, my views, I think might have shifted since I first read his critique. And we'll talk about that in a little bit.
But let's sort of do a quick survey of some of his main points. And you can you can give me your reactions. So to start here, basically, as you mentioned, Hegel sees the promotion of this graph talking about these trend lines as being kind of always in the service of praising capitalism or neoliberalism or globalization or something like that, which is annoying to him for multiple reasons and partly because he thinks that's actually not a good story, but also disingenuous because a large percent of the success story in these declining poverty graphs is China.
What do you think about that?
Right. So I think this is where this is sort of the meta point of the debate, I think is where he probably has the strongest claim. So there is a caricatured version of the case that he sees people like Gates and people are making. I don't think this is of nuance is the case they actually make. But there's and there's an air of truth to it that I think he's pointing to, that you had these sclerotic countries, a literal communist society like China, a sort of socialistic society like India.
You bring in global trade and reduce tariff barriers, turn them into export centers, and suddenly poverty goes away. And it's this triumph of neoliberal capitalism as the neo liberal, celebrated and neo liberal Twitter account will make this point explicitly and from a and that's a good thing sort of point of view. And so I think the point of bringing in China is the delta, like the the change in China that precipitated this sclerotic afterwards toward markets. But it's not like a free market society by any stretch of the imagination.
There's massive state owned enterprises. There's a lot of capital controls. There's strict fencing around free enterprise zones and nothing like the free, open competition of firms. So I think this is a point that people I went to to infiltrate. But there are more moderate liberals who study globalization, like Dani Rodrik at Harvard have made that that I think they Rogich Israelis in the 90s is pointing to the actual system in China and saying this is closer to sort of a very state centric mixed economy like Germany than it is to the world that like Margaret Thatcher wanted to build in the 80s.
And I think that's right. And I think in general, the kind of government was the best track record is some kind of mixed economy. So where I agree with Hickel is that you can't point to what happened in China and say, therefore, we need austerity or therefore we need to adopt equity free market policies. Where I part ways is that I do think that Delta is important, that China got to something like a northern European level of state intervention from like the literal cultural revolution.
And so it was the change from the most hellish and extreme communist regime you can imagine to some kind of mixed economy. And the fact that that was the direction is interesting in a similar way, that the reforms in India that precipitated a growth kick off were directly deregulating various sort of vast swaths of regulation involved in consumer markets and agriculture. I think it's interesting you can do that too far. I am not sort of a cure. You're but. Peter, as you know, but I I think it is important to recognize what direction that change is working.
I mean, I think one thing that frustrated a lot of people about this debate was that it struck them that he wasn't saying, yes, this. So the Bill Gates tweet that started this all was it just posted the graphs and said this is one of my favorite infographics. A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved over the last two centuries. And then Hegel's response didn't seem to be saying, yes, I agree with those facts. However, some people mistakenly infer from that that, you know, unfettered free markets are are the best.
And here's why I disagree. Instead, it seemed like he was kind of conflating the the question of what should we infer from these graphs about capitalism or free markets with whether the facts of the graphs were, in fact, correct. And I think this conflation was inflamed by the title that The Guardian chose for for Hinkle's response, which was Bill Gates says poverty is decreasing.
He couldn't be more wrong and you could be more wrong, literally. Yeah. He himself has disavowed that headline. Yeah, he did.
To be clear, yeah, it's just tough because people anchor to the headline and then even if you disavow it, they're kind of. Going to read your argument somewhat tainted by that perspective, right, by bias to assume that's that's like in the background of what you're saying, even if you touch it for sure.
And also sort of disavowing it and pointing out. I don't know how the process works with The Guardian, and I think it's more bureaucratic than it is at a place like Fox. I always get final say over my headline. So if I really if I ever are you sure want to admit that you're completely literate in your plausible.
Exactly. I want to get rid of that excuse. If I ever claimed that in the future you like yell at me and tell me I'm wrong.
Oh, Dylan. Tying himself to the mast. Good for you. Yeah. So so I think that was part of it, but. Well, let's move on to one of his other critiques on the question of how do these trend lines relate to free markets? In a little bit. So one of his main critiques was that drawing the poverty line at a dollar a day is completely unreasonable. That's way too low. Instead, we should consider the poverty or the threshold for extreme poverty at more like seven point forty cents a day.
And if you do that, then there's still a decline in the poverty rate. But it's much subtler and less dramatic than the one that gets passed around.
Right. So I think the key takeaway and I hope this is a point that I made clearly in my piece, but poverty lines are arbitrary and I think that's like super, super important for people to understand. There is nothing magical about living on two dollars and one summer day that is meaningfully different from one dollar and 99 cents a day. It is somewhat different things like because the sums of money that people are making in Super four countries are that low, even seemingly insignificant things like a six percent increase in their daily income can be really, really important.
But there is no scientific reason why we have this two dollar a day. Why, if it gets casual, we used Hickel derive 740 number based on the calculations about people, what people would need for an adequate diet. That itself, defining adequacy is a whole sort of tricky ball of worms. Obviously there are people living on less than two hours a day who are not starving to death. That should not be our line or the line should be something higher than white.
