Today the Weekend Reader brings you The Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny, a former senior economist at the World Bank, a fellow at the Center for Global Development and a columnist for both Bloomberg Businessweek and Foreign Policy magazine. With the American economy still in recovery, many fear that the U.S. is slipping as a global superpower. Kenny argues that America’s supremacy isn’t as important as we may think, and discusses the idea that the success of other economies is actually what the U.S. can benefit from most.
You can purchase the full book here.
Imagine you were about to be born. And somehow, you got the choice as to where you’d be born. Would you choose Asia, or Africa, or Europe, or the Americas? If you had any sense, you’d be likely to choose one of the countries of North America or Europe—or another safely developed country, like Australia, New Zealand, Japan, or Singapore—not least because your chance of surviving the first years of life would be higher there than anywhere else. When you reached an age to appreciate such things, you’d probably also be richer, better educated, safer, and more secure in your rights. You’d be more likely to have an interesting job and a long and enjoyable retirement. All in all, by whatever measure, your quality of life would almost certainly be higher.
Of course, you might draw the short straw—poverty in the West can be soul-crushing and life-shortening just as wealth in India or Africa can afford all the luxuries the world has to offer. But on average, the advantages of being born in the West are clear.
Now imagine that the choice you are given is not where to be born, but when—anytime between the dawn of Homo sapiens and today. Again, your choice would be clear—in fact, it would be even more specific. Today is the time to be born, whether your priority is a long, healthy life, or opportunities to learn, or options in what to do and consume, or freedom to live as you choose. Whether you will live in Africa or Asia or Europe or the Americas, no time has been as good a time to be alive as now.
There remain, again, millions of horrible exceptions—lives cut short by disease, poverty, violence, or neglect. But those exceptions are rarer today than ever.
Put those two choices together. Being born today in the West is like winning the birth lottery for the human species. And nothing that has happened over the last few years—the global recession, tensions between the United States and Iran or North Korea—has changed that.
There are fears, however, that the quality of life in the West has reached a peak. That China or India will soon overtake Europe and America, leaving them in decline. Or that global progress will be reversed by shortages—of oil, or copper, or water, or cooler air. This book addresses those fears. It suggests that the only thing better than being born today in America or Europe will be the chance to be born tomorrow in those very same places. And it suggests that the rise of “the Rest” is one big reason why that is true.
There is surely much to argue with in the pages that follow. I believe that my statements about the past—about things like the impact of trade and migration, or the mortality risk of terror, or the rate of progress in developing countries—are made on the basis of the best academic literature. Of course, that is a judgment call, and I do not always fully summarize the arguments on both sides. And when it comes to forecasts of the future, these are necessarily best guesses. Perhaps the developing world will sink back into the morass of low growth—and perhaps young people in the West will turn their backs on it.
But the reason predictions about the future of humans are necessarily imperfect is that we can change that future. And I hope that enlightened self-interest in the West about the benefits of the rising Rest is one of the forces that can help push the future in a positive direction.
I say all that writing as a Westerner. I am lucky enough to have been born to a European father and an American mother, to have been brought up in the United Kingdom, and to have lived my adult life in the United States. My family and my wife’s family are made up of two generations of intercontinental marriages—five of them, all but one transatlantic. So when I write about what global changes mean for Europe and America, or what Europe and the United States should do about them, I am writing about “us” and about “our” response.
But I have been focused on (and sometimes lived in) Asian, Latin American, and African countries for most of my career. I’m a proud uncle of a niece born in China, daughter to my brother and sister-in-law, who met while working in Hong Kong. My father-in-law was born, raised, and worked in Argentina, and my wife spent her first years in that country. So while I think of myself as Western, I speak from considerable personal experience when I say there is much that the Rest can offer people in the United States and Europe. My closest family and I have benefited immeasurably from a world of closer connections and expanding opportunities—to explore, to make a living, to fall in love, to raise a family.
And I hope my children, nieces, and any future nephews will benefit even more. If the Rest gets wealthier, healthier, more educated, more democratic, and more peaceful, it will have even more to offer. So while the West will remain the best place to live in the world for most people for most of the foreseeable future, reaching out to the Rest will make our lives far richer, more interesting—and even happier.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, get the full book here.
Excerpted from Upside of Down: Why the Rise of the Rest is Good for the West by Charles Kenny. Available from Basic Books, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2014.