During the 2012 presidential election, Republicans assailed President Barack Obama's economic record by invoking Ronald Reagan's famous question: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
What if we asked the same question about the world? Four years is a long time, and you might be surprised by just how much has changed since Obama was elected in 2008. Here's a look at eight of the most important and interesting trends.
Yes, the world had iPhones four years ago and Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit were all part of the webscape, but the face of technology has changed dramatically since the last election -- most notably by reaching roughly a billion more people. Since November 2008, the number of Internet users worldwide has soared from roughly 1.5 to roughly 2.5 billion -- a 40 percent increase. At the same time, the number of Facebook users increased tenfold from 100 million to more than 1 billion and the average number of Tweets per day increased from around 300,000 to 340 million. (During the hour-and-a-half-long presidential debate in Denver, Twitter fanatics posted more than 10 million times.)
Just how much the speed of technological change has affected world politics still a matter for debate, but it seems clear that Twitter and Facebook played at least some role in the uprisings that spread across the Arab world in 2011. The Occupy movement, too, made use of social media and, perhaps more creatively, harnessed the power of drones -- now sold privately for as little as $300 -- to monitor police brutality. (Watch this video from Occupy Warsaw.) Other technological advances that were perhaps unimaginable back in 2008 include private space travel, radar that can see through walls, and mosquito lasers.
At this time four years ago, Lehman Brothers had only recently collapsed, Japan still had a larger economy than China, and European leaders had yet to hold their first debt crisis summit. Unfortunately, this period of great change has not brought much relief to a sluggish global economy. The International Labor Organization estimates that the global unemployment rate has risen from 5.6 percent in 2008 to a projected 6 percent in 2012 (with more than 200 million people currently out of work around the world out of 3.3 billion workers), and reports that the 2011 global employment rate of 60.3 percent is 0.9 percentage points lower than before the recession -- translating into 50 million "missing" jobs in the world economy. As youth and long-term unemployment rise, poverty rates and inequality have also increased in half of the world's advanced economies and one-third of the world's developing economies, heightening the risk of social unrest everywhere from Europe to North Africa. World gross product has recovered after falling 2.4 percent in 2009, but growth is decelerating, raising the specter of another economic downturn afflicting developed and developing countries alike.
The United States is still the largest economy in the world, but over the course of Obama's term China has
overtaken Japan as the world's second-largest
economy and Brazil has
surpassed Britain as the world's sixth-largest.
Meanwhile, the United States has fallen from first place in the World Economic
Global Competitiveness Index to seventh place in
the organization's 2012-2013 ranking (Switzerland now tops the list). The report praised the country's innovative corporate sector,
first-class university system, and flexible labor markets but raised alarm
bells about its partisan gridlock and wasteful spending. "A lack of
macroeconomic stability continues to be the country's greatest area of weakness,"
the study concluded.
ARCTIC SEA MELT
Four years is too short of an interval to meaningfully capture the extent of climate change, but one area that stands out for its rapid deterioration is Arctic sea melt. Every summer, part of the Arctic Ocean melts away and historically, about half of it is gone by September. Since scientists began monitoring ice melt in the 1970s, however, melting has accelerated substantially so that ice now covers only about a quarter of the Arctic Ocean at its lowest point. Even in the last four years, the low point -- the day when melting stops and the sea begins to gradually freeze over again -- has dropped appreciably, from 1.61 million square miles of ice coverage (29 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2008 to 1.32 million square miles (24 percent of the Arctic Ocean) in 2012.
The average ice extent for the month of September, a standard measure for the study of Arctic sea ice, tells a similar story. In 2008, it stood at 1.80 million square miles, whereas this year it clocked in at 1.39 million square miles -- 48.7 percent below average and the lowest level in the satellite era. Arctic ice is disappearing so quickly that Peter Wadhams, a Cambridge University professor who has been collecting data on ice thickness from submarines for many years, predicts that the ice will melt completely by 2015 or 2016.
GLOBAL HEALTH ADVANCES
Because of the significant time lag for most data on global health trends, it's difficult to paint a comprehensive picture of how the fight against disease has fared over the last four years. Even so, it's clear that there have been some significant victories: India, which in 2009 had the highest incidence of polio in the world, has been removed from the World Health Organizations polio-endemic list, leaving Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan as the lone holdouts in the fight against the crippling childhood disease.
Meanwhile, the last four years has seen a 132 percent increase in the number of people with access to preventative malaria measures and the preliminary results have been positive. Between 2008 and 2010, the last year for which the World Health Organization has data, the number of annual malaria deaths dropped from nearly 863,000 to 655,000 -- and this while the world's population increased by almost 200 million. At the same time, researchers have made substantial progress toward a malaria vaccine -- which reduced the incidence of the tropical disease by 50 percent in a 2011 clinical trial in Africa -- though there is growing concern about the spread of drug-resistant strains of malaria, especially in Southeast Asia.
