According to the Legatum Institute the most prosperous country in the world is New Zealand. This designation is based on the following factors: economic quality, business environment, governance, education, heath, safety and security, personal freedom, social capital, and national environment. At the other end of the spectrum, the least prosperous country in the world is Yemen. Historically, Yemen had a caste system where at the bottom were people in servitude or Al-Akhdam. This caste system has since been abolished but the lowest social class in Yemen are those previously considered Al-Akhdam and female. The foregoing is meant to serve as a basic justification for the above chart titled, “Prosperity Opportunity Spectrum.” The following is somewhat speculative but rooted enough in empirical experience to attempt to theorize. The way that I see it, whether we admit to caste systems or not, many of the social constructs that we build for our societies have unconscious bias that dictate castes. If you are a female born in Yemen to a family previously of the Al-Akhdam, you most assuredly have much less opportunity than the upper-class caucasian male born in New Zealand. Our opportunities in life hypothetically could be plotted on the line on the above chart depending on where we are born in the world. Then we have a small circle of opportunity beyond where we are born. The tick mark on the line would indicate an estimation of where a middle-class caucasian male born in the United States may fall (this just happens to be an estimate of my own mark on the Prosperity Opportunity Spectrum). The small blue circle around the tick mark estimates the potential average movement along the line based on opportunities presented by the network typically afforded this middle-class caucasian male. The purpose of the large shaded oval is to illustrate the idea of discovering ways to expand our ability to help those born with lesser opportunities than ourselves. No matter where we are on the spectrum we can always do more to assist others to have greater opportunities.
The idea of making prosperity inclusive has been on my mind for many years now. Still, I am a product of social conditioning, and while I try to challenge the way that I naturally think about the world, I understand that my best judgment doesn’t always prevail. Recently, I was vacationing in Paris, France with my family and we had just stepped off the subway to see the Eiffel Tower. When you ascend out of the subway tunnel at Trocadéro station you walk out onto the hill of Chaillot which overlooks the Trocadéro Gardens and the Eiffel Tower. This majestic overlook is populated with concourses of merchants selling their wares. Many of these merchants appear to be African foreign nationals selling Eiffel Tower souvenirs. Immediately we were approached by an African foreign national attempting to sell us Eiffel Tower keychains. His offer started at 3 keychains for €1, then because we didn’t seem interested he offered 5 keychains for €1, and finally 7 keychains for €1 before we politely declined thinking that such souvenirs would just be additional clutter to our already full suitcases. After declining though, our children convinced us that giving Eiffel Tower keychains to their friends at school would be a nice way to memorialize the trip. My wife and I agreed with our children and we set out to get 7 keychains for €1. We passed a few merchants unwilling to sell the keychains for less than 5 keychains for €1. While we walked my oldest child asked me about why these merchants seemed so pushy. I explained to him that I imagined that the merchants were recent immigrants from Africa and that their opportunities to make money and support themselves and their families were probably limited. Consequently, they sold these souvenirs for a living and most likely had to sell a lot of them to support themselves. It was then that I realized my folly. The first merchant that approached us had set the anchor in my mind for what I considered a transaction of value, and then every other merchant that would not meet this price I perceived as unfair. Taking a step back I realized that unconsciously I was preventing these merchants from having greater opportunity. In this moment we went to the first merchant that we could find and paid €1 per keychain.
I share the above story for two reasons. First, I am frequently thinking about social inequality and attempting to stretch myself to add value for those that don’t have the same opportunities that I have had; and yet, I managed to completely blunder my part (albeit small) in assisting these merchants to advance their careers. Instead I was overly focused on a transaction of “value;” even when the overall expenditure was inconsequential to me. The point being that it is incredibly easy to let social programming guide us and not step back to ask why. Second, to illustrate a more salient point. Because the mentioned African foreign nationals are outside of my peer group, or maybe better said, outside of the people that I typically use to define my reality. My level of empathy for them was disappointingly low. Taking this idea back to the above chart, I define my reality by all of the people that I associate with inside the blue circle. As altruistic or inclusive thinking as I may claim to be, most of my friends and associates will be from similar economic backgrounds, similar education levels, similar professions, and similar neighborhoods. This becomes the caste that was referenced earlier. It isn’t a government imposed caste, but rather a caste imposed by our own perceptions of social status. We unconsciously do this even when we have all of the best intentions to treat everyone with impunity. How do we increase our empathy for those outside of our peer groups and circles of influence?
Last year 62 people owned the equivalent of the poorest half of the world’s wealth. This year, 8 people owned the equivalent of the poorest half of the world’s wealth. This means that 8 people own the same amount of wealth as the poorest 3.8 billion people. Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook Founder), Jeff Bezos (Amazon Founder), Larry Ellison (Oracle Founder), Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway CEO), Bill Gates (Microsoft Founder), Michael Bloomberg (Founder of Bloomberg LP), Carlos Slim Aelu (CEO of Grupo Carso), and Amancio Ortega (Founder of Inditex). Our world is changing and technology is allowing for greater concentration of wealth among fewer people. If the gap between the rich and the poor is widening and the middle class is disappearing there is only greater responsibility for those who have had great opportunity and achieved great success to share their opportunities with others.
We need to recognize that if we are born in the top 20 countries of the Legatum Prosperity Index we have won the proverbial lottery of life. I am not attempting to minimize the value of hard work. It is clear that regardless of our birth place or social status we all have a personal responsibility to relentlessly pursue self-improvement. This being said, when we develop a sense of entitlement, or if we imagine that what we have accomplished in life is solely because of our hard work, education, and personal skills, we miss the point. The point is that the luck of being born in one of the privileged groups at the high end of the Prosperity Opportunity Spectrum carries significant weight in our socially imposed caste systems around the world. We need to recognize our privilege and find ways to create opportunities for others that didn’t have the luck to be born into one of these groups. We need to expand our circles of influence beyond economic backgrounds, education, choice of work, and neighborhoods. We can’t wall up our social consciousness by only associating with those that have similar skill sets or success.
There are various organizations that allow you to volunteer to mentor someone else or to stretch beyond our natural peer groups to assist others. Be a Mentor, The National Mentoring Partnership, TELACU, Big Brothers Big Sisters, and many more. For a fairly robust list of volunteer mentorship opportunities, visit volunteermatch.org. My biggest fear is that our social programming has us thinking that we just need to make sure that we take care of our own families. Regardless of our own income, or social status, there is always a volunteer opportunity that can really help another member of the human family.