Was that the best decade ever?

And so another year, another decade, draws to a close. At times like this many of us like to look back over the period just ended and try to form some preliminary judgement.

In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes that ‘This Has Been the Best Year Ever‘. “The bad things that you fret about are true”, he writes,

But it’s also true that since modern humans emerged about 200,000 years ago, 2019 was probably the year in which children were least likely to die, adults were least likely to be illiterate and people were least likely to suffer excruciating and disfiguring diseases.

Every single day in recent years, another 325,000 people got their first access to electricity. Each day, more than 200,000 got piped water for the first time. And some 650,000 went online for the first time, every single day.

As I did in a recent op ed in the Star Tribune titled ‘We live in the luckiest era in history, and here’s why‘, Kristof draws attention to mankind’s stunning success reducing infant mortality. “Historically, almost half of all humans died in childhood“, he writes, “As recently as 1950, 27 percent of all children still died by age 15. Now that figure has dropped to about 4 percent”.

Kristof goes on, citing a vast set of statistics which show that life on earth has never been better than it is right now.

“If you were given the opportunity to choose the time you were born in, it’d be pretty risky to choose a time in any of the thousands of generations in the past,” noted Max Roser, an Oxford University economist who runs the Our World in Data website. “Almost everyone lived in poverty, hunger was widespread and famines common.”

“Climate change remains a huge threat to our globe”, Kristof writes. But, as I noted in the Star Tribune,

…beyond a certain level of wealth, countries become greener. Worldwide, between 1990 and 2014, CO2 emissions per $1 of GDP fell from 0.76 kg to 0.32 kg — a 58% decline. In the U.S., they fell from 0.81 kg to 0.30 kg — 63%. There needn’t be a trade-off between the environment and continued economic growth.

This is because economic growth is not about inputs. It is about outputs. Specifically, it is about generating more outputs from a given amount of inputs – increasing productivity. This is the essence of economic growth. It is driven by new ideas, not new inputs. And, where we might have a fixed amount of coal or oil which we could deplete, there is no reason to think that there is a fixed amount of ideas which we could run down in the same way. That is why, over the 200 years or so of capitalism, people who call continued economic growth “fairy tales” have been proved wrong time and time again.

So, yes, materially the 2010s were probably the best decade ever, 2019 was probably the best year ever, and we are the luckiest generation ever to have lived. Let us hope new years and new decades are as good to us.


John Phelan is an economist at the Center of the American Experiment.