Why Isn’t Every African Woman a Millionaire?

by Forgot About Keynes

This is the final part of a series of posts on (ir)rationality, meritocracy and inequality. It started with a premise taken from George Monbiot—”If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in Africa would be a millionaire”—and it ends here with a short answer to a big question: what is it that makes us successful?

Monbiot’s statement can be boiled down to the question: why is it that hard work is rewarded so well in some parts of the world while in others, it’s possible to work tirelessly for a lifetime on subsistence wages? As it happens, Jared Diamond took a broad-brush approach to this very question and came up with a good, simple answer: it’s geography, stupid.

Diamond’s 1997 bestseller and the three part mini-series that followed were inspired by a question he was posed by Yali, one of the many Papua New Guineans he had come to know as a result of his field work (on the island’s native bird population):

Why you white man have so much cargo and we New Guineans have so little?

Why is it, in other words, that westerners have such advanced technology, while in the twenty-first century, many Papua New Guineans are still hunter-gatherers? This question originally stumped Diamond, but more than three decades’ worth of study yielded an explanation narrowed down to three main factors—guns, germs and steel—all of which developed as a result of another primary factor: geography.

Yali caught me by surprise 30 years ago. I had no idea what to say to him then but now I think I know the answer. Yali, it wasn’t for lack of ingenuity that your people didn’t end up with modern technology. They had the ingenuity to master these difficult New Guinea environments.

Instead the whole answer to your question was geography. If your people had enjoyed the same geographic advantages as my people, your people would have been the ones to invent helicopters. (Diamond, 2005)

In order to show us how the New Guineans live, Diamond takes part in some of their daily activities, including a notable scene in which he practises firing an arrow.

Hunting wild animals, as many New Guineans still do, takes skill, stealth and an encyclopedic knowledge of one’s surroundings. Firing an arrow is just one of these skills and while Diamond had managed to work his way up to being a professor at UCLA, he was way, way out of his depth in New Guinea. His instructor is less than impressed. The children watching from a few feet away are even less impressed and make no effort to conceal their laughter.

What Diamond illustrates in this scene is the extent to which we all rely on our heritage to get by. If you’re not taught about the plants and animals of New Guinea, if you don’t practise building shelters or hunting and gathering with the locals, you will go hungry and sooner or later you will die or be killed.

The children of New Guinea only make it to adulthood because they are educated by their elders and in this respect, we are all alike. There’s nothing about individuals that makes any one of us so especially adaptable to our surroundings that we can survive on our own. This is a point made compellingly by Thorstein Veblen, one of the pioneers of institutional economics.

Wherever we meet people, we meet a body of knowledge—languages, tools, processes and so on—used in the quest of a livelihood. This body of knowledge, that Veblen describes as “the immaterial equipment”, is a joint stock – the product of the contributions of all those that came before us.

The requisite knowledge and proficiency of ways and means is a product, perhaps a by-product, of the life of the community at large; and it can be retained and maintained only by the community at large. (Veblen, 1908: 519)

What Veblen is describing here is the essential infrastructure that holds up the society and the economy that we live and work in – our technological, cultural and institutional heritage. We inherit languages, physical machinery and ways of living and working that have evolved over thousands of years without any involvement from any one of us. Inheritance is the operative word here, because the credit for all that we inherit is due to those we inherit from, our forefathers.

This is, in a nutshell, is my answer to the question posed by Monbiot’s statement. The reason that hard work is rewarded asymmetrically is because we are all rooted in our surroundings. What we achieve is not down to us, for the most part, but rather is the result of blind luck – the most important factor being our place of birth. Take an American professor and put them on a foreign island and their skills and knowledge mean little, because they have been uprooted from everything they know. As Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler put it:

the usefulness of any given computer depends crucially on the current state of technology. With the arrival of new software, the hardware quickly ends up in the junk heap; the new technology makes it socially obsolete, and although it may have lost none of its operational features, it is no longer a ‘capital good’.

Or rolling history in reverse, a modern factory producing semiconductors would have been a worthless (and indeed meaningless) collection of physical objects during Veblen’s time – first, because it could not have been operated; and second, because its output would have had no perceptible use. In these and all other cases, the transformation of a physical object into an economically useful capital good can neither lead nor lag the existing ‘state of industrial arts’.

The same logic applies to labour power and raw materials. A jungle tribesman would be lost in a modern factory, much as a bank manager would be lost in the Sahara desert. Similarly, ancient stone utensils are as useless today as was petroleum before the invention of modern combustion engines. Labour, land and capital goods are obviously essential for production, but only because they are part of a comprehensive social and cultural process. (N&B, 2009: 222)

The Imitation Game (2014) gives us a glimpse into the life and genius of Alan Turing and deftly illustrates the debt we owe to him and all the others involved in decoding Nazi communications during World War II. As the film shows, Turing, drawing on the knowledge and infrastructure of his own time, imagined and oversaw the production of what we now know to be one of the earliest universal computers.

