Don’t be fooled; the evidence does not suggest that democracy is bad for growth.

Trump is obsessed with comparisons of the US with China. In the last debate he said:  “China is growing at 7 percent. And that for them is a catastrophically low number. We are growing — our last report came out — and it’s right around the 1 percent level. And I think it’s going down. … Look, our country is stagnant.”

This post is about why Trump’s comparison of the US with China is not useful. More broadly I want to defend democracies against the mistaken argument that authoritarian countries perform better economically than democracies.

Firstly, it is important to distinguish between two different forms of economic growth – growth at the technological frontier and catch up growth. Secondly, it is important to distinguish between the level of prosperity (GDP per capita) and the growth of prosperity (growth of GDP per capita).

If we don’t distinguish we get all confused about what political systems make possible or impossible for growth.

 

Growth at the technological frontier is very, very hard and always slow. The US was always at the frontier over the last 2 centuries and average growth never exceeded 2%. (in the last 2 years it was 1.5% and 1.8% – source.)

screen-shot-2016-10-20-at-09-54-38

Catch-up growth is different from that, it is all about adopting existing technology and making use of it at a large scale. Catch-up is hard enough – if we knew how to do it everywhere we would have ended extreme poverty long ago. But once a country starts to catch up it can improve living conditions very rapidly; growth can be much higher than 2% for extended periods. And from what we have seen over the last decades autocratic rule is not necessarily an impediment to catch-up growth for very poor countries.

The confusion comes from the fact that richer countries are much much more often democratic countries. (The only countries who are rich and autocratic have an economy that is relying on the exports of fossil fuels.)

If we don’t distinguish between the two forms of growth we are in danger of comparing the fast growth in autocracies with the slow growth in democracies and take away that autocracies are better for growth.

The key to understanding why China and others could grow so fast is not that they are autocratic but that they are very, very poor. China’s level of GDP per capita is only a quarter of the American GDP per capita.

Fast catch-up growth can only happen in poor countries. What determines the “growth advantage” of autocracies is not that autocratic countries work better but that autocratic countries are poor.

Catch up growth can only happen in poor countries and it is very misleading to do what Trump does and to compare a country on the technological frontier (the US) with a very poor country (China) that is catching up. This is a same confusion that leads people to believe the ‘old argument’ above.

A fundamental problem in social science is that all good things come together. Developed countries are richer, healthier, happier, better educated, more democratic etc. The trouble for researchers – and ultimately policy makers – is then to find out what causes what. There is some research that suggests that democratic rule – ceteris paribus – is good for growth, but I would not think the evidence for this causal relationship is overwhelmingly clear.

What is however clear is that there is no reason to believe that a rich country at the technological frontier would do better if it was autocratically ruled. This false idea comes from the confusion of catch-up growth with growth at the frontier.

Don’t be fooled by China or Donald Trump, autocratic rule is not good for growth.

OurWorldInData in 2016

It is great to see OurWorldInData growing! More aspects of how life on earth is changing are discussed and visualised and the technical framework of OurWorldInData.org is becoming much more powerful. (OurWorldInData.org is the web publication on global living conditions that I am working on for the last 4 years.)

As things are changing I wanted to look back on the last year and give an update on what is next.

 

It has been great to see that there is so much interest and enthusiasm about this publication. More than 200 articles have used and covered OurWorldInData, more than 1.5 million people have visited the website and it is shared on social media and – what I’m especially happy about – used in teaching.

To just pick out three recent articles on OurWorldInData:

  1. Quartz chose the OurWorldInData chart that shows the decline of global poverty over the last 2 centuries as the Chart of the Year 2015.
  2. The Guardian covered the web publication in a portrait of the work of Hans and Ola Rosling, Ruth DeFries, and me.
  3. The Edge Question of the Year 2016 is “What do you consider the most interesting recent scientific news?” and Steven Pinker answered – in a fantastic essay – that  the most interesting scientific news is that human progress can now be quantified. Pinker explains perfectly why it is important that we need to communicate human progress and I am honored that he refers to OurWorldInData as a platform that presents this empirical evidence.

 

 

I have said it before, I will definitely continue my work on OurWorldInData.

The difficulty for this work is and remains who wants to fund this. Over the course of 2015 I had support from the London based Nuffield Foundation but this has now come to an end. For the future I still need to find support for this work, but at least for the next 6 months I have good news: for this time OurWorldInData will be based at the Oxford Martin School and supported by the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

The idea of this short term funding is to find financial support that would make OurWorldInData possible over the longer future and now with a very capable and responsive administrative team I very much hope that this will be successful.

