Life at № 42
“Why are some parts of the world rich, and other parts poor? In the west many of us live in conditions almost unimaginably more comfortable than billions of people in regions where economic growth and development have been slower. Inequality defines our world. As the Nobel prize-winning economist Robert Lucas put it, once you start thinking about what causes these stark differences, it can become hard to think about anything else.
This “great divergence” is even more intriguing given how relatively recent it is: 500 years ago the west was no richer than the far east, while 1,000 years ago, the Islamic world was more developed than Christian Europe in everything from mathematics to philosophy, engineering to technology, agriculture to medicine; the medieval German nun and writer Hrotsvitha called Islamic Córdoba “the ornament of the world”.
By 1600, however, the Islamic world had fallen behind western Europe, and for centuries the Middle East has been beset by slow growth, persistent poverty and seemingly intractable social problems. North-western Europe, by contrast, became the richest corner of the world, the hub of industrialisation and globalisation. In this sweeping and provocative book, the economic historian Jared Rubin asks how such a dramatic reversal of fortunes came about.”
Really fantastic article in today’s Guardian. Rubin lays out a very well plotted map on how Western Europe and the Islamic world (our rulers, to be more precise) took different paths. And he even gets into the differences of economies in Protestant and Catholic regions. I plan on ordering the book.
The article doesn’t say anything about inequality within economic systems, but from what it does mention I presume there’ll be something in the book in that regard. What has always stuck in my mind with that, specifically concerning Northeastern Brazil, is the money pool. The fortunes made in the slavery era still exist today. The grand homes, plantations and diamonds. I suppose it applies to more than just Brazil. The grand homes of Europe and North America were built on exploitation as well. We have our own “pools”. I was thinking about that earlier in the week when we had a surprise visit from someone who grew up at number 42. She came in and it was like being with someone we’d known our whole lives. She looked and dressed and smelled like people we know. She had a sapphire and diamond ring on, which looked surprisingly like one my grandmother used to wear. I imagine her husband wears polo shirts in the summer, the kind with little polo players on horses embroidered onto them, or little alligators. When we bought her family’s house we traded within the pool. Our chips for their chips. And one day children from her family will grow up and probably marry people from families like ours – and again it will all remain in the same pool. Safe and separate.
It makes one wonder, is it truly better to say, leave a painting to a museum where many people will get to see it, or to leave property to individuals who have no access to the pool? What if you could give a dozen or two dozen people homes when you die? Would that be a better contribution to society? I know the straightforward mathematical answer would be the museum. It generates visits which generates jobs, which maintains a positive economic cycle in place. But that doesn’t address the pool matter.