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Rich and Poor in 2000 A.D.: The Great Gulf

ISSUE:  Spring 1968

Many modern Utopians foresee a coming perfection of social man, stemming from great changes in his physical environment. They see the problem of evil as basically intractable in a world of pain, ignorance, and deprivation, but soluble where the ancient bonds of man’s mortality have been loosened. The exhortations of the domestic Great Society and Secretary McNamara’s conviction that poverty is the cause of insurgency in the underdeveloped world both reflect this preoccupation, most apparent in the question, “Who can be interested in democracy when he has an empty belly?” So the apparent prospects of future economic growth lead easily to social optimism.

By many tests the world of the not-too-distant future will be a far better one than the present. We have confident and compelling predictions of vast automation, greatly diminishing the amount of physical drudgery required in production and freeing members of the labor force either for leisure or for intellectually stimulating and satisfying work. Time and facilities for the leisured pursuit of science and the arts seem within reach for many. We have the prospect of major breakthroughs in medical science, with artificial organs and the control of killer diseases. We are promised supersonic transports to circle the earth at three times the speed of sound, and instantaneous electronic communication with data banks and libraries anywhere. A computerized financial system for pay, credit, and tax collection is virtually in preparation. In a recent RAND Corporation survey of scientists who should know, the likelihood of a manned landing on Mars and of a permanent base on the moon by 2000 A.D. was taken for granted. There is held out to us the image of a new Eden, a stable period wherein many of the most unsettling aspects of modern life may be brought under control and we can more fully reap its great benefits.

But how many of the three billion people on this globe can afford to circumnavigate it? How soon will the Indian villager install his automated farm and devote himself to experimentation in his laboratory? Have you paid a hospital bill recently? It is crucial to recognize that the gains from these developments will not apply at all equally to all men. The most dramatic benefits will accrue to those who can afford substantial sums of money to pay for them. A world-view that sees material prosperity as providing the opportunity for the resolution of discord may be attractive, but it will not be very relevant to a society where only a minority possess the necessary wealth.

There has perhaps been a slight widening of the relative gap between the developed industrialized states and the poor underdeveloped nations in recent decades, but not seriously. Though the pattern varies widely, the wealthiest nations of Western Europe, North America, Japan, and Australasia have had an annual per capita income increment of about four per cent over the past decade and a half. Greece, Taiwan, Jamaica, some of the poor Communist countries of Eastern Europe, and even China help to balance out those poor countries, like India and Indonesia, who have done badly overall. The average for the poor probably comes out to nearly three per cent, or only a little less than in the developed world.

But the catch in this argument is in its frame of reference —percentage rates of growth. While it is hardly fair to expect a poor country to add the same total amount to its income each year as does a rich one, the failure to do so nevertheless causes a widening of the absolute gap. When the differences between rich and poor are as great as they are in the world today, the cumulative results are very striking. Let us suppose that the poor nations with annual per capita incomes now of around $100 grew at a yearly rate of three per cent between now and the end of the century. The outcome would be average per capita incomes of a maximum of $275 in the year 2000 A.D. About half the population of the world will fall into this category, including India, China, most of the rest of Asia, and Africa. And frankly it is hard to imagine how this performance could be much improved upon, given the shortages of skills, capital, and social incentives for growth in these areas. Except for a few special eases the problem is more than simply one of bottlenecks where the injection of some key component, like money, might quickly trigger self-sustaining growth.

If, however, we assume the same average annual growth rate of three per cent in the developed countries, the beneficence of compound interest will bring a most impressive absolute level of wealth. Approximately one-fifth of the world’s peoples now live in nations where the yearly per capita income exceeds one thousand dollars, with an average annual income per head of approximately $2000. This would grow to $5500 in 2000 A.D., a figure still twenty times that in the poor half of the globe, and which means an absolute gap of over $5000 instead of $1900. With the post-Keynesian understanding of fiscal and monetary policies so well applied in modern nations, this is an entirely plausible projection in the absence of world war. Both the present and the prospective relative difference of rich and poor between nations is extremely great by comparison with the income inequalities typical within nations. The difference between average income over the entire range of the richest and poorest states currently is on the order of thirty to one; in the United States the difference between Connecticut and Mississippi, at the extremes, is hardly more than two to one.