Next steps

The current situation is that I have a job for the next 6 months – supported by the two previously mentioned institutions – and I am able to work on this online publication for this time.

And then there is a second and really unexpected stream of support: In November the founder of the crowdfunding platform Tilt, James Beshara, used his platform to raise money to support OurWorldInData. And after one week 139 generous people actually gave money to OurWorldInData! Many thanks again to all of you who donated!

I want to use this money to support the very heart of OurWorldInData: The visualisation tool OurWorldInData-Grapher that makes this platform so useful to many of us. This way all of the many aspects covered on the website will be presented more clearly and we can use and learn better the available empirical evidence on how living conditions changed. To expand this tool I am looking for a new web developer:

New web developer position

The new web developer that I am looking for will focus on improving the data visualisations and the technical framework of OurWorldInData. I have just finished the job description today and you find all details here: http://bit.ly/OWID_WD

We are looking for a candidate as soon as possible. It might be worth mentioning that the position would also be suitable for web developers anywhere in the world since remote work is possible. If you are interested in joining me to build OurWorldInData or you know someone, please get in touch!

Thanks to the 4 previous collaborators!

Over some months in 2015 I had support from a fantastic team that helped to build this platform and I would like to thank each of them wholeheartedly for their work and for being such fantastic colleagues.

From May to September 2015 Lindsay Lee expanded the coverage of OurWorldInData – particularly on health and demographics – and made the content more consistent across the site. Her personal site is LindsayEvansLee.com. Lindsay continued her studies at the University of Oxford after her work at OurWorldInData and I wish her all the very best for her studies and her career – hopefully in global health.

In the summer of 2015 Julia Murphy, who is a student of economics and engineering at Dartmouth College, was contributing to this project as an intern. She focused on expanding the section ‘Media & Communication’ and very quickly helped to develop this project further.

From June to October 2015 Mohamed Nagdy – an economist who has invaluable quality of combining a thorough theoretical education in economics with strong empirical skills – helped to expand the content on the growth and distribution of incomes, economic development, violence, and education. Mohamed completed his MPhil in Economics in 2015 at the University of Oxford and after his work at OurWorldInData he went to London to work as an economist.

From May 2015 to January 2016 Zdenek Hynek expanded the capabilities of the web publication by building the OurWorldInData-Graper. He also overhauled the technical framework of OurWorldInData.org completely. I am very thankful for his work on this publication. Zdenek is a London-based web developer and with his very strong skills in the technologies that are used for visualising data on the web, including JavaScript, d3.js, php and SQL he is a sought-after web developer. He had several job offers and decided to join a top information design agency in London after his work for OurWorldInData.

Many thanks to Lindsay, Mohamed, Julia, and Zdenek!

Future funding

Unfortunately, it has not been possible yet to find funding that would make it possible to build a team that would work on  OurWorldInData for a longer time. But I will try to make this possible. What is certain is that it is a and will remain a public good: All data on OurWorldInData.org  is available for download. All visualisations done for OurWorldInData are Creative Commons licensed. And all tools are open source.

I will try my best to find funding for OurWorldInData and very much hope that one day OurWorldInData will be an open-access web publication, written for anyone interested in global development, that uses accessible data visualizations to present empirical research on living conditions around the world. The web publication will present the empirical evidence on how living conditions have changed and it will present the academic research that explains why. (I have published a funding request here.)

And – the last update –, after many people asked for this, it is now possible to support OurWorldInData with a donation.

 

 

This is the current situation at OurWorldInData and I wish you all the very best for 2016!

Kind regards,

Max

 

Funding request for Our World In Data

 

Funding for OurWorldInData will end in December 2015. This is my plan to continue OurWorldInData.

What it is

OurWorldinData.org is my freely available web publication that tells the social, economic, and environmental history of our world up to the present day – based on empirical data and visualized in interactive graphs and maps.

But have a look at it yourself to see what it is about:

1st Example: The most peaceful time in our species existence. One of five click-through presentations.

2nd Example: The data entry on child mortality. It is showing the development of child mortality over the long run and is one of dozens of similar data-entries on a wide range of topics.

The way so far

 

  • December this year: The funding will end and while the team and I are very enthusiastic about extending this work it is unclear whether this project can continue.

