CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- One of the more interesting books I've read lately is Stephen Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined. In it he makes the counterintuitive but well backed up assertion that we are actually getting a bit less nasty with the passage of time.
I'm not going to try to summarize his 832 pages of argument here, although I profoundly hope he's right and that those trends continue.
In the book, however, I came across an interesting statement that hit a little closer to home: " ... neither wealth nor peace comes from having valuable stuff in the ground."
Alas, that thesis is easier to believe and document than his idea that violence is declining. Pinker notes that many poor and war-torn countries are overflowing with gold, diamonds, oil, metals, and other minerals, while other societies short on extractive industries are peaceful and prosperous.
There's hard data to back up that claim. In 1995, economists Jeffrey Sachs and Andrew Warner looked at the economic performance of 95 countries over a 20-year period. They observed that "One of the surprising features of economic life is that resource-poor economies often vastly outperform resource-rich economics in economic growth."
This tendency is sometimes referred to as the resource curse. As Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz wrote in a recent editorial, "On average, resource-rich countries have done even more poorly than countries without resources. They have grown more slowly, and with greater inequality -- just the opposite of what one would expect."
Economies based on extraction tend have booms and busts and a lack of economic diversity. The fates of local communities are often controlled by distantly headquartered corporations. By nature, the natural resources that drive such economies are nonrenewable, and so are any benefits they provide. Even if they are taxed, when the resources are gone, so is the revenue.
West Virginians know a thing or two about the resource curse. The late great Sen. Robert C. Byrd summed it up well when he described West Virginia as "a state whose rich resources have been largely owned and exploited by outside interests. Absentee owners, while living outside the state, wrested from the West Virginia earth the wealth that made them rich -- rich from the toil and sweat and blood and tears of the people in the hill country who worked out their lives, all too often, for a pittance."
There are several factors behind the resource curse, but here's one of the major ones identified by Stiglitz: " ... resource-rich countries often do not pursue sustainable growth strategies. They fail to recognize that if they do not reinvest their resource wealth into productive investments above ground, they are actually becoming poorer."