Globe on FireI’ve discussed the “better-than-ever world” argument before. I find it questionable, for a number of reasons and if that interests you, read the linked article and the articles to which it links.

What I’ve been paying attention to lately is WHO likes and buys into this argument.

They fall into two groups: the first are techies, the second are neoliberals.

We’ll start with neoliberals first. Neoliberals want to claim that everything’s going great so they don’t have to make serious changes. If even the poorest are getting better off rapidly (50K a week, I saw as a recent claim, for improvements in “dire poverty”), then all that is required to the current system are tweaks: It’s working.

More importantly for the neoliberals, if the world is better than ever, the people who have the most don’t have to give anything up–not money, or power, or the way they do things. What they’re doing is basically working, their being rich and powerful isn’t hurting the poor; in fact, it’s lifting the poor up!

So statistics have to show that poor people are getting better off, and if a few show that the poor in parts of the first world aren’t (like certain groups in the US having decreased life expectancy), well that cost has been far outstripped by all the people lifted out of poverty elsewhere and why care more about Americans than people objectively worse off in other countries?

The world order is basically fine. No need to do more than “bend the curve,” as Obama famously said.

Techies have some of the same reasons, especially those who are doing well, like the ones who run Silicon Valley, or who are very well paid. The world is fine, no need to change what’s working.

But there’s something deeper to it for the techies. While neoliberals want to defend neoliberal capitalism–which is why they get offended when one points out that China used mercantalist capitalism to lift people out of poverty. Almost all poverty gains, no matter how you slice the numbers, have been made in China and China DID NOT do what economic orthodoxy says you’re supposed to do.

Techies don’t care about that. Instead they want to defend their legacy and current actions. Forget capitalism, communism, fascism, and all that guff: Really, virtually all the gains of the last 250 years come down to using hydrocarbons to power various engines.

Technological progress is the actual driver of what’s happened. Modern techies identify with the engineers and scientists of the past, especially now that programmers like to call themselves engineers.

Likewise, the computer/internet/telecom revolution which has been driving new industries (I wouldn’t quite say “growth”) since the mid 70s or so is their child, their project. They either worked on it or are still working on it. The world must be doing well because they created it or are creating it, or are maintaining the technology it runs on, the technology that is really responsible for supposed welfare gains.

They believe they are good people, who do good work, and therefore the results of their work must be good.

We all want to believe that the order for which we are responsible, the work we do, and the economics that works to our benefit, is justified, because we want to believe we are good people.

Neoliberals, elites, and techies feel they have created this world. Therefore, this world must be a good one.

Techies also want to think that technology can solve everything, because it’s what they’re good at. And hey, it does demonstrably work. It’s just not clear that it can do everything, or do everything soon enough, since we all will, well, die.

Anyway, the larger point of this is simple: We argue over these things because they are about legitimacy and people’s self-esteems and self-images.

Of course those (like myself) who oppose the current neoliberal order want these figures to be BS. We want to be able to argue that change is urgent, and needed, and that the existing order has failed.

It’s good to understand that, no matter what side you’re on. What do you WANT to believe. Then see if you’re still justified.

Of course, I think I am. This doesn’t mean there’s been no progress, there has. I just think the numbers are wildly over-inflated outside of China, and the progress is unsustainable due to climate change and the impending environmental collapse. I can live like a king if I have a ten million dollar credit card limit, but if I can’t pay it back, eventually that ends.

Also I grew up in the development community. My father worked for the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Bangladesh, and had worked before in various other developing countries. I spent time in India, and so on. I listened to development workers talk about what worked and (mostly) what didn’t. There are more cynical (or rather, realistic) groups in the world, but not many.

So there’s always been an off-smell to these numbers to me. I know what works for development (mercantalist policies with the cooperation of the current hegemonic powers, and virtually nothing else, unless you’re a city state) and what doesn’t (anything orthodox development economists tell you to do).

I know who’s been allowed to actually bootstrap up and industrialize (American allies and China–because they bribed American leaders), and who hasn’t (almost everyone else).

And I know something else: If you’re forced off your land into a slum, you make more money, but you’re worse off. The economic and Western obsession with $$$$ as a measure of quality of life is unwise. Even calories (though better) are not great, because for example, when NAFTAs tortilla manufacturers were bought out after NAFTA, their nutritional content plummeted.

So it all smells off, to me.

But even if it didn’t, even if it was all true–that the world was “never better,” radical change is needed because climate change and ecological collapse are on their way, with the leading edge already causing problems. We can’t even keep industrializing the way we have been. If every developing country was allowed to industrialize properly, and we gave them what they needed to do it, we’d just bury ourselves deeper.

The fundamental WAY we have run our economies, both in terms of any type of capitalism (and communism back when, but they’ve been gone for 30 years now, so grow up) and in terms of technology is fucked. Fucked. It cannot continue or we risk civilization collapse. Worse case scenarios are great die-offs which take us down too. Good case scenarios are one or two billion deaths.

No matter what, we are past the point where we aren’t going to be able to change the environment in a way that prevents the climate from being fundamentally warmer and different from the environment and climate which has existed for the entirety of human civilization.

That’s not an economic or technological system which is more or less OK, or producing more or less good results even IF the triumphalists were right about everything.

It requires change, and radical change, if we are to avoid, not disaster (we’ve already had those), but multiple catastrophes of civilization-shaking levels.

It’s not OK to think everything is OK.

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