Surprise! A billionaire’s favorite graph is one that justifies billionaires!

Wow. This is a capitalist miracle: extreme poverty is rapidly declining!

Except…what is extreme poverty? What about regular poverty? Is there something we could call moderate poverty? And, errm, where do those numbers from the 1800s and 1500s come from? Why is the 19th century represented with such a smooth, gradual improvement when we know that the lives of so many were ruined and suffering by colonialism (where does Rhodesia fit into this graph) and slavery? Those are charts that raise more questions than they answer.

Jason Hickel tries to answer some of the questions. The early numbers are guesswork, molded into the desired form, and the economic data are a case of applying an invalid metric to messy human reality.

What Roser’s numbers actually reveal is that the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money. The graph casts this as a decline in poverty, but in reality what was going on was a process of dispossession that bulldozed people into the capitalist labour system, during the enclosure movements in Europe and the colonisation of the global south.

Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor. This way of life was violently destroyed by colonisers who forced people off the land and into European-owned mines, factories and plantations, where they were paid paltry wages for work they never wanted to do in the first place.

In other words, Roser’s graph illustrates a story of coerced proletarianisation. It is not at all clear that this represents an improvement in people’s lives, as in most cases we know that the new income people earned from wages didn’t come anywhere close to compensating for their loss of land and resources, which were of course gobbled up by colonisers. Gates’s favourite infographic takes the violence of colonisation and repackages it as a happy story of progress.

So money is a convenient proxy for real wealth, which is land and resources and labor, and using it as a metric conceals the fact that a few people have seized most of the real wealth, and masked their theft by doling out pittances to the displaced billions.

As if that isn’t enough, “extreme poverty” is an arbitrary parameter chosen to hide the ongoing grand larceny by people like Gates. It had to be set extremely low so that you wouldn’t see what’s actually been happening.

But that’s not all that’s wrong here. The trend that the graph depicts is based on a poverty line of $1.90 (£1.44) per day, which is the equivalent of what $1.90 could buy in the US in 2011. It’s obscenely low by any standard, and we now have piles of evidence that people living just above this line have terrible levels of malnutrition and mortality. Earning $2 per day doesn’t mean that you’re somehow suddenly free of extreme poverty. Not by a long shot.

Scholars have been calling for a more reasonable poverty line for many years. Most agree that people need a minimum of about $7.40 per day to achieve basic nutrition and normal human life expectancy, plus a half-decent chance of seeing their kids survive their fifth birthday. And many scholars, including Harvard economist Lant Pritchett, insist that the poverty line should be set even higher, at $10 to $15 per day.

So what happens if we measure global poverty at the low end of this more realistic spectrum – $7.40 per day, to be extra conservative? Well, we see that the number of people living under this line has increased dramatically since measurements began in 1981, reaching some 4.2 billion people today. Suddenly the happy Davos narrative melts away.

You know, if Bill Gates set a Universal Basic Income of $3 a day, he could set “extreme poverty” in the US to zero. What a triumph! I’m trying to imagine what I could do on $3 a day. I know I could live cheaply on a diet of rice and beans for that, but, well, just my mortgage is 10 times that, and it was -36°C this morning. Forget about owning a car. Or having electricity. Or getting sick. Right now, on an income considerably greater than that, one debilitating illness could wipe me out.

Shorter Bill Gates: Relatively fewer people are dropping dead in the streets of starvation or cholera today, so therefore concentrating billions of dollars into my hands is good for everyone.


  1. scottde says

    “Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor.”

    I am as scholar of the Roman Empire and this is so absurdly wrong I don’t know where to begin. Due to infant mortality the average life expectancy was around 18 years, most people lived on the edge of subsistence, and slavery was widespread. Yes, there were commons, but we can see patterns of deforestation that were massive, particularly in places like Italy. Land, water and grazing rights were the matters of major dispute that frequently had to be decided by legislation from above, and if not, often via warfare. Money was probably uncommon in local transactions in parts of the provinces, but you needed it to pay Roman taxes. I don’t know of any scholar who would characterize the life of the typical Roman peasant or latifundia worker as “living well”.

  2. Derek Vandivere says

    #1 scottde: I noticed that as well. There’s a point that using income as the benchmark for ‘poverty’ does have its issues in different types of society. But I definitely caught a whiff of Rousseauian noble savagery in that quote.

    And I don’t think it’s fair to assume based on his tweet that Gates is making any kind of argument about concentration of wealth, as opposed to the fact that in a lot of ways humanity is better off than it was two centuries ago.

  3. chigau (違う) says

    The Roman Empire was colonial.
    That’s why it is referred to as an “Empire”.

