2015 Was the Best Year. 2016 Will Be Better.

Happy New Year.

It’s tough watching the news on TV, or listening to it on the radio sometimes. And – trust me on this – it’s sometimes harder having to read it. The grim facts of awful deeds being committed around the world are often enough to turn even the most resilient of stomachs. I can’t tell you how many times this year as a broadcaster I’ve been upset at the stories I’ve had to cover: from being on the scene of the Shoreham Airshow disaster, to having to ‘up’ the death-toll in Paris, between each hourly bulletin.

But it’s not all bad news. In fact, it’s mostly good news.

Good news doesn’t translate well into news bulletins though. It’s not a criticism of my fellow journalists. It’s pretty hard to talk about rising standards over long periods of time, but completely relatable to talk about an awful event that’s just taken place.

As we have welcomed in a new year, I’d like to take a moment – if you’ll indulge me – and point out why despite the migrant crisis, economic disasters, and sickening terrorist attacks, 2015 was in fact the best year in the history of human existence. And it wasn’t just a ‘fluke’ year. 2014 was also better than 2013, which was better than 2012, and, well, you get the idea.

Not only that, but 2016 will almost certainly be measurably better than 2015 for the vast majority of our fellow species.

This isn’t wishful thinking. Quite the opposite: it’s a simple statement of fact. There are fewer hungry people in the world today than ever before. Yes, fewer as a proportion of the population than ever before, as well as in absolute terms, and that’s even considering the fact we number over seven billion now. We’re still well on course to virtually eliminating absolute poverty in the lifetimes of most people under the age of 40.

Proportionately, there are fewer victims of violence than ever, a fact made clearly when we consider that the last century – which contained no less than two world wars – was actually the least violent century with fewer conflicts than at any time in the history of human civilisation. Yes, we’re right to worry about ISIS, President Assad, and Yemen, Libya, Paris, Charleston. But that’s just us doing what we’ve always done: paying attention to the immediate bad news. It’s much harder – and often quite counter intuitive – to step back and look at the slowly-emerging positive trends of humanity.

Many people, reflexively, intuitively, but wrongly, think that things are always getting worse. If you look at 50 or 100 year ‘chunks’ of time, it’s seldom true. In fact, year-on-year these days, the world is getting better. For example:
2015 literacy compared to 2014? Up.
2015 sexual equality compared to 2014? Up.
2015 human longevity compared to 2014? Up.
2015 infant mortality compared to 2014? Down.

We’re better fed. In 1990, the number of our fellow humans suffering from malnutrition fell to an incredible 19 percent. Fewer than one fifth of us. Amazing. But it got better: despite the increase in population, today the number of us suffering from malnutrition has collapsed to 11 percent and is falling all the time.

The rise of free markets and free trade (both of which could always be freer of course) has dramatically seen more of us healthier than ever before, and overall we’ve made remarkable improvements to the environment around the world. Cleaner water, increased biodiversity all playing a part. We’re so used to hearing that the environment is facing irrecoverable catastrophe, that it’s almost heresy to write those words. But ‘conventional wisdom’ doesn’t make those words any less true.

Another boon in the rise of ever-freer markets is the continuing decline of poverty. Earning $1 a day (in inflation-adjusted 1990 prices) is the definition of extreme poverty. Back in 1990, 43 percent of the developing world population lived on it. It more than halved by 2015 to 21 percent, and globally, it’s 9.7 percent: less than 10 percent for the first time ever. Single-figure extreme poverty. We really are going to make it history.

Even with Syria, Paris, and many other places, terrorist deaths are generally on the decline. The United States continues to wrestle with the issue of mass shootings, despite the number of homicides continuing to fall there by a steady 3,000 each year. Between just 2000 and 2015, the number of people worldwide dying due to violence had fallen by six percent.

There’s just no getting away from it. 2015 was generally for the average person, the greatest year to be a human being. I’d stake every penny I’ve got on 2016 beating it.

Advertisements

UK 2015 Election: Proof I Don’t Know What I’m Talking About

In the blog-post I wrote right before this one, a few days before the UK general election, I decided to predict the outcome, and guess which of the major parties would form a government, and how long it would last.

I’m currently resting up (or at least, I’m supposed to be) after a 24-hour marathon stint on the Heart and Capital radio stations, breaking all the overnight stories of the election. As the ballot-booths are flat-packed away for now, and the black-and-white “Polling Station” signs are taken down off the walls of community centres and school halls across the country, I think it’s only fair that I look at what I wrote a few days ago, and see how it tallies with the reality.

And it’s pretty clear. I couldn’t have been more wrong about the outcome if I tried. I didn’t even entertain the idea that there might be a majority government, given the consistent message from the polls that suggested otherwise.

So I’m W. H. Wrongy McWrongstein, of Wrongsville, Carolina. Population: Wrong.

Proof, if any proof were really needed, that I don’t know what I’m talking about.

But how did all the polls get it all so wrong? We had months of the polls, from a host of different pollsters, day in and day out, all showing that no party would have enough MPs to form a majority. But when the big day came, we had one clear winner.

