Paul Theroux and the Poverty Behind the Numbers

(Photo: AP/Rogelio V. Solis)

A photo of Pickens, Mississippi, taken October 2011

Has globalization produced better outcomes for humanity in aggregate, or have improvements abroad come at the expense of large parts of the American landscape? And what should we care about more?

Author Paul Theroux stepped into this decades-long debate in a New York Times op-ed, a preview of his new book Deep South, where he encountered poverty in the Mississippi Delta “that looked like towns in Zimbabwe, just as overlooked and beleaguered.” Theroux seethed at corporate executives who abandon American communities for cheaper labor, and then vow to “lift people out of poverty,” which they helped create.

Theroux’s piece generated outrage, and then outrage at the outrage. Annie Lowrey of New York magazine called him “economically illiterate,” citing per capita gross domestic product and infant mortality rates to argue that global poverty is far more deserving of aid in Africa than the United States. Worldwide reduction of extreme poverty came about through globalization, Lowrey writes, which also benefited Americans through lower prices for manufactured goods. “In human terms, globalization has absolutely, completely proven positive-sum.”

On the other side, economics writer Matt Bruenig points out that focusing on statistical averages misses the plight of specific groups who have seen their fortunes fall through globalization. That lower-income workers in developed countries have been hit hardest is backed up by the data, and cheaper imports alone do not sufficiently alleviate the pain. “Globalization has wrecked certain swaths of Americans and the U.S. has not managed the forces of globalization so as to avoid this,” Bruenig writes.

As it happens, I had the chance to ask Paul Theroux himself about the dispute, which he has been following. He has leafed through the 900 comments to his New York Times story, Theroux said with a chuckle at a book event in Santa Monica. “Some said I needed to study economics. But it started a debate and raised this issue.”

Theroux provided a more impressionistic version of Bruenig’s argument, informed by his experience living among the poor all over the world, a project that goes back to his work in Malawi in the Peace Corps in the early 1960s.

“People aren’t aware of how desperate life is on a cold day in Mississippi with no heat,” Theroux said, arguing that the experience of being poor, beyond gross domestic product, is relative. Here he drew on the work of Angus Deaton, winner of the Nobel Prize in economics just this week, who pioneered studies into comparing poverty across different economies.

“Angus Deaton said you cannot determine poverty by income,” Theroux said. “You can visit a village in Africa made of mud huts and think how desperate it all is. But in that community, in that climate, a mud hut may be preferable. A thatched roof may be preferable to a tin roof. Just because they’re earning a dollar a day, they’re not unrelated to someone in Mississippi.”

(Deaton does generally favor globalization for raising global living standards, but he also believes the inequality it helps generate threatens overall well-being, and that foreign aid harms developing countries more than it helps, a view Theroux shares.)

Theroux described large regions of the south as the equivalent of deserts, without access to hospitals, decent schools, economic opportunities, or even basic financial services and nutrition. The illiteracy rate in Lee County, Arkansas, he said, was 25 percent, an astonishing number for the developed world. And these poor southerners have not cultivated subsistence skills, he said, to the extent of those in African villages, who through the centuries have managed to make their lives more viable. Lots of the people Theroux profiled in Deep South “talked about how they used to eat squirrel stew, or smother-fried squirrel. But they’re not doing it anymore.”

That we hear so little about this from a media holed up in coastal enclaves is an indictment of our collective blind spots. Theroux compared it to Mrs. Jellyby in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House, running a chaotic home with numerous kids in various states of dishevelment and hunger, but always thinking about educating the natives of Borrioboola-Gha, on the left bank of the Niger River, something Dickens calls “Telescopic Philanthropy.”

That viewpoint, while well-intended, does lead to neglect. “I met John Coors, from the Coors family, he’s now in high tech,” Theroux said. “He told me that he sent a team of dentists to Kenya. I told him there are two dental schools in Nairobi making lots of dentists. I asked why not send dentists to Mississippi? He said there are provisions for people there.”

This is the heart of the dispute. You can argue that the global poor face a far more brutal existence than their counterparts in America. But the provisions to deal with the recognized losers from globalization largely have not been delivered here, particularly in the Deep South. Decades of regional Republican rule hollowing out the public sector contributed to this, along with the lack of a national program to truly compensate those without college educations who saw their middle-skill jobs evaporate. America-versus-Kenya comparisons don’t capture the full human loss, nor can they possibly make up for the outcomes.

Building worker power globally offers a way out of this Hobson’s choice of which downtrodden group to support. The Bangladeshi textile worker and the Vietnamese fishery worker feel just as exploited and forgotten as the man in Hollandale, Mississippi, population 3,500, where the entire tax base for the year is $300,000—roughly what Apple CEO Tim Cook makes in a day.

We can write and enforce trade policies that exchange legitimate labor standards for access to markets. We can assist workers resisting the triumph of accumulated capital without cheering on “the search for a new plantation, and cheaper labor,” as Theroux puts it. And we can broadly share the benefits of globalization at home, for reasons just as moral as the impulse to help children abroad.

Seemingly both sides of this debate would agree with such a program—but the confusion comes in the points of emphasis, in allowing for the legitimate frustration of those crushed by American policy. The perceived callousness of focusing only on global perspectives and meager compensations like lower prices at Walmart informs how Paul Theroux sees an 80-year-old woman in Arkansas in a shack with no running water, and wonders what she did to make her nation forget her.

We should not automatically believe visitors’ extrapolated views of a nation, no matter how immersive. But nor should we close the book on a country based on statistical averages, when documentary evidence could supplement it. “The book is about overlooked people and their stories,” Theroux said. “The long march of the common man and woman is my mission.”

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