It’s Official — Steven Pinker Is Full of Shit

When Steven Pinker insists that the world is getting better and better, much of his case is based on claims about declining global poverty. But a new report from the UN’s top poverty expert dismantles that argument, showing that global poverty has gone nearly unchanged over the last forty years.

Steven Pinker giving a lecture for Humanists UK in February 2018. Bhaawest / Wikimedia Commons

The world isn’t getting better.

This might be surprising to hear, given the army of writers and thinkers telling us otherwise, pointing to various metrics and insisting pessimism about the world is the result of, for instance, addled elder nostalgia. First among them is Harvard psychology professor and Jeffrey Epstein buddy Steven Pinker, who insists such gloom is “flat-earth wrong,” a product of “the sin of ingratitude,” and points in part to the world’s “tremendous progress against extreme poverty” to make the case that people these days simply “bitch, moan, whine, carp and kvetch” too much.

The only problem is, this isn’t true. Pinker and the optimism industry he represents are put in the crosshairs of Philip Alston’s latest and final report as UN Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty, who, in a statement that accompanied the report, condemns the “misplaced triumphalism blocking the very reforms that could have prevented the worst impacts of the [coronavirus] pandemic,” and assailing officials, pundits, and the UN itself for pushing “a self-congratulatory message of impending victory over poverty” not borne out by the data.

Central to Alston’s case is a thorough dismantling of the World Bank’s international poverty line (IPL), the chief measure used by global institutions and writers like Pinker to make the claim for the world’s unbridled march of progress, set at $1.90 per day in purchasing power parity dollars from 2011. As both Pinker and Alston note, according to this line, the number of the world’s people in extreme poverty has fallen from 36 percent in 1990 to 10 percent in 2015. But this measure is “scandalously unambitious,” says Alston.

A flat, unbending average of national poverty lines from the world’s poorest countries, the IPL sits far below the national poverty lines of many different countries, states the report. Using the IPL, Thailand has a 0 percent poverty rate; under its national line, that number is 9.9 percent. Even starker disparities can be found in countries like South Africa (18.9 percent vs. 55 percent), Mexico (1.7 percent vs. 41.9 percent), and, of course, the United States (1.2 percent vs. 12.7 percent).

“The IPL is explicitly designed to reflect a staggeringly low standard of living, well below any reasonable conception of a life with dignity,” writes Alston. “Under the measure, one can ‘escape’ from poverty without an income anywhere near that required to achieve an adequate standard of living, including access to healthcare and education.”

Besides this, the IPL flattens and even erases a host of other inequities within this astonishing inequality, including glaring gender disparities and the hundreds of millions of people who are homeless, refugees, migrant workers, and other groups who disproportionately feel the sting of poverty. Incredibly, Alston notes that the World Bank — one of the leading foisters of economic misery on poor, downtrodden countries — rejected its own Commission on Global Poverty’s recommendation that it adopt a basic needs-based estimate, instead of the one it now uses that was chosen by fifteen poor countries, because “it would be paternalistic and disrespectful to question the choices” of those nations. You can only laugh.

Misplaced Triumphalism

Moving off the line, the image of a world only getting better and better dissolves in air. Raising it to a mere $5.50 a day, writes Alston, means the head count of people in poverty fell from 3.5 billion to 3.4 billion in that same twenty-five-year period. Taking the World Bank’s own “societal poverty line,” developed in 2018 to measure poverty relative to different countries’ consumption, the number fell only 0.25 billion over those years, leaving it at 2.1 billion — a little under a third of the world’s population at the time. But even going by the generous measure of the IPL, things still don’t look especially great: 700 million people surviving on less than $1.90 a day, and 140 million more people in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa doing so over that time span.

“The poverty decline [the IPL] purports to show is due largely to rising incomes in a single country, China,” says Alston.

Ominously, the report warns that even the meager reasons to hope poverty is being gradually eradicated are soon to be obliterated. The coronavirus pandemic “will erase all poverty alleviation progress over the past three years,” the report states, and climate change, which almost all of the world’s governments are ignoring, “will make a mockery” of the World Bank’s already discouraging projections for the next decade.

Neither Blind Optimism Nor Despair

There is nothing inherently wrong with optimism. Despair is, after all, often the cousin of inaction and surrender. But the style of optimism pushed by thinkers like Pinker is designed to lead to these exact same ends, assuring people they needn’t struggle or even worry because things are inexorably on the right track.

There are, nonetheless, reasons to be optimistic: from the historic wave of global and now US protest that has forced a sea change in attitudes on race and neoliberalism, to the fact that poverty and problems like it are solvable if we can simply muster the political will. As Oxfam is fond of reminding us, the trillions of dollars stashed away in tax havens alone could be taxed to eradicate extreme poverty multiple times over.

To that end, Alston outlines a set of recommendations any regular reader of Jacobin should be familiar with: reject reliance on private capital and pro-market policies, heavily tax big business and the rich and redistribute their wealth, embark on large-scale debt forgiveness, and move away from a myopic focus on a simplistic conception of “growth” as the engine of poverty reduction. This isn’t much different from the policy prescriptions put forward as recently as April by, of all things, the Financial Times.

The world isn’t getting better. But it could. And the ideas of the Left are increasingly viewed as commonsense solutions to make it so.