Now, as every economist warns, cross-country comparisons of per capita incomes in dollars are treacherous. A dollar will buy much more, fully two or three times as much, of the necessities of life in a poor agricultural nation as in a rich urban one. But, however measured, the gap between rich and poor remains enormous. Furthermore, it is precisely the kinds of things that are expensive in anyone’s currency that are some of the most exciting products of modern science and technology. They promise to be produced largely in industrialized societies and by industrialized societies— and because of their cost, for industrialized societies as well.


What will you be able to buy with money, if you have lots of it? For one thing, there is life itself. Organ transplants and organ banks will become common. We are on the verge of mass use of artificial organs in the United States. Hospitals all over the country now operate artificial kidneys; artificial livers, lungs, and, most importantly, hearts are clearly in the near-term works. Millions of middle-aged and elderly Americans and Europeans will doubtless shortly wear pace-makers—instruments to provide a regular electrical stimulus to the heart, preventing what is by far the most common cause of cardiac arrest. The complete pump for an artificial heart is at present cumbersome, but it will not remain in its now primitive form. Such replacements of natural functions as radar to substitute for the eyes of a blind man are fully contemplated. With all these organs replaceable, it is not hard to visualize the next step—it should be entirely possible to keep a severed head, or perhaps just a brain, alive almost indefinitely if attached to a device for circulating blood (or other fluid) containing nutrients and removing waste products. While it may hardly seem to us a desirable form of near-eternal life, tastes may change. It represents only one of the most dramatic ways in which the degenerations of aging may be postponed or evaded.

Short of this still rather fantastic outcome are the more modest current and prospective achievements of modern medicine. In addition to the artificial organs there is the prospect of an eventual cure for many major diseases, including most manifestations of carcinoma. For more than twenty years life expectancy in the United States and Europe has just inched forward, with no change at all for almost a decade now. But some of these prospects suggest that another major breakthrough is imminent.

Few of these achievements, however, are likely to be cheap, either in their research and development costs or in their application to particular patients. Major surgery or a series of drug and radiation treatments for cancer are very far from inexpensive; medical care is the fastest-rising item in the cost of living index. The annual cost per user of an artificial kidney machine exceeds the total income of most of its potential recipients even in the United States; where it is nevertheless made available some form of subsidy is required. No doubt the price of such life-giving innovations will come down with further research and mass production of the instruments. Within rich and integrated societies some form of insurance or burden-sharing doubtless will bring them within reach of virtually everyone. But it is extremely difficult to imagine how they can be brought within range of the price that any but a tiny fraction of the people in Asia, Africa, or even Latin America will be able to pay, and their societies will not be able to afford subsidies on anything approaching a mass basis.

In 1951 the expectation of life for a newborn infant in India was 32 years, less than half that of an American or West European baby born at the same time. By contrast, Ceylon, with a per capita income only about 70 per cent higher than India’s, had in 1954 an average life expectancy of 59 years, much nearer to that typical of Western Europe and North America (about 70 years) than to India’s. Ceylon had been the subject of major public health projects which in a few short years dramatically cut its death rate by more than half. As is implied by the low per capita income of Ceylon, the means for doing this were cheap. Probably the most significant was the use of insecticides, at a cost of only a few cents per person, to kill mosquitoes and eradicate malaria. Some of these measures have now also been introduced in India and the others will be, though there the problems are greater and incomes so low that even cheap public health is not always within their means. But basically the Ceylonese experience is an archetype of the “population problem” in the underdeveloped world, a consequence of the drastic reduction in death rates, and hence life expectancy, which has been achieved rapidly at very low cost.

This near-convergence of life expectancies in the rich countries and in the poor ones may not last long. It takes a great increase in the wealth of a nation to add those additional ten years (between Ceylon and Western Europe) that will equate its life expectancy figures with those currently found in an industrialized country, and only the very rich will be able to afford the technological innovations of the next three decades. Very possibly the year 2000 will see a return to a differential of almost two to one between the number of years a poor man can expect to live and the number to which a citizen of the privileged West may reasonably aspire—a difference between perhaps a little over 60 years in the former case, and more than a century in the latter.