Impact

  • Since I went online in June 2014 more than 1,000,000 people have visited OurWorldInData.org.
  • As the map shows, visitors came from all countries of the world except Eritrea and Western-Sahara. (There would have been more visitors but unfortunately the small server cannot handle the traffic at peak times.)

OWID-Worldmap-Visitors

  • On social media material from OurWorldInData.org was seen more than 50 million times.
  • From the feedback I know that the content of OurWorldInData is widely used in teaching and lectures.
  • More than 100 articles portrait the project or used material from OurWorldInData. All are listed at: www.ourworldindata.org/media-coverage.
    • Media outlets using OurWorldInData include The Washington Post, Forbes, Slate, The New York Times, Vox, The Guardian, The Financial Times, La Presse (French), Business Insider, Rue 89, Scientias, Bild am Sonntag (German), and TIME Magazine.

Why I am looking for funding

OurWorldInData should give a complete picture of how living conditions around the world have developed over the long run. It aims to cover the whole range of topics that matter for our lives: Health, food provision, the growth and distribution of incomes, violence, rights, wars, energy use, education, environmental changes and many other aspects will be empirically analyzed and visualized.

Because our hopes and efforts for building a better future are inextricably linked to our perception of the past it is important to understand and communicate this historical development. Studying our world in data and understanding how we overcame challenges that seemed insurmountable at the time should give us confidence to tackle the problems we are currently facing. It is easy to be cynical about the world and to maintain that nothing is ever getting better. But fortunately the empirical evidence contradicts this view. I believe it is partly due to a lack of relevant and understandable information that a negative view on how the world is changing is so very common. It is not possible to understand how the world is changing by following the daily news – disasters are happening in an instant, but progress is a slow process that does not make the headlines.

I believe it is important to communicate to a large audience that technical, academic, entrepreneurial, political, and social efforts have in fact a very positive impact. OurWorldInData shows both: It highlights the challenges that lie ahead and it shows visually that we are successfully making the world a better place.

For each topic the quality of the data is discussed and, by pointing the visitor to the sources, this website also is a database of databases. Covering all of these aspects in one resource makes it possible to understand how the observed long-run trends are interlinked. Combining interactive visualizations with explanations of what drives the observed changes and what they mean for our lives provides an empirical view on our world.

A free web publication that aims to brings academic research on human development to a wider audience is not the kind of project for which research grants are awarded (the focus is not to produce original academic research but it is about communicating the amazing research that is already out there). This is why I am trying to find future funding this way.

OurWorldinData.org is based at the University of Oxford and supported by the senior researchers Sir Tony Atkinson and Sir David Hendry.

The open access web publication is published by academics at the University of Oxford and we are collaborating with experts in the field to publish rigorous research that meets the high standards of the University.

 

To achieve this we are looking for funding to focus on the following aspects:

1 – Expand the coverage substantially!

There are many aspects of living conditions that we care about and OurWorldInData should show what we know about them and how they changed over time. Some are often talked about: life expectancy, war, famine, literacy, homicides, … Others are less often talked about but equally important: human height for example is an indicator for the quality of food supply and health, and a high volatility of food prices is a serious problem for poor people. OurWorldInData has a lot of topics to cover!

The main reason why I want to continue to work on this free web publication is to expand the content: I have data on more than 400 topics and only a fraction are covered yet. For example, right now we are working on an empirical perspective on cancer and on suicides. Two of the many important topics not covered yet.

With more funding we want to cover more topics. To get more researchers involved to create and review this project we look for funding.

2 – A proper database that allows the web publication to always be up to date

One of biggest problems of the current technical framework of OurWorldInData is that each visualization has to be done individually: A spreadsheet with the data has to be prepared and you then have to write a page of html and javascript to visualize the data stored in this file. This means a lot of manual work to add one visualization and it is also very cumbersome to update figures with new data.

Zdenek – who joined earlier this year as a web developer – has started building a system that will eliminate this tedious, not-scalable process. He is essentially creating two tools: A first tool that allows us to upload data into one central SQL database (as opposed to the current system of individual unconnected csv files). And a second tool with which we can then pull any of the data from this database and visualize it in an interactive chart (see my screenshot of the tool). This is the heart of the whole project and will require more work in the coming year.

With the transition from one-spreadsheet-for-one-individual-visualization to one central database we open up huge possibilities for both us as authors and for the readers. Currently I can only show some countries on an individual chart (on a line chart for example it is not possible to discern more than ±8 lines) all the other countries’ data is not included in the visualization.  With the new tool it will be possible for the reader to pull the information for additional countries from the database and add them to the visualization. The reader can then build her own charts or maps.

