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Globalization and politics

Will Kherbek
art critic
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piqer: Will Kherbek
Thursday, 06 December 2018

The Business Of Optimism: Shining A Gaslight On Global Poverty

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” is the opening line of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities. Set against the events of the French Revolution, the phrase captures the tumult and contradictions of that period of drastic structural and cultural change. How would someone writing now describe the ruptures that define the 21st century? The psychologist, Steven Pinker, author of bestselling books like The Better Angels of Our Nature, surveying a world in which inequality, warfare, and discrimination threaten even the most ostensibly stable and “prosperous” countries, would perhaps offer a small cut to the Dickens quote: “It was the best of times.” 

In Episode 58 of Citations Needed, presented by Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson, the hosts attempt to dismantle what they call the “neoliberal optimism industry”, a mindset epitomised by Pinker’s rosy outlook. 

Guest Dr. Jason Hickle digs deeper into the arguments and statistics Pinker offers. For example, Pinker frequently cites reductions in absolute poverty (people living on less than $1.25 per day); Hickle acknowledges that these numbers have dropped dramatically, but if one uses the World Bank’s metric of $5.00 per day, the population of the world living on that much or less has actually increased since the 1980s. The business of aid is also a key area where Hickle’s research debunks economic happy talk. Consider this somewhat surprising fact about capital flows: the total capital flowing from the global north to the global south as of 2012 was approximately $2 trillion. The capital flowing south to north, via debt interest repayment arrangements and off-shore shenanigans by western corporations, amounts to $5 billion. The south, thus, is a net creditor of the north. That the 21st century is the best of times for some, the hosts note, is clearly true, but just knowing other people are doing well offers little comfort to those for whom these are the worst of times. 

The Business Of Optimism: Shining A Gaslight On Global Poverty
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