You are not literally starving to death, but once you get above that line, it's through it that you can afford to eat like a healthy mix of fruit and vegetables, that you can afford to eat as many calories as it's recommended. It just gets tricky. So this is a area where there's a lot of disagreement among economists. Charles Kenny and Wayne Pritchett are two people. We've argued for ten or fifteen dollars a day even as a poverty line.
The US poverty line is about 1760 a day for a family of four.
But as you say, you can pick any number, right. So why what does it mean to pick one number as the poverty line? Why can't you just can you just have a chart that shows your different daily earnings? And this chart will show you how the percentage of people living below that line has declined over time. And we'll just show you all the lines.
Sure. So one thing is that if you cut the line high enough, the increase starts to look small. So the. If you set the line is like, but but a very extreme one as like a billion dollars a day, then there's been no decline in global poverty. Right. And if you set it as like twenty dollars a day, there still has not been a very dramatic looking decline. There has been some. But because a lot of the progress that's happening is below that line is people moving from making a dollar a day to making two dollars fifty a day.
That's not going to show up if you if you set the line that high.
So just a trade off between how striking the progress is and how widespread it is. And or maybe heckles point would be like, yes, there's a trade off, but there's still some optimal point on that curve between those two goods that you might you would pick if you wanted to optimize for like making progress look best. And that's the right.
They packed with the dollar. Ninety nine, right. I think Michael's point is that they're they're being deceptive and that they pick the line to make the most dramatic looking decline in graphics and that it would be less dramatic if you use to some 740 number. But and this is I think another important thing here is that we're talking about a distribution that in terms of human well-being, what you care about is not if people get over from arbitrarily chosen line, what you care about is that people at the bottom end are seeing their incomes increase.
And Martin Rebellion had a nice paper with Chad statistician at the World Bank that sort of graphed what poverty would look like at various poverty lines in 1981 through 2008. And what he found was that for any line, you pick between zero dollars and I think it's 13 dollars. Poverty is lower in 2008 than it is 1981, that it's not that they arbitrarily picked a number that showed the decline, whereas you would not have seen a decline if you picked any other number.
The whole income distribution has shifted. Rightward incomes as a whole have grown. And and so I see what Hagel is saying from a point of from the point of view, like communicating graphs and numbers about it, looking more striking. I think if the dispute is cheating, the poverty line shows that that we haven't reduced poverty. I don't think that's actually what it shows.
So what about the objection that the numbers in those graphs for for poverty before like 1980 are so messy and and patchy as to be basically useless? And we shouldn't pretend that we know how poor people were back then? That's another one of those critiques.
Sure. So this is one I think this might be the point I'm most sympathetic to go on. And the one that he and Rose are most adamant we have to pass on on this. It's basically a question of what can you take from data about like agricultural production and gross domestic product that people have carefully put together centuries and centuries in the past. What can you use from there to ensure a poverty rate? I think rozzers position and the position of a lot of economic historians you do this research is that you can infer quite a lot that before the industrial revolution, productivity in the economy was more or less synonymous with agricultural productivity.
We can figure out agricultural productivity from in the English case, we have like incredibly good records about sort of how much wheat and barley and what have you is being produced even before the English Civil War. And that you can then infer from that things about their liberal productivity and love of living standards in various parts around the country. You're studying I mean, Heckel dispute is a there's not actually poverty numbers, their production numbers, and those aren't the same thing.
And so there might be distributional issues that are being highlighted there. And secondly, it's a very European centric data says that there's not a lot of good data, especially in Africa, but also for for Asia and Latin America. So, I mean, this is data for the whole world is not persuasive to that. I think Brazil would say, a, we do have an update on some areas accounting for its huge share of the world population. So if you only have data for like China and Carnel Europe, but that represents a huge share of world population, maybe that's not as much of a problem.
And so one specific point you make is that Africa was only about eight percent of the world's population in 1820 when these charts start. So even if everyone. In Africa was not in extreme poverty, it would not affect the numbers that much, but the deeper dispute is what do you say about the people for whom we don't have data? I think the assumption of reser and assumption of many economic historians is they were in poverty, that they had a they didn't have monetary systems.
But there's just no reason to think that they had the kind of productivity growth that you saw in post-Industrial Revolution Europe. We every piece of evidence we have suggests that they were subsistence farmers, God is a quality of life most analogous to subsistence farming in extreme poverty that people experience now. And I think Hegal and many other anthropologists tell a less gloomy picture of precolonial agricultural society. And a lot of these places that there were a shared common resources that before the colonialists came in and turned everything into markets and divvied up land, that there was sort of a sharing economy and people were able to put together a fine living off the land.
I wasn't sure from reading his explanation. I can't tell if that's an argument for why our estimates of GDP or productivity back then would be inaccurate. And actually wealth or productivity was higher than than we would estimate or whether it's an argument that there were valuable things that contributed to well-being that aren't captured in our measures of GDP or productivity.
Sure. Or that aren't captured in measures of poverty that we're we're computing exclusively based on all GDP data. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think he would claim that these sort of normative and empirical disputes are tightly linked. And so the reason we use these poverty numbers is to say something about how the conditions of humanity have improved. And indeed, it might not necessarily mean that if quality of life is pretty good in Ghana in the 20s, I am not an expert on Canadian history or or other precolonial African history of any kind.
