July 2, 2018 10:45AM

Technological Progress Freed Children from Hard Labor

It’s summertime and across the United States, children are away from school. The custom of long breaks in the school year dates to when most Americans worked in agriculture and often needed their children’s help on the farm. Of course, most children simply didn’t attend school, instead helping with housework and grueling farm labor year-round. In 1820, for example, primary school enrollment in the United States was just over 40 percent. That percentage rapidly shot upward in the coming decades, reaching 100 percent by 1870. But even then, many children didn’t make it past elementary school. In 1870, U.S. mean years of schooling stood at just 4.28. That number has risen steadily ever since. What changed? Technology, for one thing.

In his book Enlightenment Now, Harvard University professor Steven Pinker recounts how technology helped get boys off the farm and into the classroom. He quotes a tractor advertisement from 1921:

“By investing in a Case Tractor and Ground Detour Plow and Harrow outfit now, your boy can get his schooling without interruption, and the Spring work will not suffer by his absence. Keep the boy in school—and let a Case Kerosene Tractor take his place in the field. You'll never regret either investment.”

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As more farms adopted efficiency-enhancing agricultural devices like kerosene tractors, more boys attended school instead of working the fields. For girls, the huge time savings brought on by labor-saving household devices played a similar role. As running water, electricity, washing machines, and other modern conveniences spread, time spent on housework plummeted. Pinker’s book also contains a telling chart documenting the change.

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Most of the work replaced by those technologies had traditionally fallen to mothers—and to their daughters. The time freed up by innovation enabled more girls to attend school.

Washing machines and tractors have accomplished more than just cleaning clothes and ploughing fields. They also freed America’s children to receive an education.

Today, there are still children kept from school by household labor requirements. The burden disproportionately falls on girls. According to the United Nations, data from 42 countries show that rural girls are more likely to be out of school than rural boys. In rural Sub-Saharan Africa, the U.N. data also shows that girls often spend more time gathering wood and water than boys—time that could be spent in a classroom instead.

Fortunately, access to running water and electricity is rapidly spreading across the globe. As more households gain access to modern technologies, more children will leave behind backbreaking physical labor for school books and studying.

March 8, 2018 1:00PM

What If Newspapers Reported the Real News about Human Progress?

In his new book Enlightenment Now and in his McLaughlin Lecture at the Cato Institute this week, Steven Pinker made the point that we may fail to appreciate how much progress the world has made because the news is usually about bad and unusual things. For instance, he said, quoting Max Roser, if the media truly reported the important changes in the world, "they could have run the headline NUMBER OF PEOPLE IN EXTREME POVERTY FELL BY 137,000 SINCE YESTERDAY every day for the last twenty-five years."

This is understandable. As Pinker writes, 

News is about things that happen, not things that don’t happen. We never see a journalist saying to the camera, “I’m reporting live from a country where  a war has not broken out”—or a city that has not been bombed, or a school that has not been shot up. As long as bad things have not vanished from the face of the earth, there will always be enough incidents to fill the news, especially when billions of smartphones turn most of the world’s population into crime reporters and war correspondents.

And among the things that do happen, the positive and negative ones unfold on different time lines. The news, far from being a “first draft of history,” is closer to play-by-play sports commentary. It focuses on discrete events, generally those that took place since the last edition (in earlier times, the day before; now, seconds before). Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day,  and as they unfold, they  will be out of sync with the news cycle. The peace researcher John Galtung pointed out that if a newspaper came out once every fifty years, it would not report half a century of celebrity gossip and political scandals. It would report momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.

I've noted this myself. I think the mainstream media such as NPR, which I listen to morning and evening, fail to adequately examine the most important fact in modern history—what Deirdre McCloskey calls the Great Fact, the enormous and continuing increase in human longevity and living standards since the industrial revolution. If you listen to NPR or read the New York Times, you'll be well informed about the news in general and about problems such as racism, sexism, and environmental disaster. But you won't often be reminded that we are the richest, most comfortable, best-fed, longest-lived people in history. Or as Indur Goklany put it in a book title, you won't hear about The Improving State of the World: Why We're Living Longer, Healthier, More Comfortable Lives on a Cleaner Planet.

Pinker does point out, "Information about human progress, though absent from major news outlets and intellectual forums, is easy enough to find. The data are not entombed in dry reports but are displayed in gorgeous Web sites, particularly Max Roser’s Our World in Data, Marian Tupy’s HumanProgress, and Hans Rosling’s Gapminder." But of course those aren't the major media. Which is why, he says, "And here is a shocker: The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it."