Programs like the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief and the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria have also made substantial gains in the fight against HIV/AIDS -- so much so that New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote about the plight of out-of-work coffin makers in Lesotho. There are still roughly 2.7 million new infections annually around the world, but according to the 2011 UNAIDS report, both infections and deaths are on the wane.
The jury is still out on the so-called Arab Spring, but the last four years have been an unmitigated disaster for some of the world's worst and longest-serving rulers (known at FP as the committee to destroy the world). Not only did angry publics force out aging strongmen in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya -- who had ruled for a combined 116 years -- but a surprising number of dictators from all over the world have kicked the bucket since Obama was elected. In December 2008, Lansana Conté died in office, ending an illustrious 24-year stint as president of Guinea, during which the West African country was consistently rated among the most corrupt on the planet. A year later, the world bid farewell to the notoriously self-obsessed Omar Bongo, who had spent the previous 41 years running oil-rich Gabon as his personal estate. In the last year, North Korean enigma Kim Jong Il and Ethiopian strongman Meles Zenawi both died unexpectedly. The two had 38 years of leadership experience between them.
MORE REFUGEES, FEWER MIGRANTS
The past four years have produced two storylines when it comes to migration patterns. First, the Arab Spring has produced major outflows of migrants and refugees from countries such as Libya and Syria. According to the United Nations, 335,000 Syrian refugees have registered with the international body and 700,000 Syrians could flee the violence in their country by the end of 2012, while more than 1 million people have displaced inside Syria. As was the case with Libya, most Syrians are seeking refuge in neighboring countries rather than in Europe -- in Syria's case, mainly Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. We know that the number of refugees worldwide increased from 15.2 million people in 2008 to 16 million in 2010, but there's no data yet on just what kind of impact the uprisings in the Middle East have had on overall refugee trends.
More broadly, the global economic recession has slowed migration to the world's wealthiest countries. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development notes that the number of labor migrants to OECD countries dropped from 880,000 in 2007 to 780,000 in 2010, though preliminary 2011 figures suggest that migration to most European OECD members has since increased. This spring, the Pew Hispanic Center reported that after four decades of heavy Mexican migration to the United States, the "net migration flow" of Mexicans to the United States had stopped and possibly even reversed. A more recent report suggests Mexican migration to the United States may be increasing again, but the recession-induced dropoff is still remarkable.
The Arab uprisings may have rid the world of some of its least savory leaders, but over the last four years the world has actually become less democratic. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), which analyzes global democracy trends, the number of "full democracies" in the world declined by 16.7 percent between 2008 and 2011, the last year for which data is available. At the same time, the number of "flawed democracies" and "authoritarian regimes" increased by 5.7 and 3.8 percent respectively, while "hybrid regimes" remained constant. Freedom House, which also conducts research on governance trends, reports that 2011 "marks the sixth consecutive year in which countries with [democratic] declines outnumbered those with improvements."
Most of the damage is due to democratic backsliding in the Middle East, Africa, and Eastern Europe, though even the United States took a hit. Between 2008 and 2011, the United States slipped from 18th to 19th on EIU's Democracy Index, with a noticeable drop in its "functioning of government" score, one of the five metrics on which countries are rated.
PROGRESS ON PEACE
Measuring world peace is, as the Economist has pointed out, akin to describing "how happiness smells." Nonetheless, the Australia-based Institute for Economics and Peace publishes an annual Global Peace Index that rates the peacefulness of countries on a variety of indicators, including internal and external conflict, military spending, and respect for human rights. Their findings suggest that the world is ever so slightly more peaceful today than it was in 2008. The average score (based on a 1-5 scale, 1 being the most peaceful) for nations surveyed in 2012 was 2.011, whereas the average score in 2008 was 2.043. Steve Killelea, the survey's founder, told Reuters that the decline was due reduced military spending -- in part, because of the global financial crisis -- as well as declining violence in Africa. "The improvement in relation with the states and a greater reluctance to resort to war is very profound, particularly in Africa," he said.
The Global Peace Index findings, however limited, fit into a larger pattern identified by scholars like Steven Pinker that suggests violence has declined appreciably throughout history and especially during the 20th century. For most of human history, Pinker argues, life was indeed "nasty, brutish, and short" and if "the death rate in tribal warfare had prevailed during the 20th century ... there would have been 2 billion deaths from wars and homicide, rather than 100 million." It's a compelling argument as we contemplate the world full of global threats that will greet the next U.S. president.