The Economist Flubs the Best News of the Year…

The Economist This article documents something pretty incredible. In the face of rising food prices and a global economic crisis, poverty is falling. For the first time in history it is falling world-wide, in every region. It’s a beautiful thing.

This is the internet though, and putting fingers to keyboard for a purely positive purpose wouldn’t be appropriate. This article is also a great example of the massive distortion that infects all journalism and advocacy on this topic. Take this quote for example:

If you exclude China, the numbers are less impressive. Of the roughly 1.3 billion people living on less than $1.25 a day in 2008, 1.1 billion of them were outside China. That number barely budged between 1981 and 2008, an outcome that Martin Ravallion, the director of the bank’s Development Research Group, calls “sobering”.

Hmmm. Sobering. Can you think of any other data points that might be relevant in this comparison? Has anything changed between 1981 and 2008? Anything statistically significant?

How about the fact that in those 27 years world population has increased almost 50 percent, from 4.5 billion in 1980 to 6.8 Billion today?

We have less poor people than we did in 1980, and we have added another 2.3 billion people! This is especially impressive given the fact that the poor and agricultural tend to reproduce more than the rich.

It is striking how often simple population facts are omitted when people are trying to tell a story. US human development indicators (literacy, life expectancy, health, etc.) are often compared unfavorably to those of other developed countries. I suppose these stories are a good motivation to improve, but they always leave out or bury the important fact that roughly 11% of Americans are foreign born. Most of these new Americans grew up in developing countries. They cant compete with Swedes on HDI indicators, but their children often can. One of the best things about the United States, its constant renewal by immigration, is used by the statistically ignorant to run the country down. When you keep these facts in mind, our comparative performance is actually pretty amazing. But a complete picture doesn’t make a good story.

What is surprising about this Economist article is the fact that a more complete picture would have helped their story. The problem is that we are too locked into a negative mind-set on the question of world poverty and economic development. The more you know the better the picture looks. Unfortunately this is not the picure the media portrays. Even the Economist, a theoretically pro-growth magazine, feels honor-bound to insert statistically ignorant hand-wringing into the best news of the year.

Yes there is still work to do. Ideally we will get to a point where no one is living on 1.25 a day. We will not get there, however, by distorting the data and keeping people ignorant.

Robert Morris produces all manner of propaganda at the More Freedom Foundation

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