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Jewish World Review
Jan. 31, 2008
/ 24 Shevat 5768
Who's Afraid of Prosperity?
Should we worry that the people of China, India and other undeveloped
countries are getting richer? Apparently so, according to the newspapers
and the "experts" they quote. They don't come right out and say that
global prosperity is bad for us. Instead they say, as The New York Times
recently said, "As development rolls across once-destitute countries at
a breakneck pace, lifting billions out of poverty, demand for food,
metals and fuel is red-hot, and suppliers are struggling to meet it.
Prices are spiraling, and Americans find themselves in what amounts to a
bidding war with overseas buyers for products as diverse as milk and
It is certainly true that China's economy is expanding dramatically
10 percent last year. The Chinese build factories like crazy to pump out
the inexpensive exports we Americans love to buy. To do that, Chinese
producers have to purchase oil, steel and lots of other commodities. The
new demand drives prices up.
And as the Chinese and other people get richer, they improve their diets
and eat more meat, putting pressure on world food prices.
So media handwringers suggest we should worry about the poor becoming
Actually, we shouldn't. It would be a sad world if one person's economic
success depended on another's failure?
More of us would understand this if we learned what the great economics
writer Henry Hazlitt preached in his classic book, "Economics in One
Lesson": "The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the
immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy."
In the short run, richer Chinese and Indians bid up the prices of
things. But that's just the beginning of the story. Increased demand and
higher prices create opportunities for entrepreneurs.
When the price of, say, oil goes up, entrepreneurs and inventors have a
strong incentive to: 1) find more, 2) find alternatives, and 3) find
ways to use oil more efficiently. You and I cannot foresee what they
will invent, but that means nothing. Predictions about the end of
progress have been issued countless times. There is no reason to think
they will be right this time.
Assuming government stays out of the way. Our current "leaders" are full
of promises about "protecting" workers and industries, creating new
"green" industries, and starting worker-retraining programs. For
example, Hillary Clinton promises government support for "research (to)
stimulate the development of new technologies and life-saving
medicines." Mitt Romney wants "to initiate a bold, far-reaching research
initiative an Energy Revolution, if you will. It will be our
generation's equivalent of the Manhattan Project or the mission to the
The media lap it up, apparently believing that no one will produce
unless our wise leaders create an inducement. Nonsense.
The market would deliver the goods if government doesn't impose
crippling regulations and tax away everyone's capital to fund its
coercive utopian schemes. I like what Henry David Thoreau once said:
"This government never furthered any enterprise but by the alacrity with
which it got out of the way."
George Mason University economist Alexander Tabarrok has another way to
demonstrate the benefits of spreading prosperity. Tabarrok wrote in
Forbes recently that the bigger the market, the more worthwhile it is
for companies to make products that require costly research and
development, such as medicines and chemicals. As the Chinese and Indians
become more able to buy things, businesses everywhere will find it
profitable to make products that yesterday weren't profitable enough.
The result will be cures for diseases and other products that make our
Tabarrok takes this a step further: "Amazingly, there are only about 6
million scientists and engineers in the entire world, nearly a quarter
of whom are in the U.S. Poverty means that millions of potentially
world-class scientists today spend their lives trying to eke out a
subsistence living, rather than leading mankind's charge into the
future. But if the world as a whole were as wealthy as the U.S. and were
devoting the same share of population to research and development, there
would be more than five times as many scientists and engineers
When it comes to being wealthy, the more the merrier.
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JUST OUT FROM STOSSEL
Myths, Lies and Downright Stupidity: Get Out the Shovel --- Why Everything You Know Is Wrong
Stossel mines his 20/20 segments for often engaging challenges to conventional wisdom, presenting a series of "myths" and then deploying an investigative journalism shovel to unearth "truth." This results in snappy debunkings of alarmism, witch-hunts, satanic ritual abuse prosecutions and marketing hokum like the irradiated-foods panic, homeopathic medicine and the notion that bottled water beats tap. Stossel's libertarian convictions make him particularly fond of exposes of government waste and regulatory fiascoes. Sales help fund JWR.
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