David Cameron and the Conservative Party wiped the floor with virtually everyone (except in Scotland, of course. There, the pollsters were spot on about the Scottish Nationalist Party and their dominance). UKIP were decimated. The Greens; right back where they started. The Liberal Democrats exiled to obscurity. And Plaid who?

And as I write, David Cameron is live-tweeting announcements about his new cabinet, fully Liberal Democrat-free following his 331 seats in parliament.

An outright Conservative majority. How did we get here?

The only explanation I can think of (and given how wrong I was in my election prediction – did I mention that? Way, way wrong – my explanation may not carry much weight), is that we’ve seen a repeat of the 1992 election.

Then, a beleaguered Tory government – Lead by John Major – was sleepwalking into a comprehensive defeat.

Their opponents – Labour – were all but guaranteed to form the next government. Labour’s leader Neil Kinnock even went as far as to host a victory rally before polling day.

Then the election day came. And the Tories won. Comprehensively.

I believe that yesterday – as in 1992 – the public maybe didn’t quite form an opinion of how to vote until they got into the polling booth. Major’s government were as far removed from ‘cool’ as you could get. Voting for them was almost an embarrassment to some. Why would you tell a pollster that’s what you were going to do? Even if it was what you were going to do?

But even if it was only in the back of their mind, there was a genuine concern about where the country was headed under a Kinnock government. Back to the old days of economic illiteracy and ‘managed decline’. The people blinked, and Major stayed in Number 10. A few years on, and our deficits turned to very impressive surpluses.

The unique way in which the global market crash in 2008 hurt Britain was – for a big part – down to our unaffordable public spending. We had the deficit of a basket-case economy. But we just kept on spending, kept on trying to live off that ‘hair of the dog’ each morning.

Though it wasn’t totally popular to some, modest steps were taken by the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition from 2010 to introduce austerity. It’s a dirty word these days, but all it really means is “living within your means”. Income has to be equal to, or lower than expenditure. That’s not evil free market dogma, or cruel Tory “ideological” cuts. It’s called maths. If you get £5 a week pocket money, and spend £6 a week on stuff, you’ll have to borrow £1. If you do that every week for ten weeks, you’ll owe £10. One day, that has to be paid back. See: maths?

Now I’m not a big fan of the coalition for a variety of reasons. The debt that’s been piled on over the past five years is inexcusable, and they’re no way near classically liberal enough for my tastes. But, the Tories wanted to eliminate the deficit in five years. They were in coalition, so couldn’t be as radical as they’d like to be. Let’s say, they could only be half as radical. So by 2015, they’ve cut the deficit in half.

It’s a fairly clear demonstration that, generally speaking, they were right. The (now unemployed after losing his seat) Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls went on every TV and radio show in the country describing the austerity (living in your means, i.e. maths) measures as being “to far and too fast” for the first two years of coalition. Turns out, if do want to criticise the coalition’s austerity measures, it’d be better to say they didn’t go far enough and weren’t implemented quickly enough.

The coalition decided to lean in the direction of maths/austerity. Labour leader Ed Milliband – who resigned this afternoon – said for every public sector job cut, a private sector job would also go, creating greater levels of unemployment.

The coalition cut half a million public sector jobs. Two million private sector jobs (more than in the 13 years of Labour) emerged. Most of them better paying, contracted jobs.

So one group called it right, one group called it wrong. It was actually so simple we missed it. And in the back of many people’s minds, they understood. Even if it took them until they had the HB pencil in their hands in the ballot booth to really see it.

But don’t listen to me. I’m W. H. Wrongy McWrongstein, of Wrongsville, Carolina, remember?

In the Land of the Free, Disruption is King

Robot ArmThere’s a very human fear of technology ruining our lives.

“It’ll replace us,” we say, when a new-fangled bit of technology comes along. But is there any real truth behind that anxiety?

It’s our instinctive reaction. But that doesn’t make it the right one.

When I was young, I can still recall a (serious) news report, commenting – with furrowed brows – how, shock horror, some children as young as 8 “had access to the internet.”

That was it. It wasn’t that they were doing something wrong, or even that they were unsupervised. It was the fear that they were using new technology. I posted a great video here a while ago featuring the founder of Wired Magazine, who says that in the early/mid 90s, mainstream newspapers were still writing articles about the web as “The Internet – Threat or Menace?” and, though that precise type of hysteria about the web has died down, general fear-peddling about new advances hasn’t ceased at all.

The truth this, technological change is part of an observed phenomenon I’ve written about before: “creative destruction”.

In my great-grandparents day, there used to be someone who’d ride down the road on a horse and cart, selling blocks of ice, so the local housewives throughout the city could preserve meat and other things for longer. Eventually a bunch of clever American and Japanese people came up with an electrical device called a refrigerator, which has become a feature of pretty much every house everywhere.

Now the ice-block salesman’s job has gone. Indeed, so has the job of the people who made the ice. But seriously, are we worse off because of it? Furthermore, are they? Did those people who found themselves out of work lose out long term?

