The Illusion of “Higher Standards” of Living

Builds Upon: The Tragedy of the Lords

As a kid I was constantly told that I was lucky to have been born in America, the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth. In other countries, I was told, people frequently went hungry and lived on the brink of survival. Newspapers and magazines always had lots of pictures of emaciated malnourished people staring forlornly into the distance. This was the rest of the world.

In early adolescence I reasoned that it was hard enough to get by in America, the wealthiest nation on Earth. It seemed incomprehensible to me that people in other places had it so much worse.

As an adult I finally got the chance to see some other countries. In Latin America and in parts of Eastern Europe, I was clearly no longer in an affluent society.
Yet the situation I actually encountered was nothing like all the stories of famine stricken countries and bread lines.

The truth?
Whatever the overall level of wealth in an area, people’s lives didn’t seem lacking in any critical way. Not even if their entire net worth might be a puny fraction of the average American income.
How could this be? I asked myself. All my life I’d been bombarded with hysterical articles wailing about huge percentages of the world’s population living on less than a dollar a day. ‘Dollar a day’ in America was synonymous with the malnourished people in the pictures!

Clearly all those statistics don’t mean what most people think they mean. It would seem that in many parts of the world, a dollar a day is actually a livable wage.

Wherever one may go, living expenses adjust to living costs. There’s an iron law of wages for any labor pool. If workers are paid too little to be able to buy food and have families, the system cannot function. Thus to some extent the idea of higher standards of living is illusory. Or at least the differences between places are not nearly as great as first world citizens believe. A hundred times the income does not translate into a hundred times the life!

If we stop and think: If a dollar a day is a normal wage somewhere, then the overall cost of labor there is very cheap. Therefore many locally produced goods and services lie within the purchasing power of the laborers. If most people make a dollar a day, local landlords obviously can’t demand hundreds of dollars to occupy a flat. They have to come up with some sort of option that suits the typical local income, even if it’s a hut. It might not have climate control, but it’s a place to occupy.
Luxury items and imports are going to be out of most people’s reach but one would anticipate that the basic needs of living must be affordable for the society to continue existing.

Furthermore, I noticed certain patterns in poorer countries.

-Where money is scarce, human relationships are a much more valuable asset than in affluent countries. There’s a lot more incentive to have cohesive social ties throughout a society when accumulation of capital is impossible. A third world laborer will never have a 401k plan. Most people in most places throughout history have never had retirement savings. Retirement was nearly always been provided by family and community rather than an individually amassed fortune.

Additionally, low earning laborers are going to have access to things that money cannot buy in prosperous lands. Any land on earth has its share of resources that are difficult to find anywhere else.
In America, I’ve never been able to find good papayas. The ones available are invariably withered, battered, and expensive. Worse they don’t ever seem to properly ripen. Maybe refrigeration arrests the ripening process? In any case, they’re not even edible unless they’re baked in the oven.
Meanwhile, there’s no shortage of third world laborers who have daily access to a small fortune worth of fresh, ripe papayas for pennies or even for free.

Recently, I met a former archaeology student who told me tales of a dig he’d worked on in Bolivia. He told me of how the local poor farmers lived at high altitudes with no electricity. Then he mentioned that they had herds of alpacas. I pointed out that these Bolivians were able to protect themselves from the cold with some of the finest wool on earth. Most Americans would be hard pressed to afford the high quality alpaca wool clothing those Bolivian peasants probably take for granted.

In an affluent nation it’s too easy to forget that wealth can take many forms besides tokens of liquid exchange.
We can anticipate that:
Where capital is lacking, people manage to fulfill the same needs by cultivating other forms of assets.

-Markets adjust to the needs of the average laborer in more than just wages. The goods and services available, the way they are made available must also be adjusted to local consumers.
In Latin America, I found most people had easy access to the internet even though none of them could afford their own computers or internet connections. When the average income is low, it’s only a matter time before there’s an internet café on every corner. I’ve found abundant internet cafés in nearly every part of the world I’ve been to except for North America and the UK.
Renting a computer is fairly expensive in wealthier countries. In poorer countries, the rates are trivial pocket change, even in the local currency. The cafes are full of adolescents who have no source of income. Even the little bit they can scrape together is enough.
As average income decreases, the iron law further compresses even the price of the same service!
The big idea?
If there’s a service in popular demand, merchants will find a way to provide it in a way the locals can afford.

Until one is truly among the malnourished and starving of our world, there are ways to accomplish the tasks a local population wants to accomplish.

