As 2019 came to a close, several writers took note of the progress that has been made in recent years. Good news often goes unreported, because it doesn't attract as many clicks or eyeballs in the digital age. But there has been quite a bit of good news.

For example, Nicholas Kristoff wrote in The New York Times that "This Has Been the Best Year Ever." Among the glad tidings:

  • In 1950, 27% of children died by age 15. Now only 4% do.
  • The percentage of people living in "extreme poverty" (defined as subsisting on $2 per day or less) has fallen from 42% in 1981 to 10% today.
  • Fifty years ago a majority of people worldwide were illiterate. Now we are approaching 90% adult literacy.
  • In recent years, every day another 325,000 people acquired electricity for the first time, and 200,000 got piped water. Every day some 650,000 were able to go online for the first time, according to the World Bank.

There are plenty of problems left to solve in the world, but progress of this sort ought to be recognized for the hope it may inspire.

Doing more with less

In a similar vein, Matt Ridley covered progress in Britain in "We've just had the best decade in human history. Seriously" published in The Spectator. Asia and Africa have experienced faster economic growth than Europe or North America, with the consequence that global inequality is falling. Famine is nearly extinct. Malaria, polio, and heart disease are in decline. 

Ridley goes on to assert that we are consuming less, even during periods of prosperity. As one simple example, he notes that in 1959 each drink can contained 85 grams of aluminum. Today, just 15 grams are needed, and most are obtained from recycled material. 

Consumption appears to have peaked in Britain about 2000. "The quantity of all resources consumed per person in Britain (domestic extraction of biomass, metals, minerals, and fossil fuels, plus imports minus exports) fell by a third between 2000 and 2017, from 12.5 tonnes to 8.5 tonnes," Ridley reports. Even though the population has grown since then, that growth has been outpaced by this decline in resource use. The net result is that fewer resources are being consumed in absolute terms.

Increases in agricultural productivity mean that much less land is required to feed even a growing population. In a 2012 study, Jesse Ausubel of Rockefeller University concluded that 65% less land was being used for a given amount of food production compared to 50 years earlier. Less land dedicated to agriculture means that forests are expanding, especially in the richer countries. The return of habitat is accompanied by a rebound in animal and bird populations.

Perhaps the most surprising statistic is that total energy consumption in Britain has fallen by 10% since 1970, even though the population is up 20% and the economy has tripled. Improved energy efficiency gets part of the credit. However, another factor is that some energy-intensive industries, such as the steel, aluminum, and chemical companies have relocated offshore. Imports of these commodities include embedded energy usage that doesn't show up in the tallies.

Can we keep it going?

The Dow Jones Industrial Average opened the last decade at 10,430.49. It closed at 28,538.44. It was a great decade to invest in stocks, unlike the first decade of this century when the DJIA finished lower.

There are at least two schools of thought. One is that the current bull market has the longest duration of any in U.S. history, and it is overdue for a correction. When we are at record highs, the upside potential is smaller than the downside risk.

The other theory is that the fundamentals of the American economy remain very strong, especially the employment numbers. Although recessions may be inevitable, there isn't one on the horizon as of yet.

(January 2020)
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