Born (un)lucky?

I was born an American and gained British citizenship (through my father) in my 20s. These two passports have allowed me to travel, live and work (until Brexit) in 20+ countries — all of them in the richest quartile of countries in the world.

People in the other three-quarters of the world’s countries have had fewer options in travel, but — more importantly — individual flourishing and collective development.

Some Americans face more barriers than I did, as a middle-class “White” kid growing up in California — don’t get me wrong — but even they have advantages over the middle and upper classes in so many countries.

I’m not talking about travel and visas. I am talking about public safety, drinkable water, earning power in the labor market, entrepreneurial opportunities, levels of corruption, educational opportunities… The list goes on.

Imagine the 2023 version of that 1983 movie, Trading Places, but this time it’s not a poor Black American trading places with a rich White American, but a typical American trading places with a Brazilian, Egyptian, Indian, Thai, or South African.

The first difference would be entering an entirely different legal, political, economic and cultural sphere. Ignoring the obvious (language), the culture shock would be extreme. Americans understand more about their socio-economic ”diversity” than outsiders, just as Indians, Thai’s, et al. understand theirs. It’s not about “knowing YOUR place” but “knowing THE place”. It’s not an accident that so few people (3 percent, on average) migrate within the EU. Even in the US, the rate of internal migration has been falling since 1980. Moving from your family, friends, geography and climate is stressful, which is why it’s so rare.

The second difference would be the step-change of (statistically) moving from average income of, say, $30,000 to $3,000 or $300. Such orders-of-magnitude moves would force one (for better or worse) to recalibrate all manner of choices, habits and plans.

Third, and perhaps most daunting, would be the expectations of those around you — again, for better or worse. A White South African doctor told me “You can’t beat Cape Town for quality of life… but there’s always that risk that you or your family will be violently assaulted.” (He wasn’t the first to say something along those lines.) That’s quite a paradox to incorporate into “quality of life”

For non-White South Africans (race is a social construct everywhere, and I don’t really understand it in SA), the situation is not much different in terms of downside (rape, assault, theft and murder), but potential risks and upsides are not uniform.

Most people on the planet do not think if they are born (un)lucky, since most do not travel, and those who do can easily avoid thinking about these issues — if anything, social media means that most of them are exaggerated caricatures — but they exist.

My one-handed conclusion is that 90 percent of our success or failure depends not on our hard work or laziness, good luck or bad, but on where we’re born.

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Author: David Zetland

I'm a political-economist from California who now lives in Amsterdam.

2 thoughts on “Born (un)lucky?”

  1. Good point/reminder, DZ!

    I’ve had similar experiences, & I find them invaluable towards my perspective on life, & how I understand the world. “There but for the grace of God (FSM, etc) go I.”

    I think that is typical, and so see great value in working to promote cross-cultural experiences/travel. Maybe especially for the youth & young adults of “developed” countries to the three quarters of the countries that you refer to here. I believe that it would benefit the individual, and also the collective, as the resulting empathy could inform their future votes, philanthropy, consumption, even livelihood…

    Thanks for the food for thought!

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