In the short term it must have been hard, but surely with their expertise in the freezing business, they were well-placed to sell and support those buying the new appliances. And today: well, those people are long gone, and their descendants are just like the rest of us – with better jobs, better (inflation-adjusted) wages, more buying power, higher standards of living, and even more leisure time than their great-grandparents could have dreamed of.

The smart and thoughtful Roger Bootle has raised some interesting points related to robots and artificial intelligence in the workforce. His article in the telegraph, though too negative for my money, is nonetheless well worth a read.

We can’t begin to imagine the hardship of living in an early hunter-gatherer society. Where the life expectancy is around 25, things were, to put it mildly, pretty hard. The agricultural revolution must have rendered thousands of hunter-gatherer “jobs” redundant. But everything got better. The industrial revolution must have rendered millions of agricultural jobs redundant. But everything got better.

This technological revolution is, well, yes, rendering many jobs redundant. But the wisest among us shouldn’t worry too much about it. I’ve been made redundant. It’s an awful feeling. But for those of us who do find themselves out of work, the stats show that it virtually always leads to better things. And the world gets more efficient, and the standard of living of the people globally continues to rise.

In the land of the free, disruption is king. Long may it last.

Why We Should Celebrate Magna Carta Day

It's 'Magna Carta Day' on June 15th, and for my money, it's much better celebration of what it means to be English, than the tired old esoteric St George's day, which has just become an excuse to endulge in vague piffle to do with “what does it mean to be English”, without giving any real answer. Except for something about a dragon. That didn't exist.

If we really want to celebrate England's contribution to the world, it should be about the best gift our nation gave the rest of the world – namely, the rule of law.

Throughout the Commonwealth – and, indeed, the Anglosphere more generally – The “Great Charter of Freedom” is venerated and highly respected. Sadly, here in the country of its origin, we seem to have forgotten about it entirely.

So, on June 15th, take a moment to remember England's great contribution to the world, that radical, revolutionary truth: we, as human beings, are born free. And any tyrant who claims otherwise, is sorely mistaken.

 

A Look at the Past, a Peek at the Future

Nick Gillespie from Reason TV sits down with the smart, engaging and inspiring Louis Rossetto – founder of the brilliant Wired Magazine – to look at what changed in the twenty years since the publication started, and where things will go next.

As always with anything made by the boys and girls at Reason, this video is well worth 15 minutes of your time.

In 1971 Rossetto co-authored a piece in the New York Times Magazine describing libertarianism as the next great social/political movement for young people, tired of the centralised zero-sum game currently played.

It’s great to see he’s still unrepentant in his outlook. And the evidence is on his side.

The Secret to World Peace

Summed up better by libertarian magicians Penn & Teller than almost anyone else:

Yup. That.

Syria, Chemicals and War

Several days ago, I posted this on Twitter:

I know, it’s a flippant, loose, possibly ignorant response to what was (then) our possible response to the chemical weapons deployment in Syria. That’s what you get for only having 140 characters to play with on Twitter.

But I stand by it. And I’m pleased that our Prime Minister took the issue of war/a clinical strike to the legislature, and that they voted against it. The media were hyperventilating over how this result weakened David Cameron, but I think it’s one of the strongest, most mature things he’s done since walking into No. 10.

And now that Obama has followed suit – citing the vote in Westminster specifically – I think Cameron will come out all the stronger.

I’m still deeply concerned that the war drum beats on in D.C. though. And it seems like the majority of the legislative branch will vote for war. There’s even worrying talk that Britain’s parliament may vote again once we get word that Assad was responsible for the chemical weapons attack.

The civil war in Syria is horrific. I mourn the loss of innocent people there, I really do. if someone wants to set up some refugee camps and needs monetary support, then tell me where to sign up. If you want to advocate clearing the trade embargoes and restrictions in Syria and anywhere else in the world, then I’ll stand by that – the only real way to guarantee security and peace in the long term. (I’ll show you a Penn & Teller clip tomorrow that perfectly explains why this works).

But we’re talking about picking winners and losers in a intricate and difficult war with too many complexities even for the Syrians themselves to understand. It’s not a war with “good” side (i.e. “the rebels”) and a “bad” side (i.e. Assad).

Yes, Assad is a monster. Maybe he or his supporters deployed those chemicals that John Kerry claims killed 1,400+ people. But the only other significant time chemical weapons were used in Syria, a UN inspection found it was rebel forces who had deployed them.

And “the rebels” are not one group. It’d be great if they were like the plucky American minutemen, fighting for freedom and independence, simply pursuing a classical liberal democratic republic. But they’re not. There isn’t two sides to this war – there’s at least seven at the last count. At least two groups of rebel forces are directly linked to Al-Qaeda. So we’re going to fight Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and back them up in Syria?

I’d love to see Assad removed from power – but replaced with what? The two million or-so Christians living in Syria are protected by the Assad regime. What happens to then once he’s gone and replaced with – possibly – something even worse?

Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe whoever from the rebel forces rises to the top will be much better than what they replace. But in a situation so complex, and with Iran, China, Russia and more involved and looking on with interest, surely the most dangerous thing for British and American political leaders to have now is certainty?