Millionaire Superheroes

Do you know anyone who has saved someone’s life?  It is pretty heroic.  The Medal of Honor, is sometimes awarded for saving a single life in a valiant way.  So imagine how heroic it would be to save more than a thousand lives or even a million.  Even comic book superheroes rarely manage to save a million lives because it is hard to even dream up a plausible way for a superhero to save a million lives even in science fiction. Anyone who could claim that kind of heroism should be a household name.  Surely they would be well rewarded for that kind of heroism.

But it turns out that there are many real-life superheroes who could credibly be credited with saving more than a million lives, and most are much less well known than minor celebrities in the Kardashian family.  These real-life superheros have had mostly secret identities without even trying.

How did these unsung heroes accomplish their feats? They are mostly people who developed effective new public health technologies that were cheap enough to be widely copied around the world.  It is impossible to quantify exactly how many lives each superhero saved, but anyone who has definitely saved thousands of lives and who could plausibly have saved more than a million lives over the past century deserves to be called a millionaire superhero.  The other group of millionaire superheroes are those who developed the agricultural technologies that reduced the real price of food and staved off mass starvation when population exploded due to the millions of lives saved by the public health innovations.  The Global Hunger Index shows that undernutrition has continued to fall over the past 24 years in an ongoing continuation of this trend.   Undernutrition kills people by making them more vulnerable to disease and other stressors, and the world’s population could not have exploded without a parallel explosion in food production.  The millions of people who were saved by public health innovations would have just starved to death.

Millionaire superheroes have shaped the last two centuries more than anyone else in history.  The history textbooks are full of military and political leaders who rarely had that much impact on the world. Wikipedia only lists about 20 wars in history that resulted in more than a million deaths, and historians obsess about minor wars that had a much smaller death toll.  Surely we should study people who saved more than a million lives with just as much interest as the wars that killed fewer peopel . Diarrhea kills far more people than warfare and diarrheal diseases used to be much, much deadlier. In 1900 diarrhea caused 9% of the deaths in the US and it was undoubtedly much worse in poorer nations that lack statistics.  The heroes who won the big battles against diarrhea have changed world history more than any military general.

Imagine living in a world where life expectancy at birth is roughly between 25 years and 40 years. That was the history of the human race for all of time until about 1800. Then the world’s history dramatically changed over the next two centuries as you can see played out on Gapminder World.  The circles represent every country in the world

life and income 1801

There was no country in the world in 1800 with a life expectancy above 40 years and most nations had a life expectancy of about 30 years. The richest nation on earth was England with per capita income of  US$2,737 and most people in the world earned well under $1,000/year.  For all of human history before 1800, that was the norm. Extreme poverty and very low life expectancy.

Fast forward to 2012 and Gapminder’s graph reveals that there is no country on earth with a life expectancy below 45 years even though there are still numerous countries that are earning less than $2,000 per capita. Nations like North Korea and Bangladesh have life expectancy of 70 years despite earning less than $2,000 and despite the new AIDS epidemic which caused many poor nations’ life expectancy to drop.

health and wealth 2012Poor countries like Bangladesh have not gotten any richer than the richest nation in 1800, but life expectancy has more than doubled anyhow. Poor nations like Bangladesh have dramatically increased life expectancy without more economic resources per person. Millionaire superheroes accomplished that.

The work of these superheroes is still ongoing. For example, in 1990, the under-five mortality rate in the US was almost double what it is today. In 2012, 6.6 million American children died before their fifth birthday, so our superheroes are saving over six million more children every single year compared with 22 years ago.

In the past 200 years, millionaire superheroes have saved billions of lives.  They have changed history much more than our highly creative comic-book writers imagined that Spider-Man, Batman, or most other superheroes could do.

The millionaire superheroes caused a:

  1. Population explosion. For most of human history, women averaged six kids just to keep population from shrinking. The mortality rate was so high that most kids did not live long enough to reproduce, so women who reached the point of being capable of childbearing had to pump out the babies to keep the population stable. The doubling time for the human population for all of time was about 1,000 years. Then, suddenly the superheroes started saving millions of lives and the population doubling time dropped to a low of only about 35 years in the 1960s.
  2. Decline in family size. When parents started realizing that their kids weren’t dying so fast anymore, they started having fewer kids. It turns out that most people don’t really want 10 kids, but they were having extra kids as a precaution so that they hoped that at least one would survive to produce grandchildren and support the parents in old age if they got lucky enough to live past their 50th birthday.
  3. Rise of education. There was much less benefit to spending resources educating kids when they died so frequently. Plus, there were fewer resources per kid when families were so large. Societies had to spend more resources to just keeping large numbers of kids alive (and more resources burying them) and had less resources to invest in each kid’s development. Some societies did not even name children until they reached two years of age or so because infant mortality was so high that they did not even want to emotionally invest in thinking up a name until after the most dangerous time had passed.
  4. Increase in income. Greater per-capita investment in human capital (education) increased productivity which increased per-capita income. Literate workers were able to share technologies and spread good ideas. For the first time in human history, median income more than doubled and rose for generations and a large middle class was born. Other factors contributed to the rise in income too, but the above factors were crucial.
  5. Decrease in violence, humanitarian revolution, decrease in child labor, etc.  There were numerous other domino effects on our lives and cultures.  Stephen Pinker provides evidence that the percent of humans killed by other humans has declined over the past two centuries and two of the reasons he gives are the rise of education (#3) and the rise in income (#4).  The rise in longevity was also an important reason because when life is short there is more risk taking and life is cheaper when it is shorter.  Dueling and other violence seems like a more reasonable mechanism for settling disputes in a society where death is so common anyhow.  Similarly, child labor disappears when family size decreases (#2) and incomes rise (#4).  Only 1 in 10 kids in the world are child laborers today which is great news.  Every kind of social progress of the past century (and every new social pathology) was made possible by the accomplishments of the millionaire superheroes.

I’ll reveal the secret identities of some millionaire superheroes in upcoming posts.  Like most comic-book superheroes, almost none cashed in on their achievements to become rich, so at least we should give them some honor.  If you want to nominate some people whose work has plausibly saved millions of lives in the last century, please leave a comment.

Posted in Development, Millionaire Superheroes
2 comments on “Millionaire Superheroes
  1. […] Lots of small advances have contributed to this trend.  For example, Nils Bohlin was an automotive engineer at Volvo who invented the three-point seatbelt which he patented in 1959. They made the design free for public use in 1968 and the US Department of Transportation required it in all American cars.  Nils Bohlin died in 2002, and in its obituary, the New York Times reported that his invention is estimated to save more than 11,000 American motorists each year in the USA alone.   Nils Bohlin’s invention may not have saved a million lives around the world yet, but he is well on his way to becoming a millionaire superhero. […]

  2. […] been documenting the lives of some remarkable people who have probably saved millions of lives through a breakthrough like vaccines and oral rehydration therapy and sanitation. Today those […]

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