Friday, September 10, 2010

the best stats you've ever seen

This is one of the more surprising TED talks I've watched. Hans Rosling, a doctor and researcher of hunger diseases in Africa and international health generally, gives a dazzling presentation of data debunking our preconceptions of the developing world. Some of the points he proves using statistics throughout his 20 minute presentation:
  1. We underestimate the tremendous change in Asia, which was social change before economic change.

  2. There's no gap between rich and poor any more. It's a myth.

  3. The concept of developing countries is extremely doubtful.

  4. [T]he best projection from the World Bank is that [income will even out], and we will not have a divided world. We'll have most people in the middle.

  5. Today we don't have to go to Cuba to find a healthy country in Latin America. Chile will have a lower child mortality than Cuba within some few years from now.

  6. It seems [a country] can move much faster if [it is] healthy first than if [it is] wealthy first.

  7. All countries tend to use their money better than they did in the past.

  8. The improvement of the world must be highly contextualized ... we must be much more detailed.

  9. It's as if the world is flattening off.
The end of the presentation explains why most people aren't aware of these statistics and how the internet is rapidly changing that situation. I was aware of some of this, but I wasn't aware of the extent to which it was true. Seeing the data presented graphically brought the point home more vividly than if I were just to read about it. I recommend you watch the video and not just read the transcript.

As statistics like these become widely acknowledged in North America and Europe, two things are going to happen. The first is that it will be possible to correctly diagnose the problems facing places like "Asia" or "Africa"—useless constructs for international medicine, health, politics, and economics, which Rosling is eager to demolish. The second is that the left's tale about the oppression and privilege inherent in "the system" will continue to lose credibility, as it has for over half a century now. I say this as a leftist, as a critic of capitalism, as someone whose worldview is deeply informed by Hegel and Marx, and as a humanitarian. Leftist political dogma since the 60s has been based far too much on moralizing about the oppressed and the privileged and not nearly based enough on theory and observation.

The reasons this is wrong are not complicated. American Marxists in the 20th century distilled the critique of capitalism down to one idea: capitalism is forever crisis-prone and will make your life worse in the long-run. When capitalism radically raised the standard of living over the course of the 20th century, the radical critics of capitalism no longer had a leg to stand on. (See Stephen Resnick and Richard Wolff for more.)

Marxism became equated in workers' minds with losing the real, substantial gains they had made. Those workers weren't "sold out" or "stupid. The problem is that Marxism was turned into a theory about oppression, which it never was in the first place.

The hangers-on insisted all the wealth the greedy, racist, sexist, etc., "western" workers (the real enemies!) were enjoying was being stolen from the "developing world". As Rosling's presentation makes clear, nothing could be further from the truth.

Rather than applying by rote what we learned from our liberal arts education—or cynically dismissing it—why not start instead with the actual trajectory followed by capitalism over the course of the last 200 years, with special emphasis on the past half-century? We start with the facts, we attempt to come up with a general law of development, and then we project it into the future and see where it's going.

What's the future of a high tech global capitalism in which the vast majority of individuals experience themselves as empowered individuals with control over their own lives? I believe that situation is far more dangerous to capitalism than a world divided into the privileged and the oppressed.


Miz Fits said...

"I believe that situation is far more dangerous to capitalism than a world divided into the privileged and the oppressed."

Why do you believe that? And how do you think it'd be dangerous to capitalism?

der Augenblick said...

I assume that in order for capitalism to work, one must not only be able to produce but also be able to sell goods for some amount of money. Yet it seems the value of goods is becoming identical with the knowledge necessary to produce them. It may not be so obvious now, but it will be in 15 years when we get most of our energy from the sun and the nanotechnology revolution (assembly at the molecular level) gets off the ground. You can pirate music, movies, and software now, but what if you could pirate nutrition or an entire body? What if you could determine exactly who and how you wanted to be but require access to nothing more than a "search engine" (or whatever the equivalent is in 15 or 20 years)? This means not only radical individual empowerment, but I think it also means a radical revision of the social relations of production.