So, how do you stop this vicious circle of spending more and more future income? Citizens in the United States must be weaned from spending tomorrow’s income today. In doing so, we have driven up the price of everything we buy. We have used resources for technology that is now obsolete like gasoline wasting vehicles that pollute the environment, wooden structures for houses that have decimated our forests, excess publishing of unread pulp magazines, newspapers, books, and junk mail (also using trees we aren’t replacing fast enough), and a variety of fad products that are derived from the world’s non-replenishable oil reserves.
Yes, consumers in the U.S. have benefitted from having these products, the infrastructure they have built, and the income from the businesses that produced them. We have a standard of materialistic living found only in a few countries. It has permitted us to make virtual “slaves” of the people in other countries who work for much less pay because their economies cannot provide decent jobs and standards of living like ours without exports to pay for their “hard currency” borrowing and imports.
Americans want desperately to eliminate poverty in our country without caring about how doing so would impact the other workers in the world. “Through a better distribution of income here, we can eliminate poverty in America” say the misinformed. All we need to help ourselves with this challenge is one more puff on the credit pipe, one more injection of the sweet narcotic called “easy credit,” one more advertisement about how WE deserve it! Being born in America gives us the divine right of kings to exploit the rest of the world and feel good about ourselves – if we have attained at least middle class status here with its bragging and bitching rights.
But go abroad, and not just to the tourist traps trying to capture as many dollars as you will leave there. Go see the slums, the shanty towns, the unpaved roads, the conditions in the factories. Visit the cities with worse air pollution than ours already, where you will only drink bottled water and not eat any uncooked garden vegetables. Witness how the local people live there, and die there from illnesses that cannot be treated for lack of medicines and trained care-givers and medical personnel. Look at the shoes, the clothes, the downtrodden body language of the common people who populate the streets. Not the waiters in the best restaurants, the bellhops in the fancy hotels, and the clerks in the boutiques that cater to tourists shoppers. These are actors trained in entertaining rich foreign clientele – even if these tourists are merely middle class wage earners from the U.S.
If you rather stay here, go to the foreign movies or rent them and look at the paradise the local people have. You can’t smell the ambience, but you can see for yourselves that only a very few of them live like Americans do. Look carefully at the background in those scenes where the producers haven’t been cautious in disguising the misery and painting the run-down building facades. Everyday life in those movies doesn’t seem “real” to you, just like the shocking pictures about our glorious excursion into Somalia didn’t. Or those pictures about the fires set by the Iraqi invaders in Kuwait, or those showing refugees returning to bombed and shelled homes in Kosovo.
All those horrible things happen on some other fictional planet, like the catastrophes in a science fiction movie. Except, sometimes a few annoying things do happen here. Like the fire at Los Alamos, the violence in our schools, the bombing in Oklahoma City, and the natural disasters of hurricanes, floods, and tornados.
In the U.S. there is some government entity responsible for helping the victims and their families. And so we believe that destitute people suffering from wars, plagues, and epidemics in other countries are helped by their governments and local communities. With what financial resources? Only the donations from the rich outside their borders, because their governments can’t increase the taxes nor borrow from the future as we can. Their recuperation is slow, their reconstruction delayed, their economic recovery halted unless foreign multi-national companies or NGO investors come to their aid. Their standard of living, way behind ours, suffers degradation, and their infrastructure, inadequate at best, faces a real test or possibly a partial collapse.
As of 2000, our government had borrowed more than $5 and a half trillion from the future, to be paid in depreciated dollars with appropriate interest, of course, sometime in the future. This huge debt is owed by 5% of the world’s population to others, most of whom are ourselves. Senior Americans know that whatever happens in Washington to reduce this deficit will be short-sighted and not necessarily in the “best” interests of each state representative’s constituency. (N. B. On February 12, 2010, the Federal Debt Ceiling was increased by Congress to $14.3 trillion as a consequence of the financial collapse in September 2008.)
So, our dilemma seems impossible to resolve. We can expect wars, famine, epidemics, and other natural disasters to help slow the population growth and minimize the number of potentially poor inhabitants this globe has to support. Technology may help, if resource depletion is managed and not ignored or forgotten. But political arguments over genetically-altered foods, risky pesticides, abortion rights, water rights, and untried drugs will delay progress. Technology to convert salt water to fresh economically and in abundance is long overdue. New power sources replacing coal and petroleum products are lagging behind demand. The development of electric car technology needs to be accelerated, and tighter controls over emissions and fuel economy for SUVs and trucks need to be implemented in the U.S. ASAP.
Still, few of these efforts will help the poor in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Certainly, the Internet fad in the states will do little to assist countries without an adequate infrastructure and expertise in servicing electronic gadgetry. Timelier misinformation isn’t going to put food on the tables of the starving masses in Africa. Technology should be encouraged to develop products that facilitate mass transportation, provide cheaper tools for agriculture, manufacturing, and road construction, and reduce the cost of building and maintaining improved infrastructure facilities. Most of these improvements will most likely benefit the richer countries first. The gap between the haves and the have-nots will not likely be reduced.
Is there any way to help these seemingly God-forsaken peoples? More violent, sexually explicit, and immature fantasy movies from Hollywood and the TV networks won’t do. Pop music, illegal drugs, and gambling will only mess-up our own minds. More involvement in sports programs might help a minuscule number of foreign athletes who are talented and dedicated, but a very few! More charity programs where only 10% is spent on administration might be helpful.