Screen Shot 2015-06-23 at 11.27.553 – Review by and collaboration with experts on specific topics

One of the most positive experiences we have made over the last months is how helpful experts from various backgrounds were in providing feedback to OurWorldInData.

Most of the researchers providing feedback were from the University of Oxford but we also received feedback from a wider network of people interested in this project. The chance to incorporate feedback continuously is one of the greatest advantages of an online publication. Researchers themselves have been very motivated to provide both their data and feedback; not surprisingly researchers are keen on presenting the research they care about to a larger audience.

In the future we want to extend this collaboration and turn OurWorldInData into a collaborative publication: It will become a publication in which the expert on famines is presenting an overview of the history of famines and the research on why famines happen and when famines are less likely to happen. Similarly, the expert on war writes about his research topic, and so do the experts on malaria, on child mortality, on CO2 emissions, on democratization, on homicides, on wealth inequality, on income inequality and so on.

The feedback and collaboration with other researchers at the University of Oxford and other academic institutions will ensure that the presented information is the best data available and the revisions will make sure that the presented content is up to date.

We are aiming to establish an editorial board from expert in each field to improve this collaboration and review process. Our role model here is the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy – a fantastic freely available web publication with an editorial board with subject editors.

4 – Filling in the gaps

We know a lot about how the world has changed and most of what is presented on OurWorldInData is presenting this evidence gathered by empirical researchers. Yet there are also gaps and it is then not possible to rely on research that is already out there. Instead it is necessary to do research to fill in the gaps.

I have done this before – for example for the article on famines I have put together a list of famines since middle of the 19th century. With the help of a group of empirical researchers I am planning to do more of this so that we get a complete empirical picture of our world.

5 – Long-term Prospects of this Project

We are already thinking about the prospects of this project beyond the end of the 3 year period for which we are looking for funding.

Positive discussions have been had with an institution at the University of Oxford which would be likely to look favorably on support for the ongoing maintenance of the site after the end of the founders 3 year investment.

In our current work we are having in mind that it should be possible to keep the web publication up to date for the coming years and decades. Data sets are standardized and well documented and we are making sure to build a content management system with which the publication can be maintained easily.

The idea is that the 3-year grant supports us in lifting it to the next level, and that the University of Oxford provides the means to maintain the web publication and keep it up to date after the funding ends.

The funding we need:

Our current 1 year research grant ends in December. For the work outlined above I am looking for funding for 3 additional years.

The costs include:

Staff costs:

I will continue to work full time on this project and to do the most of it I will work with the 3 Oxford students that will contribute to the content of the project and 2 web developers to publish our work with the technology of the 21st century.

Sir David Hendry and Sir Tony Atkinson will remain the Principal Investigator and adviser of the project. We are in the very fortunate position that both are mostly paid through the University but are at the same very generous with their time in supporting this project.

Non-Staff Costs

  • Server space
  • Computer software
  • Research travel expenses (small amount)
  • We are also in the very fortunate situation that the research institute at which this project is based – The Institute for New Economic Thinking at the Oxford Martin School – contributes to the office space and computer equipment and that administration will be carried out by the excellent staff at the institute.

I will send you a detailed budget for the project on request.

 

Thank you very much for reading this request! Please get in touch if you are interested in supporting this project.
My email address is .

 

Best wishes,

Max

What I will do in the next years

My aim is to present an empirical view of the living conditions around the world and how and why they are changing.

Are more people killed in wars today? Are famines increasing or are fewer people dying of hunger? How is the situation in Africa? When did the first countries get rich – and why? Is AIDS killing more and more people? Were our ancestors that lived as hunter gatherers more peaceful than we today? Do more people kill themselves and why are there such big differences between suicide rates in different countries? Is income inequality increasing in all countries? When did the majority of the world population become literate – and does education matter for prosperity or health? How many children are getting vaccinated today?

– The view on the world that I want to present is giving answers to these questions.

 

Why do we need an empirical view of the world?

