Why Everything You Think You Know About The World is Probably Wrong

 

Let’s start with a question. In the last 20 years, the proportion of the world’s population living in extreme poverty has..

a. Almost doubled

b. Remained more or less the same

c. Almost halved?

Interested in changing the world? Before you start, please read Factfulness by the late Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnlund. It is a brilliant, perspective-changing piece of work.

The book underlines how most of the stuff we think we know about the world is wrong. We get it wrong because of various instincts that are often fed by media, our schooling, our peers or unconscious prejudice.

The good news, is it’s not just you – everyone else, including most experts, tends to be way off the mark as well.

During his brilliant life Hans Rosling got the chance to talk to some of the world’s leading scientists, doctors, economic development experts and politicians and asked them simple questions about the world like the one above. They also got them wrong. Really wrong. So wrong that Hans worked out that statistically in many cases Chimpanzees could have returned more accurate answers.

Here’s three standout facts that should change the way you look at the world

There is no such thing ‘developing and developed’

Hans calls this the ‘mega-misconception’ about a divided world. Incomes are growing, families are shrinking and access to education is mushrooming. Only 13 countries, or six per cent, of the world’s population can today be classed as ‘developing’ and most people live in middle income countries with access to basic healthcare, transport and education. Remember, just 200 years ago 85 per cent of the world lived in extreme poverty.

The World’s population will not just keep increasing

What Rosling calls the ‘straight line’ instinct might lead you to panic about the possibility of over-population. Today there are around 7.6bn people in the world and numbers have increased rapidly with 5bn people added over the last century. However, the growth has started to slow down, largely due to improved child health – meaning people having fewer and fewer children. The UN expects the world’s population to level out at around 11bn by the end of this century.

Terrorism is on the rise, but not where you think

Terrorism is one of the few things that is getting worse, but let’s put this into perspective – it counted for 0.05pc of all world deaths in 2016 and deaths due to terror are actually falling in the richest countries in the world. The rise is accounted for by continuing terrible civil wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Back in our world, terrorism pales into insignificance compared to other causes of death that don’t get the same level of attention, Rosling calls this ‘The Fear Instinct’. On US soil over the last 20 years 3,172 people died from terrorism – the vast majority on 9/11 – over the same period alcohol contributed to the death of a staggering 1.4m Americans.

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By the way, the answer to the first question is c. Global poverty has almost halved over the last 20 years. Don’t feel too bad if you got it wrong, most people do. You can do the Gapminder test in full here.

Factfullness,Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans, Ola and Anna Rosling is published by Sceptre Books. I got my copy from the excellent Cogito Books.

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It’s election time…again

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This Thursday it’s local elections, our almost annual festival of political apathy. Turn-out for locals has always been low, in 2012 turnout stood at 31 per cent.

That’s pretty shocking, given the fact that for all its limited powers – don’t get me started on the need to transfer more power away from Wesminster to local places – councils still have a direct effect on millions of lives.

After all,  despite austerity, they run many of the services that millions of citizens use every day. Some of these are among the most important life-saving functions of the British state, Adult and Children’s social Care for example.

If all politics is local, then turnout should be at Scottish referendum levels (80 plus per cent).

However, the public usually gives a collective shrug of the shoulders and emits a bored sigh when it comes to town hall elections. The reasons are complex, but I suspect they may have something to do with a system that centralises power in Westminster and Whitehall.

With a few honourable exceptions, there’s certainly a lot less media excitement over local polls than the General Election. Thers’s no televised leaders debate and there won’t be a battle bus in sight. They are the ugly stepchild of the UK political system.

And if the voters aren’t interested, then sadly the political media aren’t either.

The other day I listed to a five minute segment on local elections on BBC Radio Five Live featuring two national political print journalists who managed to miss the point entirely.

It soon became apparent from the discussion that the only place the franchise was available was London and not even the whole of London, just the three or so boroughs where the Conservatives might lose control.

This is because these are the places that Jeremy might win and the Vicar’s Daughter might lose, thus providing Westminster hacks with a national story they feel comfortable reporting because they can speak to the usual suspects who will parrot the usual lines.

