The Great Escape is a movie about men escaping from a prisoner-of-war camp in World War II. The Great Escape that I describe in my book is the story of mankind's escape from deprivation and early death, of how people have managed to make their lives better, and led the way for others to follow.
For thousands of years, those who were lucky enough to escape death in childhood faced years of grinding poverty. Building on the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the germ theory of disease, living standards have increased by many times, life spans have more than doubled, and people live fuller and better lives than ever before. The process is still going on; in some of the world, it has hardly begun.
My father lived twice as long as either of my grandfathers; his real income as a civil engineer was many times the income of his father, who was a coal miner; and my education and income as a professor greatly exceed his education and his income. Mortality rates of children and of adults continue to fall throughout the world. But the escape is far from complete. A billion people suffer living standards, schooling, and life spans that are little better than those of their (or our) forebears.
The graph above shows GDP per capita and life expectancy for the years 1960 (in lighter shading) and 2010 (in darker shading) with the area of the circles proportional to population. As you'll notice, almost all of the darker circles are above and to the right of the lighter circles; since 1960, nearly all countries have become richer and their residents longer lived. This is perhaps the most important fact about wellbeing in the world since World War II: that things are getting better, that both health and income parts of wellbeing have improved over time.
A world of economic growth and narrowing differences between countries is a world to which we have become accustomed, at least if we live in the rich world and if we were born after 1945. High living standards are normal and further growth is confidently expected. Income and health differences between countries have shrunk; travel has become faster, cheaper, and easier; and information is everywhere and instantly available.
Since the end of World War II, which left much of Europe in economic and social disarray, the richer countries of the world have grown rapidly -- first repairing the damage and then surging ahead to new levels of prosperity. The rich countries have also grown closer together, and the differences between them are much smaller than the differences between the rich group and the much poorer rest of the world. Figure 2 shows what has happened to (price-level-adjusted) national incomes for 24 rich countries. While measurement is always less than perfect, the data are good and the currency conversions generally reliable for this group of rich countries.
The tops and bottoms of the shaded boxes show the positions of the top and bottom quarters of the countries, so that half the countries are in the shaded areas, with the line in the middle indicating the median. The "whiskers" give an idea of the dispersion of the data, and the dots indicate extreme cases.
The figure shows that other rich countries have shared the slowdown in growth that has taken place in the United States. The decade of the 1960s was the postwar golden age, with an average growth rate of more than 4 percent a year, a rate that is high enough to increase incomes by a half in 10 years. The average growth rate for this group of rich countries fell to 2.5 percent a year in the 1970s, to 2.2 percent in the 1980s and 1990s, and to less than 1 percent in the decade up to 2010. The extent of the broad decline is exaggerated by, at one end, the catch-up growth after the war -- which we would not expect to continue once repairs had been made -- and at the other, by the financial crisis. Fixing devastation and destruction, though hard enough, is easier than striving for levels of income that have not previously been achieved; people remember how things used to be done, and the technology needs to be recreated rather than created from scratch. Once the rebuilding is done, new growth relies on inventing new ways of doing things and putting them into practice, and this turning over of virgin soil is harder than replowing an old furrow. Of course, in an interconnected world, innovation can often spread from one country to another -- especially to similar countries -- so that the burden of invention is spread among many. This interconnectedness, by itself, will tend to speed up growth.