Rich man, poor man

The world used to be a simpler place. There were rich and poor countries, and they were usually divided along north and south, west and east. Today, with globalized trade and labor, with developments in technology and transport, everything is getting mixed up. The old dividing lines are still there – the rich countries are still richer than the developing ones, but many of the latter are amassing enormous wealth, which is changing their own countries and their relations with others. World oil prices and the increasing number of billionaires and millionaires are the two clearest images of the changing world. At the same time, the doubling of many food prices over the past year is partly the result of better living standards where there was once universal poverty. Forbes magazine, in its annual list, noted a month ago that of the 1,125 billionaires it identified in 2007, 42 percent of them were in the United States. From there on, things got interesting. Russia, with 87 billionaires, overtook Germany, which had 59. India had 53, of whom 19 were new to the list, while China had 46, of whom 28 were new. Two years ago, 10 of the 20 richest people were from the United States, whereas now only four are. Indians are tops, with four out of the top 10. According to the Boston Consulting Group, in 2006 the number of Chinese millionaires rose to 310,000, with an annual increase of 23.4 percent from 2001, at a time when the global average was 8.6 percent. The new titans in poor countries are amassing a phenomenal amount of wealth. As BCG noted, 0.1 percent of the Chinese population controls 41.4 percent of the nation’s personal wealth. And so, at a time when many are struggling to buy oil and food, demand continues and prices keep rising – both for basics and for luxuries. This is a problem for the poor in poor countries but also in rich countries, as the protests by European fishermen and truckers attest. The new century will be totally different to the one that ended, and we don’t know where the dividing lines will be drawn.