I’m still waiting for an in-depth piece on the local elections from a Laura Kuennsberg or an Adam Bolton, both of whom rarely leave Westminster unless it involves going to Sunderland to interview Nissan workers about whether they regret voting to leave the EU.

(Note to Laura and Adam, they don’t. They never will. Can we talk about something else, now?)

I’m still waiting for a piece that analyses why several of our cities have become Conservative free zones, those strange one issue Independents or how the Liberal Democrats recently made progress- albeit limited – in the seas of red that are Sunderland and Manchester.

Did you know Liverpool was once a solidly Conservative city? I didn’t either, but I’m sure what happened might make an interesting story. (Someone did an academic study on the decline of the Tories on Merseyside and called it ‘How to Lose Votes and Alienate People’, which I thought was very witty).

I’m waiting for someone, anyone to step out of the Westminster village and recognise that political life takes place in other places, that it is rich and varied and that it matters. But on the evidence of local elections, I could be in for a long wait.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

Five steps towards Utopia

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I’ve just finished Rutger Bregman’s Utopia for Realists, a practical guide to creating a better world using some pretty radical policy ideas. As the phrase goes, it’s available from all good bookshops. I did my bit for the small trader and got mine from Cogito Books in Hexham, Northumberland. It’s a brilliant piece of  writing, full of ‘stand-out’ ideas and facts, here’s five of the best.

There’s never been a better time to be alive

We live in a time of plenty that earlier generations of humans could scarcely imagine, in fact people in Medieval times talked of a utopia called Cockaigne which sounds uncannily like life in the modern developed world. Extreme poverty has dropped from 84 per cent in 1820 to 44 per cent in 1981 to just under 10 per cent today. Levels of malnutrition, child mortality, disease and crime are plummeting. Put simply, human beings are better educated, more equal, happier, healthier and safer than ever before.

Everything you think you know about poverty is probably wrong

Think the poor are feckless or just a bit dumb? In fact there’s psychological research that poverty and the stress it brings reduces mental ‘bandwidth’. So how do you solve the stress of poverty? Why not take the money worries out of the equation and give the poor free money with no strings attached? This sounds like a recipe for disaster but evidence from around the world shows this is a surprisingly effective way to turn people’s lives around and, given the terrible cost to public services caused by poverty and deprivation, it may even be a wise investment. It also gets rid of a whole benefits ‘industry’ which tries to sort out the deserving from the undeserving at great expense. 

The strange tale of how free money for all almost happened – thanks to Tricky Dicky

Richard Nixon, one of the most loathed and controversial US presidents of modern times, almost bought in a Universal Basic Income. Yes, Tricky Dicky himself championed one of the great progressive policies of our time. In 1969 he wanted to implement a law that would guarantee every family in the States a sum equivalent to $10,000 a year and almost got it on the statute books. However, and I’m not making this up, he changed his mind after a briefing which wrongly interpreted findings from an experiment with Universal Basic Income in Berkshire in the late 18th century.

Open the Borders, help the poor.

The most radical idea in Utopia for Realists isn’t Universal Basic Income – which incidentally is now being trialled in Finland and Canada – it is to get rid of national borders. This sounds politically impossible, but it’s an interesting point that passports and hard borders in Europe only became widespread after World War One. The world is open to free flows of goods and services but not the people needed to buy and sell them. Bregman argues that if you allowed people to flow without visas, checks and passports it would make the whole world twice as rich and make a huge difference to people in developing nations.

Ideas can (still) change the world

Bregman says there is a shortage of ideas around at the moment, particularly on the left who do little but respond to the march of the free market right. As he argues in his final call to action, you can dismiss ideas as unachievable but things once decried as unrealistic from universal healthcare to recycling to the minimum wage have now become part of the political mainstream. Utopia is achievable, and we’ve made great strides particularly in the last 30 years. All we have to do is to organise ourselves and be unrealistic, unreasonable and impossible.

Why is Everyone so *&*$£ing Angry?

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Is it just me, or is everyone getting angrier?

They certainly seem to be particularly furious on Twitter where our own version of the US Culture Wars appears to be taking place.

