The Great Escape

08economix-deaton-book-articleInline…Health, Wealth and the Origins of Inequality.

This book was a data nerdy feast. What a fabulous question to answer – are we better off? and is it at the expense of others?

The stories that inspired it are personal. How can Deaton be so much better off than his parents and grandparents? Measurably so when it comes to income and health. How come others don’t appear to have ‘escaped’ the grinding life of poverty and poor health?

Angus Deaton does the subject proud. He doesn’t take any data sets for granted and he keeps digging for answers about what we know. Another storyteller along these lines is Hans Rosling and you really should enjoy four minutes of his data narrative too. I’m also a fan of the social progress indicator and in some ways this book is a warning about the datasets we choose.

A book can go a lot deeper than a video and I’ve come away with some powerful impressions. If we start with health, the immediate story is that the richer, western world has greatly reduced death from germs and this helps us immensely with child mortality. This is one of the big leaps a country can make when its population stops dying from respiratory, sanitation and malarial diseases and starts dying from chronic ailments like cancer and heart disease.

Nutrition and the quality of healthier lives is reflected through an exploration of height data. The classic tall dutchman reflects the rise in living standards way back when Holland started trading some 400+ years ago. By contrast India will take centuries to catch up to these heights.

The concept of who has been left behind is insightful. Much of the data Deaton presents on the USA suggests that everyone benefited from growth up until the 70’s but there’s a fair bit of evidence that many benefiting now are ‘pulling the ladder up behind them’ and condemning those who don’t escape to declining living standards.

At the end Deaton is clear that the income and health inequality we see is too often caused by the way we have progressed at others’ expense. It is true that the global population is richer and longer lived than at any time in history but over 1 billion people still live with material destitution. In Deaton’s mind it is our responsibility to ensure that our own progress is not at the expense of the world’s poorest but rather the ladder our populations climbed – of education and opportunity for example – are available for all.


About Heather

I am an energy and climate change specialist with a background in industrial energy efficiency and climate change policy.
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