22 December 2021

Four Dimensions of Progress and The Dramatic Setback to Progress in 2020

You all know that I'm fascinated by economic progress and development. Medieval serfs had very few rights, on average died in their early or mid-30s and had almost nothing in the way of income or goods (or certainly nothing in contrast to what we now have). The fact that the world gradually began to transform its technology - from equipment to institutions - to bring us to today's reality is for me the most delightful thing. Our freedoms, income and life expectancy gives us millions more options than our medieval ancestors had.

There are four simple measures of progress.

1. Did real incomes go up? Do you have a greater choice each year of goods and services to buy and enjoy? Do we have a choice of more great products for each hour of work?

2. Did the community gain more freedoms? Can you be a practicing Protestant without threat of death or expulsion or exclusion from certain key positions and rights? How about Hindu? Or atheist? Are two men free to marry just as a man and a woman are? Can women hold positions of power? Do you have more choice about how to live your life and not just more products to buy?

3. Have life expectancies gone up? Do you have more time in which to live your life choices, to pursue happiness? Between 1900 and 2000, life expectancy rose from 47 to 77. That didn't just radically alter the life span. It meant that one of the coolest inventions of the 1900s was retirement, a period of life in which someone didn't just live decades longer but was free from the obligation of work for some portion of that added time.

4. Are your gains sustainable? Are you reliant on energy sources that your great grandchildren can also enjoy, energy sources that when used don't threaten ecosystems? Are you investing as well as spending so that your grandchildren have a good shot at continuing the progress that you're the beneficiary of?

Progress means progress on these four measures: income, life expectancy, rights and sustainability.

The drop in life expectancy of 2 years in men and 1.5 years for women between 2019 and 2020 is a huge setback to progress.

I'm optimistic enough to think that the advances this pandemic is forcing / facilitating in things like advances in mRNA technology that could actually result in a longer term increase in life expectancy. Setbacks do sometimes force changes that result in a later step function in progress. But that's speculative. The reality, for now, is that COVID, deaths of despair and our responses to both have translated into a setback to progress.

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