The Dramatic Decline in World Poverty

This week the World Bank released new data on world poverty, and projects it to fall to a record low of 9.6 percent in 2015. The graph below shows the dramatic decline of global poverty over the past few decades.



Using updated methodology, the World Bank recalculated poverty figures back to 1990. The new data track closely with previous Bank figures, which I use in the graph to show the fall in poverty since the early 1980s when 43 percent of the world’s population was extremely poor. The record on poverty reduction is consistent with the unprecedented progress that humanity has made around the world in the whole range of indicators of well-being, and which researchers and others can explore at

The drop in poverty also coincides with a significant increase in global economic freedom, beginning with China’s reforms some 35 years ago and the globalization that followed the collapse of central planning in the late 1980s and early 1990s. As we celebrate this achievement and strive for further progress, we should not lose sight of the central role that voluntary exchange, freedom of choice, competition and protection of property play in ending privation.


Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in September

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct website, we have identified the worst case for the month of September.  This one goes to the Chicago Police Department, and, in particular, to the officers responsible for arresting George Roberts.

Here’s the background: CBS Chicago reports on a lawsuit filed by Roberts against the City of Chicago.  According to Roberts, he was falsely arrested and roughed up by the police following a traffic stop.  Roberts says the abuse of power began once the officers discovered that he worked for the Independent Police Review Authority, which investigates police misconduct.  Mysteriously, several police cameras were shut down, contrary to department policy.  Here is an excerpt from the news story:

Roberts said he was initially stopped for a minor traffic violation, but was then pushed in the back by one of the officers and forced to the ground. He said in the lawsuit that an officer shouted, “Don’t make me [expletive] shoot you.”

But “when the (officers) turned off the dash camera, things got worse,” his attorneys write in the lawsuit.

Roberts, who was handcuffed and placed in the back of a police vehicle, complained that the handcuffs were too tight, according to the lawsuit. The 6-foot-3, 315 pound man says that, instead, it would have have been appropriate for officers to use multiple handcuffs strung together for someone of his size.

He says in the lawsuit that one of the officers responded to his complaints: “What are you going to tell me next, you can’t breathe?” — an apparent reference to Eric Garner, a New York City man who died in 2014 as a result of a police choke hold.

Roberts also says he was told “that’s your fault,” when he pointed out that his weight made the single set of handcuffs painful.

Read the whole thing.  Roberts was suspended from his job while criminal charges were pending, but after his acquittal, he was able to return to work.  The Chicago Police Department had no comment on Roberts’ acquittal or his lawsuit.


Whole Milk and Humility

Dr. Melik: This morning for breakfast he requested something called “wheat germ, organic honey and tiger’s milk.”

Dr. Aragon: [chuckling] Oh, yes. Those are the charmed substances that some years ago were thought to contain life-preserving properties.

Dr. Melik: You mean there was no deep fat? No steak or cream pies or… hot fudge?

Dr. Aragon: Those were thought to be unhealthy… precisely the opposite of what we now know to be true.

Science hasn’t yet advanced as far as Woody Allen imagined in the movie Sleeper. But the Washington Post does report on its front page today, as the House Agriculture Committee holds a hearing on the government’s official Dietary Guidelines, that decades of government warnings about whole milk may have been in error. 

In fact, research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

By warning people against full-fat dairy foods, the U.S. is “losing a huge opportunity for the prevention of disease,” said Marcia Otto, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Texas, and the lead author of large studies published in 2012 and 2013, which were funded by government and academic institutions, not the industry. “What we have learned over the last decade is that certain foods that are high in fat seem to be beneficial.”

The Post’s Peter Whoriskey notes that some scientists objected early on that a thin body of research was being turned into dogma:

“The vibrant certainty of scientists claiming to be authorities on these matters is disturbing,” George V. Mann, a biochemist at Vanderbilt’s med school wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine [in 1977].

Ambitious scientists and food companies, he said, had “transformed [a] fragile hypothesis into treatment dogma.”

And not just dogma but also government pressure, official Dietary Guidelines, food labeling regulations, government support for particular lines of research, bans on whole milk in school lunches, taxes and regulations to crack down on saturated fats and then on trans fats and salt. Earlier today Walter Olson noted numerous past examples of bad government advice on nutrition.

It’s understandable that some scientific studies turn out to be wrong. Science is a process of trial and error, hypothesis and testing. Some studies are bad, some turn out to have missed complicating factors, some just point in the wrong direction. I have no criticism of scientists’ efforts to find evidence about good nutrition and to report what they (think they) have learned. My concern is that we not use government coercion to tip the scales either in research or in actual bans and mandates and Official Science. Let scientists conduct research, let other scientists examine it, let journalists report it, let doctors give us advice. But let’s keep nutrition – and much else – in the realm of persuasion, not force. First, because it’s wrong to use force against peaceful people, and second, because we might be wrong.

