A Better World, Backed by Data

It’s politics season in America. This one is particularly bad. I’ll leave off lamenting our lack of endearing candidates and endeavor to destabilize a bit of the unbridled pessimism that springs forth when two opposing political parties turn a nation into their battleground of divisive plays for power.

The 50 states of America unite not just to advance America but to continuously improve our world at large. As one of the most powerful nations in this world, our responsibility and duty rests first and foremost in the livelihood, intelligence, and worldliness of our populace. That is to say, not just an understanding of the present. We must have the wisdom to look beyond our borders and deeper into history. A broader perspective on time reveals that things may not be as they initially seem.

While the percentage of US citizens holding a passport is growing, it’s still only about 100M Americans. That 1/3 of the county leaves 66% of Americans unable to legally travel outside USA. It’s therefore no wonder that our news is overly nationalistic and tends to lack a cohesive worldview. Let’s take a crack at breaking that trend whilst instilling a healthy dose of rational optimism toward humanity’s shared global future.

The world is much better than it has ever been, as evidenced by the following economic data visualized by Max Roser at University of Oxford.

First, let’s all rejoice that pretty much everyone is living longer. Life expectancy has doubled from 1800 to 2001.

life expectancy, 1800 to 2000, 1800, 2011, economics, data visualization, economics, gif

Play around with this graph to explore changes in life expectancy of countries:

Longer life expectancy may not mean much if quality of life is not also improved. Luckily, nearly every metric is ascending.

The UN’s overall Human Development Index has been on the rise for decades.


Fewer than 10% of people on the planet now live in absolute poverty. We’re not talking about losing a car to a debt collector. We’re talking about raw destitution.

Absolute poverty is defined by the United Nations as “a condition characterised by severe deprivation of basic human needs, including food, safe drinking water, sanitation facilities, health, shelter, education and information. It depends not only on income but also on access to services.” In 1900, 80% of the world’s population lived in absolute poverty.

drops in absolute poverty, economics,

Just look at these changes in GDP per capita over the past few hundred years! Here it’s shown in purchasing power of the 1990 USD.

GDP per capita, GDP over time, GDP, economics, GIF, Max Roser

Hit play below to watch the world grow wealthier. Hover to see exact GDP per capita and click any country to see a time series of the same change over the past several decades.


Global income distribution is also on the rise. In the late 1990s, the world was clearly divided between rich and poor. Despite the growing wealth inequality problem in America, the global distinction is much less pronounced as wealth creeps ever higher and more evenly distributed.


income distribution 1988 to 2011, income distribution, rich and poor, rich world, economics, our world in data, gif


And what are we doing with this newfound wealth?

We’re educating everyone.


And distributing nutrition.

We’ve innovated tremendously in commodity production, such that most people can afford food,

and electricity,

which if you live in a developed nation and want to turn on a lightbulb, is trending toward free.

Electricity even packs exponentially more punch per kwh.

computation per kwh
Computations per kilowatt-hour over time – Koomey, Berard, Sanchez, and Wong (2011) via Max Roser


Sure, you may say, we have more. But we’re working more for it. Actually..

100 years is not so long ago that we should accept forgetting it. The web is full of posts lamenting the hours in an average workweek and sure, I’m among those who often work passionately for well over 40 hours a week. Yet if we consult historical data, people – including Americans – work on average nearly 20 hours less per week now than the did in the year 1900.

The path to prosperity for many people living during the turn of the twentieth century was a production job in one of numerous new industrial facilities. From farm field to factory meant a steady stream of income. It also meant workers were at the liberty of corporations operating without present day workers’ rights laws. Today’s legal protection is influenced largely by violent labor strikes involving militia that took place in the 1800s and 1900s. This war for the modern workweek claimed thousands of lives. For example, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 left 100 dead in a fight against paycuts. The Bay View Massacre, a strike turned bloody, left seven dead in the quest for an eight hour work day. The list goes on and on.


But thanks in part to the sacrifices made by those workers, democracy began to spread across the globe…

word democracy 1980 to 1995, democracy, economics, graph, world GIF, map gif, max roser, amy sterling

About half of citizens around the world live in democratic conditions, compared to a mere 10% in 1901. The percentage of anocracies, unstable governments, has somewhat ironically remained steady. There are still far too many people living in autocracies; however, it is invigorating to see that the relative percentage is on the decline.

percentages of people living in various governmental states, our world in data, max rosies, government, economics, dataviz


Globally, death by war is on the decline. And where it’s not, we’re drawing on clever algorithms to predict and hopefully prevent many of the would-be future deaths.


conflict deaths, war, peace, data, our world in data, rational optimism


We have access to more resources by working fewer hours. Those resources are getting cheaper year by year. Ultimately, a better world means both better quality of life and deeper connections to one another.

These graphs by no means cover everything. Numerous foes of progress thrive; however, we stand to benefit by bearing in mind how far humanity has come since the Industrial Revolution.

As we ponder the future of America, it is important to consider her not in isolation but relative to the world at large and in the broader context of history. May these data catalyze productive conversations. In times of political dissonance, perhaps that’s what we need most.

Special thanks to Dave Ewalt for helping to edit this blog.

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“Book about the variety of the world”

The title is quoted from a hero of mine, Marco Polo.

First allow me to give thanks that it only takes 8 hours to travel from America to London.

Second, thoughts about travel’s influence over time.  This globe has little ships drawn on it noting significant  navigator voyages:  Vasco de Gama, Magellan, Charles Darwin, Zheng Ho.  Pardon?  I Googled this explorer.

Marco Polo’s Travels comes to mind and I vaguely anticipate what to expect of the Ming Dynasty‘s Admiral of the Treasure Fleet (for real?!).  Awe and inspiration ensue and I get excited enough to share.

  • In the fall of 1405 a trading party of 28,000 men set sail under Admiral Zheng Ho.
  • The ~62 flagships that chaired this moving nation measured approximately 400 feet long by 160 feet wide (122 m x 50 m) and carried ambassadors and the national trade of China.  The escort was an additional 190 ships.  Compare this to modern day feats of marine lavishness.  In 2009, 600 years after Zheng Ho, the largest yacht in the world measured 531 ft (162 m).   Head down the list and look at the size of #6.  You guessed it.  400 ‘.

Zheng He’s ships relative to those of Columbus

  • This flagship two year journey took the crew from the mouth of the Yangtzee, in North-East China trading from Vietnam to  Java before finally reaching Calicut, West India, their destination.   Zheng Ho loaded up on more than just imported items; foreign ambassadors traveled back onboard the troupe as well as on their own accord.
  • The fleet (over 300 ships and 28,000 people acompanying the tradeable wealth of China and serving as early forms of dignitaries) eventually takes six more voyages (early evidence of exploration as a profitable investment), venturing to the Persian Gulf and south along Africa’s coast.  During each trading expedition, new diplomats are brought to Nanjing and old ones ferried home.

Imagine what commerce I take for granted.  Pre-imagine internet or email – instantaneous information distribution – international trade facilitates the dispersion of ideas beyond borders, what a revolution.  Globalization infancy!

From warfare (hello, gunpowder and The Prince) and culture, to goods and services, communication has profoundly enhanced the development of the human race.  A day in the life of 2010 can incorporate a globe full of cultures and ideas.  We sometimes forget, in this world of quickness and connectivity, the extraordinary relativity of when in time we live.  Forget 2 months to cross the Atlantic..what if it was not even an option?  The beauty of exploration.

May you always remember that the world has more to discover.  If you don’t, someone else will get to have all the fun!


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