And so I try to be as neutral as I can about that. My understanding is that most economic historians believe that most of the world is in the Malthusian trap where you could get technological improvements, but if you did, there wouldn't be enough. Then the population would increase. There would be enough food to feed everyone and the population crash again. There was a pretty shitty existence. So that was my prior going into this. It's still more or less like prior.
I think he's complicated my view somewhat. The point where I'm really sympathetic to Hegel is that I think people like him who've studied colonialism look at a graph that shows poverty declining worldwide from 1820, just like nineteen hundred and say like you were you were papering over some really horrible stuff that happened there, that it's telling the history of the world in which the king of Belgium sending in a private company to cut off the hands of of Congolese people who didn't want to work in their rubber plantations does not get any way.
An obvious response to that is not every graft can tell a story, but this is a graph that's trying to tell a big story and it's trying to tell sort of sweeping narrative about the world. And I am sympathetic to him that including the old data papers over ways in which living standards for many people across the world became dramatically worse over that period. So I'm sympathetic to that. I still think the graph is accurate. But this, again, is is sort of how do you morally interpret the graph question more than like is the raw data correct question.
So two things. One is that the economist Noah Smith made what I thought was an interesting point, that if you assume that Hickel is correct, that living standards or incomes were actually much higher back then than our metrics suggest, assuming that's correct. You know, the story of that graph, the world and data graph is that is that poverty got worse during the colonial period and then began to fall after de colonialization. And so Iphicles writes, This is actually a more pro capitalism, pro free market story than it had seemed before.
Right. Right. Because the the. So colonialism made the world much worse than the current graph suggests. And so assuming our metrics now are correct, that means that the delta is even bigger, that that relative to how things had been, globalization and free markets made things much better.
Yeah, no, I think that's a good point. But I think it's interesting the way you put that in, that it's a better case for capitalism and free markets. I think it reveals different ways in which people are thinking about the stakes. And for the teams here, I imagine many of your listeners will have read, and if they haven't, they should follow. Alexander is a post about conflict theory versus Schaik theory. He's going to bring that up.
Yeah, yeah. I think it's more relevant for this debate. So I think in the short version is Scott divides people into stake theorists, which I would identify as think he is. I think you are to some degree look at deep social problem and say, what are some ways that we can work around these? What are some ways we can solve them that that benefit all or most people?
The disagreements like the thing that's most salient to me about mistake theory is that it sort of assumes that the disagreements between people about what we should do, what policies we should enact, are we're all kind of doctors clustered around the patient trying to figure out the right way to treat him. And if we disagree, it's because, you know, we haven't fully shared our models yet.
Right. Right. We all want to help the world, but we just disagree.
And like to be clear, I don't think Scott's point was that there are people who literally believe that is true of everyone in the world. Just kind of the the assumption, the simplified assumption you tend to operate under all models are incorrect that this is this is a model.
And. Yeah, and then the stakes here are as in conflict theory, which I think the canonical version is hard find, but there are many versions of conflict. Theory is stuff is bad because people have caused these problems. And so we need to defeat those people. But there are societal forces that have operated to make things bad for people. And the way to fix them is not to hover over like a doctor, but it's to like gear up for a fight and fight the people who made everything bad.
And and specifically, I think that disagreements and conflict theory through their lens are not, you know, some people we all have like role models to varying degrees. It's that, you know, if two armies are disagreeing over who has the right to the land, you know, they can make like they can make appeals to justice or moral arguments or something. But at the end of the day, they're disagreeing because they both want the same land. And, you know, any arguments they make are just going to be rationalizations for their desires which conflict with each other.
Right. Right. Like, I think like the Israel Palestine conflict is the worst possible case theory and the best possible case for conflict. There is there's like there's a plot of land and people want it. But I think Hickel look, I think Hickel is very much a conflict theorist. I think he looks at and I think he has a view that is shared in a lot of of post-colonial anthropology, global capitalism as an extension of colonialism, of as a way that Western powers exert power over poor countries, through debt peonage, through interventions.
And Cruz saying something like, it looks better for global capitalism. I think you still view the post 1950s and 1960s period as as an extension of that imperialist, which is, I think, where I break the promise. Like, I think there is a real difference between Ghana for the Ghanaians and Ghana as ruled from afar by the British. And like there are still influences and there's ways in which certain neo colonialism can be a useful analytical one. But the U.S. having a military base in your country is not the same thing as the British controlling food supplies in Bengal.
There's a sort of qualitative difference there that I don't think he thinks is as sharp. But yeah, I think there's more to say on this sort of conflict with take elements going on.
Yeah, I will probably circle back to it soon. The other thing that I wanted to note is that so when I said that, it seems like there are these different camps that that rally behind and against the these graphs showing the decline in poverty, one way to divide up the camps, I thought was was mistake versus conflict theorists. And another one that occurred to me was de couplers versus non. Which is a distinction that I was talking about on that recent episode with with Don nursed on on Aerosolize by the study of disagreements, and he had made this he had put forward this theory about why Ezra Klein and Sam Harris had disagreed about about Charles Murray and an IQ and race.
Sure. Which we shouldn't try to get into here because we do not have the time. So respond to that.