3 reasons:

  • Living conditions around the world are improving much faster than most people realize. Crime rates go down – but people think they go up. Global poverty is falling faster than ever – but we think it is going up. When we falsely believe that the world is getting worse it is easy to become cynic. This is sad for each person. It is also bad for all of us, people who have to turned away from the world are not engaging to help and improve the world to make it a better place.
  • Having a good idea of how the world is changing is fundamental to understand why the world is changing. And understanding why the world is changing – for example why the world is getting more peaceful – is fundamental to knowing how to further the development that we want and make the world a richer, sustainable, healthier, and more peaceful place.
  • It is important to have an empirical view so that we can prioritize what we need to work on. One billion people live in extreme poverty, because of premature death and disability 2.5 billion live years are lost every year. There is nothing more important than to focus on these issues and to solve them. And for this it is fundamental that we know and track these numbers.

 

Why don’t we have an empirical view of the world?

We are bad intuitive statisticians. This is main finding of the celebrated research of Daniel Kahneman. And it is the very fundamental reason why we don’t have an empirical view of the world. As individuals we are very bad in knowing whether crime is going up or down. We can only really know when we make an effort to collect the evidence and analyze it: when we turn single observations into quantitative data.

But the problem is also not that we don’t have this data and empirical knowledge. The research and data to give us an empirical view of the world is out there. There is fantastic research on all of the questions mentioned above! So why does this research not allow us to have an empirical view of living conditions?

  1. This research is presented and discussed in academic outlets that are only known to the experts in that field.
  2. This research is often published in journals that are unfortunately not accessible to most because they are behind pay walls.
  3. The research is addressed to experts in that research niche and not understandable to people who decided to specialize in something else in their life.
  4. This research publications are mostly focusing on the questions on the research frontier. The information we need for an empirical world view is not collected in one place but is pieced together by each researcher over the long course of her career.
  5. The incentives for researchers are very much on publishing original research. After the publication only few researchers are taking the incentive to make their research known. The consequence is that a lot of research is never informing anyone. The World Bank was asking the question for their own reports in the publication ‘Which World Bank Reports Are Widely Read?’. They found that 31% of their policy reports are never even downloaded once.

How do I want to present an empirical view of the world?

Some years ago when I was a student I decided that I want to change this and started drafting a book on how the world is changing. As background research for this book I started to collect empirical research and data on everything that matters for our quality of life. This got out of hand after some years and now I have a database on my computer that encompasses several hundred topics with many thousands of data sets, data visualizations, and research papers.

All of this cannot be published in a book (although I did not give up to write a book on the most important aspects). Together with Tony Atkinson – my boss in Oxford – I started to plan to publish this online. This is how I started OurWorldInData.org.

 

OurWorldInData.org is the web publication to present an empirical view of the world and is covering all aspects that matter for our lives. Each aspect is presented in a data entry – and each data entry is organized in these 4 sections:

4-sections-narrowThe web publication is online accessible for 1 year now and I could not have hoped it goes so well (close to a million visitors and more than 100 articles on the publication).

 

What are the next steps?

The next steps I want to take is to involve more people and make it a collaborative publication:

For 2015 I have a small research grant from the London based Nuffield Foundation. With this money I could hire a team of researchers that work with me here in Oxford (we are currently looking for a talented web developer). We are building a data base and a data visualization tool that makes it possible to keep the site up to date for the future.

And we are preparing OurWorldInData so that in the future experts from each of the many research fields work together with us. What I’d love to built is a platform where the expert on famines is presenting an overview of the history of famines and the research on why famines happen and when famines are less likely to happen. The expert on war writes about his research topic, and so do the experts on malaria, on child mortality, on CO2 emissions, on democratization, on homicides, on wealth inequality, on income inequality and so on.

There is nothing like this today.

But there are web publication that are related:

  1. Open-access publication by experts in the field: The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a web publication in which philosophers write on the topic that they are an expert in. It is fantastic!
  2. Open-access publication by quantitative researchers addressed at a broad audience: VoxEU is a web publication in which empirical economists present their latest research.
  3. Open access data bases: FRED from the Federal Reserve is making very useful data on the USA available. Let’s do the same for the world.
  4. Fantastic web publications that combine data visualizations and text: Some international organizations do great work in presenting empirical evidence to show how the world is changing: Here is Bill Gates latest annual letter. And here is a one pager from the UNICEF on the future of Africa. Both of these are great examples for the way in which I want to combine data visualizations and empirical research.

So what I will do in the next years (if get funding for it) is to combine all four and help to create an open-access web publication, written for anyone interested in global development, and co-written with experts, that uses accessible data visualizations to present empirical research on living conditions around the world, how they are changing and why.

Please get in contact, if you want to help to make fact-based world view possible. My email address is .