Moved by Hans Rosling 1948-2017

Hans Rosling (1948-2017) was a professor of public health and at the Swedish Academy of Sciences. I hadn’t heard about him but his death caused newsmedia to report about his mission to better inform people by the innovative presentation of statistics. I looked at some of his presentations, and found them both informative and innovative indeed.

I applaud this chart in which he tabulates not only causes and effects but rather means and goals. (Clicking on the picture will bring you to the TED talk 2007, and at the end the audience may applaud for another reason, namely when he swallows a sword to illustrate that the “impossible is possible”.)

Hans Rosling 1948-2017

Hans Rosling 1948-2017

Continue the discussion

My impression is that we best honour Rosling by continuing the discussion about his work. Thus, my comments are as follows.

First of all, my book Definition & Reality in the General Theory of Political Economy shows that the Trias Politica model of democracy fails, because it allows politicians still too much room to manipulate information and to meddle in scientific advice on policy making. Thus, governance is much more important than Rosling suggested. Because of his analysis, Rosling in some of his simulations only used economic growth as the decisive causal factor to explain the development of countries. However, the key causal factor is governance. The statistical reporting on this is not well developed yet. Thus, I move one + from economic growth to governance.

Secondly, my draft book The Tinbergen & Hueting Approach in the Economics of Ecological Survival discusses that the environment has become a dominant risk for the world as we know it. It is not a mathematical certainty that there will be ecological collapse, but the very nature of ecological collapse is that it comes suddenly, when you don’t expect it. The ecology is so complex and we simply don’t have enough information to manage it properly. It is like standing at the edge of a ravine. With superb control you might risk to edge one millimeter closer, but if you are not certain that the ground will hold and that there will not be a sudden rush of wind, then you better back up. The table given by Rosling doesn’t reflect this key point. Thus, I move one + from economic growth to the environment.

In sum, we get the following adapted table.

Adapted from Hans Rosling

I have contemplated for the means whether I would want to shift another + from economic growth to either human rights (property rights) or education (I am also a teacher). However, my current objective is to highlight the main analytical difference only.

In the continued discussion we should take care of proper definitions.

What does “economic growth” mean ?

The term “economic growth” is confusing. There is a distinction between level and annual growth of income, and there is a distinction w.r.t. categories within. Economic welfare consists of both material products (production and services) and immaterial elements (conditions and services). If the term “economic growth” includes both then this would be okay. In that case, however, the whole table would already be included in the notion of welfare and economic growth. Apparently, Hans Rosling intended the term “economic growth” for the material products. I would suggest to replace his “economic growth” by “income level”, and thus focus on both income and level rather than annual change of a confusingly named statistic. Obviously, it is a policy target that all people would have a decent standard of living, but it is useful to remain aware that income is only a means to a higher purpose, namely to live a good life.

PM. This causes a discussion about the income distribution, and how the poor and the rich refer to each other, so that the notion of poverty is relative to the general standard of society. In the 1980s the computer was a luxury item and nowadays a cell-phone with larger capacity is a necessity. These are relevant aspects but a discussion would lead too far here now.

What does “environment” mean ?

In the adapted table, the environment gets ++ as both means and goal. There is slight change of meaning for these separate angles.

