Human Progress and the Environment


Human civilization has made remarkable progress in the past two hundred years starting with the Industrial Revolution. This has been well documented in two current books, The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley and Progress: ten reasons to look forward to the future by Johan Norberg.
But for human progress to continue indefinitely into the future depends on sufficient economic growth.  Faster growth means more progress.  The purpose of the Republican tax plan now working its way through Congress is to speed up economic growth in the U.S.
It is a legitimate question to ask whether there are environmental constraints on faster growth.  What are the world’s largest environmental problems and how serious are they?  In rough order of severity:

  • Global warming is a very serious problem, for which the evidence is overwhelming.  The use of renewable energy sources like wind and solar is growing but not fast enough to stop the world wide increase in carbon emissions. It will require the world’s two largest economies, the U.S. and China, working together to solve this huge problem but it can be done.

  • World population is likely to stabilize at about 9.2 billion (the Rational Optimist, page 206) by 2075 and then start to decline. This is because in country after country economic progress has led first to slower mortality rates and then to slower birth rates. When this demographic process eventually reaches Africa, world population will begin to decline.

  • Pollution is on the decline around the world (see above chart from Norberg). Air pollution is declining in the U.S. (see Ridley, page 279) and China is beginning to get serious about it.
  • Natural resources are simply not running out, see here and here.

Conclusion. Yes, the world has environmental problems (mainly global warming) but no, they need not stand in the way of economic growth indefinitely into the future.

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Is the World Getting Better and, if so, Why?


From a reader of my blog:

I admire your efforts to discuss issues. However, it seems your worldview is to defend the “status quo”, to say “things are pretty good”, to denigrate the critics, to downplay the negative. Perhaps this is one of the characteristics of a “conservative”.  I, and many others, on the other hand, look at the world and our country, and see many problems, much injustice, much that needs changed. … In addition, the “free market” is largely a myth. Finally, to the extent our country has many positive attributes, who do you think was responsible—those satisfied with the status quo or those who worked and struggled and protested and brought about change?

The above statement is an intelligent criticism of the point of view expressed on this blog. I will respond to it by more fully describing where I’m coming from.
First of all, I am a non-ideological (i.e. registered independent) fiscal conservative and social moderate. Furthermore, I have had much good fortune in my life. I am a citizen of a free and prosperous democratic country. I come from a loving and supportive family. I have received a good education and, in fact, have been a long time tenured university professor (now retired).
Secondly, perhaps as a result of my own good fortune, I tend to be optimistic. I believe that the world is getting better. Not in a straight line, of course, but slowly and surely, even if there are many twists and turns.
There is much objective evidence for overall optimism as I have previously demonstrated, see here and here.
To briefly summarize:

  • The good old days are now, referring to global wealth rising steeply from about 1800.
  • Freedom. In 1950 31% of the world lived in democracies. Today it is 64%.
  • Equality. Minority rights, women’s rights and gay rights have all increased enormously in the last 100 years.

Conclusion. I am not Panglossian (i.e. this is not the “best of all possible worlds”) nor do I believe that progress just occurs on its own. But progress is relentless, nevertheless. Stay tuned!

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How Goes the ‘American Project’? I. Background


The main topic of this blog is U.S. fiscal and economic policies and especially, how, and to what extent, they are lacking. But every so often I take a broader perspective.
For example, the Swedish economist, Johan Norberg, has described in detail the remarkable human progress of the past 200 years, starting with the industrial revolution.  The British scholar, Matt Ridley, has given a cogent explanation of what brought about all of this progress.  Conclusion: human life, overall, has improved dramatically in the last 200 years and most likely will continue to improve well into the future.
How are things going in the U.S.?  Not so well, relatively speaking, according to the economist, Tyler Cowen.  He thinks that too many Americans are so self-satisfied with enjoying the fruits of prosperity that as a society we have become complacent about many hidden, but very serious, problems, such as debt, deteriorating life conditions for blue-collar workers, and a huge buildup of internet crime.  This complacency is likely to make America less dynamic in the future.

The eminent political scientist, Charles Murray, has weighed in on this issue with his tour-de-force tome, “Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960 – 2010.”   Mr. Murray describes a new kind of segregation which has developed in the U.S. based on socio-economic class, largely fueled by educational attainment and professional status.  The new Upper Class (20% of all Americans) are largely separated from the rest of society not only by the neighborhoods where they live and their professional employment but also because they are more likely to be married, hardworking and engaged in society.  The new Lower Class (30% of all Americans) has just the opposite characteristics of the Upper Class.
Mr. Murray argues that the four sources of deepest satisfaction in life are: family, vocation, community and faith and that these four main sources of satisfaction have become enfeebled for the Lower Class over the past 50 years.  But the Upper Class is also being hollowed out in other ways.
Conclusion. “Great nations eventually cease to be great,” observes Mr. Murray.  Is America doomed to moral deterioration and decay?  Stay tuned!