Enlightenment Now, and Zimbabwe Fuel Prices

A recent story that caught my eye is Steven Pinker’s discussion of the response to his recent book, Enlightenment Now. One reaction was from people who seem to be psychologically committed to believing progress hasn’t happened:

[Critics say:] All those numbers showing that the world has been getting better must have been cherry-picked.

This is topsy-turvy, and comes from an incredulity at the very possibility that the world could have gotten better.

Sometimes the incredulity is nakedly political. For those reviewers who were offended by my wisecrack that progressives hate progress, consider these 2017 tweets from the left-wing activist David Graeber (spotted by Charles Kenny in his review It’s Not As Bad as All That): “Does anyone know any handy rebuttals to the neoliberal/conservative numbers on social progress over the last 30 years? again & again i see these guys trundling out #s that absolute poverty, illiteracy, child malnutrition, child labor, have sharply declined.... It strikes me as highly unlikely these numbers are right … It’s clear this is all put together by right-wing think tanks. Yet where’s the other sides numbers? I’ve found no clear rebuttals.”

Indeed. The picture of the world presented in EN comes from data which aggregate all the cherries. I began with the three variables that every thinker on social progress agrees are the baseline for measuring well-being: longevity, prosperity, and education (being healthy, wealthy, and wise).

Which brings me to another recent story: the Zimbabwean government has  doubled the price of fuel, and people are rioting:

Several people have been killed during protests in Zimbabwe after the government more than doubled the price of fuel overnight.

Hundreds more were arrested as demonstrators took to the streets in the cities of Harare and Bulawayo. Burning tyres have been used to barricade roads and block bus routes.

The hike means petrol prices rose from $1.24 (£0.97) a litre to $3.31 , with diesel up from $1.36 a litre to $3.11.

This suggests to me that enough people have cars, motorbikes and other motor vehicles that the price rise hurts them. The most recent statistics I could find for motor vehicles in Zimbabwe are from 2007, when there were 114 motor vehicles per 1000 people (not including motorbikes).

Let’s compare that with what was the most developed country in the world in the early 20th century, the USA. In 1907, car production was about 40,000 (sharply increasing from previous years), so I estimate there would have been about 240,000 vehicles on the roads. Population was about 90 million, to that’s 2.7 per 1000 people.

Zimbabwe, one of the world’s poorest countries, was doing vastly better in 2007 than the world’s richest country was 100 years previously.

Some might say I’m cherry-picking the figures by taking the years 2007/1907, shortly before Ford started mass-producing the Model T.. Let’s assume there were no more cars in Zimbabwe in 2019 than 2007. In 1919, Ford produced 820,000 cars. Total production in the 10 years to 1919 was probably in the region of 15 million, giving about 140 per 1000 people. However, the USA was vastly ahead of all other countries in 1919.

Zimbabwe in 2019 has a car ownership slightly less than the USA in 1919, and way ahead of most developed countries at that time.

I could look up figures for life expectancy, infant mortality, literacy, fridge/radio/TV ownership, and they would all tell a similar story. Progress is happening and those who say it isn’t are ignorant and self-deceiving.


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