  4. says

    Seems to be a cottage industry forming, centred on telling the privileged that not only are they not very fortunate beneficiaries of centuries of exploitation, oppression, environmental vandalism, and rigged economic-political systems, but that they don’t personally have to do anything (except make tax-deductible donations) because the system is working, because NUMBERS.

    Fuck Rosen and fuck Gates and fuck Pinker too. Their apologetics are a rose-coloured lens on a long, shameful history – one that’s grown into a fucking shameful present.

    Look who’s in charge, for fuck’s sake. My own country has a PM who once brandished a lump of coal in Parliament as a “fuck you” to renewables, and was instrumental, as Immigration Minister, in making conditions in our questionably-legal offshore detention camps as horrible as possible, and the stays there as lengthy as possible, as part of a plan to deter asylum seekers. His neglect & naked contempt of those people literally cost lives. And his opening speech as an MP made great gravy of his commitment to compassion, because Jesus.
    The UK Tories are eating each other because they can see a disaster of their own making unfold slowly and painfully (and the EU are gleefully making their own gravy). The US has possibly the least qualified President in its history, who is also a known fraud, all-purpose bigot, inveterate user of women, and not even a competent businessman to boot. And those were just the countries in my headlines this morning. Large populations all over the place don’t even have the luxury to go online and moan about shit like this.

    I don’t want the world to be awful, and much of it is quite lovely, but don’t show me a shiny graph, say “Hey, since the invention of money, poverty has experienced net negative growth!” and expect me to thank you for having so much fucking money you could alleviate poverty in an entire country. Good on you for lucking the fuck out, then never paying fair tax on your earnings, then making tax-deductible donations from some of it. Must be nice to have so much money you can’t even feel it when it leaves.

  5. says

    @scottde #1
    The article is about last circa 200 years and the colonization of southern hemisphere, if I understand it correctly

    You are de facto pointing out that Romans were doing in Europe two thousand years ago what Europeans were doing to the whole planet for the last couple of centuries.

    I guess history repeats itself.

  6. nomadiq says

    Isn’t there a statistic for the power distribution of income? Wouldn’t that show a trend of concentration of wealth to a few even tho productivity of the population has gone up?

    I am not a violent person and I would never advocate for this, but honestly, how long before the violently inclined in the bottom 99% decide to extract the final 10% of taxes from the other 1% via the French method?

  7. Gregory Greenwood says

    Aren’t Gates and co. just symptomatic of the usual mindset of the adherents of unfettered capitalism? Make a pile of money by a combination of luck and employing often at least somewhat questionable means, garner enough to start covering your tracks so no one can prove anything, and build up a gross, morally repugnant fortune. After you are done getting richer than Croesus could ever have dreamed of being, you then use a (relatively small) portion of that money to do what you claim is ‘good in the world’, but actually amounts to using the money you amassed by manipulating a corrupt and exploitative system to buy yourself a better public profile.

    Rather than an outright (one might almost say honest) criminal laundering money accrued by criminal means, this is using money accrued by immoral means (that in some cases should be criminal, and in others probably was at least only semi-legal, but no one with authority enough to do anything about it cares once you are one of the wealthy power brokers of society) to launder your own reputation. And so a greedy parasite who was once known for all kinds of sharp business practice and exploitative behaviours is reborn as the great philanthropist, chiding everyone else for not doing enough to save the world, which essentially amounts to chiding them for not being as wealthy as he is. Sycophantic media puff pieces and biographical documentaries about the ‘great man’ follow as surely as night follows day.

    Since becoming openly anti-capitalist after the fact would be a hypocritical bridge too far even for someone like Gates, part of that reputation laundering requires the rehabilitation of the irredeemably corrupt capitalist system itself. Since no one is buying the old ‘trickle down economics’ argument any more, another approach is called for, and so we get graphs and studies and statistics all of which are designed (with whatever level of wilfully misinterpreted or deliberately falsified data may be required) to demonstrate that ‘capitalism has lifted millions out of extreme poverty’… ignoring those it forced into poverty, the lives and ways of life it destroyed, and the immense ecological damage it has caused that has starved and poisoned millions, if not billions, world wide. Of course, terms like ‘extreme poverty’ or ‘absolute poverty’ are never defined – if people like Gates were fool enough to root their media spin job in a truly quantifiable measure, it could be used to expose their misrepresentation of the evidence going forward. Better by far to use as many vague soundbites and empty euphemisms as possible; that way you can keep moving the goalposts to mask the exploitation inherent in the system.