So what if the media did report the most important news, the Great Fact? I asked Cato intern Thasos Athens to help me envision that:

New York Times mockup

August 31, 2015 10:01AM

The Great Job‐​Creating Machine

As the Guardian recently reported, technology has created more jobs than it has destroyed, and the new jobs it has created have been of higher quality. Technology eliminated many difficult, tedious, and dangerous jobs, but this has been more than offset by a rise in the caring professions and in creative and knowledge-intensive jobs, resulting in a net increase in jobs.  The sectors to lose the most jobs have been agriculture and manufacturing, which are both difficult and dangerous, while work opportunities in medicine, education, welfare, and professional services have become more abundant. (For example, there are more teachers per student, improving student-teacher ratios, and there are also more physicians per person than in the past).

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In 1980, almost a quarter of the world’s employment was still in agriculture. Now, only around 15% of the world’s workers are engaged in agricultural labor. Yet we are feeding more people, undernourishment is at an all-time low, and food is becoming less expensive. Technological advances liberated humanity from toiling in fields by mechanizing many processes and boosting productivity, allowing more food to be produced per hectare of land, and freeing hundreds of millions of people to pursue less grueling work.

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The elimination of so many unsafe jobs in manufacturing and agriculture means fewer worker deaths. According to data from the International Labor Organization, from 2003 to 2013, the number of work fatalities in the world decreased by 61% (i.e., over 20,500 fewer deaths). This occurred even as the world population grew by over 700 million over the same time period. If the most dangerous thing you have to face at work is the threat of a paper cut, you quite possibly have technological innovation to thank for that.

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Even if in the future robots steal some jobs, advancing technology will likely make several higher-quality jobs available for every job lost. As the Guardian article cited earlier says, technology has proven to be a “great job-creating machine,” eliminating toilsome work but bringing into existence more—and better—opportunities than it takes away.

But note that behind every machine, there lurks human ingenuity. As Matt Ridley wrote in his book The Rational Optimist:

It is my proposition that the human race has become a collective problem-solving machine and it solves problems by changing its ways. It does so through innovation driven often by the market.

Learn more about what market-driven technological innovation has done to improve the state of humanity at HumanProgress.org.

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January 17, 2010 1:46PM

The Way We Were

Conservatives and even libertarians often view history through the prism of "the road to serfdom," believing that there was some golden age of liberty in the past that is progressively being eroded. Two recent articles remind us of some of the problems with that thesis.

An obituary in today's Washington Post told of what happened to American-born May Asaki and her family after the outbreak of war between the United States and her parents' home country of Japan:

On May 8, 1942 -- May Asaki's 23rd birthday -- she and her family were loaded into the back of an Army truck and sent to a detention center. They were allotted one suitcase each.

May, who was the second oldest of 11 children, spoke only rudimentary Japanese and had known no home but California. Her older brother volunteered for the Army the day after Pearl Harbor, but his patriotism didn't help her family. U.S. authorities considered Americans of Japanese descent to be potential enemies during World War II, and the Asaki family eventually ended up at an internment camp in a snake-infested swamp in Arkansas. Within six months, May's mother was dead at 48.

"My older brother was serving in the U.S. Army while our family was incarcerated as criminals," May wrote in her memoir, "the stress of which was too great for our mother to bear."

The only good thing to be said for May's two years of captivity was that she met Paul Ishimoto, whom she married in April 1944. Three months later, when their internment camp was closed, they moved to Washington. The federal government gave them $25 apiece to start a new life.

We can only hope that census data will never again be used to round up American citizens and imprison them on the basis of their race. Meanwhile, at the Independent Gay Forum, David Link writes about a historian who was frustrated in trying to find stories in the Los Angeles Times archives about homosexuality in L.A. during the mid-20th century. His searches kept coming up empty. Had they simply never covered such stories?

Then he realized that he was searching for words and phrases he was used to using: “homosexual” and “gay” and “sexual orientation.”  But those were not the words journalists would have used prior to our own time.

Try it for yourself.  If you have access to any database of news stories up to about the 1960s, see how many articles you can find about homosexuality using the words you know to describe sexual orientation.

Than try using these: “deviant;” “degenerate;” “pervert.”

That is the way homosexuality was both understood and reported (when it was reported at all) in days gone by.

Those are the words, and the preconceptions, that would have been dominant, if not exclusive in the minds of the single demographic we can most reliably count on to vote against us today – seniors.  Those who grew up in the 1930s and 40s and 50s would have, first, avoided any possible discussion of such an unpleasant and impolite subject as homosexuality.  That is how the closet – the don’t ask, don’t tell of its day -- accommodated the times.

