Middle-Class Wage Stagnation Is a First-World Problem – The World is Getting Richer

A common lament during the presidential campaign was middle-class income stagnation and the wealth of the top 1%. But are most people getting poorer while the rich get richer? In a sparkling – and delightfully short – new contribution to the econo-optimist genre, Johan Norberg, author of Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future, emphatically answers “no.”

Consider the following:

  • In 1981, “extreme” poverty – living on an income of $1.90, or less, per person per day in today’s money – characterized 52% of the world’s population. Today, the comparable figure is 12% of a much larger population.
  • Global life expectancy at birth has more than doubled since 1900. It is now 71 years, more than that of the United States in 1965.
  • The environment is better adapted to human life. “In 1981,” writes Norberg, “half of the world’s population had access to safe water. Now, 91 per cent do. On average, that means that 285,000 more people have gained access to safe water every day for the past 25 years.”

This is not cherry picking. Practically every economic, social, and environmental indicator is in a long-term uptrend, if not an accelerating one. Norberg does not deny that bad things still happen – and I devote some attention to them toward the end of this article – but in his narrative they recede into near-insignificance when compared to both the long-term and the recent pace of improvement.

Political freedom, while losing a few battles, is gradually winning the war: in 1950, 31% of the world’s people lived in electoral democracies; today, 63% do. Violence is down, Norberg argues, and in many countries equality under the law has been extended to women, blacks, and gays.

Norberg’s book chronicles the advancements of the last few centuries, with emphasis on the last half-century when progress has become globalized and the developing world played a convincing game of catch-up with the developed. While his subtitle asks us to look toward the future, his book is about the recent past and its startling and unexpected gift of prosperity, safety and good health to a majority of the world’s people.