Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, July 23, 2018

You ungrateful wretches

Brad DeLong is posting entire chapter drafts of his in-progress magnum opus. It is a sweeping economic history of what he calls the "long 20th Century" which began around 1870 and ended in November, 2016 when the liberal project ran into a ditch. I say, maybe, there's still hope, but that's a digression.

We take our current condition for granted, but it is not the human condition of the 300,000 year career of Homo sapiens. As DeLong reminds us:

When the Long 20th Century started in 1870, the overwhelming bulk of humanity was still so malnourished as to be constantly hungry, so ill-clothed as to be (in climates not in near-equatorial lowlands at least) often cold, so ill-sheltered as to be frequently (in non-arid climates, at least) wet. Most members of humanity had good reason to fear that it might be difficult to get their 2000 calories a day next year, and many had good reason to fear that it might be difficult to get their 2000 calories a day next week. When it ended in 2016, those fears were gone for most of humanity—it was a scandal that they remained for a significant portion. When it ended in 2016, somewhere between the top quarter and the top three-quarters of the human [sic] were wealthier than previous eras’ kings.

Rudiger Dorbusch said in his oft-used introductory textbook that the fundamental problem of economics is the problem of scarcity. (I paraphrase from memory.) This is now an oversimplification. In the U.S. today, we do not face a scarcity of calories, for example, we face an excess. Most Americans would do well to consume fewer.

It isn't worth a link, but a Kos diary today noted that meat is piling up in warehouses because the trade war has suppressed exports. A commenter asked why the price doesn't come down until domestic consumption would clear the market, and wouldn't that be good for consumers? Well, that might be Economics 101 but it doesn't work that way. Most Americans already eat all the meat they care to. The minority whose consumption is constrained by income will never soak up all that surplus by substituting steak for beans; we're very close to the absolute limit, and if the price of meat goes to zero we are still going to eat only a little bit more than we do now, and the amount more that we do eat will be bad for us.

The fundamental problem of economics today is not the problem of scarcity. It is the problem of distribution. We have abundance, but a very few very wealthy people are sucking up most of it. While most of us are doing very well compared to previous eras' barons and knights, a lot of us are still feeling envious and just as many are still struggling to survive. At the same time, this abundance is about to hit a wall - the earth cannot continue to provide at this rate, unless we start living radically differently. But we live in a culture of denial. We aren't talking about the right problems.

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