Poverty and the New Malthusianism: Learning Something from History, Just This Once.
It is pretty obvious that, past a certain threshold of crisp data visualisations and internally robust statistics (which all end up referencing each other), the working knowledge of poverty that our most prominent information gurus possess is de-historicised. The sheer complexity and variance of poverty in past societies and up to today has been emulsified into a series of admittedly elegant and genuinely useful visualisations, which all still manage to service a glossy globalised project of ‘softly, softly’ amelioration best represented by the World Economic Forum at Davos. The conceit of this post is that today’s titans of poverty commentary need to read a history book or two. Frankly, a whole syllabus on historical poverty would not hurt. Or, they should please stop quoting Thomas Malthus, whichever comes first.
No, dear reader, it was not unimaginable.
No, again, not really.
Here are two short passages from the allegedly toned down second version of Malthus’s famous Essay:
Malthus projected as natural law a desperately pessimistic version of a common assumption: about the intrinsic moral failings (‘vice, misery’, no abundance of ‘moral restraint’) of Britain’s poorest people; an understanding that if sufficiently fed and secured, the poor would have excessively large families, be unable to maintain them on their contingent, infrequent, and limited incomes, and so remain poor and reproduce their poverty down the generations. He turned possibly one of the most complex, cascading interactions in human social and economic history into a three-part equation. Malthus’s theorisation of population growth and poverty as an index of subsistence is only true in the most banal and mathematical sense, he did not prove any correlation between these ‘oscillations in England and the history of the Poor Laws’, though this was his abiding aim.
Despite its grand claims about collective tendencies among the lower classes, Malthusian theories about poverty and population were profoundly centred on assumptions about the (poor) individual and inclined to overlook the vast embedded structures of dispossession that we know did more to produce and reproduce poverty than any statistical pattern found in individual choice. The failure of Malthusianism to account for any echoes of choice and constraint across communities or generations, or for path dependency, or for structural constraints beyond mere subsistence, and its wilful overlooking of people’s capacity for family planning in the era before chemical contraception, should all swiftly veto its rehabilitation in today’s data-rich world. And yet here we are.
The prompt for my post today is a recent parenthetical comment by Max Roser on, in his view, the best way forward in the global quest to drastically reduce poverty. Roser echoes the broad consensus that economies currently experiencing a high incidence of absolute poverty — measured against American dollars since the 1980s by the World Bank — absolutely must grow their way out of it. It should be said that Roser seems like a nice chap, and as (almost) always in debates over poverty, his goals are noble. What I am questioning here is his assumptions.
Roser has two problems with the idea that ‘we should reduce global poverty by global redistribution’, here I think it is important to quote in full:
“I think it is extremely optimistic to believe that large-scale global redistribution would be supported by those who live on more than the global average income. You would need to convince (or force) the richest hundreds of million people in the world to give up large shares of their income and I think only few people would be willing to do that. One concrete datapoint that makes me skeptical: most rich countries in the world are not willing to achieve the UN goal of spending even only 0.7% of their GDP on aid…
There are only two ways to increase the incomes of the poor: lower global inequality or economic growth for the poorest billions of the world. If someone is not in favour of economic growth for the poorer billions in the world they are left with the option to reduce global inequality. I am in favour of reducing global inequality, but I find it extremely wrong to suggest that the only acceptable way to end global poverty is to reduce global inequality.”
Emphases mine. While it is very tempting to respond to this comment with a ‘Why not both?’ animated gif and just call it a day, I detect here the age-old method of placing particular solutions or forms of activity beyond the political pale by labelling them as utopian, or as ‘extremely optimistic’. Let us be very charitable and set aside for now the fact that between 8 and 36 trillion dollars worth of economic value is currently stashed away doing very little indeed in global tax havens. Let us also set aside the fact that the world’s 100 richest individuals are collectively worth $8128 billion dollars, or $8 trillion dollars, based on current publicly available data about their holdings and finances. I won’t even bother finding out how much money the top 100 global companies are collectively worth.
Instead let’s just consider the idea on its own terms. Roser’s statement follows a simple ‘if>than’ logic. The assumption, the ‘if’ here, is that globally the richest third of the human population, say, will never be convinced to meaningfully redistribute their wealth to poorer people, en masse. This does not entirely square with Roser’s personally preferred method of redistribution, which is ‘Give Directly’, in other words, redistribution but on what can only be described as a grievously insufficient scale. The second ‘if’ animating this passage is the pernicious idea that all economic growth is good growth, which is essentially a grown-up’s version of trickle-down economics. Which sections of an economy actually grow (for instance, manufacturing versus City financial speculation) tends to be flattened by this reading into a very handy idea that simply encouraging growth in general is the best position for the world’s finance ministers to adopt. This only leverages existing inequalities further, it only strengthens the relative power of our current pod of economic ‘whales’, it doesn’t magically make the sea any safer for the minnows.
‘Grow your way out of poverty’ is a profoundly Malthusian thing to think, based on what I hope are obviously Malthusian premises. It also assumes a symmetry to the results of, say, GDP growth that there simply isn’t any dataset for. Strong statistical correlations between GDP growth and sustained GINI coefficient reductions do exist, but they tend to be very limited in historical duration, and, they tend to be paired with structural constraints that heavily incentivise economic redistribution, for instance robust welfare states and progressive taxation. In other words, only when the real titans of our economic landscape — the rule makers, the state actors — consciously choose to intervene to redistribute do we see any meaningful change in the balance of economic inequality in a given moment. I am sure that’s obvious to many people, but again, here we are anyways.
I understand Roser’s pessimism now and Thomas Malthus’s pessimism then, and in both cases I really sympathise. But they are both wrong about how to ‘solve’ poverty. Most of our introduction and all of the first pair of chapters from the Routledge History of Poverty — the second chapter is explicitly on the economic history of poverty in the period up to 1800 — are available free on Google books. I know it is shameless but can I encourage those occupying centre stage in this most important debate to take some time and read it, or at least, some historical scholarship like it, and to grapple with the unpleasant reality that poverty ‘is a political choice’ not just in the world’s richest countries, but by implication, everywhere.
My co-editor Julia McClure and I ended our introduction as follows, with a plea to reimagine how we think about poverty. I cannot think of a more important moment to do this than now:
“We need to think about poverty now not just as something we ourselves might experience, or that we might see others suffering through, but also in terms of our planet and its ecosystems, the corrosion of which already impoverishes us all, again at an uneven pace. In this new context we must reassess our mutual horizon of needs and wants, which has for so long been governed by the values of a capitalist system predicated on endless economic growth. The worst poverty in our future might well be a poverty of imagination; if we fail to re-imagine our societies and their economic foundations, we are all the poorer for it. To prevent this future poverty, we should look to the past and learn from the complexities of historical poverty and from the lived experiences of the poor.”
So please, let go of Malthus, embrace a little dangerous optimism, even utopianism, get out from underneath the paralysing apocalypticism of current assumptions about poverty, climate, and capitalism, and let’s get to work.
 Gareth Stedman Jones, An End to Poverty? (London: Profile, 2004); 103.
 A good place to start here, for me at least, was this pair of introductory books: Kate Raworth, Doughnut Economics (London: Penguin, 2017), particularly chapter 1 which flenses the notion of GDP growth; and Anthony B. Atkinson, Inequality: What can be done? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), particularly pp. 45 to 110, which focuses on ‘learning from history’.