But yes, but in a nutshell, De Couplers wants to be able to talk about the specific claim or, you know, the specific disagreement without sort of without context. We should just be able to, like, isolate these particular factual questions and, you know, figure out who's right. And the nandy couplers don't think that's feasible or desirable. And they're kind of suspicious that the alleged de couplers really are decoupling as opposed to just trying to smuggle in a lot of attitudes and and implications while claiming to be decoupling.
And so in this case, it seemed to me that, you know, I don't want to put words into his mouth or anything, but it kind of seemed to me that his he saw these graphs, these claims about progress being shared, as well as updating people away from what he saw as the true worldview. And so his arguments against the graphs were they were less about the specific factual claims in those graphs and more about like, are these graphs causing people to update the wrong way?
Yeah, I think that's right. There is an interesting one of the most interesting responses is a big fan of equality rights in U.S. media, who I follow as a sort of reasonably thoughtful lefty critic of a lot of the work I do is this guy, Adam Johnson, who writes for Fair Fairness and Accuracy in Media. I write for AlterNet sometimes, but he he linked to the article and was sort of like, they're having to rebut Hezbollah. We've got them on the run, boys, and what a conflict there is.
And the reply one of the replies was, I don't know why Matthews thinks it's important that they agree on this narrowly delineated set of facts. The only important thing is like, what kind of world to you off? Yeah, yeah. And yeah, I think, like, there's just a disagreement about what question we're trying to answer. Like, I was trying narrowly in that piece to answer a question about like what has happened in the world since 1827.
Do these numbers, this graph accurate? Yeah, but I think there is an intelligible view in which what I was doing there was obfuscation and and distracting people from the real political stakes of what is being said, serving as kind of insofar as I'm someone who could become, in fact, whose reputation, my own reputation as left of center, doing through useful idiot work for for for quote unquote bad guys. I don't think that's true. But but it makes sense and ah, it makes sense within its own logic then.
And and I think there are there are cases in which and I don't want to get into the comparison either, but I think there are cases involving historic injustices where I become less politically popular than I normally am, in part because I think the couplers are sensitive to Frogs' and easily like people trying to get this bad apple, trying to say that there are people who are trying to smuggle in bad claim, who can rely on intellectual charity and openness and willingness to separate from from other contexts in order to serve their interests.
And that's obviously some people. But I think the critical thing seems like a lot of people like a lot more than I actually think there are. And and so I find myself in a situation where I totally believe in a presumption towards good, good faith dialogue, hearing your critics, trying to update honestly and and debate about the issues at hand without getting into who people are, while at the same time, like, I see the point that there are spoilers.
And I think this is a view that comes a lot. I think it comes out a lot in D.C. specifically because so much of life in Washington, D.C., is hearing arguments presented in good faith that really are funded in some deep way and really are coming from are not coming from honest. Citizen scholars, like when a lot of things in D.C., right, about how Jamal Khashoggi is in Saudi Arabia really isn't a big deal. And then it turns out that they took a lot of money from Saudi Arabia.
Like, you get kind of cynical about this. Right. And there are obviously ways in which that plays out in the bay. There was the police in New York. But I think it's sort of like a conflict theory engine that says, yeah, the baseline economy of how I get funded is so based around existing conflicts that it lends itself to that interpretation pretty easily.
Right. Yeah, and I think so I'm I'm very decouples by nature, but an argument that kind of sways me a little bit away from it is just, you know, you can never know for sure that you're like when you evaluate an argument, even if it's, you know, very clear and straightforward and you can check the references, there's always some probability that you're missing something or you're, you know, being misled by some kind of misdirection or something like that.
And the the probability gets higher, the more kind of complex the argument is or the, you know, the more chance there is that the evidence the person is pointing to you is, you know, unrepresentative in some way or there's all these, you know, ways that you can make an argument seem very convincing without it quite being true. So there's there's that probability that you can never fully erase, even if you're a very smart reason, are evaluating the argument and knowing that the person making the argument has a motive.
Should it should give you some. A little bit of skepticism that trying to reason about the argument is is a worthwhile thing to do. And the more the more skepticism you have, the more it makes sense to just not really engage with the arguments and just, you know, default to the simplified assumption that people are just trying to vent their motives. And there's no real there's no real intellectual disagreement here at all.
Right. Right. Well, as I said, just like a useful I am not generally a fan of the work of Neil Ferguson for reasons that are beyond the scope of this podcast. But he had an interesting interview I read a long time ago here where the claim was that the saddest thing about the death of Marxism within history was that it denied everyone a theory of causation, that that you needed some sense of how causation works as historians and Marxism is a very clear and easily usable theory of why things happen in society.
And he has a slightly creepy counterfactual version of doing history, which is like social science with the smallest. And you can possibly imagine and then does not strike me as a super promising. But I think that's a good point. And I think like causation, it's really hard to sort out. And if you lived your life as sort of a non Bayesian requiring like a good natural experiment to believe anything causes anything, like you would go mad pretty quickly.
And I mean, it's something that the conflict theories like Marxism do for people is give them a theory of causation of why things happen. And I think Marxism provides one uniquely deleterious to to certain kinds of debate. But it's not the only one. Like I have a theory. I know a very conservative Catholic folks who are very skeptical of sources of knowledge for similar reasons. Your reactionary folks always talk about the cathedral and how you can't trust knowledge coming from elite press and in universities.