But denial on such a wide scale has to begin fraying at the edges.  And when homosexuality did come up, as Chauncey so vividly described -- in criminal trials, bar raids, and mass arrests – the reporting had a condemnatory force built-in.  The police arrested a dozen sexual perverts; a high-profile degenerate was found in a love nest; a bar owner lost his license because his business catered to deviants.

Taxes may have been lower in the 1950s (though come to think of it, the marginal rate was 91 percent). Regulation may been less burdensome (except for the New Deal-derived microregulation of finance, transportation, and communications). The labor market may have been freer (unless you got drafted into the armed services, like Elvis and millions of other young men). But stories like this remind us of how many people were excluded from the promises of the Declaration of Independence -- the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness -- throughout American history. Liberalism has always campaigned for a society of merit, not of status. That meant in the first place the dismantling of the privileges of nobility and aristocracy. Over the centuries it has also meant extending liberty and equality to people of other races and creeds, to women, to Jews, to gays and lesbians. And current historical trends are certainly more complicated than worries about a road to serfdom, or nostalgia for "the world we have lost."

October 14, 2009 1:33PM

Technology: Debating the Pace of Progress

Last night, thanks to Craigslist and a Web-enabled cell phone, I unloaded two extra tickets to tonight's World Cup qualifying game between the U.S. and Costa Rica in under an hour. (8:00, ESPN2 "USA! USA! USA!")

Wanting to avoid the hassle of selling the tickets at RFK, I placed an ad on Craigslist offering them at cost, figuring I might find a taker and arrange to hand them off downtown today or at the stadium tonight. Checking email as I walked to the gym, I found an inquiry about the tickets and phoned the guy, who happened to live 100 feet from where I was walking. A few minutes later, he had the tickets and I had the cash.

This quaint story is a single data point in a trend line---the high-tech version of It's Getting Better All the Time. Everyone living a connected life enjoys hundreds, or even thousands, of conveniences every day because of information technology. Through billions of transactions across the society, technology improves our lives in ways unimaginable two decades ago.

Before 1995, nobody ever traded spare soccer tickets in under an hour, on a Tuesday night, without even changing his evening routine. If soccer tickets are too trivial (you must not understand the game), the same dynamics deliver incremental, but massive improvements in material wealth, awareness, education, and social and political empowerment to everyone---even those who don't live "online."

Sometimes debates about technology regulation are cast in doom and gloom terms like the Malthusian arguments about material wealth. But the benefits we already enjoy thanks to technology are not going away, and they will continue to accrue. We are arguing about the pace of progress, not its existence.

This is no reason to let up in our quest to give technologists and investors the freedom to produce more innovations that enhance everyone's well-being even more. But it does counsel us to be optimistic and to teach this optimism to our ideological opponents, many of whom seem to look ahead and see only calamity.

August 19, 2009 12:19PM

“If You’re Not Having Fun Advocating for Freedom, You’re Doing it Wrong!”

The health care debate has catalyzed a wonderful national clash of cultures centering on freedom versus control. Here's one example that's both complex and delightful.

Progressive site TalkingPointsMemo ran a story yesterday about a man named "Chris" who carried a rifle outside an event in Phoenix at which President Obama appeared. "We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote," Chris said.

To many TPM readers, this kind of thing is self-evidently shocking and wrong: Carrying a weapon is inherently threatening, Second Amendment notwithstanding. And vowing to resist the properly expressed will of the majority---isn't that an outrageous denial of our democratic values?

Well, . . . No. Our constitution specifically denies force to democratic outcomes that impinge on freedom of speech and religion, on bearing arms, and on the security of our persons, houses, papers, and effects, to name a few. Our constitution also tightly circumscribed the powers of the federal government. Those restrictions were breached without abiding the supermajority requirements of Article V, alas.

There are many nuances in this clash of cultures, and it's fascinating to watch the battle for credibility. One ugly issue is preempted rather handily by the fact that Chris is African-American.

Next question, taken up by CNN: Was the interview staged? Hell, yeah! says Chris' interviewer. And they know each other---big deal.

Finally, they were laughing and having a good time. Isn't this serious? Yes, it is serious, says Chris' interviewer, but "If you're not having fun advocating for freedom, you're doing it wrong!"

It's a great line---friendly, in-your-face advocacy that might just succeed in familiarizing more Americans with the idea of living as truly free people.

Today Talking Points Memo is charging that the man who interviewed Chris was a prominent defender of a militia group in the 90s, some members of which were convicted of crimes. I know nothing of the truth or falsity of this charge, and I had never heard of the militia group, the interviewer, or his organization before today.

This struggle over credibility is all part of the battle between freedom and control that is playing itself out right now. It's an exciting time, and a chance for many more Americans to learn about liberty and the people who live it.

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