How Prosperous a World?

Nine months ago, World Bank economists tried to project international growth for the first two decades of the 21st century.

What they foresaw could be dubbed, with a bow to Adam Smith, "the wealth of hitherto unwealthy nations." They forecast trends that would literally lift billions of the world's poor and lower middle classes out of grinding poverty.

Developing lands would likely double their share of world output by 2020. This upsurge, said the economists, would be led by five big "superdeveloping nations": China, India, Indonesia, Russia, Brazil.

Oops! Indonesia? Russia? China? India?

Recent events seem to call into question this happy scenario, in which the super-five would double their share of world trade, and the upper tier of developing nations would reach average annual growth rates of 5.6 percent.

Indonesia is experiencing severe negative growth. Russia, having struggled to a slim 1 percent growth after years of economic shrinkage, is slipping into negative territory again. China's growth, still healthy, is down sharply. And the world's biggest population has yet to feel the full effect of layoffs from state industries. India faces US economic sanctions as well as the potentially damaging costs of an arms race. Brazil, the remaining "super five" leader, is the exception, doing well by privatizing its economy.

So were the World Bank forecasters wrong?

We won't have a hard answer till 2020. But the current damage to the bank's core scenario contains a lesson. Economic number crunchers were not able to see half a year ahead to the ripple effect of sudden currency collapses rooted in risky loans, overbuilding, and crony capitalism. But the same should be said of today's over-gloomy (often self-dealing) forecasters of a steeper decline ahead.

The prophets of Asian infection claim that China will have to devalue its currency, as will the Asian boom states that tie their money to the US dollar. Doomsters further expect Russia to drag Eastern Europe down.

We suspect that many of these prophets see profits. If they can panic world investors, there will be more bargains to snap up.

Their scenario fails to note several major factors: (1) The US and Europe will not stand idle in the face of a spreading threat. (2) China's no-nonsense new prime minister is working hard to stimulate his economy and strengthen the safety net for job seekers. (3) Nations like Thailand are starting to turn the corner. (4) Crony capitalism is in retreat and economic reforms are being pushed in key states. (5) The hard working, increasingly well-educated and technically-literate middle classes of Asia will not meekly submit to decline.

In short, don't rule out some modified version of the World Bank scenario. That forecast swung too far in the direction of an unimpeded march to growing world prosperity.

But when humanity looks back from 2020, the present heavy pessimism may look to have swung too far in the opposite direction. A reasonable argument may be made that people in many lands will indeed live more prosperously by then. The real challenge is likely to lie in seeing that they also live more peacefully and more spiritually secure.

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