  8. says

    Well, where’s the second graph? You know, the one that shows us the alternative earth where colonialism never happened and billionaires never happened. Because how on earth should I judge these graphs? Yes, they show “improvement*” over time, but they don’t tell me anything about the causes. We know that children whose food does not provide enough calories, vitamins and minerals to grow up healthily will still grow, so obviously malnutrition is actually beneficial, right?

    *Wow, before people discovered and manufactured vaccines nobody was vaccinated, what a completely surprising piece of information.

  9. Zeppelin says

    @scottde, 1: What Chigau and Charly said. It’s more about forcing people living in relatively egalitarian small-scale societies into hierarchical large-scale societies (like the Roman Empire). Also, forcing hunter-gatherers into agriculture — unless your agriculture is highly industrialised to, like, second half of the 20th century levels, your health and quality of life will be worse as an agriculturalist than as an averagely successful hunter-gatherer.

  10. aziraphale says

    Is Bill Gates not allowed to be pleased at the progress in child mortality, vaccination, education and literacy?

  11. hemidactylus says

    Not damning but illuminating as source for Gates’ infographic:

    “Our World in Data is supported by a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
    Our World in Data is made possible with the help of many individuals and organizations. We’d like to thank these people who generously donated or otherwise helped to support or work.
    Steven Pinker

    Now I won’t worst case this or catastrophize or negative filter it (see ). There a blogger who worst cases everything Templeton Foundation and I would just hate to emulate him.

    But as Hickel says “Gates’s favourite infographic”. Echo chamber?

  12. gnokgnoh says

    It’s important to make a distinction between the global effects of science and medicine and capitalism. The graphs lump them all together, and therefore conflate different measures and outcomes.

    So, the impact on child mortality and life expectancy has been global, although very unequal. As an example, the life expectancy in Nigeria right now is 53 years, while in the U.S. it is 78 years. As recently as the 50’s, the life expectancy of a Nigerian was 40 years, so, yes, an improvement. The same types of improvements have occurred in other measures. That has little to do with wealth or global capitalism, except where global corporations have been quite efficient at expanding their markets for medicine and drugs. Is it exploitive? Absolutely. The Constant Gardner, by le Carré, is fiction set to this theme. Just on this topic, though, the exploitation in terms of price gouging is most severe in the U.S. We seem to be quite active in our own political choices to not have price controls and regulations related to health care.

    The other huge impact science has had on life expectancy and health care has been in agriculture, most of which have driven by the first “green” revolution which hugely expanded the caloric output of a hectare of ground through fertilizers and automated irrigation. It’s not clear that the impacts have necessarily improved nutrition, but it has allowed several centuries of massive population growth, with increases in per capita caloric intake, measured in absolute terms. This is also a result of industrial farming of animals, which has hugely increased protein consumption globally. There are many recent articles about large increases in the demand for meat in India and China.

    On all the other measures, primarily economic, the key takeaway is that economies or countries based on subsistence agriculture are extremely impoverished, if the measure is how much money is earned. The minute a Chinese farmer migrates to Shanghai and earns a living in a factory or shop at poverty-level wages, Gates’ measures show an improvement. That farmer now has money. That is why all the economic measures are about extreme poverty, and not any more nuanced than that. It’s skewed, painful neo-liberalism run amok.

  13. says

    I think we’d have greater progress in child mortality, vaccination, education and literacy if the parasites at the top weren’t sucking away all the wealth that could be used for health care and education for everyone.

  14. Akira MacKenzie says

    Right now, Gates’ efforts at “greater progress in child mortality, vaccination, education, and literacy” in the developing world are doing squat at improving conditions in this “shithole country.”

    I’m certain Bill is far more pleased at the tax deductions his “philanphropy” generates, though.

  15. Gregory Greenwood says

    PZ @ 14;

    I think we’d have greater progress in child mortality, vaccination, education and literacy if the parasites at the top weren’t sucking away all the wealth that could be used for health care and education for everyone.

    But then the poor parasites could only have maybe one moderately huge yacht, only a couple of mansions of such vast size you could get lost in them trying to find one of their several score bathrooms apiece, and a downright pitiful fleet of multi-million dollar super cars numbered in the single digits! What kind of sadistic monster are you, PZ? Won’t you think of the poor, poor billionaires?

    Why should the obscenely rich suffer just so that the poor can have decent healthcare, education, and halfway nutritious food? If the poor are so worried about those things, they should allow the magic pixie dust of capitalism to lift them out of their poverty, just like the graph says! All hail the wise, omniscient graph of ultimate truthiness! All worship the great benign god of the free market, lest you feel the backside of his invisible hand!