So there are a lot of ways in which that skepticism matters.
OK, let's move on to the last one of Jason's critiques that I want to talk about, which is that the the graphs showing the dramatic decline in poverty are focused on the percentage of the world in extreme poverty. That's the wrong way to look at it.
Instead, we should be looking at the change in the absolute number of people in poverty, which at least according to Pickle's preferred threshold of extreme poverty, which is the seven point forty cents a day that number has actually increased in the last 30 years.
Right, right. And I think the difficulty here is that you there are two things that go into a calculation of how many people are living in absolute poverty, the poverty rate, and then there's how many people there are, period. And so if the rate has fallen but the number of people has gone up, that sort of sort of almost definitional, it means that you've just got an population growth. And so glib response to him would be to say you're playing games to try to get population growth to count as as an increase in poverty.
I think what he would say to that is no, what I'm saying is that what we should be striving for is a system in which if you are born in the world, you are not in poverty, where like the mere fact of population growth does not lead to more people being in poverty. And I agree I agree with that as a goal. I don't want the absolute number of people in poverty to be growing either. But, you know, talking about sort of ways that that arguments could be used and misused.
I I think in a strange way, Hiko is not sufficiently sensitive to the ways in which that line of reasoning can be used to support kind of population control measures in place of actually reducing poverty rates. One of the episodes that she's on my podcast, I'm sorry to shamelessly plug, but is was about the Ford Foundation funding of sterilization, particularly vasectomy operations in India, tens of millions and millions of them over the course of decades. And then using the system they set up, Indira Gandhi forcibly sterilized about eight or nine million men in the course of a couple of years.
And if you look back and see the rhetoric that people were using during that period, it was all about reducing poverty that they. I'm sure under closed doors, people working at the Ford Foundation in the 1950s were not perfectly awesome about like there being more brown people in the world, but that doesn't show up in their official documentation. What they're saying is we're going to see a massive increase in poverty just because all these poor people are being born. And so we need to do is get these people, have your kids, and then when turns out that asking them to have kids isn't working, you have to sort of start offering them monetary incentives, have more kids.
And when that doesn't work, you get things like the state of Bihar in India started cutting off food rations to families that had more than two kids. So you have to, like, threaten them with starvation. So can I can I have kids? So this is all a very, very non decouples critique, but.
Well, it's I mean, there are there are two ways you could interpret. Suppose someone says, OK, I'm going to I'm going to penalize cities or societies or whatever for having for having four for each additional person who isn't provided for by that, you know, city or state. There's two ways to interpret what what they're just incentivizing there. One is they're just incentivizing population growth. The other is they're just what they really care about is, you know, conditional on there being people there trying to incentivize the society, not taking care of those people.
And I assume people would say the latter.
Yeah, yeah. I think that's what he actually says. And I think my argument, similar to the argument this chart can slip into apologia for global capitalism, is that I think that claim, if you like, using absolute poverty numbers, like really easily switch into the population control nightmares. And as someone just like reports on philanthropy in here in Switzerland, doing like that's like a real thing that's happened. But I think there is a lot of appeal to an attraction, too.
And anything that like when aid and comfort to that makes me a little uncomfortable. But I think. Yeah, so there's that. And then there's just the broader that's an effect on population growth. That's not an effect of that's not a sign that the system is working well, because your odds of being in poverty, given that you're born, seem to be going down.
Yeah. So I mentioned that one of the podcast episodes I did that got me rethinking about your article was the episode on Air Assault with Jon nursed the other one with my recent episode with Tyler Cowan, where we talked about his his book sort of defending big business against its critics. And I'm I didn't really get into this question with him during the show, but I want to describe an issue I had with the book to you because it's relevant for for for this question of the opinion angle debate.
So so Tyler's argument was basically, you know, big business corporations have made us much better off. They provide us all of these great products and services that clearly we value a lot.
They add a lot of value to our lives. Corporations have made us a lot richer. So it's good. Big business is good. Why are you mad at it? But I just struggled with the with what the comparison point was that allows us to say big business is good. So, you know, you could imagine a world of corporations that were doing the same things as real corporations are doing. They're providing us products and services we value. They're making us richer.
But also in this thought experiment, the corporations dump all of their trash in our streets. And so we have to live in these smelly cities. We get sick more often. And supposedly corporations could put the trash in landfills. But they're like, it's you know, it costs us a little money. We don't feel like it. No one's forcing us to. So, yeah, you just have trash in your city now. So in that world, you know, people might say, yes, OK, you know, if I had to choose.
Yes, on balance, the corporations are making our lives better. They are, you know, raising our standard of living and like, yeah, the trash and the sickness is not good. But but like still on net, corporations are making our lives better. But we still are reluctant to say the corporations are good because like, can't we have the world where the businesses don't throw trash into our streets? That seems like the relevant baseline and that seems to justify being angry at the businesses and not just and not to shrugging and saying, well, big businesses are good because on net, you know, it's worth it for us.
And so. So to bring it back to to this issue, I mean, it seems to me that the baselines, the implicit baselines of comparison that Pinker and Hinkel are using are very different.
