Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Reconciliation of Historical Disparities in Standards of Living

A reconciliation between the standards of living in the industrialized countries of Europe and North America on one hand and the developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America is inevitable. Just as in the physical sciences, particles with a negative charge and those with a positive charge cannot exist for long without a spark jumping between them to eliminate the disparity, the vast uneven-ness of our income and wealth distribution over the last 50-100 years will inevitably change.

Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the almost irresistible flow of migrants from these poor countries to Europe and North America in search of work and wealth--even in jobs requiring heavy physical labor and paying near minimum wage. Migrants save and borrow what is to them large sums of money only to spend it on human smugglers and often extremely dangerous transport across desert or sea to reach the place where the industrial revolution cultivated an opulence that these migrants feel they can achieve only by risking their homes, years away from their children and in some cases, their very lives.

And because of the difference in numbers between the global haves and have-nots, it is more likely that the reconciliation which takes place will mean the standard of living in the industrialized rich world be reduced far more than they will be raised for the poor, developing world. In other words, U.S. lifestyles will fall far more than African lifestyles will rise. Most of us would agree that despite their desire for western lifestyles, it is unsustainable for 2 billion Chinese and Indians (to say nothing of the others) to eat meat and have personal and recreational use of automobiles on the level that has existed in North America for so long. There are just too many poor and too few wealthy for the reconciliation to happen any other way.

Still, some friends of mine argue that there is no solid reason why this is going to happen. They believe that things will stay basically the same as they have throughout their (admittedly short) lifetimes. But I answer that what I call the "Third world-ization" of the U.S. is happening now. Consider the characteristics of what we traditionally call a Third World country:
  • Enormous disparities in wealth and a very small middle-class
  • Crumbling infrastructure (e.g. roads, bridges, public utilities)
  • The export of raw materials and import of finished goods
These are only a few but I think any first-time visitor to the less developed world notices these things. What they may not notice is that we are beginning to see these developments in the U.S.Clearly a middle class is growing in the less developed world. For most of the last century, these countries were characterized by extreme wealth among a small minority and grinding poverty for an overwhelming majority. The increasingly easy of movement of capital, information and labor occurring in the last 25 or so years facilitated economic investment by multinational corporations and that has brought millions out of poverty. (There have been harmful by-products of this investment by foreign corporations, but I will leave that for another essay.)

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