Saturday, September 26, 2015

What Should We Call Poorer Countries?

Here’s a social problem that’s broader than economics: what do you call people who aren’t doing as well that isn’t insulting, doesn’t sound patronizing, and doesn’t open up an avenue for those less well-off to rationalize their situation?

Macroeconomists and politicians have this trouble with countries. We need a label. In the handbook for this class, I’ve primarily used “developing”, but I’ve also mentioned “third world”.

Third world is an older term, that’s seen as insulting by some.

Developing has been on the rise for a couple of decades, but it’s seen as patronizing.

Using either phrase (or others) can open up the third can of worms. This has two facets.

First, some will argue that the developed countries are richer because they’ve stolen stuff from developing countries. This is a popular notion, tied up with exploitation, for which there’s actually not much supportive data. The really scary thing is not that the U.S. has taken a lot from, say, Cuba — but rather that if Americans actually cared about Cuba as much as Mexico, Cuba would probably be better off.

Second, there are many people who will say things like “we’re doing this our way because we don’t want to be developed … we don’t want to turn out like you”. This is actually really frightening, because often the people saying this are already the ones with most of the money and power in these countries. In short, they’re big fish in a small pond, and they like it that way.

I’m posting this during Pope Francis’ first visit to the U.S. Personally, I have very strong feelings that Pope Francis may be the biggest exponent of this view at the moment. While personally, he has taken a vow of poverty, he’s been elevated to the top of institution that got rich from just about very means except economic growth, and he’s using that position to criticize societies that got rich from pretty much only economic growth. I find that irony disturbing.*

Some of these ideas, and others, are touched on in the article “The Rise and Fall of the Term ‘Third World’” from the May 1 issue of The Wall Street Journal. For the curious, they date the usage of the phrase third world to French sociologists in the early 1950’s. They came up with that term to put a positive spin on those places, even though now some people think of it as insulting.

FWIW: I’ve lived and worked in Utah for a majority of my adult life, but I am not Mormon. I grew up in a heavily Catholic area, and have a great many close Catholic friends. I do not advocate that you take my viewpoint as anti-Catholic, or even anti-Francis. I am merely very much opposed to the publicly stated economic positions of this Pope.

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