By Judy Bachrach
I’ve always sort of wanted to know the definition of a third-world nation, and how such a nation compares to other countries in loftier categories. This is because for one truly terrible year I lived in a third-world country—at least the United States State Department bestowed that epithet on it—and during that entire time, although I was allowed to make (genteel, sympathetic, clucking) references to the “third world” in which I was stuck and its many problems, I was not permitted to describe the United States, not even once, as a “first-world nation.”
“Calling us first world makes you sound elitist,” I was informed by American embassy personnel on the rare occasions I was able to talk to them about this issue over the phone (that’s because the phones in that country basically never worked), or even in person (because public transportation was almost nil).
Essentially, I was to discover, the category “first world” had been dropped down the memory hole of prescribed diplo-talk. As had “second world,” for that matter, because “second world” meant Communist. So there was absolutely no rational means of comparing nations, their economies, and their prospects, and one was left only with the worst, most enfeebled category at one’s disposition. It was like playing Jeopardy! in the sure expectation of winning zero cash.
But there are, it seems, certain hardcore definitions of what it means to be a first-, second-, or third-world country. These are readily available on a helpful website, which quotes the Encyclopedia of World Geography. Unlike the State Department, it is not afraid to use the words “first world” and “second world” as points of comparison.
A third-world nation, it turns out, is “generally categorized as poor with unstable governments.” A key factor, we are told, is “the lack of a middle class—with impoverished millions in a vast lower economic class, and a very small elite upper class controlling the country’s wealth.”
Also: “Most third-world nations have a very large foreign debt.”
Now, let’s examine all this. Last year, the United States had over $14 trillion in debt—$4.4 trillion of itheld by foreign governments, which certainly sounds “very large” to me. China, once considered a second-world country, currently owns about $892 billion of American debt; and Hong Kong, which is basically part of China these days, has about $138 billion in US securities. Iran, on the other hand, has only around $13.5 billion in external debt; and Ecuador almost as much. So who among these countries would we qualify as third-world?
What about poverty, another big indicator of third world–dom? Two years ago, 43.6 million Americans were categorized as poor, up from 39.8 percent a year earlier. Even worse: About 19 million Americans now live in extreme poverty. Meanwhile, according to the Los Angeles Times, the number of millionaire US households has climbed 15 percent in one year—to 4.7 million. (Quote from Larry Mishel, president of the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, DC: “The recession is going to end up accentuating the inequalities of income and wealth…”). What he means is: the middle class is becoming ever-smaller. What he also means is that a tiny elite seems to be controlling much of US wealth.
And now let’s get to that last indicator of third world status: by which I mean unstable government. Let’s imagine a country where the House Speaker walks out on debt ceiling negotiations. Where the president openly complains that this same legislator refuses to return his calls. Where nothing is safe any longer, and no one knows when or if a job/corporation/bank/state government is going to dissolve. Or a once all-powerful nation is about to default.
Now that’s what I call third-world.----
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