Hans Rosling’s fast forward history

You Tube version

Stunning video by Hans Rosling, the Director of the Gapminder Foundation which shows how much the wealth of the world has increased in the past 200 years.

brown – Europe
red – Asia
green – Middle East
blue – Africa
yellow – Americas

Most of the commentaries on the web praise this video to the skies. It deserves praise for its overall assessment of the progress of capitalism but there is also a tendency to fast forward through the bad times.

In 1810 the wealthiest countries were the UK and the Netherlands. The average life expectancy of every country was below 40.

Enter the industrial revolution and the wealth and life expectancy begins to dramatically improve for the countries which do industrialise. This is true although there is no mention of the appalling working conditions, the very long working hours, the child labour in the emerging factories of Britain and elsewhere. The birth pangs of capitalism  led to major upheavals in 1848, the shortening of the working day, the Factory Acts, etc.

As the wealth of countries increases then so does the gap between rich and poor countries. Rosling does mention this (at 2:35). It also needs to be emphasised that the scale he is using on the horizontal wealth axis is logarithmic, showing the per annum categories of $400 (roughly one dollar per day), $4000 ($10 per day) and $40,000 ($100 per day). If he had used a linear scale then the gap between rich and poor countries would be far more pronounced. The gap between the richest and poorest countries taken from  the closing and opening screens of this video is at least 100 times today compared with less than 10 times in 1810 (1)

He does mention the catastrophe of WW1 but then fast forwards through The Great Depression and WW2. It is far easier to fast forward through the bad times than live through them or explain them.

His focus is on post 1948, the boom years of capitalism.

By 1985 even in the poorest country, Mozambique on just $366 per year, the average lifespan was three years higher than Britain in 1810.

Wealth has increased but so has inequality. Rosling visually extracts Shanghai out of China towards the end, showing that it is similar in wealth to Italy. Then he extracts the poor inland province, Guizhou, and compares it to Pakistan. Finally, he shows how the even poorer rural part of Guizhou has a wealth index similar to Ghana, Africa. Certainly in this section there is no brushing over the real world problem of inequality in China.

He finishes on an optimistic note. The gap between the rest and the west is now closing. In the future it is possible that everyone can make it to the healthy and wealthy corner with more aid, trade, green technology and peace. Rosling slips into an optimistic version of political correctness in this parting message. This is far more welcome than the prevailing doom and gloom about the future but is still political correctness.

If we assess Rosling’s state of the world against the three criteria outlined in my earlier article, The Achilles Heel of Capitalism, then how does he go?

standard of living has increased dramatically – correct

inequality has increased too – covered well in places, but the logarithmic wealth scale distorts the huge and growing gap here

capitalism is an unstable system which can’t avoid economic crisis – Rosling fast forwards through the bad times

(1) The dynamics of the gap between rich and poor countries is further discussed in Bill Warren’s book, Imperialism Pioneer of Capitalism (1980)

2 Responses to “Hans Rosling’s fast forward history”

  1. 1 Arthur

    We need to get across both the reality of progress and the reality of a widening absolute gap both within and between countries. Most people see one or the other but not both. (eg Bill Warren, like the video provides an antidote to the gloom and doom picture of the world being de-developed but only mentions the growing absolute gap in a footnote.

    A simple policy criteria for post-capitalist economic growth should be that it narrows the absolute gap. This would not require that people in the advanced countries actually lower their standard of living towards the average, but simply that priority go to raising the level of the least developed, even at the expense of a reduced rate of improvement for the most developed.

    That would still require a massive reorientation, unfeasible without social revolution. But it doesn’t pander to the anti-working class demands that workers in developed countries go backwards instead of continuing to lead the way.

  2. 2 Steve Owens

    I wasnt sure where to put this link. So here seems OK. I am also unsure about your position on America in decline. I remember from years ago Bill was very keen on the idea but that was a long time ago. Heres the link hopefully people find it interesting.

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