Pinker's baseline would be something like, well, you know, relative to. Relative to the lives that these poor people had been living, they are now better off, so that's good. And Heinkel would say, you know, relative to where the lives that they could be leading, that we as a society could choose to give these poor people there much worse off. And so, you know. It isn't enough to just look at this trend lines they like, well, they're better off now than they used to be.
And so therefore it's good. Like, I mean, to extend my thought experiment, if you imagine you had, like, a bunch of billionaires having a party in their mansion and they're all these people, you know, almost starving to death outside. And the billionaires gave the poor people a dollar last year. And then this year they give them a dollar fifty and they're like, look, the trend line has gone up. They're better off, isn't this good?
And will be like, why can't we give them more money? You have a billion dollars. Like, this is not a trend line we should feel good about.
Right, right. Yeah. I mean, I think baseline. Yeah, baseline selection is always wildly important, but I would say in regards to that, that we are getting closer to the standard that is setting and and that even the correct response is not praising how far we've gotten. I think that's analytically useful. So I try to conclude on this note in the piece. But I think the big question now is not what happened in the 19th century and these sort of current accounts data.
The big question is, but how do you interpret recent developments for what we're doing in the future? I think Tickle's take away is the system is broken. We need to throw it out. And my interpretation is the system is flawed, but we are making progress. And it really is possible to rid the world of the most extreme forms of deprivation. And it seems possible to do that without like a global revolution. And I think he would say that that really is the crux of the disagreement of given that our goal is a world where no one has to worry about going hungry, say, just a short I think we can get there broadly within the contours of the international system we have now.
And he doesn't. And that's not just a historical interest. That's that's like our right now question of should we be building up institutions like the World Trade Organization, the World Bank, and trying to encourage labor and and goods mobility between poor countries? Should we be embracing the fact that China is exporting a lot of their factories to Africa and trying to industrialize growth in Africa? Should we be worried about that? Like how you feel about all those things happening right now?
Depends a lot on do you think that this trend is going to get us where we need to go or do you not? And I think that's relative to the the other option, though, right?
Right. We might say, yes. Eventually this trend will get us where we need to go. But if we were actually a just society, we would get there much faster by, you know, giving poor people a minimum income or something like, well, yeah, yeah.
This is this is the part in his writing where it's there's an old get on a bit of primary where Hugh Laurie was. It was like a protest song. If you would list all these problems that, you know, people are going hungry, we're fighting these wars and we don't know what we're fighting for. And all we've got to do is and then the chorus is just him playing harmonica said it's a list of problems. And that's what we've got to do to solve it is like harmonica break that.
And I mean, I think the answer is it's really hard to imagine. There's a famous Frederick Jamieson with the Marxist theorist as his famous quote. That is, it's easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And I think that resonates with people because it's hard to articulate concrete alternatives. But I would like that to be where this debate goes next of if he shows up and says no, what we can do is like set up a trade regime.
We're all participating. Countries have to agree to a minimum wage like I don't where I would follow, I'm not. But that's like a very useful debate to have. And I hope that the debate over the numbers conservative, the motivation to get into the details of how we're actually going to get to the point where everyone is opposed to dollars five dollars seven forty or whatever we want to say. Yeah.
And I don't really want to get into the nitty gritty of, you know, how feasible is it to reduce poverty in what timeline with free markets versus something more like socialism. I just the thing that I found so interesting was. That it had seemed so self-evident to me when I first encountered this debate that like, look, here's the trend line showing poverty going down and that is good. And it seemed so hard to argue with, like the trend line is just a fact.
And people being less poor now than they were before is just good. How can you how could you say that's not good? And so the. I feel like the. Added insight that I got from mulling it over more was just. That good doesn't really make sense without a comparison point, and there are there was sort of implicit comparisons being made that I wasn't attending to. I think actually the implicit comparison that is often made when these graphs are passed around is something I didn't see talked about in your piece and that Hagel didn't mention, which is just compared to what most people think like look at these trend lines.
It's really good compared to what you thought was happening. That's a very sensible way to interpret. These trend lines are good. And then, you know, Hagel's comparison point was compared to what what in his, you know, model of economics and justice, what we like easily could be doing and are not this is not a good trend line. The same way a bunch of billionaires giving a dollar fifty to a poor person this year, you know, instead of a dollar last year is not like a good trend line to celebrate.
Right. And I think there's also a perceived callousness based on who's saying so to you, which is try to motivate my intuitions. Here is something that does get me upset, the Heritage Foundation that periodically comes out with a report on poverty, arguing that we overestimate poverty. And one of their main metrics is what share of poor people on TV or refrigerators or Xbox Live. And yeah, I, I as a whip and very triggered by your very own because it feels upsetting to see well-paid thinkers dismissing the struggles of poor people in the United States by saying like, hey, but they have an Xbox, it feels trivialized.
And I think for someone like you go looking at someone like me or someone like factories or someone especially like Bill Gates saying, hey, we're making progress while these people are no longer living on two dollars, they're less it's it's like the it's like the guy saying, well, you have your Xbox is why aren't you happy now? And I think got that kind of especially if he thinks you could be solving his poverty and or not.