This last point reflects the humility that is an essential part of the libertarian worldview. As I wrote in The Libertarian Mind:

Libertarians are sometimes criticized for being too “extreme,” for having a “dogmatic” view of the role of government. In fact, their firm commitment to the full protection of individual rights and a strictly limited government reflects their fundamental humility. One reason to oppose the establishment of religion or any other morality is that we recognize the very real possibility that our own views may be wrong. Libertarians support a free market and widely dispersed property ownership because they know that the odds of a monopolist finding a great new advance for civilization are slim. Hayek stressed the crucial significance of human ignorance throughout his work. In The Constitution of Liberty, he wrote, “The case for individual freedom rests chiefly on the recognition of the inevitable ignorance of all of us concerning a great many of the factors on which the achievement of our ends and welfare depends…. Liberty is essential in order to leave room for the unforeseeable and unpredictable.” The nineteenth-century American libertarian Lillian Harman, rejecting state control of marriage and family, wrote in Liberty in 1895, “If I should be able to bring the entire world to live exactly as I live at present, what would that avail me in ten years, when as I hope, I shall have a broader knowledge of life, and my life therefore probably changed?” Ignorance, humility, toleration—not exactly a ringing battle cry, but an important argument for limiting the role of coercion in society.

Today’s scientific hypotheses may be wrong. Better, then, not to make them law.

Competition Could Propel Mankind to Mars

Humanity’s excitement about space exploration is evident, from the reaction to the recent announcement of potential water on Mars, to the box office success of The Martian–a movie about a manned mission to the red planet.  Given the public interest in space travel, why hasn’t a man or woman actually stepped foot on Mars yet? Let’s consider some key factors affecting the pace of progress.

First, there is the obvious: appropriate technology takes time to develop. The journey from rudimentary hot air balloons and gliders to supersonic jets did not happen overnight. There is good news on this front, however.  Thanks to better communications and computing, human knowledge has the potential to expand at an exponential rate.

Second, competition is a major driver of progress, and the space industry has not been subject to intense competition since the Cold War’s end. Increasing private sector involvement may change that. For example, even after civil aviation took off, flight was a luxury enjoyed by few. But as deregulation opened up the industry to more intense competition, flight rapidly became more accessible. Today, more people fly than ever.

Competition between the U.S. and the Soviet Union during the Space Race fueled most of humanity’s spaceflight achievements, but the Cold War’s conclusion brought this competition to an end. Today, governments have limited incentive to push the boundaries of the final frontier. As a result, space exploration has stagnated.

Fortunately, a new era of private space exploration may be dawning, enabling competition to once again flourish as profits drive a new space race. The conditions have never been better. There exist potential customers eager to pay large sums for the chance to go to space for a few minutes, and still others willing to leave Earth for a lifetime on Mars. Private enterprises like SpaceX, while still in their early phases, could rekindle competition and help spark a renewed sense of urgency in the realm of spaceflight.

Humanity has dreamt of space travel for as long as we have gazed up at the stars, and increased competition could help bring those dreams to fruition. This short video beautifully depicts some of the possibilities of human space exploration. You need only look back on how far humanity has come since 1915 to gain perspective on how far we may go in the next century.

Government on Nutrition: Often Wrong, Seldom in Doubt

According to Peter Whoriskey’s Washington Post report this morning, the latest conventional wisdom to reverse in the nutrition world is on whole versus low-fat milk:

U.S. dietary guidelines have long recommended that people steer clear of whole milk, and for decades, Americans have obeyed. Whole milk sales shrunk. It was banned from school lunch programs. Purchases of low-fat dairy climbed.

…[But] research published in recent years indicates that the opposite might be true: millions might have been better off had they stuck with whole milk.

Scientists who tallied diet and health records for several thousand patients over ten years found, for example, that contrary to the government advice, people who consumed more milk fat had lower incidence of heart disease.

Readers of this space will be familiar with the pattern. Previous advice from Washington about the supposed hazards of eggs and other cholesterol-laden foods, the advantages of replacing butter and other animal fats with trans fats, and the gains to be made from switching from regular to diet soda, have all had to be re-evaluated and sometimes reversed in later years. And yet some in the public health establishment — including a few who are quoted in today’s Post article— still aspire to use the power of government to coerce changes in citizens’ diet. They seem to imagine that with people like themselves in charge, next time will be different.

A Case for Making TTIP Better for Workers

In today’s Cato Online Forum essay, George Washington University Professor of Foreign Affairs Susan Ariel Aaronson argues that the “TTIP provides an opportunity to think differently about how policymakers in advanced industrialized economies can protect labor rights, encourage job creation, and empower workers.”  After describing some of the concerns workers have about the TTIP and explaining why certain parts of the agreement could serve to undermine labor rights, Susan provides some fresh recommendations for making the TTIP more appealing to workers.

Read it. Provide feedback.  And register for Cato’s October 12 TTIP conference.


Postal Privatization Gaining Broad Support

Brookings scholar Elaine Kamarck has a new study favoring partial privatization of the U.S. Postal Service (USPS). Her study comes on the heels of a solid study by Clinton administration economist Robert Shapiro, who looked at the subsidies and regulatory protections enjoyed by the USPS.

Conservative and libertarian scholars have discussed the advantages of USPS privatization for years. Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, and other countries have privatized their systems. But the mainstream media and leaders in Congress have taken little notice. Kamarck’s study generated a respectful news story in the Washington Post, so hopefully the addition of centrist scholars to the debate will generate momentum for reform.

Kamarck discusses the rise of the Internet, the plunge in snail mail volume, and the postal system’s endemic red ink. She discusses the increasing concerns about the USPS competing against private firms in areas such as package delivery.

Kamarck advocates splitting the USPS into two pieces: a government piece that fulfills the “universal service” mandate for delivering mail to every address, and a private piece that would handle activities that compete with other companies.