Without the likes of Alan Turing, the world may have had to wait decades longer for the appearance of this invention upon which so much of modern productivity depends. It may never have been developed. Nevertheless, we have it and we benefit from it enormously – and yet almost no one alive today played any part in its creation. Our generation inherited computer science and we are presently using it to generate technologies and improve ways of living and working that will in turn, benefit future generations.

The reason that I place such emphasis on heritage is because the modern myth of the individual has it backwards. We can’t make it on our own. We all know this in our heart of hearts and yet Anglo-American society is based on the lie that we can.

If we found ourselves, as Diamond did, in rural New Guinea, we would have to rely on rudimentary technology such as bows and arrows, canoes and tools fashioned from bamboo to get by. Even then, we’d have to know how to use a canoe or fire an arrow for these things to be useful to us – and we’d only have access to these through the locals, whose trust we would have to earn.

Taking this point further, while Alan Turing’s genius enabled him to conceive of a machine that could in turn, crack the Enigma machines that the Nazis used to communicate, such a machine could not have been constructed without the necessary funds or manpower. Alan Turing, it turns out, is only as useful as the country his genius resides in and the uses that country puts it to.

If it wasn’t for our technological heritage, we would have to literally reinvent the wheel every generation or so. The reason that we don’t all have to personally conceive of and construct a computer ourselves, for instance, is because we were fortunate enough to have been born at a time when that had already been done and made widely accessible enough that we had one close by. This is what Veblen means when he says that:

Individual initiative has no chance except on the ground afforded by the common stock, and the achievements of such initiative are of no effect except as accretions to the common stock. And the invention or discovery so achieved always embodies so much of what is already given that the creative contribution of the inventor or discoverer is trivial by comparison. (Veblen, 1908: 521)

That is, no matter how talented, hard-working or ingenious we are as individuals, we’re not anywhere near self-sufficient enough to make it on our own.

The purpose of this post isn’t to say that hard work isn’t important, because it’s absolutely necessary to doing well. There’s not a single person on earth that doesn’t appreciate that. The purpose of this post is to say that hard work isn’t enough. If we’re going to live well, working hard isn’t going to be sufficient. To live well, we need to work hard and be lucky. Most of all, we need to be born in the right place and if at all possible, to the right parents.

A prodigious mathematician, say, born in one of the most developed countries in the world has the best chance possible to succeed at what they know and do best. A prodigy born in one of the least developed countries cannot rely on hard work alone. Srinivasa Ramanujan was one such prodigy. He had the requisite talent but, isolated from the networks and the infrastructure that his foreign peers benefited from, he was headed nowhere. It was only after he was able to travel to England that the world had any way of putting his immense talent to use.

To answer the question as it is put in the title, the reason that not every African woman is a millionaire is because economic rewards do not accrue to the hard-working alone. Financial success results from hard work situated in a sufficiently sophisticated economy – which is really just another way of saying that hard work is nothing without the efforts of others.

Hard work is a necessary component of success but it is not sufficient. This is essentially why children born into wealth do better on average than children born into poverty and this is why our outcomes in life are not down to ourselves alone. Too many of those that preach the value of hard work in fact benefited enormously from wealth they inherited and too often these people take credit for work that is done by machinery, institutions and processes that they played no personal part in developing.

We’re deep into Hollywood’s awards season right now and the acceptance speeches that have been given so far and remain to be given are marked by one thing in particular: mutual recognition.

It’s remarkable from a methodological point of view that nearly every one of these speeches involves thanking others. The individualism upon which mainstream economics is founded sees each of us as fundamentally self-interested and calculating people. And yet nearly everyone who accepts a Golden Globe or an Oscar finds themselves overcome with emotion, often so much so that they struggle to speak on stage.

Russell Crowe, in a particularly memorable speech in 2001, starts by dedicating his award to two people in his life, his grandfather and his uncle, that were pivotal in inspiring him to the artistic heights that he reached … and ends with an attempt to inspire future generations.

You know, when you grow up in the suburbs of Sydney, or Auckland, or Newcastle, like Ridley or Jamie Bell, or the suburbs of anywhere, you know a dream like this seems kind of vaguely ludicrous and completely unattainable. But this moment is directly connected to those childhood imaginings. And for anybody who’s on the downside of advantage and relying purely on courage: It’s possible.

This kind of behaviour makes no sense within the framework of mainstream economics but it is just the kind of behaviour that cultivates society. We’re all unselfish to some degree and we rely on this kind of altruism to get by. Without the drive to create ideas, machines and cultural artefacts that last generations into the future, we leave our children impoverished. This is how we give to future generations and how we benefit from past generations – and why it’s vitally important that we recognise the part that others, past and present, play in our own livelihoods. Our success is not down to ourselves alone, it is possible only because of the efforts of others.