Among the pressing issues facing the world, one haunts us. With seven billion souls on earth, heading for ten billion soon, how are they all to get by? Forget about disruptions like rising sea level, changing crop patterns, resistant bugs, blights and plagues. How are people to make a living?
This is the not-so-hidden subtext of almost all global politics. We worry that foreigners and robots are stealing our jobs, that greedy corporations want to pay us less for more work or dump human labor on the ash heap of history. Foreigners, of course, feel they are even more subjected to a ruthless competition for resources and gainful employment.
The jihadis wouldn’t find a willing audience if their lives weren’t miserable. Most migrants fleeing jihadis or social and economic dysfunction in the Mediterranean, across our southern border, in Asia have no ideology. They are just trying to keep body and soul together.
Pope Francis hasn’t gone so far as to endorse contraception, but has advised people to have fewer children, and calls for a new ethic that would put human charity ahead of dog-eat-dog economic competition. The socialist!
The issue of wealth distribution may play a role in the coming America election. Bernie Sanders thinks we should emulate a European model with its robust safety net. The other party claims Greece is what happens if here aren’t enough jobs to support the redistributive state They would like to go back to idealized days of capitalist prosperity based on less government, more enterprise.
Unfortunately, a look at the record of the Gilded Age, the Hard Times of Dickensian England or the satanic mills of Blake suggests for most people those eras were vile, starveling dystopians. Ask Tiny Tim, before Scrooge had a change of heart. And trends suggest that if nothing is done, we may be well on our way to a rerun — with robots.
A couple recent stories shed odd light on what people are willing to do to exist in their brave new world. Peter Hessler (in the Aug. 10/17 New Yorker) provides the astonishing tale of Chinese lingerie merchants, twenty-six stores worth, in towns along a 300-mile stretch of the Upper Nile.
He zeroes in on Lin and Chen, a married couple who left China when no opportunity presented itself, in search of their fortune. It is something out of 17th century America. With nothing at first but a suitcase packed with ties, pearl jewelry and lingerie to peddle, Lin arrived in Asyut which seemed to be the largest city on the upper Nile on the map he consulted at home.
The ties and jewelry were non-starters, but the lingerie sold out fast. Egyptian women may go about covered in public, but are expected to be seductively clad at home. Much of the trade is furnishing the trousseaus for brides. The trade flourished and soon they had imported not just more stock but friends and relatives to man three additional stores, cornering the lingerie market in their city,
That would be epic enough, but with entrepreneurial resourcefulness not unusual in Chinese expats, Lin noticed streets filled with discarded plastic bottles. It would have been hard not to, but no Egyptian did a thing about it. This barely educated outsider decided to start a business recycling them.
He imported the machinery to process them into plastic thread which he could resell to Chinese thread manufacturers in Cairo. Soon he had a plant employing 30 people and an army of freelance collectors who are paid by the pound to supply four tons of bottles a day. His profits are in the $100,000 a year range.
Several morals to the story suggest themselves. In America today, Donald Trump and other candidates are popular with people who complain how hard it is to get ahead. They are fond of simple conspiratorial explanation involving government meddling, crony capitalism, globalization, and illegal immigrants which candidates are happy to supply. That’s why we are no longer great.
But to Lin and Chen, China didn’t look too great so they went in search of opportunity and were prepared to work like coolies, live over the lingerie shop, and wrest a living from someplace in the back of nowhere in Egypt, aliens who could barely speak the language and were prepared to work harder and smarter than the locals. We often seem to suffer by comparison with such admirable capitalists.
In a sidelight, Lin is asked a question that points to another fascinating moral. What’s the biggest problem he sees in Egypt? The normally reticent man replies with real passion. “Inequality between men and women. Here the women just stay home and sleep. If they want to develop, the first thing they need to do is solve this problem. That’s what China did after the revolution. It’s a waste of talent. Look at my family — you see how my wife works. We couldn’t have the factory without her. My daughter runs the shop.”
Backward places can stay backward by clinging to old ways. And advanced places can fall behind if they expect everything to be easy. Are we using the talents of all our people, for instance? Women, minorities, old, young? Or treating them as part of the problem rather than part of he solution?
With seven billion mouths to feed, a world full of people with a burning need to improve their lot, the competition for advantage, resources and survival is going to become more and more cut throat. We need to expect a decent safety net, but not a free ride or a free pass to easy street. The future holds hard work, long hours, a demand for burning the midnight oil and going the extra mile, for learning new trades and adapting to changing times. We will have to behave like those pioneers that we all praise but would be loath to emulate.
And speaking of the hard facts of post-modern life. From The New York Times comes a report on working condition at Amazon, everybody’s favorite retailer and a paragon of the new plugged in world. It suggests the place is a hostile, high-pressure, low-pay, dead-end sweat shop.
Is anyone surprised? The silicon miracle is founded on machines in lieu of humans and humans treated like machines. Generally the ugly reality is out of sight, in China or other miserable third world backwaters. If Amazon differs in any way from it’s confreres, it is by doing what everyone demands — bringing those lousy jobs and rotten working conditions back to America. Hooray.