Friday, January 1, 2010

To be Rich

For a new decade, the one that starts today, I think I'll ask, why is my country, the United States, a wealthy one?
For one, it has a lot of natural resources. Oil and gold and uranium in the western deserts, farmland aplenty in the midwest, and various other minerals and forests. But this alone doesn't explain it. Japan is nearly resource-free, but is a wealthy prosperous nation, while uranium-rich Nigeria is riddled with poverty.
Probably the greatest resource in the United States is trust. If I go to the gas station, there is a refrigerator there with sports drinks, beer, milk, and other things to buy. This refrigerator is not locked. The clerk trusts that I will buy the goods contained within instead of stealing them. And if I do steal them, the clerk trusts that he can call the police, who will arrest me for it, possibly even recovering the stolen goods. In other countries, they also have gas stations, and those gas stations also have drinkable goods in a refrigerator. But their refrigerator is locked. If I want to buy something, I have to ask the clerk for it, have him unlock the refrigerator and hand it to me. All the while suspicious that I'm plotting to scam him, or stab him and run. And he can't really trust the police to help him, since they're often bought-off by the local mafia, unavailable, or useless.
Transactions in low-trust countries require more work to set up, and are more uncomfortable for both the seller and buyer. If my desire to buy, say, Gatorade, is only marginal, then in a low-trust environment, I probably won't bother. And both I and the gas station are poorer for it. I because I am still thirsty, and the gas station because it didn't sell as much today.
I worry as this new decade dawns, that the trust is going away. The system was clearly manipulated in 2009. The poor see the rich as bloated plutocrats who would happily stab them for a nickel, and the rich see the poor as a teeming mob of communists who'd take their posessions at any cost. May it not get any worse.

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