For the big investments required in developing countries, there are only two roads to provide this money in any volume: foreign government contributions and more lenient credit policies from foreign investors. Both of these mean that the citizens in the richer countries may have to sacrifice by directly or indirectly reducing their consumption. Not a very palatable solution and one very difficult to sell in Washington.
There the budget gurus have reduced foreign aid contributions to a pittance and even that is doled out in a political way so that the Near East receives the lion’s share. Other worthy countries are subject to whatever whim the members of the committee controlling foreign aid have on their agendas. The lengthy dispute over the annual U.S. contribution to the United Nations is politically driven, based on local special interests, not those of the needy.
Although Americans would rather solve the problem of poverty in the U.S. first, we simply cannot ignore this world-wide challenge. The economic blessing we have here will not last long. What is happening in Zimbabwe is indicative of the wave of the future. The white minority of rich landowners are finding that the poor blacks will not recognize the colonially established legal right to own property, and the new government will not guarantee that right any longer.
In war ravaged Kosovo, the Albanian Kosovars forced to flee the ethnic cleansing of Milosevic’s troops, want the Serb Kosovars to leave the country now. In that part of the country formerly called Yugoslavia, there is no government to take final action which will be accepted by all the local citizens. In other parts of the Middle East, Africa, Indonesia, and Asia, large portions of the population are divided over who are the rightful owners of the land where they live, and what government has legitimate power to take action in any land dispute.
In certain countries like Argentina, where leaders have been trying to strengthen democratic rule while reducing government ownership of many businesses, the popular word is “privatization.” This selling of government-owned businesses and utilities to private capital brings new international investors to the country and forces rich local citizen participants in these enterprises to repatriate the money they have overseas in foreign securities or investments.
The foreign investors have access to credit in their home countries which may be tapped, if necessary. These investors hope that there will be profits from these investments after eliminating inefficiency and unproductive manpower. What the workers who lose their jobs will ultimately do is anybody’s guess. What isn’t anybody’s guess is that the multinational investment group is going to be pressured to pay dividends to their wealthy foreign shareholders. So, this injection of foreign capital is at best temporary and creates a problem for the government of what to do with the unemployed.
The essential and continuous problem of employing the uneducated, unskilled, and unwanted will bring serious internal strife to many countries all over the world. Through the aggressive action of organized labor in developed countries like the U.S. or of ad hoc groups in underdeveloped countries like Zimbabwe, the masses of poor people will eventually become aroused by leaders who have little to lose. With inadequate housing, insufficient income, and lack of opportunity the unemployed will be fomenting trouble and ignoring local laws until violence erupts or the government implements changes that favor or benefit some of these disadvantaged citizens.
The conspicuous consumption by the rich will then be curtailed by greater taxation of the wealthy, expropriation of assets (land, businesses, and homes in case of wars), the restriction of credit as a consequence of economic reversal inside the country, and the lowering of the standard of living of every citizen as a result of currency devaluation and lower productivity.
If sharing the limited resources is the only solution in a world society where population growth of the poor cannot be constrained and technology is only dedicated to providing for the whims of the richer countries, then we ought to begin to consider how to better disburse the global product available or how to emphasize increasing the production of those things that satisfy the basic needs of our poorer citizens.
In most other countries there is no unemployment compensation, no disability compensation, no workers’ compensation, nor welfare programs (inadequate as ours may be), – in other words no safety nets as we have for the poor. Export earnings are frequently spent in these countries for imported luxury items, arms, and fuel for public transportation and the few vehicles driven by the wealthy or their chauffeurs, – not for food, clothing, and other essentials to maintain a decent economic infrastructure.
The economic difference between these poor countries and the handful of economically powerful countries cannot be understood by the majority of Americans who never travel abroad. Even those who do travel only visit the “safer” countries or the modernized places for tourists in the more “backward” countries. These tourists seldom use the common toilets, drink from the local water faucets, and ride the antiquated ferries and buses. They don’t often deal with the corrupt police and bureaucrats, nor suffer the inconveniences of power failures, shortage of telephones, and the mismanagement and faulty planning of inexperienced local business people. And heaven forbid that they become embroiled in the legal system of resolving local disputes or settling law suits.
I have worked in six foreign countries in Europe, Africa, and Latin America and been responsible for factories in two other countries. The workers there are serious, dedicated, and desirous of making a successful contribution to their economies. But without curtailing their population grown and obtaining international financial investment, they won’t be able to catch up with us in America.
I admit it will be nearly impossible in our country to reign in run-away consumption based on easy credit. Also, it is highly unlikely that our federal government will increase taxes or use surpluses to increase aid to foreign countries unless a serious problem erupts in a country whose defense is considered “in our interests.”
The only possibility of curbing wasteful consumption is through the restriction of credit here and the extension of credit to poor countries so that they can also borrow from the future as we are doing. Both risk launching hard currency inflation and a world-wide recession, or worse, a depression.
The unbridled growth of credit that is permitting false prosperity in America at the expense of poverty elsewhere must be stopped! Or one day the rest of the world will organize a serious backlash. Then the poor, who dream, as do we, for a better life for their children and who sacrifice for the welfare of the frivolous in the richer countries will unite and the consequences will be ugly. I won’t be around, but you might.