‘Minimalism’ vs. economic growth

By James Pethokoukis

Minimalism,” a 2016 documentary about the unrealized unimportance of stuff, makes a big point about what the filmmakers call “the hunt” — the supposedly modern obsession with acquiring new things even if only incrementally better than the old things. (George Carlin did it better, I think.) So lots of sociological lamentation by talking heads playing over video of crazy crowds on Black Friday.

It’s another variant of “capitalism, bad.” Sure, an innovative and entrepreneurial system might generate rising living standards, but we’re no happier than before. Probably less.

This might be the all-time best example of #FirstWorldProblems. Of course, the same capitalism that gives us the next iPhone iterations — which, by the way, I’m always happy to get — is also doing more than just raising OECD living standards. It also brings people globally out of poverty. And there’s a whole lot further that process needs to go. As Our World in Data’s Max Roser notes in a new essay:

Adjusted for the purchasing power in each country, 85% of the world population live on less than $30 per day. … A person living in Denmark has a chance of 86% that they are not poor. A person who happens to be born into a country where the average income is low is almost certainly living in poverty. In Ethiopia more than 99% of the population live on less than $30 per day. This is why a rise in the average level of income in a country – economic growth – is so crucial for reducing poverty. … The population of Denmark was once as poor as the population of Ethiopia today, but since then poverty declined and living conditions improved: average incomes increased more than 25-fold, the child mortality rate declined from more than a quarter to less than half a percent – one of the lowest levels in the world – and Denmark is today one of the countries where people report to be most satisfied with their lives.

A connected and economically growing world where the benefits of market-driven wealth creation can flow as freely as possible is critical to reducing global poverty further. It also gives you a great smartphone with some pretty cool features. And it replaces a lot of stuff. Happy?