Friday, March 18, 2011

Poverty Kills 

I am deeply sorry for the people of Japan, and what they are suffering right now because of the earthquake and tsunami. I am, however, also grateful for the very important truth that is being illustrated very dramatically by that earthquake, and that is the truth that poverty kills, far more than anything else in the world.

Japan's earthquake was a 9.0 magnitude earthquake centered about 80 miles off the coast of Japan. It triggered a tsunami that was over 30 feet high in places. The earthquake caused huge damage over wide areas of Japan, and the tsunami just compounded it. Dams broke, whole villages were swept away, the death toll is in the thousands and probably ultimately will be in the tens of thousands, and millions of people are presently without food, water and power. It is a disaster of almost unimaginable proportions.

But remember the Haiti quake of last year. That quake was a 7.0 magnitude quake, which because of the logarithmic nature of that scale, means that the Japanese earthquake was a hundred times greater. It was located closer to a population center- only 16 miles from Port-au-Prince. There was a tsunami, but only a very small one that did only minor damage. That earthquake caused somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths, despite being overall a much smaller event. The two earthquakes are not perfectly comparable due to various differences in geography and the like, but still, the dramatic difference is remarkable. Why does a hundred times bigger earthquake with a massive tsunami cause a tenth of the deaths?

The answer is really rather simple- poverty. All of the people in Haiti died because all of their cheaply built buildings collapsed. The Japanese on the other hand are one of the wealthiest nations on the earth, and had invested extensively in earthquake-resistant construction. Earthquakes are of course quite common in Japan. But they are not unheard of in Haiti either.

Poverty kills, more than anything else in the world. People die all over the world by the millions from this preventable cause. They die of famine, they die of disease because they don't have good drinking water, they die of diseases that are easily treated with inexpensive medicines, they die of malaria spread by mosquitos because they lack the resources to do anything about it. They die of murder and war because they lack the ability to protect themselves.

A country like Haiti has been the target of massive sustained relief and foreign aid efforts for a long time. Yet they remain poor. The same could be said of many places around the world. A country like Japan, on the other hand, was very poor after World War II only 60 years ago. Yet it is now rich. Why? Japan has few natural resources. It has no oil, little coal, few usable minerals on the island. A similar story is told about Taiwan by the great Milton Friedman, a small rocky island to which hundreds of thousands of refugees fled after the Chinese civil war, which has very little by way of natural resources. Yet it is one of the wealthiest countries in the whole region. Why?

There is a great deal of attention right now paid to the nuclear reactors that were damaged in Japan as a result of the earthquake. But a little perspective is in order. The only realistic energy source outside of nuclear power is coal power, and coal mining is among the most dangerous professions on earth. How many people die each year to produce coal power? I don't know the number, but I know it is high. And without electricity, we become poor, and poverty kills. So even if these nuclear reactors melt down and hundreds die as a result, it is still just a fraction of the overall deaths caused by the earthquake, still just a fraction of the deaths that would have been caused by using coal power instead, and an even smaller fraction of the deaths that would be caused by having no electricity at all. People say that you shouldn't build nuclear plants in an earthquake zone. But the total death and destruction of this earthquake would be largely unchanged even if they had all coal power. Yes, nuclear plants might fall over in a 9.0 earthquake. But EVERYTHING falls over in a 9.0 earthquake. If nuclear power plants shouldn't be built in an earthquake zone, then neither should houses, bridges, hospitals, or dams.

When you are rich, you have the ability to weather disasters and protect yourself from the ravages of nature. When you are truly poor, even small problems are calamities. Remember this the next time someone proposes some change that would make us poorer but possibly save some lives. They say, even if one life is saved, wouldn't it be worth it? What price do you put on human life? But if the change makes us poorer, it costs lives. Poverty keeps us from buying medicines, keeps us from building better and sturdier homes, keeps us from providing adequate protection from crime (police forces cost money), keeps us from doing a million things that give us safer, longer, better lives. Poverty forces people to dump their garbage in the river or burn it in the streets, rather than having the means to dispose of it in a safer, cleaner way. People joke about how the tornado always seems to head for the trailer park, but the truth is the trailer park just suffers a lot more from the tornado, while people with better houses with basements are safer.

The ant works hard and lays up for the future in the summertime, while the grasshopper just plays around and has a good time. Then when the hard times come, the ant is safe and well-fed, while the grasshopper dies. The ant, through hard work and frugality, has become rich. The poverty of the grasshopper kills him.

The question of what makes nations rich and what makes them poor is therefore of the utmost importance. What has Japan had that Haiti hasn't had for the last several decades? It's not natural resources. It's not intelligence, or else why is the US so much wealthier than India, when all our doctors and engineers come from India these days? It's not even only hard work. Poor people usually have to work very hard.

It is, I would submit, a commitment on the part of the whole society, to freedom, justice and rule of law. It is an environment where people know they can work hard, take risks and innovate, and not have their wealth simply stolen from them by others. It is a culture where people can trust each other to keep their word and honor their contracts, which is necessary for trade to be possible. It is a society where the poor will be treated with justice, rather than be exploited and oppressed by those more powerful than they; where the poor will have the opportunity to better themselves through their own labor and skills; where people will not be treated as members of a class or caste with only certain economic opportunities open to them, but where the limits on what a man can do are only those limits within himself. In such a society, all individuals have the maximum incentive to use their opportunities and abilities for the good of the whole society.

Very poor societies, such as Haiti, always have a few things in common. They have a very top-heavy authority structure. The economic resources and opportunities are all controlled by just a few people, who dole those benefits out to others in return for political support. There is no commitment to rule of law, so that theft is rarely punished, except when it is done by politically unfavored classes. There is little freedom- permission must be asked of the powerful to do anything. There is no respect for private property; a man's possessions can be seized at any time if it is seen to serve the "greater good".

Put these factors in place, and the country will be poor. In fact, a rich country can be made into a poor one rather quickly, as Zimbabwe has demonstrated in the last twenty years, and as many other places can show us as well. But on the other hand, a poor country can become a rich one with these factors in place, as we have seen in South Korea, Taiwan and many other places.

Remember that, as our country appears to be giving up on these very principles, and our government becomes more centralized, more top-heavy, more intrusive into every area of our lives. Remember that as our political elites tell us that our wealth should be concentrated in their hands to then be distributed equitably to the people. In doing so, they will destroy the factors that made us a rich nation in the first place. More and more people will be sunk into poverty. And poverty kills, more than any other factor in the world.

Consider the fact that it took one of the most powerful earthquakes ever recorded to reduce parts of Japan, temporarily, to the condition that large parts of the rest of the world live in all the time. Japan will rebuild and recover, though it won't be easy. Haiti, a year later, is still in rubble.


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