Ignore Bill Gates’ “the most important book I’ve ever read” comment. Read this review. I’ve saved you a lot of time and given you not only the key takeaways but, more importantly, added some specifically-American perspective to the endeavor. Perhaps others can do the same for their home countries …
#1 — Two Core Messages … Joe and Homer said it …
A — “…the main factor that affects how people live is not their religion, their culture, or the country they live in, but their income.”
B — ”Step-by-step, year by year, the world is improving. Not on every single measure every single year, but as a rule. Though the world faces challenges, we have made tremendous progress. This is the fact-based worldview.”
Boom. There you have it. Done. For those of us old enough to remember Dragnet’s Joe Friday and fun enough for Homer …
#2 — Rosling built a “4 Income Levels” framework to categorize each country of the world. And while I like the positive tone of his core message above, I’d suggest that his biggest contribution is actually this matrix. I just don’t think he goes far enough with it, which is my way of saying I really like it.
So four levels, with the core distinction being daily personal income. Starting from the left we have those countries where income is <$2/day. Think Somalia and North Korea. Level 2 is next, >$2 and <$8 per day, where we find India and Vietnam. Next we see the likes of China and Indonesia at Level 3, with >$8 and <$32 a day in per capita income. Finally, Level 4, which sees >$32/day in places like the Czech Republic and Singapore.
So far that reads like most World Bank research papers, right? And that’s NOT what Rosling is about, so he brings it home, makes it real by attaching real world photos to the living situation of those in each level. Think drinking water … hole in the ground, walk/ride to a well, out of a hose tap, or kitchen sink … that’s what living in each of the levels really means. Or transport … feet, bike, scooter, car. (Oops, no public transport in Rosling’s world.) Cooking … open fire, butane portable stove, small gas stove, large gas stove. Eating, Sleeping, and several other real-world descriptors bring his “Life on the Four Income Levels” to life.
It’s not clear which he constructed first … the numeric axis of 2,8,32, or the different real-world descriptors that just happened to line up with those income levels. Whatever the case, it makes it real, and if you ever watched, and if you haven’t yet seen, one of his TedTalk or YouTube videos, you should, cuz Rosling brings it to life. Link below.
#3 — Unlike his talks, Rosling’s book takes way too much energy on anecdotes to demonstrate how we are all gravely mistaken about poverty worldwide. It can be a real slog to make it through a chapter. And then, at the end of each chapter, he provides a quick bulleted summary. I think these are best placed at the beginning of the chapter. If you must read the book, I strongly suggest you jump to the end of each chapter first, then skim.
#4 — So I’m convinced that data is key. I also believe that regardless of the data set, if those you’re discussing a problem with do not agree on what that problem is, I don’t care how many facts you all agree to, you’re not going to agree to a policy that solves the problem. And I do believe that Rosling is trying to help solve some problems beyond simply better understanding the data. In this case, the problem seems centered on personal health and quality of life, and in particular how humans have moved significantly beyond mere survival levels for not all but the great majority of our numbers.
But is income level really the core issue in quality of life once basic needs are met? Seems like a pretty low bar to me, particularly now that most of the world has cleared it. What now?
I really do wish Rosling was still with us to tackle the next issues. He died of pancreatic cancer just before finishing the book, and thanks to his co-authors for finishing the book and carrying on the legacy.
#5 — So the Income Level Matrix and its real-world perspective on comparative quality of life is solid work if not boring reading. How to extend it? If it’s really useful at the world stage level amongst countries, what about one level of analysis lower, like at the US and its states level? Surely we can take the same econometric view and divide the US reality into four levels, compare over time, and see if we’re “doing better.”
My quick review of US statistics shows a) incomes are studied primarily at a household level, b) US stats reference quintiles (fifths) and not quartiles, and c) beyond life expectancy I find it difficult to find any stats that reliably factor income into the mix. (Apparently we’re all interested in state comparisons for most everything.) I really want to look at Rosling’s favorite single measure of society’s health, child mortality rates … alas, I’m unable to locate decent stats. I did, however, find projected life expectancy. Rosling found at a world level that those in Levels 1 and 2 moved up to 2 and 3. So we should expect the same within the US, right?
Well, it ain’t good news. One National Academies of Sciences study concludes: “In recent decades, however, the gap in life expectancy between higher-income individuals and those lower on the socioeconomic distribution has been expanding.” Here’s the graph for women, where Levels 1-4 suffered reduced life expectancies and only the richest, Level 5, showed a dramatic increase. Whoa. The graph for men is a little better, but not much. (To be clear, the numbers indicate how many years “beyond” the age of 50 a woman is expected to survive, so add 50 to the number to get the actual age.)
Projected Life Expectancy by Income Quintile at age 50 for females born in 1930 and 1960
Source: see below
So a look at the data is alarming. And as much as we should take solace in Rosling’s optimistic view of “progress”, when the data shows otherwise, we should act.
But only if we all agree that there’s actually a problem. Is there?
I think Rosling buried his answer in the “The Gap Instinct” chapter where he explains the details of Level 2. He hints at what I propose is the next big goal after basic survival needs are met. At Level 2, he writes, “life is much better now, but still uncertain. A single illness and you would have to sell most of your possessions to buy medicine.” The uncertainty of plummetting back one or more levels, once you’ve moved up a few levels, is the big social challenge at the national level. What to do to prevent slippage? And of course, how to ensure that mobility up the level stepping is feasible is the all-important corollary.
Skip the book. Watch the TedTalks. If you read the book, jump to the end of each chapter for the bulleted summary and then skim the chapter. Then take the approach to your country and figure out what, beyond survival, we need to be worried about.
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong about the World — and Why Things are Better than We Think, by Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund, 2018.
Here’s the source of the data chart: Committee on the Long-Run Macroeconomic Effects of the Aging U.S. Population—Phase II; Committee on Population; Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; Board on Mathematical Sciences and Their Applications; Division on Engineering and Physical Sciences; The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2015 Sep 17. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK321304/
And here’s a great Rosling TedTalk: https://www.ted.com/talks/hans_rosling_shows_the_best_stats_you_ve_ever_seen#t-1174022