Education is a prime example of the desirable aspects of future life that will be available only to those who live in very affluent societies. The United States is notorious in its lavish proliferation of colleges and universities, with almost half the eligible age groups so enrolled. At no foreseeable time will underdeveloped countries be able to afford this, unless possibly as the grossest and most transparent effort to keep young people out of a swollen labor force for a little longer—and in any case only to send them back with higher aspirations but little more in the way of relevant skills.

Furthermore, there is education and education. As practiced in the better Western institutions, higher learning is a very capital intensive process. The fifteen top private universities in the United States, for example, have an average endowment of $25,000 per student—and even so tuition and fees are nearly two thousand dollars apiece for undergraduates at these institutions. Typically the faculty-to-student ratio is one to five, not so very remote from Mark Hopkins’ ideal. The end product is a graduate who has had a good deal of seminar experience, substantial criticism of his writing, and, even in this day of research rewards to faculty, a fair amount of interaction with at least some of his teachers if he desired it. At the same time he has been at a place where exciting, relevant research has been conducted in large scale, and where what he has been taught was not too far removed from the frontiers of knowledge. Such an experience cannot even remotely be approached in an underdeveloped country. (Berkeley students might enroll in Calcutta to discover what anomie is really like.) This is not to deny that underdeveloped countries may be able to provide a minimal education for most of their citizens. Whereas the typical rate of literacy in low-income countries is now only about 25 per cent, by the end of the century most people will probably at least be able to read and write in a crude fashion—for the past decade or so the literate proportion of the population has grown even in the most hard-pressed areas. But the quality of that education, in terms of financial, social, and immediately personal rewards, is very different from that accruing to the graduate of Cornell, or, for that matter, of Manchester or Heidelberg.

Even leisure varies enormously in quality between the two parts of the world. In the developed West, and especially for middle and upper class citizens, leisure is a commodity of great productive value. It is of such value that people may not feel they have much of it, but in terms of time spent away from the office, even the busiest actually have a good bit. Executives are forced to take vacation time whether or not they want it. And though they may have little enough time for strict rest and relaxation, many hours are spent on community or personal activities only tenuously related to earning a livelihood. Education is rapidly becoming a respectable use of leisure hours, if not for some a near necessity. Extensive automation, profoundly affecting every trade and profession by 2000 A.D., can but strengthen these tendencies.

The difference between leisure in a rich society and in a poor one involves images which hardly need drawing, though their consequences may require emphasis. For its constructive use leisure demands expensive education and/or facilities of the sort utterly unavailable for the masses of Africa and Asia. In the latter area the phenomenon of underemployment is already rampant, with millions of agricultural workers occupied only a fraction of the year. On the farm such a situation may be deplorable because of the human potential it wastes, but unemployment in the cities is far more dangerous for social and political stability. Often amounting to more than a quarter of the labor force, urban unemployment means the existence of a mass of men without income and often without prospects, but located in a part of the country where they can readily be used by demagogues for violent demands on the government.

This pessimistic picture should not be viewed as implying that none of the wonders of the future will be of any benefit to the underdeveloped areas. Many of them surely will, including the economical desalinization of sea water, cheap, effective, and widespread fertility control, and the commercial synthesis of protein for food. Another is the profitable “mining” of sea water, probably coupled to the same plants which desalinate for drinking and irrigation. This will make available to states with coastlines the minerals that do not lie in exploitable quantity within the land parts of their domains. Some poor nations, however, are likely to emerge as net losers when this new source provides a cheaper alternative to existing mines. The commercially useful production of tin from sea water, for instance, would demolish the already precarious economy of Bolivia. The cheap manufacture of palatable synthetic food also is likely to be something of a mixed blessing for predominantly agricultural societies.

