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Paul Segal

Inequality and poverty; history and counterfactuals

by Paul Segal on November 17, 2022

In 1979 Keith Joseph and Jonathan Sumption (he more recently of the UK’s Supreme Court) wrote:

A family is poor if it cannot afford to eat. It is not poor if it cannot afford endless smokes and it does not become poor by the mere fact that other people can afford them. A person who enjoys a standard of living equal to that of a medieval baron cannot be described as poor for the sole reason that he has chanced to be born into a society where the great majority can live like medieval kings. By any absolute standard there is very little poverty in Britain today.

There are a lot of things wrong with this passage, which informed Joseph’s policy advice to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister of the UK. But it raises important questions about counterfactuals in thinking about inequality, poverty, and well-being. 

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Crooked, but crooked upwards: A reply to sceptics

by Paul Segal on October 27, 2022

What a pleasure to join Crooked Timber! It’s been great to receive the comments on my first post. Here I’ll address what I see as the three main points of criticism.

Criticism A. Some things are worse for some people.

I agree with this, of course, and it’s not inconsistent with my claim that most things are better for most people. But perhaps what underlies this kind of response is a distaste for my implicit claim that we can judge various bads against each other. One comment implied that war in Ukraine (and I would add Ethiopia, Yemen, etc.) just isn’t comparable with improved civil rights in much of the world. I agree that there’s no objective way to weigh-up civil rights with risks to health or physical safety. But I do insist on one kind of comparability: for a given kind of suffering, the only kind of judgement that makes sense has to be based on cosmopolitanism – that our starting point must be that all humans are of equal value. If something bad happens to a thousand people, that’s terrible. If it happens to a million people, yes, it’s a thousand times more terrible. That means we have to look at global numbers, and those numbers, in almost any dimension we look at, are vastly better than in the past.

This also points to what’s problematic with some uses of claims like “poverty reduction is slow outside China”. If that statement is used to argue that we should all learn from China, then yes, absolutely we should. But if it’s intended as a normative statement about human well-being, to diminish the claim that human well-being has improved enormously, then it’s hard not to interpret it as racism.

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Crooked, but crooked upwards

by Paul Segal on October 21, 2022

Bad news surrounds us. Russia invading Ukraine. Fascism in Italy. Catastrophic floods in Pakistan. The criminalisation of abortion in parts of the USA. Melting glaciers. Bolsonaro (though hopefully not for much longer). Coming on the back of the worst pandemic in a century it’s hard to avoid the feeling that the world is entering a truly nasty period.

The science fiction writer Cixin Liu describes a civilisation on a planet orbiting two suns, trapped in what physicists call the three body problem – the chaotic, unpredictable motion traversed by three masses orbiting each other, radically different from the smooth path followed by a simple co-orbiting pair like the Earth and our sun. When the planet is relatively close to just one sun they enjoy a Stable Era – life evolves, civilization advances. But because of the three body problem, it is impossible to predict how long this will last before the onset of a Chaotic Era: the planet is either pulled close to both suns, burning all life to ashes, or drifts away from both suns, freezing all life in the cold of open space.

For Liu, these unpredictable catastrophes are a metaphor for China’s Cultural Revolution, as chaotic and unpredictable as it was destructive. Today many of us feel the Stable Era of the 1990s to 2008 – or perhaps even since the 1950s – is over, and we are about to be either fried in a nuclear conflict, or frozen as we can’t afford to pay sky-rocketing energy bills this winter.

At least, that’s how I and many of my friends and acquaintances feel. But if we’re honest, we’re hardly representative. Everyone is entitled to complain about their own burdens. Yet if we want to make a judgement about the state of the world – and people often do – then we need to take the time to look at some data. When we do that, our current downtick hardly makes a dent on the improvements in human well-being of the last half century. Child mortality, literacy, early deaths, it’s hard to find an indicator of global human well being that hasn’t improved in the last 10 years, and improved massively in the last 50.
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