Seeing the Elephant

More than two years after it was first published, I finally saw the elephant.

Specifically, the “elephant graph” of global income gains from 1988–2008, as plotted by former World Bank economist Branko Milanovic.

Have a look for yourself:


[Don’t neglect the source link, either — that’s Milanovic’s own clear and concise explanation of the graph, published at Vox EU on 1 July 2016.]

What this shows is that the world’s median income (point A) has gone up a lot over those 20 years. Ditto the global 1 percent (point C; over half of whom are Americans). And, importantly, it shows that people who were merely rich by global standards (between the mid-70th and mid-90th percentile) saw their incomes stagnate or decrease over the same time.

Combine that with the natural tendency to focus on our own fortunes — especially as perceived in comparison to our neighbors and fellow citizens — and it’s not too hard to form a hypothesis about our cultural and political fix.

The assertion I’d make is that more and more people, especially in the historically wealthy countries (i.e. the winners of the industrial revolution), are not feeling OK economically. And the less OK people feel economically, the more cultural and ultimately political unrest our societies will face.

Imagine sitting at the base of the elephant’s trunk, looking up at the tip. It’s not too hard to understand that frustration. (You might even feel some yourself.)

The challenge for industrially-rich societies is to reduce the fear and frustration of feeling left behind or left out (and the anger that inevitably follows). It is, in other words, to help more people feel more OK.

If I had to guess, we’ll continue to live in “not-normal” times until that graph starts to look substantially more like a normal distribution.