But the trouble with these prospective developments, even ignoring the substitution effects of mineral extraction from the sea or synthetic protein manufacture, is that they cannot upgrade the basic quality of life much above subsistence in the poor areas. They may raise food production, prevent starvation, and put a floor under standards of living that avoids the most utter and abject misery; they may even avoid the further expansion of populations in already densely packed lands while at the same time they improve basic sanitation and prevent high infant mortality and other deaths from the traditional scourges of famine and epidemic. None of these improvements, however, will make available to the poor man the kind of benefits a rich man will be able to buy for himself. One serious wit has characterized the bathtub as the great divider of men, splitting the washed from the unwashed. Never, he says, shall the twain meet at table or in the same bed. The technological prospects for the next decades will not remove that division.


This is not to suggest that the consequence of relative deprivation in vast areas of the world, even of an increase in the relative differences that seems so probable, will be successful violent revolution or the decline of the West in terms of sheer power. On the contrary, technological innovations are likely to favor the industrialized nations here too. Among the more exotic probabilities are procedures for manipulating the weather; the perfection of existing biological and chemical agents to destroy the will to resist without causing permanent damage to the organism; and perishable arms for counterinsurgency forces, which would deteriorate rapidly if lost or captured. Surely many of these developments can already be discerned. The United States may not be doing well in Vietnam, considering the road still to be traveled before a military victory can, if ever, be achieved. But the reason the United States has been able to do as well as it has so far is its wealth. Simple calculations show a cost of $250,000 a head for every Viet Cong (or bystander) who shows up in the bodycount. (The war is currently costing over two billion dollars per month, and Viet Cong casualties run at about 8,000 a month according to official figures.) The enormous weight of wealth and technology which Americans can bring to bear against a small country, even at that distance, makes outright failure in anti-guerrilla warfare unnecessary for the determined. The military uses of outer space, if they prove to be significant, will he exploitable only by nations rich enough to pour many billions of dollars into the effort.

Not even the proliferation of nuclear weapons will change this situation. A few atomic or even hydrogen bombs, plus a crude delivery system, make no equalizer for the small state against a superpower. At best a small nation, even if able to deliver its weapons, could not prevent a crushing retaliation capable of utterly destroying it as a functioning social system. The threat to use nuclear weapons against the United States or Russia could be credible only in the most dire corner. More important is that, even ignoring the promise of retaliation, delivery is hard and does not promise to become easier. Currently the American government is in the midst of a most painful debate—whether or not to build an anti-missile system. An anti-missile would be of some, but marginal, utility for diminishing the damage inflicted by a hypothetical Soviet attack using missiles with the sophisticated penetration aids the Russians undoubtedly can produce. But it would be of much greater use, perhaps to the point of near-perfect success, against the kind of primitive attack that even Communist China will be able to launch for the next decade or two. Getting through a good ballistic missile defense system will require much knowledge of the effects of nuclear weapons and some very clever engineering, plus some extremely fancy and expensive electronics. Underdeveloped countries simply do not and will not have the resources to acquire that detailed and extensive know-how, nor the money to build the equipment if they knew how to do so.

Thus an anti-missile system may not in any notable way change the balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union. It is likely just to cost both powers a lot of money that could be spent elsewhere. Yet it would have the consequence of pricing small or poor nations out of the nuclear deterrence market vis-a-vis the superpowers. They might blow each other up to their leaders’ heart’s content, but they could not effectively confront the two great military states that so dominated international politics during the 1950’s. An anti-missile system would therefore restore the bipolarity and United States-Soviet pre-eminence that so recently seemed to be slipping, and dash any hopes the small powers may retain of being able to coerce the great states militarily.


Thus in the world of 2000 A.D., perhaps even more so than now, the poor half of the world will not be able to challenge the rich fifth for control—but it will have the ability to harass the rich and bring the entire system into chaos.

