The Most Important Inequalities Are Dying

Life, literacy, and the pursuit of happiness

It’s a common cry among my left-of-center colleagues: inequality is rising, both within the U.S. and around the world. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer. The rich countries are getting richer, and the poor countries are getting poorer (and neoliberalism is almost entirely to blame). Depending on which numbers you pick and how you present them (lies, damned lies, etc.), you can make the case for or against these dire proclamations.

What is not in doubt, however, is that in two very important areas, the world is not only becoming better overall, but also more equal: life expectancy and literacy.

Although I’ve known about these trends for some time, I was reminded of them while listening to this podcast episode:

The host, Ben Domenech, interviewed American Enterprise Institute’s Nicholas Eberstadt, AEI’s Henry Wendt Chair in Political Economy, who recently wrote a chapter in Anti-Piketty — Capital for the 21st Century, entitled “Longevity, Education, and the Huge New Worldwide Increases in Equality.”

Eberstadt claims the problem with most talk about inequality these days is that it focuses on income or wealth at the expense of two very important human indices of well-being: life expectancy and education:

For one thing, our true ability to measure economic inequality remains far less precise than is generally understood. Even in data-rich America, for example, statistics on the nation’s wealth distribution are at best rudimentary. Estimates of economic inequality differ dramatically depending on whether one looks at personal income or instead examines personal consumption, which seems to be distributed much more evenly. Yet more important, economic inequality is hardly the only form of inequality bearing directly on human well-being and life chances — and trends in income inequality are not necessarily representative of the other basic changes that so powerfully shape modern living standards.

Even the most strident critic of global capitalism or neoliberalism should wrestle with the reality that people the world over are living longer and longer (though not as fast as we would like), and, similarly, are spending more time being educated (though the quality of that education obviously varies).

To wit:

(Our World in Data)

In a bit more detail:

(Our World in Data)

Not only have lifespans exploded globally, but inequality of health outcomes is decreasing rapidly between rich and poor people and between rich and poor nations. This is to be expected, as advances in medicine and other technologies adopted by — and at times even secured for — the wealthy (and wealthy nations) tend to spread to the less wealthy over time, eventually benefitting pretty much everyone.

Inequality persists, of course. But, over time, inequalities of life expectancy within and across countries are experiencing a downward trend.

What about education? We know that education is a key to upward mobility, economic success, improved health outcomes, and a host of other benefits. It is a shame that education remains so unevenly distributed among rich and poor people and nations, but the trend in this area is also promising.

(Our World in Data)

Not only is world illiteracy slowly becoming a thing of the past, but poorer countries are starting to catch up to richer countries in terms of literacy and schooling:

(Our World in Data)

More and more people are learning to read, and more and more children are increasing their time spent in school worldwide:

(Our World in Data)

The above is not to deny the massive problems that remain. Obviously, inequalities are remarkably resilient, and a case could even be made that they are ineliminable. But whether they are social fixtures or whether they can be one day be entirely gotten rid of, the good news is an important set of them — in the categories of health and education — are not growing but shrinking. And taking the scope of human history into account, the rate at which it’s happening is unprecedented and special.

Logically, if you have to be alive to appreciate increased income, and income equality, and if education helps improve economic and health outcomes, then these two indices of human well-being should be at least as important as income inequality and wealth inequality when it comes to evaluating whether our current global economic and political systems are working, or whether they should be scrapped for something else.

As far as living a long life and being able to read are concerned, it appears that we should keep doing whatever we’ve been doing over the past couple of centuries.

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