Take the Oxfam/Save the Children scandal which, depending on your world view, is either evidence of a media conspiracy to cut foreign aid or proof of the moral bankruptcy of liberal values.

Let’s be clear, the alleged use of prostitutes by some people in the aid industry is abhorrent and deserves thorough investigation. It’s a shocking betrayal of what those people were sent out – sometimes at taxpayer’s expense – to do.

But in the land of Twitter the Oxfam scandal became a political and ideological football with facts and reasoning in pretty short supply. There was a lot of heat, but not much light.

The quality of debate isn’t helped by the conspiracy theorists either. After The Times published the original allegations, I began to see tweets claiming the entire story was timed to undermine the Government’s under-pressure commitment to the Foreign Aid Budget and was also an act of revenge for Oxfam’s strident stance on global inequality.

Some even claimed that Conservative MP Jacob Rees Mogg, an unlikely puppet master of world affairs, was responsible since he’d handed in a petition on foreign aid just days earlier.

Meanwhile, as these scandals are prone to do, it got much worse as charity subscriptions were cancelled, global ambassadors resigned and a phalanx of bosses appeared shame-facedly in front of MPs to proffer one million apologies.

And then the scandal spread to other charities, for example Save the Children, where it ultimately resulted in the resignation of Brendan Cox, widow of murdered MP Jo Cox, from the board of several charities connected to his late wife.

I had no idea that Mr Cox was such a divisive figure until I read the Tweets following his resignation. It turns out that to some on Twitter he is not a grieving widow, but an enemy of the state and a disgusting virtue signaler who deserves everything he gets.

News that he had admitted inappropriate behaviour was treated with undisguised glee by some.

The trouble with all this anger is that we ultimately forget about the most important thing, the people whose lives have been affected.

The culture wars use events, often those that involve abused women or dead children, as mere props for a wider battle. It’s symptomatic of our times, but won’t lead to a sensible or measured debate about the issues we face.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press.

The politics of The Crown

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The post war political classes get a bit of a battering in The Crown, Netflix’s eye-wateringly expensive, beautifully written, dramatisation of the reign of our current Queen.

None of 1950-1964 crop of Prime Ministers come out of The Crown particularly well. By the end of Season 2 the Queen has lost patience, referring to them as a ‘confederacy of quitters’ – baffled by their failed attempts to deal with events.

In Season One, Churchill – back for a second term between 1951-1955 – is portrayed as old, ill  and psychologically flawed, obsessed by past triumps in foreign policy while the country cries out for a strong domestic leader. Former PM Attlee, by now in opposition, appears as a dull administrator – fitting Churchill’s withering description of him as a ‘modest man with much to be modest about’.

In Season Two, an ambitious and arrogant Anthony Eden makes a huge political misjudgement on Suez, lies to parliament – and the Queen – and, rather than deal with the mess decides to disappear to Jamaica to recover from illness.

His successor, Harold Macmillan, is portrayed as a slippery cuckolded bore who loses the appetite for power in the wake of the Profumu Affair and appears to exaggerate medical advice so he can step down. As you can imagine, The Queen is less than impressed.

Of course, we’ll never know exactly what the Queen thought of and said to the men who occupied Number Ten during the early years of her reign, but you could forgive her for being a trifle disappointed with the quality of her leaders.

And, you can’t imagine that she’s going to be overly impressed with several of those waiting in the wings as there’s more self-inflicted political disasters to come. I can’t wait to see whether a forthcoming season explores the alleged tensions between The Queen and Margaret Thatcher.

But to be fair, other people – including members of her own family – also badly disappoint, failing to demonstrate the loyalty and sense of duty that she excels in. Again, this has to be a theme over coming seasons.

But if there’s a message in the first two seasons of The Crown, it is that the world is changing fast and in ways that no-one in the British establishment, elected or not, really understands or can deal with.

By the time we get to the early 1960s, the Queen is a spectator to Britain’s immediate post war decline but can do little about it. Not much fun when you are Head of State.

Seasons One and Two of The Crown are available to stream on Netflix now.

This blog first appeared in the Birmingham Press

2017 – that was the year that wasn’t…

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Never predict anything, particularly in sport and politics. Back in January I had a go and got some stuff right, but a lot more stuff wrong. My original post is here.

