Since Microsoft founder Bill Gates retired from the corporate world last year, he has been devoting most of his time and money to solving the world’s poverty problem. And he is an unapologetic optimist about the prospect of his work.
Ahead of last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, the 63-year-old billionaire tweeted a group of infographics made by University of Oxford economist Max Roser that visualize the historical changes in human societies over the span of 200 years—most notably a chart showing the sharp decline in the percentage of people living in extreme poverty between 1820 and today.
“This is one of my favorite infographics,” Gates tweeted. “A lot of people underestimate just how much life has improved over the last two centuries.”
The same set of data was also cited by some of Gates’ equally influential intellectuals, including Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker in his 2018 book Enlightenment Now.
However, a British anthropologist disagrees with Gates and Pinker and finds their “the-world-is-getting-better” rationale deeply flawed.
In an op-ed for The Guardian this week, Jason Hickel, a professor at the London School of Economics and a prolific author on the topics of globalization, democracy and economy, argued that the “poverty” infographic charting out 200 years of poverty was based off of a flawed methodology.
“First of all, real data on poverty has only been collected since 1981. Anything before that is extremely sketchy, and to go back as far as 1820 is meaningless,” Hickel explained, adding that the data set used by Roser was originally intended to describe the distribution of world GDP, not poverty. What the data actually revealed was that “the world went from a situation where most of humanity had no need of money at all to one where today most of humanity struggles to survive on extremely small amounts of money.”
A key force driving that change was the onset of capitalism and colonization in recent centuries, Hickel argued. Prior to colonization, most of the world’s population lived in “subsistence economies” where they relied not on money, but actual resource such as land, livestock and a system of sharing and reciprocity.
“They had little if any money, but then they didn’t need it in order to live well—so it makes little sense to claim that they were poor,” Hickel wrote.
It’s true that the expansion of capitalism fueled advances in science, education and human longevity, which were fairly illustrated in Gates’ tweet as well, but a capitalism system, coupled with colonization, turned those naturally well-off people into laborers living on paltry wages insufficient to buy back the life quality they’d enjoyed in the first place.
“Gates’s favorite infographic takes the violence of colonization and repackages it as a happy story of progress,” Hickel panned.
Hickel also challenged the definition of “extreme poverty” in Gates’ chart, which was qualified to a daily income of $1.90 (or what $1.90 could buy in the U.S. in 2011). Hickel said that most economists nowadays would agree on $7.40 as a more realistic number to draw the extreme poverty line at.
And lastly, because the majority of global economic gains in the past 40 years (the time period showing the sharpest decline of poverty) came out of China, “it is disingenuous for the likes of Gates and Pinker to claim these gains as victories for Washington-consensus neoliberalism,” Hickel deadpanned.