    For anyone who has somehow managed to miss that this post has maybe just a smidgen of sarcasm about it, I honestly can’t help you, and likely no one can…

  16. says

    This whole argument about whether we’re better off now than we used to be, seems to be a proxy for another set of questions (e.g. whether capitalism, colonialism, and billionaires are bad), and I just don’t see how they are related issues. It could be the case that education and literacy have gone up, and poverty and child mortality have gone down, and still be true that capitalism and colonialism are bad. As Gilliel @8 pointed out, you would need to compare the real trends to those of an alternative universe that didn’t have capitalism/colonialism/billionaires.

    I think historical comparisons are really fraught, and hacks like Steven Pinker are not capable of conclusively demonstrating that people really are better off than they used to be. But arguments to the contrary are equally fraught, and I still believe that on balance, it is more likely than not that the typical person today is better off than the typical person two centuries ago. I’m also basically a socialist. These ideas aren’t really in conflict.

    Yes, people like Steven Pinker use evidence of progress to argue in favor of the status quo. But there’s way too much focus on the “evidence of progress” part, and not enough focus on “therefore, keep the status quo” part.

  17. patricklinnen says

    Where Jason Hickel says, “Prior to colonisation, most people lived in subsistence economies where they enjoyed access to abundant commons – land, water, forests, livestock and robust systems of sharing and reciprocity. They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well – so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor.” is stretching the argument way too much.

    Piror to the Europeans coming over, there were the Mayan, Incan and Aztec civilizations, which were in manner of speaking to be subsistence economies. And very unlikely that the Olmec and Mississippi Mound Builder societies were subsistence as well.

    And where there are several concurrently existing societies, there is trade. And while most trading can be done by bartering, most societies tend to look for some agreed upon currency to make things easier. Like say wampum, used by the Eastern tribes.

    Also the history of tribes in the SouthWest pre-colonization sorta does a number on ‘robust systems of sharing and reciprocity.’ Yes, things got a lot worse after the settlers appeared, but it was not all beer and skittles before hand.

    Lastly on the point commons, you would not happen see any of America’s megafauna that where here before humans arrived here? Yeah, me neither.

  18. patricklinnen says

    Ack. I meant to write that Mayan, Incan, and Aztec societies were not subsistence economies.

  19. unclefrogy says

    the ability of studies such as this and other economic studies to leave out significant data for various reasons some because they do not know how to measure them or are just myopic in the extreme is really remarkable. They are the smart guys and they bet vast sums of money on there projections which usually end in some huge “unpredictable” collapse.
    it might be as was said above end in the french solution which was entirely unpredictable?
    or maybe similar to 1918
    uncle frogy

  20. nomdeplume says

    A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved for Bill Gates over the last four decades.

  21. nomdeplume says

    “was -36°C this morning” – stay warm PZ, and Hey! Be careful out there.

    PS It will be +36°C today in my part of Australia. Where did that global cooling go eh?

  22. chigau (違う) says

    robertbaden #20

    You could argue the Aztec and Inca were colonialist.

    I’d agree with that.

  23. patricklinnen says

    Chigau #26

    The problem I have with the ‘Noble Savage’ narrative is that it only portrays the expansionist militarist Northern European as colonialist. Every other expansionist militarist society is given a pass. In a lot of cases they can be reduced to a “Good, Bad, and the Ugly” standoff, where there are three parties standing-off and threatening two other parties. None of which means they cannot overlap with other standoffs, multiple standoffs.

    Much like in the 1990’s everybody ragged on Microsoft for being evil. Meanwhile they gave all the other computer companies (re Sun, Oracle, Apple, et al.) a pass for the same behavior.

    Still was evil.

  24. KG says

    What Chigau and Charly said. It’s more about forcing people living in relatively egalitarian small-scale societies into hierarchical large-scale societies (like the Roman Empire). Also, forcing hunter-gatherers into agriculture — unless your agriculture is highly industrialised to, like, second half of the 20th century levels, your health and quality of life will be worse as an agriculturalist than as an averagely successful hunter-gatherer. – Zeppelin@10

    Even in 1500, at the start of European colonial expansion, the great majority of people were not living in “relatively egalitarian small-scale societies”. They were living as peasants or landless labourers in highly inegalitarian, exploitative, warlike states in China and environs, India, and the Europe-Near East-North Africa area – which have held the majority of the human population at least for the last few millennia. There were also such states in Central America, the Andean region, South-East Asia, Central Asia, and parts of sub-Saharan Africa. In most of these states, the poor majority already needed money to pay taxes – in the rest, these were exacted in crops and forced labour. European imperialism had its most devastating effects in the Americas, where most of the indigrenous population died of diseases to which they had no resistance, exacerbated by violence, land theft and enslavement, and large numbers of slaves were imported; Africa, where first the slave trade was hugely expanded, and then colonialism really did have the effects Chigau and Charly mention; and areas with relatively tiny populations such as Australia, the Pacific, Borneo and nearby islands, etc.