Things I got right.

Merkel stays on – Merkel did hang on in Germany, although at the time of writing she’s going through some pretty tricky negotiations to stay in the job.

Crossings continue – Not so much fresh as continuing under the media radar. Thousands are still risking their lives crossing from North Africa to Europe, 3,000 have died since January in the Mediterranean. Recently migrants have been attempting to negotiate the Alps in midwinter in trainers.

Yellows in peril – I predicted the Lib Dems wouldn’t go anywhere, and it came to pass. The combination of a new leader and a strong anti-Brexit stance has not paid dividends in the polls. They appear to be treading water. For now, we are back to a two-party system in English politics.

Austerity stinks – the prediction I’m most proud of. Corbyn changed the game on this. The Conservatives lost the narrative and Corbyn showed there is a vocal and engaged portion of the electorate who endorse and champion higher public spending.

North Korea – Easy to forecast but it became more of a flashpoint throughout the year as the two leaders sabre-rattled dangerously. No-one could have predicted the name calling though. Rocket man?

Celtic tops – I got this right and wrong. The Hoops won the SPL by roughly 20 zillion points but this did not spark much introspection north of the border or any serious talk of them joining the Premier League.

Things I got wrong

Over and out for Fillon – The overwhelming favourite did not become President of France. A combination of a bright young challenger and his own finance scandals consigned him to the political dustbin. In fact, he ended the year by exiting from politics completely.

Italian instability – Only a few things are certain in life – death, taxes and a new Italian Government every year or so. However, I was wrong again. It’s been a quiet year by Italian political standards and the next election is scheduled for 2018. I won’t be predicting that one.

May in May – Well, that was a surprise. It turned out she did go for a poll, but in June not May, and it all went swimmingly…

Corbyn the untouchable – Contrary to what I predicted, Labour lost the Cumbrian seat of Copeland but it didn’t make any difference to Corbyn or his Teflon leadership. Events later in the year would cement his authority within the party.

Trumped by Trump – Mind-blowingly wrong. I predicted that Trump would tone it down on the international stage and might seek to roll back on domestic promises. The exact opposite happened.

And meanwhile, in sport – England’s women did reach the semi-final of the Women’s European Football Championships, but they were expected to do better. I also confidently predicted another Andy Murray major and in a tournament he hadn’t won before. Unfortunately, he got a hip injury and never competed at his best this year.

A Very English Scandal

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There are several jaw dropping moments in A Very English Scandal, John Preston’s grimly addictive tale of the rise and fall of Jeremy Thorpe, the former Liberal leader put on trial for conspiracy to murder.

There’s the time Thorpe – an established public figure and leadership hopeful – takes new lover Norman Scott to meet his formidable mother, tells her the handsome young man is a television cameraman, and after a supper of boiled eggs, buggers him in the guest room.

There’s the moment in 1968 when Thorpe, now leader of the third party of British politics, is so tired of endless letters and demands for cash from his unstable ex-lover that he suggests ‘getting rid’ of Scott, comparing killing him to ‘shooting a sick dog’.

And there’s the bungled murder attempt itself, when Scott and his Great Dane are driven out to Dartmoor on a rainy night by the world’s worst hired assassin.

Somehow Thorpe and his associates managed to keep a lid on his affair with Scott for more than a decade, helped by a sympathetic British establishment and a party leadership that believed Thorpe’s lies.

The lengths Thorpe went to seem beyond comprehension now, but it is worth remembering that when his affair with Scott began in 1961 homosexuality was illegal. Thorpe would have been jailed and his political career ruined had anyone found out.

And this is a classic tale of how one lie can lead to many others. Thorpe ended up deceiving fellow Liberals, effectively paying the inept hit man through party funds, themselves supplied by wealthy foreign donors.

A Very English Scandal reads like a comic novel at times, but don’t laugh too much. It features serial bungling and bizarre deceptions carried out by a cast of characters that could have come straight from an Ealing Comedy, but it is also a tale of Thorpe’s sexual abuse of a vulnerable adult in a darker, less tolerant Britain.

A Very English Scandal, by John Preston, is published in paperback by Penguin.