“What causes poverty? Nothing. It’s the original state, the default and starting point. The real question is, What causes prosperity?” – Per Bylund, Ph.D.
Some believe that my persistent native sense of optimism must be evidence of a traumatic brain injury in my youth. A more pessimistic person once asked me if I wasn’t reading the papers or watching the news. But one of my aims every day is to see and understand the world as it is around us. So let us dispense with talk of being dropped on one’s head, and ponder the megatrends that shape our part of history.
The World Bank calculates that in 1990, 37% of the population of Earth lived in extreme poverty, with incomes of less than $1.90 per day (2011 dollars). One can imagine the privations that accompany such massive and grinding poverty, from poor sanitation and dirty water to disease and lack of basic health infrastructure.
In twenty-five short years, the population count in extreme poverty declined to less than 10% of the people—down from 37%. These 700 million have all the same challenges and problems of the nearly 2 billion poor back in 1990, and we cannot minimize the gravity of the situation for these people. Yet never in history has so much progress been made in such a short amount of time for so many people—hundreds of millions of people were lifted out of extreme poverty.
Measuring progress another way over a longer time frame, global life expectancies have been calculated to be less than 30 years in 1870, and around 71 years in 2013. Life spans more than doubling in 150 years! In either of these cases, poverty and longevity, it seems unlikely that anyone around at the beginning could have believed the progress that was about to unfold.
One naturally wonders about the factors behind the wonders of modern times. I’d like to think our progress depends on the degree of freedom that each of us has to make the most of our own potential, in societies with the rule of law and respect for the rights of the people. My idealized concept of our economic system is that the surest path to prosperity is being of value and service to others, a sustainable and ever-improving system.
We have challenges, problems, issues, aggravations, and troubles—as always. But my optimism remains based on reality.