Near the beginning of President Barack Obama’s final speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning, he pointed out something really important about the world today: We are living through the best time in human history, but it feels to a lot of us like anything but.
“This is the paradox that defines our world today: A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the world is by many measures less violent and more prosperous than ever before. And yet our societies are filled with uncertainty and unease and strife,” Obama said.
This isn’t just a one-off observation on his part. It actually speaks to something very fundamental, and underappreciated, about the nature of the world we live in. We have set up a series of institutions that order the world — ranging from NATO to the global free trade regime to the UN itself — and have helped make the world better for most people.
But not everyone. Some people have suffered tremendously from the way the world is ordered — and it’s helped create a broader sense of social and global crisis.
Obama’s speech, then, is an implicit recognition that how this paradox gets resolved — if the real suffering of the few can be alleviated without sacrificing the gains of the many — will play a major role in shaping his how tenure in office is perceived.
The best of times
The first segment of Obama’s speech focused on documenting the good in the world. “Over the last 25 years,” Obama noted, “the number of people living in extreme poverty has been cut from nearly 40 percent of humanity to under 10 percent.” This, as it turns out, is entirely correct:
In the longer view, Obama explained, things look even better: “A person born today is more likely to be healthy, to live longer, and to have access to opportunity than at any time in human history.”
This, too, is correct — as this extraordinary chart of global life expectancy, from Oxford University’s Max Roser, shows:
A decline in the deadliness of armed conflict has definitely contributed to this. As terrible as today’s conflicts are, the percentage of people dying from conflict remains at historical lows:
Why these huge gains? Obama credits them to a series of institutions, most of which were set up in the wake of World War II with an eye toward preventing something similar from ever happening again.
One such institution is the generally open global economy, which helped promote life-saving medical innovations and growth in developing countries. Formal international organizations like the UN and World Trade Organization, which help define the rules of the global order, are another good example.
It’s very easy to argue with specific parts of the story. But on the whole, it is quite clearly correct: The world is fundamentally better off now than it was in the past, and many of the basic features of the post-WWII order (to varying degrees) played a role in making that happen.
The worst of times
Yet, despite these benefits, Obama admitted that something is wrong: People around the world are expressing profound pessimism about the direction things are going. A recent World Economic Forum poll, for example, found that “in almost every country surveyed, over 50 percent of populations believe the world is getting worse.”
Why is this happening? Ironically, the very same forces that Obama cited as making the world better for some have made the world worse for others.
Take globalization, for example. The post-World War II commitment to free trade has contributed to what economist Branko Milanović calls "the greatest reshuffle of individual incomes since the Industrial Revolution.” Access to Western markets has helped China build up an export economy, which played a huge role in the global reduction in extreme poverty.
But it has come at the expense of the working class in the developed world. The following chart of Milanović’s — commonly referred to as the "elephant chart" because it resembles an elephant with its trunk raised — shows how.
Milanović’s data looks at changes in income worldwide at different income percentiles, covering the 1988 to 2008 period. For the global middle class — formerly poor people in China, most prominently — and the global 1 percent, things look good. But the American and European working and middle classes, the high-70s to mid-80s on Milanović’s chart, have seen no gains — or have even seen their incomes shrink.
So globalization, which has helped make the world a healthier and richer place, has also enriched the superrich and made some relatively vulnerable people poorer. One widely cited study by a labor economist at MIT found that the growth of China’s manufacturing sector cost the US about a million manufacturing jobs between 2000 and 2007.
Meanwhile, international institutions have proven woefully ineffective in ending Syria’s civil war, solving the refugee crisis, or putting an end to international terrorism. And it’s these issues, not the large-scale improvements in human welfare, that dominate the headlines.
The fact that there’s dramatically less extreme poverty in China doesn’t really register on a daily level. Nobody walks around thinking, "I’m so thankful to NATO for helping prevent World War III." Economic pain and the specter of an ISIS attack feels a lot more immediate and tangible, even if these harms are outweighed by the aggregate gains.
The result, then, is a perception of crisis — one driven, in part, by the institutions that have helped make the world safer and richer than ever before. The question is how to resolve that — and I’m not sure anyone, Obama included, has a good answer.