The world of the foreseeable future will be one of great interdependencies of many sorts; the complex exploitation of material resources that will be necessary to sustain the living conditions of the rich will require extremely dense and complicated communications and transportation systems. The whole system, relying as much of it will on very close man-machine interactions (as with artificial limbs and organs), will leave many people extremely dependent, for their very lives, on constant inputs from an extremely artificial man-made physical environment, (What happens, for instance, to the man with radar eyes if he cannot get replacement parts? Or to a system geared to electronic data banks when the power goes off?) Even if an anti-missile system could prevent an underdeveloped nation from wreaking major direct physical havoc on the developed world, the hazards of interruption, destruction, and temporary or local chaos might still be very severe. All the more so if the promise of guerrilla-size nuclear weapons for the future should become reality.

Primitive man rarely lived to old age; like the animals he preyed upon, every man, when no longer in his prime, became vulnerable to the abundant natural enemies which before might not have been able to challenge him effectively. Even during the peak of life sudden death from animals, other men, or weather was common enough. Civilization, however, has cut the odds of sudden destruction to a fraction of what they once were. We still are conscious of the hazards of our man-made environment, especially the automobile, but only because other causes of death have for the young and middle-aged become almost insignificant by comparison with their former toll. But the world of the future might well restore the dangers from new sources, and raise the risks of sudden death. Man-made interruptions to the delicate interdependent system would be the new threat, and those largely from the underdeveloped world.

Domestic difficulties have sometimes led to foreign adventures by the heads of underdeveloped states: Sukarno’s behavior in West Irian and Malaysia is an example. Wars among poor and frustrated nations may become more common. If nuclear weapons were used in those wars a few would certainly affect rich nations’ interests. Or more seriously, the poor states would acquire harassment capabilities to deliver (possibly by individuals rather than governments which might readily be held responsible) nuclear bombs. There are literally hundreds of ways in which a determined, embittered, and perhaps non-official minority of people in the have-not areas could prevent the rich from full enjoyment of their prosperity.

Incentives to violence will be there in ample measure. Karl Marx thought revolutions were born from the growing absolute impoverishment of the masses. If he were correct there would be little for the status quo powers to fear, since there is small reason to think many of the poor countries will actually slip downhill. But the evidence of the past century indicates clearly that Marx was wrong in this respect. Alexis de Tocqueville had a contrasting theory derived from eighteenth-century France—that revolutions arise not from increasing poverty, but from an improvement in the fortunes of the poor after ages of hopeless degradation. New expectations aroused but by no means satisfied by a modest upturn provide the impetus to revolution.

More recent theories combine something of both Marx’s and Tocqueville’s. They suggest that the most likely point of revolution is when, after a rather sustained period of betterment for the poor, a fairly sudden stagnation or sharp downturn is experienced. New hopes and demands will be satisfied just enough to control things while the growth continues, but they will not tolerate much of a reversal. None of these theories has been adequately tested, but there is some interesting evidence for the latter in events of the past few years. Ghana began independence with by far the highest standard of living in black Africa, and Indonesia is composed of islands enormously rich in natural resources. From the late 1950’s onward, however, each developed serious troubles. Governmental energies turned to various foreign conflicts and prestige-building efforts, which only aggravated their economic problems. Growth turned into stagnation and then into a very serious downturn, creating great unrest and eventually culminating in the overthrow of their governments. If this assessment indicates a more general principle of revolutionary activity, it would seem vital, in their own interests, for the rich nations to help the poor to maintain their growth at the existing rates.

A better evaluation of the political and social potential of economic conditions in the poor half of the world at the end of this century, however, can be gained by remembering some particular aspects of the basically impoverished conditions of life to be expected there. Although not educated to high levels the bulk of the populations will be literate. They will he heavily if not predominantly urban, with perhaps a third of the population living in cities of 20,000 or more. They will have access to the mass media of communication—their urbanization, literacy, and the cheap transistor radio will see to that. Furthermore, they will have immediate acquaintance with, if not experience of, life in the rich fifth of the world. Communication satellites, television sets in central city and village locations, and all the worldwide paraphernalia of instant communication will assure the breakdown of their previous insulation. Though poor and uneducated, they will not be ignorant of what they are missing. Whereas once they could compare their status only with that of the village landowner, now they will have the example of the whole rich West before them. And they will realize that the structure of the world political and social system makes it impossible for them, as individuals, to improve their lot. Barriers to immigration will keep them in their physical places.