    None of this justifies Gates’s self-justifying bullshit, or PInker’s, but unless you have a reasonable grasp of the overall shape of human history, you risk propagating equally false narratives.

  25. Michael says

    Pinker’s reply to Jason Hinkel’s article in the Guardian ( Posted for your perusal. I will not be checking back to read or respond to comments.

    Not sure why I should be the one to defend the consensus on global economic development against a Marxist ideologue enabled by the Guardian—I’m just a cognitive scientist who cites data from the real experts—but here are some observations (all of them made in the chapter on Wealth in Enlightenment Now).

    The massive fall of global extreme poverty is not a claim advanced by me, Bill Gates, or people who go to Davos, but every politically neutral observer who has looked at the data, including the Nobel laureate economist Angus Deaton in The Great Escape, the United Nations (which declared its Millennium Development Goal of having extreme poverty as having been met five years ahead of schedule), and other experts in global development (who bolster their data with observations they have made while they spent time in the poorest countries), such as Stephen Radelet, Charles Kenny, and the Roslings. A comprehensive overview can be found (as always) in Max Roser’s Our World in Data in the entry on Global Extreme Poverty.
    The level at which one sets an arbitrary cutoff like “the poverty line” is irrelevant — the entire distribution has shifted, so the trend is the same wherever you set it.
    It’s not just China, or even China plus India — many poor countries have seen spectacular poverty reductions, including Bangladesh, El Salvador, Ethiopia, Georgia, Mongolia, Mozambique, Panama, Rwanda, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam. This is on top of rich countries that not so long ago were dirt-poor, such as South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore.
    Hickel’s picture of the past is a romantic fairy tale, devoid of citations or evidence, and flatly contradicted by historians such as Fernand Braudel who have examined contemporary accounts of life in previous centuries, and economic historians such as Angus Maddison and his students who have tried to quantify it using wills, government records, and other data.
    The drastic decline in extreme poverty is corroborated by measures of well-being other than income that are correlated with prosperity, such as longevity, child mortality, maternal mortality, literacy, basic education, undernourishment, and consumption of goods like clothing, food, cell phones, even beer—all have improved.
    It’s also borne out by a sanity check from people who have actually spent time in poor countries and have observed what life is like in them—not just development experts, but also biologists I know who have visited their field sites in Africa annually for many decades, and who have remarked on changes that can be seen with the naked eye: stores that have food, kids that wear shoes, people that are overweight rather than starving, shanties replaced by cinderblock, poor people with bicycles and TVs.
    The political agenda of Hickel and other far leftists is obvious: it’s humiliating to their world view that the data show massive improvements due to markets and globalization rather than an overthrow of capitalism and global redistribution (see the quote by David Graeber in “Enlightenment Wars,” and the back story on Hickel’s radicalism in this article, originally published in The Telegraph).

  26. Saad says

    Michael, #30

    I will not be checking back to read or respond to comments.

    An advance flounce. That’s gotta be a first.

    I have a feeling they’ll be back to read the comments.

  27. Nerd of Redhead, Dances OM Trolls says

    Once somebody says Marxist like #30 did, anything beyond that point is almost invariably total and utter bullshit. tl;dr.

  28. imback says

    #30 is a sloppy copy-paste of Pinker’s email posted on Coyne’s blog. The original had links in the last paragraph to quillette and to cato, not surprisingly.

  29. patricklinnen says

    Giliell @31;
    Yeah, I figured it was a waste of reading time at that point as well.

    Not to mention that the Guardian also posts op-eds by the right in an effort, I guess, to challenge its readers. For some reason they never think to apply fact-checking to those op-eds.

  30. springa73 says

    I have to agree with the posters who say that Hinkel is grossly romanticising the past if he really thinks that pre-capitalist people lived in a paradise of plenty of resources for everyone with little conflict. I don’t think that capitalism is the ideal system that its champions portray it as, but the fact is that under capitalism a large fraction of the world’s population has material wealth that was available only to a tiny, tiny elite in pre-capitalist societies.

    Having said that, I think it is also dishonest to attribute all of the improvements to free-market capitalism. Much, perhaps most, of the improvement in public health and medicine came about due to regulations, infrastructure, and funding created by the governments that free-marketers are always denouncing. Labor activism and government intervention have always been necessary to force capitalist societies to extend some of the benefits of their newly gained wealth to a larger section of the population.