Americans Quite Simply Couldn't Handle Life Without Soaring Inequality

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“The bugs seem to be everywhere in every neighborhood, bazaar and shop, sparing no one. They’re a bullying force on sidewalks, flying in and out of stores and cars and homes, and settling onto every available surface, from vegetables to people.” Those are the words of New York Times reporter Saba Imtiaz, describing the present fly infestation situation in Karachi, which is Pakistan’s foremost city.

At least by Pakistani standards, Karachi is advanced. Not only is it the country’s most populous place, it’s also its most important industrial and financial center. All that, plus it’s the nation’s cultural hub. Call Karachi the New York City of Pakistan.

Despite that, most New Yorkers and most Americans couldn’t comfortably or happily last even an hour there. The poverty would thoroughly overwhelm even the poorest of American poor. The living standards of Pakistan’s people are so low as to be nearly impossible for Americans of all stripes to contemplate. Perhaps not thought of enough is the why behind the low living standards.

Why is something we take for granted like power such a luxury for so many there? Why do so many lack running water, indoor plumbing, along with freedom from the major irritants that are flies? One answer that readers might consider with partially open minds is that there isn't nearly enough wealth inequality in Karachi or Pakistan, and the logical result is misery for all.

Never forget what wealth creation is. It’s the process whereby entrepreneurs mass produce the former luxuries of the rich. To offer up but one example, in a recent Weekend Interview at the Wall Street Journal, Camille Paglia commented to Tunku Varadarajan that “I can still remember when there was no air conditioning.” At 72 years of age, of course she can. It used to be that this most wondrous of luxuries was solely enjoyed (in rather primitive fashion) by the richest of the rich. Wall units that exceedingly few would find sufficient today at one time cost anywhere from $10,000 to $50,000. As a consequence, people of Paglia’s generation are surely familiar with a past in which air-cooled houses, restaurants and buildings were rare. Along those lines, popular Austin, TX restaurant/bar The Tavern still has the sign out front that it once employed as a lure for patrons: “Air Conditioned.”

The rich get that way by removing unease from our lives. They make it possible for us to summon the world’s plenty all with a click of a mouse, to dial up endless amounts of information just by inserting what we want to know about into a search bar on a computer, plus they connect us with people around the world for next to nothing. Consider the previous example for just a moment. It used to be that news from Europe reached the U.S. (and vice versa) after a 10 day lag; 10 days how long it took for passenger ships to travel between the old and new world. Cyrus Field sped up communications somewhat in the 1860s by laying cable between the continents, but even then “instant” communication between Europe and the U.S. cost those so fortunate as to enjoy such luxuries $100 given the 10-word minimum. Nowadays, Twitter users who are capable of spreading their ideas and news to hundreds of millions around the world for free complain that 180 characters per message isn’t enough.  

Consider what the economically unequal in the U.S. have meant for all of us, and then think about life in Pakistan. According to Imtiaz, the problem of flies emerged from “weeks of monsoon rains” that “deluged neighborhoods across Karachi, sending sewage and trash” all over the city. It seems the subsequent fly infestation was a consequence of “stagnant rainwater, which stood in the city for days, with garbage on the streets and waste left behind from animals slaughtered” during a recent festival in the city. All of this was made worse by power loss. Lengthy outages exacerbated the “city’s longstanding problems with garbage and drainage.”

Readers might think about all of the above, and then ask themselves if any of it resembles the typical American experience, whether it be on New York’s Park Avenue, or the most rundown of rundown streets in West Baltimore. Readers know the answer.

Americans of varying economic stripes couldn’t handle Karachi, and they couldn’t because they couldn’t endure the near total lack of comforts routinely brought to them by the economically unequal in the United States. Thanks to wondrous advances hatched by innovators over the years, decades and centuries, Americans don’t suffer intermittent blackouts, improper drainage, bullying flies everywhere they look, and streets heaving with trash due to insufficient collection practices.

This isn’t to say that horrid weather doesn’t bring on major discomfort (and even death) in U.S. cities on occasion, but the consequences of awful weather events are always met by a massive capitalist response. Food flows into affected areas, so do clothes, water, and all manner of supplies meant to soften the discomfort. More important, the discomfort is most often a fraction of what Karachi residents suffer simply because capitalist production has already enabled the production of better drainage systems, better garbage collection, and much better power infrastructure.

To this day a blackout that hit parts of New York City in 1977 is still talked about in reverential terms even though the outage lasted a total of 25 hours. Amid Karachi’s latest struggles, there have been numerous “power outages, in some cases for 60 hours and counting.”

Though it’s popular to paint the rich as aloof to the wants and needs of the common man, the reality is that they’re rich precisely because they experty meet the needs of the common man. Think about it. Whether it’s Silicon Valley, Hollywood or Wall Street wealth, the greatest fortunes earned in each industry are much more often than not a consequence of mass producing former luxuries, or financing the mass production of former luxuries. As the wealth gap increases, the lifestyle gap plummets.

“There’s no cure. We’ve tried everything – spraying, setting a fire. If you spray, they go away and then come back.” Those are the words of Shahid, an interviewee of Imtiaz. Though the 45-year old strives mightily to shoo the flies away with fire, the break from them is only momentary. One imagines that Shahid would be thrilled to live and work in the United States.

Thanks to the rich and superrich here, power is a given, so is trash collection, so is drainage, and for a growing number, so is air conditioning. And Americans of all economic classes don’t have to endure the insanity-inducing agony of endless flies. Of course we don’t. We’re a very unequal country economically, we're becoming rapidly more unequal, and as a result we want for less and less. 

John Tamny is a speechwriter and writer of opinion pieces for clients, he's editor of RealClearMarkets, Director of the Center for Economic Freedom at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is The End of Work, about the exciting explosion of remunerative jobs that don't feel at all like work.  He's also the author of Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  

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