  • The environment as a goal means that we want to preserve nature for our descendants. Our kids and grandchildren should also have tigers and whales in their natural habitat, and not as photographs only.
  • The environment as means causes some flip-flop thinking.
    (1) In economic thought, everything that exists either already existed or mankind has crafted it from what was given. Thus we only have (i) the environment, (ii) human labour. There are no other means available. From this perspective the environment deserves +++.
    (2) For most of its existence (some 60,000 years), mankind took the environment for granted. Clear air and water where available, and if some got polluted it was easy to move to a next clean spot. The economic price of the environment was zero. (Or close to it: the cost of moving was not quite a burden or seen as an economic cost.) Thus, as a means, the environment didn’t figure, and from this viewpoint it deserves a 0. There are still many people who think in this manner. It might be an engrained cultural habit, but a rather dangerous one.
    (3) Perhaps around the middle of the past century, the 1950s, the environment has become scarce. As Lionel Robbins explained: the environment has become an economic good. The environment provides functions for human existence and survival, and those functions now get a price. Even more, the Tinbergen & Hueting approach acknowledges that the ecology has become risky for human survival. The USA and Europe might think that they can outsource most environmental pollution to the poorer regions of the world, but when the rain forests turn into deserts and when the CO2 turns the oceans into an acid soup that eats away the bones of fish, then the USA and Europe will suffer the consequences too. In that perspective, the environment deserves +++.
    (4) How can we make sure that the environment gets proper place in the framework of all issues ? Eventually, nature is stronger than mankind, and there might arise some natural correction. However, there is also governance. If we get our stuff together, then mankind might manage the world economy, save the environment at some cost, but still achieve the other goals. Thus governance is +++ and the environment is relative at ++. Thus we arrive at above adapted table.
Dynamic simulation

As a teacher of mathematics I emphasize the combined presentation of text, formula, numeric table, and graph. By looking at these different angles, there is greater scope for integrated understanding. Some students are better at single aspects, but by presenting the four angles you cover the various types of students, and all students get an opportunity to develop the aspects that they are weaker in.

Obviously, dynamic simulation is a fifth aspect. See for example the Wolfram Demonstrations project. Many have been making applets in Java and embedding this in html5, yet the use of Mathematica would allow for more exchangeable and editable code and embedding within educational contexts in which the manipulation of text, formula, numeric table, and graph would also be standard.

Obviously, role playing and simulation games are a sixth aspect. This adds human interaction and social psychology to the learning experience. Dennis Meadows has been using this to allow people to grow aware of the risk on the environment, see e.g. “Stratagem” or MIT-Sloan.

The economic crisis of 2007+

What I particularly like about Rosling’s table is his emphasis on culture as a goal. Artists and other people in the world of culture will already be convinced of this – see also Roefie Hueting on the jazz stage – yet others may not be aware that mankind exists by culture.

There is also an important economic angle on culture as a means. In recessions and depressions, the government can stimulate cultural activity, such that money starts flowing again with much less risk for competitive conditions. That is, if the government would support the automobile industry or steel and do specific investments, then this might favour some industries or services at the cost of others, and it might affect competitive conditions overall, and even insert imbalances into the economy in some structural manner. Yet stimulating cultural activity might be much more neutral and still generate an economic stimulus.

For example, Germany around 1920 got into economic problems and the government responded by printing more money, and this caused the hyperinflation. This experience got ingrained in the German attitude towards monetary issues. In the Eurozone Germany follows the hard line that inflation should be prevented at all costs. Thus the eurozone now has fiat money that still functions as a gold standard because of the strict rules. (See my paper on this.) By comparison, when the USA around 1930 got into economic problems and the central bank was hesitant to print money (no doubt looking at the German example), this eventually caused the Great Depression. Thus monetary policy has the Scylla and Charybdis character, with the risks of either too little or too much. Potentially, the option to organise cultural activity would be a welcome addition to the instruments to avoid such risks and smooth the path towards recovery.

I am not quite suggesting that the ECB should print money to pay the unemployed in Greece, Italy, Spain and Portugal to make music and dance in the streets, yet, when the EU would invest in musea and restorations and other cultural services so that Northern Europe can better enjoy their vacations in Southern Europe, then this likely would be more acceptable than when such funds would be invested directly in factories that start to compete with the North. The current situation that Southern Europe has both unemployment and less funds to maintain the cultural heritage is obviously less optimal.

The point is also made in my book Common Sense: Boycott Holland. Just to be sure: this notion w.r.t. culture is not the main point of CSBH. It is just a notion that is worthy of mentioning.

PM. Imagine a dynamic simulation of restoring the Colosseum. Or is it culturally more valuable as a ruin than fully restored ?

By Jaakko Luttinen - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Jaakko Luttinen – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,


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