Forget income, the greatest outcome of capitalism is healthier lives!

Yesterday, James Pethokoukis of the American Enterprise Institute posted, in response to Bernie Sanders’ skepticism towards free market, that capitalism has made human “fantastically better”.

I do not disagree – quite the contrary. However, Pethokoukis makes his case by citing the fact that material quality of life has increased for everyone on earth since the early 19th century. I believe that this is not the strongest case for capitalism.  The strongest case relies on health. This is because it addresses an element that skeptics are more concerned about.

Indeed, skeptics of capitalism tend to underline that “there is more to life than material consumption”. And they are right! They merely misunderstand that the “material standard of living” is strongly related to the “stuff of life”. For them, income is of little value as an indicator. Thus, we need to look at the “quality of human life”. And what could be better than our “health”?

The substantial improvement in the material living standard of mankind has been accompanied by substantial improvements in health-related outcomes! Life expectancy, infant mortality, pregnancy-related deaths, malnutrition, risks of dying from contagious diseases, occupational fatalities, heights, the types of diseases we die from, quality of life during old age, the physical requirements of work and the risks related to famines have all gone in directions indicating substantial improvements!

My favorite is the case of height. Human stature is strongly correlated with income and other health outcomes (net nutrition, risks of disease, life expectancy, pregnancy-related variables). Thus it is an incredible indicator of the improvement in the “stuff of life”. And throughout the globe since the industrial revolution, heights have increased (not equally though).  Over at OurWorldInData.org, Max Roser shows this increase since the 1800s (in centimeters)

height-development-by-world-regions-interpolation-baten-blum-2012-0-579x500

However, the true magnitude of the increase in human heights is best seen in the data from Gregory Clark who used skeletal remains found in archaeological sites for ancient societies. The magnitude of the improvement is even clearer through this graph.

male-heights-from-skeletons-in-europe-1-2000-clark-645x403.png

The ability of “capitalism” to generate improvement in material living standards did leak into broader measures of human well-being. By far, this is the greatest outcome from capitalism.

On celebrating the new year with a thought experiment

Each time I start teaching classes at the business school where I am a course lecturer, I am always amazed at the disconnect between the quantitative facts and the beliefs that individuals have. My favorite relates to poverty and inequality.

Everybody seems to think that poverty is increasing and that worldwide inequality is increasing. Each time, I have to show figures to shoot down those beliefs. I also do it in the french media of my home province of Quebec where – as a result of pointing out those facts – I am branded as a “neoliberal” for being optimistic for the fate of mankind.

However, let’s think about it in the context of the new year to see why there is room for optimism. Let’s make a thought experiment similar to John Rawls’ original position but somewhat differently. You have a hat with all the years since the neolithic age, each on a separate piece of paper. If you had to hope for one year in particular, which would prefer? I would pick 2016!

By picking 2016, I have one chance in ten of living under extreme poverty. At any earlier point in time, these odds would have been close to 90%. (The data comes from the Our World In Data project by the amazing Max Roser).

World-Poverty-Since-1820-full

Although this diminished poverty does not explain every improvement with regards to every other metrics of living standards (life expectancy, infant mortality, nutrition, heights, body mass, survival to diseases), it does explain an appreciable part of these improvements.

Sit down with some friends to celebrate the new year and ask them about this “thought experiment”. Ask them if they would pick 2016. Once it is presented as such, I am sure that in spite of all the headwinds facing mankind, they will be optimistic.