But the like makes it much more kind of someone like Bill Gates, who I think he would say is like his existence as Bill Gates is unjust. Yeah. One other thought I had that might be Acrux is I wonder if you bite the repugnant conclusion bullet and Hegal doesn't. So. Yeah, so you've written a lot about factory farming. Let's try this analogy, say this year there are 10 billion chickens in factory farms and and suppose these chickens lead really miserable lives, but just barely better than not existing and say there are also a thousand chickens that are that live on wonderful lives, on on green pastures and, you know, very welfare conscious farms.
So that's the world today in this thought experiment, 10 billion miserable chickens, one thousand happy ones. And then let's say next year or, you know, some years down the road, we have 10, 20 billion miserable chickens and five thousand happy chickens. So that trend line is the percentage of chickens that are. That our miserable has gone down, but we have way more miserable chickens than we did before, so the absolute number has gone up and, you know, they're not they're not literally living lives worse than death, but they're still really unhappy.
And so someone who bites the repugnant conclusion bullet would say, yes, that's a better world and someone who doesn't would say no, that world is worse.
Right. It's so funny you bring this up. I just I should keep my powder dry and not reveal all of this. But the I did an interview a couple of days ago with Turkey Tongo, who's a professor at Columbia University, who is a philosopher who bite the bullet on the Republicans conclusion, is like one of the most influential supporters of the repugnant conclusion. And I actually asked him point blank, I'm a vegetarian, is should I be eating meat so as to promote the further existence of of animals?
And I think she drew the line as somewhere between, like, cage free, free range and standard factory farming.
But I think the issue is where the line was like, are their lives worth living?
Right, that life is permanently confined. Broiler chicken who you crush your own legs under the weight of your own existence, like probably worse than not existing. But you're saying like, yeah, you should be eating ethically raised beef and and pigs until you're sort of abdicating your duty to provide for these animals and for their ability to have good lives. Yeah. And. Yeah, I'm attracted to that.
I still, like many people, have the voice in my head because the repugnant conclusion I can't possibly be right is because I actually maybe just to clarify, for listeners who haven't heard about the repugnant conclusion, do you want to come to conclusions or coin by a dark prophet and spoke recently in person?
Is the idea that it starts with the intuition that if not, what matters is the total amount of happiness in the world than it might if you have 10 billion extremely happy people in the world? Maybe it's better to have 20 billion people. We're only. Seventy five percent is happy. Each individual person is less happy in that world, but the sum total of happiness is greater. And so then you carry that out and you got to want that like a trillion people.
We're all like barely surviving and are not committing suicide. And so presumably you are glad to be alive, but it's not great. And so the conclusion is the idea that that is the best of all possible worlds, that you want as many people as possible, even if each individual was living a worse life, as long as they are just barely above zero anyway.
One of the more interesting points is that he sort of sees the difference between the best possible life and a life not worth living is not very profound. So it's like there are a lot of times in my life I don't think my life worth living when I'm like people decide I'm depressed and most of us are like end up just barely above. I think if that empirically is true, that recasts the whole question a lot to me. So maybe you got maximum population is not far from where we are now.
And to be clear, the the relevance to the debate that you wrote about was, you know, if you bite the repugnant conclusion bullet, then having the percentage of people living in extreme poverty go down, even though the absolute number goes up, is a good thing. But if you don't bite the bullet, then it's about right.
And for the people being born into poverty are so grateful to exist and we should not not be obsessed that they now exist would be would be the implication. You're right. Yeah. And I think I would accept a soft version of that with with the caveat that I think a lot of changes. If you take the view of the sheer size of the future and how many people are going to live there, that it might be that all of this is overwhelmed by the size of the population at any given point in time, is overwhelmed in importance by the duration of of humanity.
But that's a topic for many other podcast.
Yeah, right. Well, that's probably a good place to wrap up. I mean, I guess I'm curious before we drop it, if your views changed at all in the process of analyzing that debate a little closer to Heckel, especially on the historical sources.
I think there was more fallibility and where those numbers came from than I had thought before. And I grew a little more sensitive to what people were saying about the risk of downplaying how bad colonialism is.
I guess the relevance of colonialism that we didn't explicitly talk about is if you recognize how bad colonialism is, that might increase your sympathy for the view, I'm assuming, is hackles, which is that we we have a duty to provide a decent standard of living for anyone who's born into this world. And so that's the relevant baseline that we should be comparing the change in poverty to.
Right. Right. And the previous trajectory before European powers came in and grabbed everything, which was much more positive, which I agree with. And I think most development economists would agree with the war still only now discovering many of the ways in which the legacy of colonialism, a whole lot of countries back.
Yeah, I had a friend messaged me in mild annoyance after I tweeted a link to your article back in February. And his complaint was that he felt like in an effort to be really careful and and charitable in laying out this viewpoint that you mostly disagree with, you were kind of inadvertently creating this false balance where, you know, someone casually skimming the article would just get the sense that, oh, there is like a genuine debate about whether poverty has fallen or something like that.
I am I mostly disagree with him, especially in the sense that I upon thinking about it more, I think there are some genuinely good questions. Raised by Hickel, or at least your your steel man of steel, I don't know which, even if they don't really change my view on on the change in poverty or how good it is, they like to point out some important background premises or assumptions that are necessary for for me to hold this view that, you know, Thinker's Original or Bill Gates tweet of the graph was basically correct and good.