It turns out that there’s expenditures to fit every budget.
In America, most people live paycheck to paycheck. Elsewhere, people live paycheck to paycheck. Thus, the iron law is a natural law that works with far greater reliability and efficiency than any manmade institution.
Wherever one might go, subservience is the price of purchase.

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6 responses to “The Illusion of “Higher Standards” of Living

  1. I agree with main points of the article. My main objection is that life in third world countries can be very uncomfortable(even though all basic needs are met) in a serious way compared to developed nations. Life is hard everywhere but in some places it is harder that in others.

  2. Pingback: The Tragedy of the Lords | Neurodiversity

  3. I do not try to say that 3rd world countries are great. My point is that the portrait presented in the Mainstream Media is distorted at best.
    There are quite a few countries poorer than the US that have an equal or better overall quality of life.
    And many abjectly poor regions offer a life that is far from horrible.
    Would we rather be rich in a rich country? Of course we would. But this doesn’t address my point.

    Look at how many super-centenarians come from rural peasant populations whether on the island of Okinawa or in the mountains of Sardinia.

    We commonly see famous actors, corporate magnates, the darlings of society dropping dead many decades earlier. No doubt the stressful competition required to fight to the top of the hierarchy and stay there drastically reduces both the quality of their lives and their lifespans.

  4. “….Most Americans would be hard pressed to afford the high quality alpaca wool clothing those Bolivian peasants probably take for granted….”

    Ha! This reminds me of a comment made by American survivalist author Ragnar Benson. Regarding his time living the hard life on a ranch in Idaho, decades ago: “…There wasn’t much money, but we got to do for free, things that rich people pay thousands of dollars for. Horsepacking into the bush for eighteen inch cutthroat [trout] is a good example here….”

    Also… Here in southern California, too, I’ve noticed that people will literally pay millions of dollars for a piece of livestock zoned suburban property, just so they can have a few chickens and goats in their yard (and still be within commuting distance of their urban “job”). For much of the world, having a few critters in the yard is NORMAL and costs basically NOTHING!!!!!

    • There’s reasons beyond the practical reasons as to why people distanced themselves from the trappings of rural living when they moved to cities.

      Class.

      Keeping animals and growing, feeding, slaughtering them oneself was work for peons. It was a symbol of the rural poverty everyone was trying to leave behind.

      Indeed, our modern attitude towards animals as food is very Victorian.
      These times were the origin of meat as we know it at the supermarket with skin, head, feet, spine, organs everything ‘disgusting’ that could possibly remind us we’re eating an animal judiciously stripped away.
      This period also fostered more sentimental attitudes towards animals and the spread of the concept of ‘pets’ that fulfilled no productive purpose.
      All this was a fashion statement in the never-ending arms race that is human status jockeying. It was all about distancing oneself from the peasantry.

      A few generations later, fresh killed meat is a fantastic luxury that even the rich seldom enjoy.
      Anything with the words like ‘charming’, ‘rustic’, ‘country’, and ‘fresh’ sells like crazy to the envious hordes who clamber after the rich.

      You do well in illustrating my point, Van Rooinek. There’s a difference between social status and actual quality of life.

      Being poor and powerless sucks even if you have an alpaca wool coat or chickens on your property, but most humans truly care more about perceived social status than their actual quality of life.
      Ironically, the status climbing behaviors of millions makes being poor and powerless even worse: Polyester winter coats, factory farmed poultry and eggs.

      Consider beriberi in East and South Asia. Not nearly as much of a problem before peasants started living off of polished white rice that was traditionally associated with the rich.
      People in aggregate are consistently willing to harm and deprive themselves if only others might esteem them a little higher. Could we imagine a more slavish philosophy of life?
      I’ve tried to explain to people the cruel joke behind their every upward effort but I’ve mostly gotten blank stares followed by some sentiment about what ‘everyone’ is supposedly doing or buying.

      • It makes me wonder what are the true advantages of ‘industrialization’. Once while discussing the idea of educating kids life-skills such as growing own food, keeping animals, making a house, I was met with raised eyebrows: why do you want my kid to be a farmer! He needs all his precious time to one day be a ‘doctor’.

        My point was that although not everybody needs to be a farmer, these skills always come handy in times of need. And the uncertain times that we live in, which are going to be more uncertain as we keep exploding, I would rather want a kid to be a self-sustaining farmer than a pretentious ladder-climber. At least he will have something ‘real’ (not the high-society craze) to feed on.

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