wiser today

A man should never be ashamed to own that he is wrong, which is but saying in other words that he is wiser today than he was yesterday.

Eric Jones

The Record of Global Economic Development

In the United States over 98 per cent of people have electricity, telephone, and a flush toilet. Over 70 per cent own a car, VCR, microwave, air conditioner, cable TV, washer and dryer. The incidence of disease, the quality of the air and the productivity of American agriculture have all improved. These achievements would be less impressive if they were confined to the rich countries, but in reality gains were made almost everywhere during the last 40 years of the twentieth century. In low-income countries, life expectancy at birth, which is probably the most telling statistic of all, reached 56 in 1992 from only 42 in 1960. Enrolments in primary schools rose and literacy improved (even female literacy). Installed telephone lines and the number of calls, including international calls, are expanding almost too fast to keep track. The economic basis of these changes in the Third World has been a huge rise in exports and a shift in the type of products made and exported. Low-yielding primary commodities, which constituted 90 per cent of all Third World exports in 1960, had fallen to the 20 per cent to 60 per cent range by 1994. The share of manufactured exports, which are better earners, has increased. In short there has been a manufacturing revolution, with all this implies for the spread of skills.

Economic growth is good for the poor. In the fastest growing countries poverty has fallen the furthest and pollution been reduced the most, while literacy and life expectancy have risen the highest. There has of course been stress from structural change as economic activities have relocated themselves. Some people adapt to change, others would like to halt or reverse the process, partly because they overreact to short-run or regional impacts and do not care to consider the whole picture. It is difficult to stand aside from the vast churning of change while one is living through it and hard to perceive the underlying processes clearly. The imagination may easily fail and the malevolent will ride in to exacerbate the confusion. Yet the statistics, properly presented, leave no doubt that the gain has been very widespread indeed. The political and institutional conditions giving rise to this outcome are, in essence, those that have produced similarly benign results in the past; it is the modern consequences that have outclassed all historical precedent.

Protestors of the anti-capitalist and anti-globalization persuasion have, overall, no rational leg to stand on. We can only suppose that their bitterness derives from something other than the facts–from an exaggerated rise in expectations combined with personal ambition on the part of their leadership. Stridency may be heightened by the frustration aroused not only by the failure of many of their predictions but from a static level of support in terms of gifts of money and volunteers' time. This stasis has intensified competition among the various campaigning groups. Their desire to stop the economic clock is deeply reactionary, though naturally they assert at the tops of their voices that they are the radical and progressive ones. This is like the note in the curate's sermon: 'weak point–shout.'

In a situation where fewer and fewer people express an active interest in foreign affairs, unrepresentative small groups may get their way if they are vocal enough. Politicians respond to electoral threats and squeaky wheels, not to the unthreatening silent majority and certainly not to academic researchers. This is 'Skaggs' Law.' The anti-globalization protestors may not in the end succeed in bringing down the house about our ears but they give comfort to nationalists who find economic integration disconcerting. As a result, deluded or timid governments and firms may hesitate to open their economies or face up to competition from other businesses precisely when it would pay to speed up change and reform. Many governments are happy to be given an excuse to avoid the conflicts that the opening of trade initially tends to create. Some firms and industries are always happy to lobby for special protection against foreign competitors.