Posts Tagged ‘Mercantilism’

Literacy and Freedom

October 10, 2016

Literacy and Freedom are Chapters 7 and 8 of “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

One could make a good argument that a literate society is a prerequisite for a truly free society.  The chapter on literacy begins with the following quotation from Plutarch:  “The Mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.  Literacy is one of the most important skills as it is the capacity to acquire even more capacity.  It makes it possible to make much greater use of knowledge that others, even others who long ago have passed away.  Literacy makes it possible to pick up skills and ideas that make us more productive and able to use technology better.  It is also required to be an active an informed citizen and to follow and participate in the world of knowledge.  It has a very strong influence on our health and the health of our children.

According to the OECD’s best estimate two hundred years ago 12% of the world’s population could read and write.  Until then, literacy was mostly a tool for the bureaucracy, the Church and the merchant class.  Many of the elite and slaveowner’s should they be considered elite thought it dangerous for the poor to become literate.  The fear was that they would become unhappy with their lives and stop accepting their lot in life.

Initially charity groups and philanthropists started schools for the poor.  Then, as governments realized that educating the poor would increase their productivity and, perhaps, participate in government began funding schools.  There was immediate feedback here in that economic benefits were clearly recognized.  Even when public schools were very few, there were literate people who instructed the illiterate.  One Swede noted that in the sparsely populate northern part of Sweden, “that, although public schools are very few, nevertheless the literate instruct the others with such enthusiasm and the greater part of the common people and even the peasants are literate.”

Progress in literacy followed economic development quite closely.  In western Europe, the United States and Canada around 90% of children attended school in the late nineteenth century.  In 1900 less than 10% of the population in South Asia, the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa had received basic education.  By the 1900s around half had.  Today it is around 75%.  In Latin America, the proportion increased from 23% in 1900 to 94% in 2010
The global literacy rate increased from around 21% in 1900 to almost 40% in 1950, and in 2015 it was 86%.

The chapter  Freedom begins with a discussion of slavery.  Norbert notes that slavery is the most brutal form of oppression the world has known.  Chattel slaves were the property of someone else, who could order them around, beat them at will, give them away or rent them. Moreover, slavery once existed everywhere.  Slavery once was so common that even the few vocal opponents owned slaves.  They were forced to perform chores and crafts, to work in the fields or down mines, and even into prostitution.

According to the Greek historian Herodotus, slaves in Ancient Sparta outnumbered free individuals by seven to one.  Even in democratic Athens there were likely more slaves than free men.  It was a sign of utmost poverty not to own at least one slave and the literation is filled with scenes  of slaves being flogged for disobeying their masters.

Julius Caesar brought slave traders with him on his campaigns and sold prisoners directly to them.  When he defeated a Germanic drive he sold all 53,000 survivors as slaves on the spot.  These slaves lived extraordinarily difficult lives in brutal circumstances.

As Spain and Portugal took control of America in the 1500s, the indigenous people were oppressed and enslaved.  There were a few brave opponents to this practice, the most prominent of whom was the Spanish Dominican friar, Bartolome de las Casas.  He argued that indigenous people had the right to their own persons, beliefs and properties.  Las Calas was an early, and perhaps the first proponent of human rights theory.

Nevertheless, slavery became a, if not the, central feature of the settlement of the new world.  Even European economies benefited. Even states in the northern United States where slavery was not practiced benefitted from the economy that was based on slavery.  England took the courageous act of banning slavery.  It took a Civil War in the United States to end legal slavery.

The abolishment of slavery was indeed an important step in the advancement of freedom.  Yet in the year 1900, exactly  zero % of the world population lived in a real democracy in which each man or woman had one vote.  Even the most modern and democratic countries excluded women, the poor or ethnic minorities from elections.By 1950, the share of the world population living in democracies had increased from zero to 31%, and by 2000 increased to 58% according to Freedom House, the civil liberties watchdog.  Norbert notes that today even dictators have to pay lip service to democracy and hold staged elections.

Communism in the west was abolished peacefully.  It still exists in Asia, most notably in China and most notoriously in North Korea.  Norbert notes that peaceful mass movements against dictatorships stand a better chance of successful democratic than violent revolutions.  Unfortunately neither peaceful nor democratic movements are presently succeeding.  And if a regime is ruthless enough, consider Assad in Syria, it is difficult to depose given an alliance from another authoritarian regime.  HM would argue that  peaceful demonstrations work when there is some predisposition on the part of the existing regime to concede.

In 1991 Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman mentioned that a London Newspaper          200 years earlier explained that 742 million people were led by arbitrary government and only 33.5 million people live in reasonably free countries.  That meant that freedom deprived people outnumbered free people by 22 to 1.  When Friedman spoke, he updated those numbers using Freedom House’s estimates and said that the ratio had fallen to about 3 to 1.  Friedman concluded that “We are still very far from our goal of a completely free world, but on the scale of historical time, that is amazing progress.  More in the past two centuries than in the prior two millennia.”

According to Freedom House 40% of the world population now lives in free countries, while another 24% live in partly free countries.  Norbert notes that this is more progress in two decades than in two millennia.

If you have yet to do so, go to http://www.gapminder.org.   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.

© Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and healthymemory.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Life Expectancy and Poverty

October 8, 2016

Life Expectancy and Poverty are chapters 3 and 4 in “Progress:  Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future”  by Johan Norbert.  As the purpose of these blog posts is to update our mental models regarding how much change there has been between now and the past, only the nature of the improvements will be presented, and not the innovations that underlay the improvements.  As it is only a fraction of the improvements that are in the book can be related, so this is a matter of necessity or convenience, depending on your perspective.  If you are interested in the technology and practices that underlay these improvements, please read the book.  Indeed, everyone should benefit from reading this book.

There is an obvious relationship between the two as poverty negatively impacts life expectancy.  Chapter 3 begins,”Throughout humanity’s early history, life was nasty, brutish, and short.  More than anything, it was short because of disease, lack of food, and sanitation.  People died early, as infants or children, and mothers often died giving birth.  The high mortality rate was not primarily because of the prevalence of violence, but because of infectious disease, unsafe water, and bad sanitary conditions.  People lived close to animals, even in cities, and their wast infected their water sources.”

All large towns regularly suffered from the plague.  The plague was an infectious disease cause by bacteria that spread in the air and by physical contact.  Fleas on rats carried the disease.  The disease killed 3 out of 5 victims.  The worst manifestation of the plague was the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.  It is estimated that it killed more than a third of Europe’s population.  It emptied entire villages and regions.  To some it seemed like the end of the world.  After this period of the Black Death the plague came back to haunt towns again and again until the eighteenth century.  In Besancon in eastern France, the plague was rerouted forty times between 1439 and 1640.

In the seventeenth century tuberculosis spread throughout Europe and was a major killer in the nineteenth century.  Some estimate that it caused nearly a quarter of all deaths.  Smallpox was a major cause of death and was a permanent presence in large cities.  However, in smaller towns and villages where it was rarer, no one developed immunity, so whole communities could be wiped out when they faced an epidemic.

This was before evidence-based medicine, so prayer was the commonest medicine.  There was little physicians could do.

During prehistoric times, the average hunter-gatherer is estimated to have had a life expectancy of from 20 to 30 years.  In spite of a more stable supply of food during the agricultural revolution, life expectancy did not improve much. According to some accounts life expectancy was reduced as larger settled groups were more exposed to infectious disease.   In Ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, life expectancy has been estimated at around 18 to 25 years.  In medieval Britain, estimates range from 17 to 35 years.  Before the year 1800, no country in the world had a life expectancy higher than 40 years.

A research group on aging led by Oskar Burger at the Max Planck Institute has pointed that the bulk of humanity’s mortality reduction has been experienced by only the last 4 of the roughly 8,000 generations of homo sapiens since we evolved around 200,000 years ago.  In 1900, the average life expectancy in the world was 31.  Today, it is 71 years.

Abdel Omran, a professor of epidemiology has divided humanity’s relationship with mortality into three major successive stages.
The Age of Pestilence and Famine.
The Age of Receding Pandemics.
The Age of Degenerative and Man-Made Diseases.

Jane Jacobs has noted that poverty has no causes.  Only prosperity has causes.  Norbert writes that poverty is what  you have until you create wealth.  HM notes that many are born into wealth, so they do not need to create it.

In the old days that have been discussed, the accepted definition of poverty in a country like France was simple.  If you could afford to buy bread to survive another day, you were not poor.  In hard times, towns were filled with armies of poor, dressed in rags, begging for something to eat.

In 1564 in a town with a fortress and garrison, perhaps three-quarters of the failed in the town live in makeshift shelters.  In wealthy Genos, poor people sold themselves as galley slaves every winter.  In Paris, the very poor were chained together in pairs and forced to do the hard work of cleaning the stains.

Humanity had experienced almost no economic development until the early nineteenth century.  According to estimates by the economist Angus Maddison, GDP per capita increased by only 50% between the year 1 ice and 1820.  Of course people did not experience any increase in wealth during their own lifetimes.

In 1820 in the richest countries of western Europe the GDP per capita was the equivalent of around $1500 to $2000 (in 1990 dollars adjusted for purchasing power)  This is less than in present-day Mozambique and Pakistan.

In the early nineteenth century in the United States, Britain, and France, around 40 to 50% of the population lived in what we now call extreme poverty, a rate that you have to go to sub-Saharan Africa to find today.  Homelessness was a common problem.  Between 10% and 20% of the European and American population was classified as paupers and vagrants by officials.

Up until this time the dominant economic school was Mercantilism, in which poverty was necessary.  Adam Smith, in his “Wealth of Nations” disabused people of this and provided the basis for people to work and improve themselves. The Industrial Revolution came along, and, in spite of abuses, the economies began and continue to grown.  Different countries improved at different rates another was Communism.  Communism was still better than Mercantilism, and successful Communist countries opened up to some level of open markets.

Between 1981 and 2015  the population of low— and middle—income countries suffering from extreme poverty was reduced from 54% to 12 %.

If you have yet to do so, go to http://www.gapminder.org.   It is a very interesting website.  You might find the documentary “Don’t Panic End Poverty” well worth viewing.