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An Author's View of a World 'Getting Better' (Economix)

March 22, 2011

Charles Kenny was interviewed by David Leonhardt for the New York Times' Economix book chat on his new book Getting Better.

From the Article

My column this week discusses “Getting Better,” a new book in which the economist Charles Kenny argues that many people have overlooked the enormous improvements in human well-being over the last few decades. Mr. Kenny is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development in Washington. Foreign Policy magazine, where Mr. Kenny is a contributing writer, recently organized a discussion of his book. He also wrote a recent article for Time on the world’s youth.

Our conversation follows.

Q. You write that Africa, like the rest of the world, has escaped the Malthusian trap. What do you mean by that?

Mr. Kenny: Parson Malthus’s miserable vision of the world was that each country’s output was pretty much limited by the amount of land available. That meant if more kids were born, the same output was spread amongst more people — so average incomes would fall. In turn, Malthus argued that would push up mortality as people died from malnutrition or famine or disease.
In Malthus’s time, output worldwide was indeed pretty much static — for most of history, global G.D.P. had expanded by much less than half a percent a year. But since then, output has exploded — everywhere. Between 1960 and 2000, only one country worldwide -– the Democratic Republic of the Congo — saw G.D.P. growth slower than 0.5 percent per year, and only 11 countries saw output grow at less than 2 percent a year.

And looking at African countries in particular, while populations have been rising, there is no significant link between population growth and income growth. Furthermore, population increases have been associated with better health, not increasing mortality — between 1960 and 2005, the proportion of children in the region dying before their fifth birthday fell from 26 to 15 percent. So, the Malthusian trap is history in Africa as much as everywhere else.

Read the Article