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DevEng 215: Pre-Class Note: Welcome!

Il Quarto Stato

Let us set the scene with an introductory note:

Back in 1800, nearly the entire world lived in dire poverty—what we today see as the dire poverty line of $1.90 a day, a level at which you are spending more than half your income on bare calories and essential nutrients, the minimum of heat and shelter, and the minimum of clothing. Below that line, certainly your health and perhaps your life is impacted: women become too skinny to reliably ovulate, and children become too malnourished to have healthy and effective immune systems. Back in 1800, there were only a few economies where the median household had a standard of living of more than $3 a day: Germany, France, Austria, Denmark, Belgium, Holland, Switzerland, the U.K., the U.S., and that was it.

Today the median household’s standard of living in the United States, Switzerland, or Singapore is 55 times that dire poverty line of $1.90 a day. That is all due to advances since 1800: advances in science and technology that give us powers to manipulate nature beyond those attributed to gods in earlier centuries; advances in business, property, and market organization that allow us to organize production and distribution much more efficiently; and advances in government provision of educational, physical, and institutional infrastructure that underpin the advances in science, technology, and organization.

Yet 9% of humanity today lives at a standard of living of less than $1.90 a day. Half the world’s population lives at less than $7 a day. 20% of humanity lives at less than $3 a day—including more than half of the people in each of Ethiopia, Uganda, Haiti, Burkina Faso, Gambia, Comoros, Timor Leste, North Korea, Madagascar, Togo, Guinea-Bissau, Sierra Leone, Eritrea, Guinea, Mozambique, Malawi, Niger, Liberia, the DRC, Burundi, the CAR, and—currently the poorest of the poor—Somalia.

At most 8% of the world’s population has a standard of living more than half of today’s U.S. median.

Rejoice: the world today is so much fabulously richer than it was in 1800. That is a miracle. Recoil: our knowledge—of how to run governments; of how to organize markets, firms, and property; and of how to apply science and technology—is so sketchily and unevenly distributed around the world, leaving only a small part of it as what we would see as rich and huge chunks of it as what we do see as desperately poor, is a scandal, and a crime against humanity.

Excerpt for the last generation’s worth, all of technological progress has been open-sourced by the workings of the global patent system. All of the organizational and business models of the most productive firms and value chain networks in the world are public: open to inspection. Anyone who can gain access to one of the nine billion telephones currently existing can dial-up anybody else—although not necessarily gain an answer. There are readily scheduled or easily chartered transportation services that allow people to reach nearly any point of land (save for pieces of Antarctica) on the globe in twenty-four hours. Non-perishable goods can be carried around the world for pennies: twenty dollars per cubic foot is the current quoted price for Shanghai-Long Beach. And services can be delivered for less over those nine billion phones and other network connections.

The world today is—in communications and transportations—tiny. Yet today the United States is eighty times as well-off and productive as Niger or the DRC (and Greater San Francisco is 150 times). And back in 1800 the U.S. was only six times as well-off and productive.

How can it be that a world that is so much richer and so much smaller than the world of two centuries ago is so much more unequal—that we still have 9% of the globe’s population at a living standard that is (save for public health, and access to the village phone) little distinguished from those of our pre-industrial ancestors?

And what can sociology, economics, political science, and history tell us about the answer to that question, and about the future question: what can we do about it?

Welcome to DevEng 215!


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