LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) – The world economy is set to enjoy a very good year. In that, it will be much like 2018 and 2017 and most probably like 2020 and 2021. Economic growth will be fairly strong in most of the countries where such expansion does the most good. While rich countries worry about objectively tiny setbacks, poor people are overall gaining more of the dignity that comes with adequate material comfort.
Consider extreme poverty. The World Bank draws the line between the wretched of the earth and everyone else at daily consumption of goods and services worth $1.90. The Our World in Data website at Oxford University estimates that 72 percent of the world’s population lived below that line in 1950. The World Bank’s preliminary estimate for 2018 is 8.6 percent, down from 10 percent in 2015.
Fewer very poor people means more are enjoying better lives. The proportion of the global population without access to electricity is declining by about 0.3 percentage points a year. The number of children not enrolled in school is shrinking by about 5 million annually. Almost every indicator of basic prosperity shows the same trend.
The good news is pretty much global. Even Africa, long the lagging continent, is starting to catch up. The proportion of African children that die before they turn five has declined from 21 percent in 1975 to 8 percent in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available. Better health comes from – and with – greater wealth. Real per person income in sub-Saharan Africa has increased by 40 percent in the last decade.
Not all the news is good. Due to war and civil conflict, primarily in Africa, the proportion of the world’s population that is undernourished has risen by 0.2 percentage points in the last two years. Still, at 11.9 percent, it is 2.2 percentage points lower than a decade ago.
The prediction of more global gains in 2019 is pretty solid. There are also good reasons to believe that 2029 will be fine. Economic growth in very poor countries is becoming a virtuous circle. More education and better health creates better workers, who support stronger institutions, which make larger and more effective investments, which produce the money needed to pay for even better schooling and health.
That pattern has held in country after country for at least two decades. Bad governments do slow progress, but it takes war or total state failure, as in Venezuela, to reverse the progress.
The almost unstoppable global retreat of misery and ignorance is arguably the best news ever in economic history. For political history, however, the trends are far less clear. The old belief that greater wealth would naturally bring more open societies looks flawed. The populace of many countries, both richer and poorer, seem pretty happy with autocratic and extreme nationalist governments.
China is the prime example. The oppressive and fairly corrupt Communist Party has presided over rapid and widespread increases in prosperity. Its cross-border ambitions, both civil and military, have expanded as well.
That is worrying for many reasons. One of them is that war is probably the only force destructive enough to stop the upward march of global economic good news. The great question, for both 2019 and 2029, is whether progress will threaten prosperity by leading to the use of the world’s ever-larger supply of ever more deadly arms.