Lukas Püttmann    About    Blog

Paul Theroux, development and the globalization backlash

I really like Paul Theroux’s travel writing. But his views on development: not so much.

He seems to hold odd views on why some countries are poor and I find his take on foreign aid one-sided. (Anne Lowrey and Chris Blattman concur.)

In the same talk I wrote about before, Theroux also says:

Where are we going? You think – when you see development, you think: “Do places just keep developing and developing and developing and developing?” And it’s straight north and they just keep developing until they become a utopia? Or do things fall apart? I tend to think, if you’ve lived a certain length of time, you say: Eventually things fall apart. It’s not straight north. (link)

Traveling in the south, in the southern USA, there are some roads in the south that were once main roads. […] So they had restaurants, hotels, motels, petrol stations. Highly developed roads. Two-lane highways. […] Now, if you go down there, it looks like doomsday. The restaurants are all closed, the motels are all closed, the petrol stations are closed. There are just a couple of little shops. […] What happened was a different road was build. […] And the towns died. (link)

He does not seem to see benefits from trade and his world is zero-sum: One part can only benefit if the other part is worse off. It’s surprising to me, given how much he has clearly benefited from globalization through being able to safely travel all over the world, living and teaching in Singapore and having a global English-speaking audience that reads his books.

In a different, recent, interview he talks about Chelsea Clinton being called a “humanitarian”:

It’s a pretty good gig, actually, being a humanitarian if your family – I mean you’re that age and you’re a humanitarian. I would say, you know, join the peace corps, spend two years in a village, then you can be – that’s the apprenticeship for a humanitarian. She’s married to a multi-millionaire and lives in a million dollar apartment in New York City. […] It’s telescopic philanthropy. (link)

I think Paul Theroux should read about Effective Altruism.

The interview goes on:

Theroux: The long march of the common man and woman is my mission, actually.

      (Applause)

Iyer: Of course the guy who won the Nobel Prize for economics yesterday has a blistering attack on foreign aid.

Theroux: Angus Deaton, that’s right. […] He’s written the definitive book, why aid is harmful. (link)

He argues that the population increase has made people worse off:

In 1950, the population of the United States was 150 million. […] Now it’s 350 million of the United States. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet. Man is an invasive species. Of course the world is getting worse. It’s getting much worse and will continue get worse. (link)

He provides a couple of stories of how you cannot safely cross Africa nowadays and you cannot cross borders easily in the easter Mediterranean. Is that convincing evidence of anything? Many parts of the world are safer now (such as Southeast Asia).

And actually, Angus Deaton spends the first half of his book showing how much better the world has become for many of its inhabitants. A bit of perspective could be obtained here by reading Pinker or browsing Our World in Data.

It’s irritating how critical Theroux can be of people who don’t read novels, but then is so unaware his lack of expertise to pass judgement on a topic like this. And that matters because he’s rightly famous for his books, so people might infer that he also speaks with authority on the subject of how to raise people out of poverty. But he does not.

In the end, a commenter asks him about the critique of his New York Times piece. Theroux answers that he thinks that some of the letters were quite reasonable and he cites Deaton again:

This is what Angus Deaton, whom we alluded to earlier - you can’t determine poverty by the per capita income. You should do it in terms of self-sufficiency. A “poor” person in Africa may live in a mud hut, but a mud hut is preferable to a cement house in many places. A thatch roof is more effective than a tin roof in many places. […] You look at mud village and you say, “Gosh, it’s a mud village.” People are living there as they’ve lived there for many years and they sustain life in a viable way. They may not have education, they may not have a cell phone, but they can feed themselves in a way that people can’t in other places. Urban Africa is different. […] But I don’t think that because someone is earning a dollar a day that necessarily they are poor in the same way that someone in Hollandale, Mississippi, is poor. The person in Hollandale, Mississippi, doesn’t have a garden. They are living precariously. They once had a job. […] The people who wrote, “There are poor in China”. I don’t see the correlation. I think the poor in America are comparable to the poor anywhere in the world. (link)

He probably does have a point that the people one meets in poor countries often seem quite happy. But I don’t agree with his view on “self-sufficiency”. People in “mud villages” might well prefer to buy their food in a supermarket and be educated or have a smartphone. It’s our perspective of being able to have these things that we can look back and romanticize how nice it must be without them.

Also, looking happy is not the same as living good lives. If you sit in the tube in London, many people will look stressed and unhappy. But that’s just because they can. They don’t have to look happy all the time and they’ll reserve that for the friends they’re about to meet or their children they’ll pick up from school. In developing countries there’s a greater need for constant social harmony.

Maybe his views are even an explanation for the rise of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. If even a cosmopolitan, educated, wealthy liberal is against trade, then I think we’re in for a globalization backlash:

The piece is really about: The contradiction of people who become billionaires by outsourcing. So there’s a factory in Arkansas, Mississippi, making furniture or shoes. And they say, “You know, what we want is, we want bigger profits”. So they move the shoe factory to Vietnam. Then they become billionaires. Then they say: “We want to lift people out of poverty.” […] It’s shameful. (link)