The Cargo Problem

Econophile's picture

If there was ever a more complicated place in the world it’s Kenya. I just got back from my third trip there. It made me think about why they are so poor and we are so rich.

There are 42+ million people in Kenya and most of them are poor. The government says they are expanding at 4-5% per year. Annual GDP is only $71.4 billion. Apple had $156 billion in revenues in 2012. 40% of the workforce is unemployed. Per capita income is about $900 per year making one of the poorest countries on the planet. Yet the media there are brimming with optimistic reports of economic progress.

The capital, Nairobi, is a growing, sprawling city with an official population of 3,500,000 but it’s really much, much larger. There are large slums on the outskirts. While there is an emerging middle class and a top tier of 5,000 millionaires, most Nairobians are struggling.

It is not as if there has been no progress. There has been a lot of construction in and around Nairobi and real estate is in a boom phase. New shopping strip malls and housing developments serve the growing middle class. And many people (60% of the “poor”) have cell phones. More cars, more jitneys, and more buses clog the roads. And more inflation which robs people of their savings.

There are two foundations of their economy: agriculture and tourism. Tourism by far is the most important since it brings good jobs and foreign exchange. Tourism accounts for more than 50% of the economy. Half of farming is subsistence level only.

It makes you wonder. If things are so good, why are things so bad?

It isn’t the people. Many speak English and are well educated. But their talents are wasted because of a lack of opportunity. I discussed politics with a waiter who had wanted to be a biologist. A safari guide who speaks 3 or 4 languages, who is a trained and certified wildlife expert is paid $30 a month and relies on tips from generous tourists to get by. It is considered a very good job.

There are many explanations for poverty. One popular idea is Jared Diamond’s theory espoused in the book, Guns, Germs and Steel. He takes an historical look at why some parts of the globe thrived and some didn’t. His explanation for success was: the rise of grain agriculture in temperate zones, the decimation of non-temperate zone populations from diseases spread by temperate zone invaders, and the technology of advanced weaponry. Cultures living in temperate zones of the planet thrived and those elsewhere failed to grow beyond subsistence levels.

Diamond’s book was a response to a question from a New Guinean who asked him, “Why do you have so much cargo and we so little?” “Cargo” being pidgin for material goods. I believe that Diamond’s answer only goes so far. Those factors can explain many things in the dim historic past, but it is not as applicable today. It leaves out one really important thing: ideas. Or, to be more accurate, the right ideas.

For example, another question one can ask is: “Why do some societies in the temperate zones thrive and others fail?” Or, “Why do some societies in tropical zones thrive and others fail?” It’s not because technology isn’t known to poor societies. Everybody (almost) everywhere has access to this knowledge. The thing missing in Diamond’s theory are the sociological factors: the methods of human organization. Here I am talking about economic and political systems. These are the ideas the make us or break us.

The formula for success anywhere on the planet isn’t that difficult to discover. You need freedom. That is, solid property rights, a just legal system that protects property rights and the enforcement of contracts, and limited government and low taxation. Add in the personal freedom to do what you damn well please as long as you don’t abridge someone else’s rights. If you do these things, capital (wealth from savings) and an entrepreneurial spirit will rise and drive human progress. These are the ideas that emerged from the Enlightenment and culminated in the founding of the United States of America. It has worked everywhere it has been tried.

These are the things that Kenya and most African countries lack.

Since gaining independence from Britain in 1960, Kenya took the socialist path and the economy stagnated. Bad roads, bad communications, state owned industries, rising poverty, corruption. Basically they just spent the capital that had been accumulated during colonial times. Colonialism was bad but so were and still are the successive socialist-kleptocratic regimes that suck the country dry and keep them poor. They just raised the national sales (VAT) tax to 16% and everyone is complaining because prices have shot up. In 1989 impoverished China took a different road and now they are building roads in Kenya as part of their foreign aid (with a commercial ulterior motive, of course).

Everyone I talked to at “ground level” in Kenya said the number one problem is corruption. When you get down to the detail of what they really mean by that is that they lack the above mentioned freedoms needed for success. The courts are corrupt. The politicians are corrupt. The police are corrupt. The bureaucrats are corrupt. Crony capitalism is rampant. While they espouse the philosophy of “democracy”, that usually means the winners get to distribute political spoils to their cronies and fellow tribesmen.

How do you change that? Can you just change the system and expect human behavior to change overnight? Well, you’ve got to start somewhere. It won’t happen overnight, but if freedom breaks out in these countries, I believe things and people will change for the better. I believe that stripped down to our essentials, human beings behave pretty much the same. It’s all the crap that’s piled on top of us starting at birth that is the problem.

Free market capitalism is what I have been talking about here. It is what is called an emergent system, that is, a spontaneous social organization that emerges when the right conditions (freedom) are present. It is a ground up mostly self-regulating system. It’s not something that government invents (a top down system), but it’s the system that most closely matches human nature and allows individuals to reach their potential. Before you get too excited, recall the conditions of freedom I mentioned above require government to protect and enforce our human rights. It’s not easy; it takes time. And it’s not perfect, but as history has shown, it sure as hell beats anything else.