I’m spending my Christmas vacation prepping a new course on globalization, which involves reading every one of the 71 articles in a globalization reader to see which ones I want to use. An in a piece on global organized crime by James Mittelman, I stumbled over this:
…the poverty trap of the relative decline of incomes…
So if Bill Gates’s income triples, and mine merely doubles, I’m in a poverty trap? Perhaps I should be hoping that my income declines but Gates’s declines further, so I can work my way out of that trap through a relative increase in income?
Selecting the essays for the class is not easy. Some of the globalization literature is steaming piles of bullshit, but I need to present it anyway so the students have familiarity with the various sides of the debate. But some of it is based on such basic errors that it’s not a matter of competing theories, but just being dead wrong. And yet an essay on the rise in global organized crime (which I suppose to be true; Mittelman certainly has studied that more than I have) is a pretty useful piece for exploring the argument that the significance and/or effectiveness of national governments has declined as globalization has increased.
But Mittelman’s argument is that this alleged poverty-trap is why people (in the particular example, Chinese from Fujian and Guangdon provinces) turn to organized crime. And this, even though he emphasizes the role of Triads (Chinese crime organizations), which long predate the current globalized era. It seems to me that a more straightforward explanation is that the tongs found new opportunities through globalization–just like legal corporations have. To the extent they were able to draw more people from those provinces into their activities, maybe it’s not because globalization–specifically the rapid but unevenly distributed economic growth in China created a poverty trap for them, but that it didn’t produce as much benefits for them as quickly as participation in new avenues of international crime did.
So it appears to me that there’s no need to assume a dubious poverty trap based on an apparent misunderstanding of relative and absolute income declines; just assume rational actors comparing their currently available economic options (especially as, according to Mittelman, and in agreement with what little I know of the subject), the criminal opportunity afforded an awful lot of them the opportunity to get to America, where better legal economic opportunities might ultimately be available to them, or at least to their children.