In short, Asia and Africa are likely to comprise a huge slum in the social as well as material sense, with close parallels to present-day Harlem. The distinction will be in the degree to which the fate of the privileged will be linked to that of the slum-dwellers, who will be a virtual majority, not a relatively small segment of the population that can be effectively isolated in a ghetto and forgotten. The privileged class will be a distinct minority, and the “middle class” buffer will not be much larger.


Several courses of action, some of which must be concurrent rather than substitutes for each other, are open to the rich world for the next few decades. One is obvious and attractive to our humanitarian traditions—assistance to the underdeveloped nations to keep the level of income growing at a steady if unspectacular rate. This would have to be achieved not as a simple act of charity, but involving the leadership and activity of the people in the poor world so as to build initiative and confidence in their own abilities. It must also be dependable aid, available over long periods and sufficiently flexible to meet crises and temporary setbacks.

But the prescription of economic assistance is hardly more than a tiresome cliche at this point in our postwar experience and disillusionment with foreign aid as an instrument of development. It is much easier to specify such ingredients than to make them work. Part of the problem is that the doctors have expected too much. The rates of growth that can realistically be achieved will not eradicate unrest, violence, or the threat of violence. One must move from black and white to shadings, hoping not to eliminate the threat of violence but only to reduce its incidence. Aid must be complemented by scientific research seeking to lower drastically the cost of at least some elements of the good life. Certain aspects of education, coupled with teaching machines and communications satellites, may be especially appropriate for cheap mechanization. Others should appear if an intensive effort is made.

At the same time, this is only part of the prescription for a tolerable world order. Another element requires strengthening and multiplying the existing institutional bonds among nations—in effect a move in the direction of world government for the sake of political control over the poor states. Of course such a government, in most of the probable and all of the ideologically pleasing forms, would entail control by as well as of the poor world. Any pluralistic variety of political organization for the globe would involve concessions by the rich and some kind of substantial taxation. But this need not conjure up images of utter leveling and loss of privilege—the rich usually manage to retain a power and influence over decisions that is very disproportionate to their numbers. Their skills will give them great advantages in manipulation and an essential ingredient for world growth that can be bartered for a substantial price. Nor should those who fear “world government” on more abstract grounds react too sharply against this part of the prescription. There are, after all, many varieties of “government.” Under that label stand historical forms ranging from the most centralized totalitarian régime to the loosest confederation. Modes toward the latter end of the spectrum, as well as the former, can be appropriate models for ultimate world organization.

Efforts to implement these possibilities are vital because the alternative is not so ideologically attractive for Westerners. The threat of violence does not operate merely in an economic and social environment; it is not simply the product of expectations, frustrations, and growth rates. Behavior is also subject to political controls; the resort to violence can be contained by repression. A world government could be a powerful one initiated and firmly controlled by the rich. Or the governments of the developed states could ally themselves with authoritarian or totalitarian oligarchies in the poor world, with regimes that are able, with extant and yet-to-be devised instruments of surveillance and control, to keep the lid on their domestic politics. The price would be privileges for the governing elite in these countries, a sharing in the benefits of 2000 A.D. material culture that could never be paid to the masses. These oligarchies might continue to mouth the ideology of development and ultimate prosperity for their citizens, and even provide, with outside assistance, the basis for a modest improvement in their peoples’ physical condition. Yet they would maintain the ability to control change and suppress dissent, acting in part as agents of the rich world.

This is a repugnant prospect, and I do not advocate it. To do so, especially now before we have made a proper effort with the first two elements, would be a despairing counsel. Until much greater resources have been devoted both to research and practice in development and international organization, a further alliance with the oligarchies would be intolerable. There are more than enough elements of it in the foreign policies of present Western governments. At some point, however, after energetically trying the other ways at substantial sacrifice, the compromise may seem more beguiling. It may come for the simple reason that the world and its civilizations will not, we hope, come to an end in the year 2000 A.D. It might be justified by motives other than selfish parochial interest. Men must build for ages to come, and construction cannot take place in chaos.


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