I don't really think it was a mistake to to write this excellent analysis of the disagreement. But I'm wondering if you have any heuristics for thinking about when to do this kind of careful charitable reading of disagreements versus when you say, yeah, you know, there's there going to be like free riders on my own as a mistake theorist. They're going to be people who try to take advantage of that and and get more sympathy or attention for their view because we, you know, feel compelled to try to be charitable to it.
Yeah. Question. I, I think as an institution, FOX has one of the things we told writers when they come on board is to try to to air on the side of charity to try to figure out the best arguments, similar points of epistemic hygiene to the ones that you talk about in this podcast or the Center for Applied Rationality tries to promote it, people of Skumanick views and what have you. I don't do that all the time. You follow my Twitter and I should probably do it more than I do.
The best heuristic is who is going to be reading this and what are they sympathetic to and what are they going to expect to be treated with respect? And that maybe shouldn't be juristic. But I think one thing that I was thinking about writing this is a lot of people who read Fox are coming into us with something like Sequel's View, and I want them to feel like their view is heard and treated seriously. But at the same time, I don't know, I there I struggle to come up with a sympathetic version of of arguments sometimes, like Trump's chief economic adviser had some argument that workers pay 3000 percent of the cost of corporate taxes.
I really struggle to interpret that.
Sure. Yeah. I don't I mean, the point of still Manning or, you know, the principle of charity is not. It's not to practice bending over backwards and contorting yourself intellectually to find some way. I mean, it's a fun game, like I think Scott once and the Time Cube guy, do you know the time was before your time?
But time is a cube with four squares. Yeah. Classic, which was a fun intellectual exercise. But but no, I advocate applying the steel man or the principle of charity to maybe not just when it seems useful, because you're probably underestimating the cases when it seems useful, but maybe, you know, cases when it seems useful, plus 30 percent to correct for your motivated reasoning or so every day.
I'm trying to do both. But yeah, it is it is not is not human natural cognitive pattern.
Well, I thought you did a great job in that article and I clearly is stuck with me and and kept me thinking for weeks. So thank you for that.
So Will, we'll link to that article and some of the other missives in that debate, as well as to some of your earlier writing on the trajectories of progress and to the future. Perfect podcast, which very excited to see starting its second season. And Dylan, before I let you go, I wanted to ask you for one or more books that most influenced your worldview or your life.
So we talked about it, this podcast. I think I mentioned that last podcast, but for reasons the person by far is the single most influential book for how I think about life and morality. Oh, that worked out well. It worked out quite well. Yeah, I think this is the second one that I would say, and I think it's particularly pertinent for this issue and for understanding. Conflict Theory is a book called Gang of Five by midnight Eastern.
I don't know if it's trend even, but it's a group biography of five conservative activists in the 80s and 90s. So Bill Kristol, Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, David McIntosh and Clint Bolick and some of those are reasonably famous in U.S. politics. Some are not, but all of them have been pretty effective at building institutions that have significant influence through advocacy. And I think it's useful for people, regardless of their worldview, to see how to effectively argue for your worldview.
But I think it's also a very an unusually detailed and rich portrait of what that landscape looks like in politics. I think a mistake some mistake theorists sometimes make is is underestimating the degree to which all these people view their lives as true through conflict theory.
Like there's some scene where Grover Norquist gives this speech from the movie Patton, but where every time the General Patton mentioned nasty, if you put in Democrat men and yes, I mean, if you're in the fight, you're in the fight.
And I think that's a worldview that it is influential and important to understand.
Did it make you more in the fight or did it just make you more inclined to kind of second guess your default assumption that everyone is, you know, a good faith actor trying to figure things out like you?
I think he mostly did the latter. But I think there's also. A degree of gamers that came in it, I think all the funniest anecdotes are from Frank Grover Norquist, but there's some point where he was on the Harvard Crimson editorial board and Jonathan Alter is now through a standard liberal writer biographer, but at the time was a revolutionary communist, was talking about how to plan a revolutionary overthrow in the United States. And Grover Norquist was like, well, do you have any guns?
It's like, oh, of course, I don't want any guns like liberals are coming from. And he says, well, I have a lot of guns. So if you need to do a revolution, you come to me. So I go and and there is that sort of attitude, very concrete. We're all trying to do our projects. And like, he was being sarcastic. But I think there was also a tinge of like, I respect what you're trying to do.
And and so I think there is there is honor and conflict theory is one thing I took from that. Wow.
I noticed that I feel hesitant to to read something that would make me feel that way. Like I can I can I notice twinges of the feeling you're describing, just hearing the anecdotes related. And I feel nervous about having more of that.
Right. I love life as sympathetic. I got to some of these people. But like I don't think Ralph Reed's approach to the world is ethical, but but yeah, I think that's what makes it a good biography also.
Great. Well, those are those are two excellent picks, especially two very different excellent picks.
And we'll link to those as well on on the podcast website. Dylan, thank you so much for coming back on the show. This was a really enjoyable and really enlightening.
Always a pleasure. Thanks so much for having me. This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.