The Fascinating Reason Why You'll Never Find the Cause of Poverty

In this week's Rule Breaker Investing podcast, Motley Fool co-founder David Gardner brings his listeners a special treat: an interview with Dr. Steven Pinker of Harvard University. He's a psycholinguist, award-winning researcher, and, according to Time magazine, one of "The 100 Most Influential People" in the world today.

He's also the author of a number of books -- among them The Stuff of Thought, The Blank Slate, Words and Rules, How the Mind Works, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Language Instinct -- but here's how Bill Gates described his latest, Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. "My new favorite book of all time."

In this segment, they jump off from a quote by economist Peter Bauer, who said, "Poverty has no causes. Wealth has causes." That gives them a starting point to consider just what those causes are.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 7, 2018.

David Gardner: You quote the economist Peter Bauer, who said, "Poverty has no causes. Wealth has causes." Can you talk about that?

Steven Pinker: Yes. I think that's a profound insight just about the arc of human progress, with relevance to a lot of debates today, because much of the commentary on inequality and poverty asks why there is so much poverty. If you think back to first principles, think back to the human species 100,000 years ago, we were all poor. I mean, poverty was the human condition because stuff doesn't rain down from the skies. We don't get smartphones and TVs and antibiotics. And what we need to explain, and Bauer's quote captures that, is why there is any wealth whatsoever.

I think that does reframe a number of debates and it, again, ties back to one of the foundations of the book. One of them was information knowledge, which we talked about. And another is entropy, or the fact that in a closed system disorder will tend to increase simply because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than for things to go right. Matter doesn't jump up and arrange itself into clothing, or into food.

And the third foundational theme of the book, together with information and entropy, is evolution. And evolution also guarantees that left to its own devices, or left by default, our lives will not be particularly pleasant or prosperous because everything that we rely on for food is itself a living organism which would just as soon not be eaten.

So the natural state of affairs is for living things to do everything they can not to become our food. Plants are filled with toxins and irritants and bitter-tasting substances which we've, over the millennia, bred out. Animals, of course, run away, and bite, and have poisons. They don't want to be eaten. And so, like poverty, hunger and want are natural states unless we use our ingenuity to defeat the defenses of plants and animals. But, generally, life, the universe, doesn't go out of its way to make things pleasant for us. Quite the opposite. Quite indifferent to our welfare, and it's our own ingenuity that allows us to flourish.

Gardner: I mentioned earlier your book is full of graphs, and most of them start in the upper left and drop down to the lower right.

Pinker: For the bad things, yes.

Gardner: Yes, that's right, and I wanted you to explain that. It's not just an arc -- it's a narrative arc. What is the narrative arc and why are most people, I think, surprised by these insights?

Pinker: I don't believe that there is any mystical process or destiny to humanity that we are fated to travel ever upward. I mean, that's just mystical and as someone with a scientific mindset, I just don't think there is such a force in the universe. Quite the contrary. The universe is totally indifferent and a lot of the forces of the universe kind of grind us down.

But if we have some of the core values of the Enlightenment such as reason, such as science, such as human betterment as itself a goal; that's not obviously a goal because there are many belief systems where what counts is the fate of your soul in an afterlife as opposed to your happiness as a living, breathing body in this life. Or the glory of the tribe or the nation. Or advancing the creed or the faith.

So even the idea, let's make as many people as possible happy, and healthy, and long-lived, that's a radical idea. It seems obvious to many of us today because we're children of the Enlightenment, but it was definitely an idea; the fact that we can, by applying and accumulating our ingenuity, actually succeed. Not everywhere all the time, but in general.

And so these various arcs of improvement -- the fact that we are richer, we live longer, more of us go to school, fewer of us die in wars, few of us die in violent crime, few of us are felled by infectious disease and on and on and on -- are, I argue, gifts of the Enlightenment. Now, not all of them but for a lot of the curves, they don't go upward and align from the beginning of time.

But a lot of them show an acceleration beginning in the late 18th and 19th centuries with advances such as the Agricultural revolution in Britain, where they came across better methods of planting, and harvesting, and crop rotation. A century later synthetic fertilizers and vigorous hybrids. In the case of public health, chlorinating water. Keeping human waste out of the water supply. Vaccination. Antibiotics. Markets were lubricated by contracts and finance.

And also, a general philosophy that it is not shameful to be in commerce. It used to be that the sources of prestige were aristocrats, and warriors, and priests; and the shopkeepers and merchants were considered the scum of society. And not coincidentally, a lot of them were Jews, and anti-Semitism and anti-commercial sentiments went together for a lot of years.

Then really starting in the 18th and 19th century, there was some prestige, attached itself to commerce, which together with the institutions and laws, helped markets. And, of course, the technological advances of the Industrial Revolution caused gross world product to suddenly shoot up beginning in the 19th century.

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The views and opinions expressed herein are the views and opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Nasdaq, Inc.

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