[I am on vacation now, so I dug up an old piece that I never posted. Also check out the piece on kidney markets, which the WaPo requested me to write.]
Back in 2009 I did a post on “The Aesthetics of Inequality.” Here’s one excerpt:
A peasant village perched on a hillside in a third world country can be aesthetically beautiful, but a shantytown of former peasants on the edge of a large modern urban area (even if the peasants are now better off) is aesthetically ugly.
I was reminded of this while watching a recent video of Ulaanbaatar, which is attracting mass migration from the Mongolian countryside. There are few more picturesque scenes of rural poverty that a bunch of yurts set up on Mongolia’s vast plains, under a cerulean blue sky:
Fortunately, a mining boom has made Mongolia rich, and the peasants are flocking to the cities, and put up their yurts in shanty towns on the edge of Ulaanbaatar—which now has a majority of Mongolia’s population.
The lady who narrated the show was a Westerner. And she couldn’t quite get past the idea that this urbanization didn’t look very attractive:
It’s so funny because in the countryside it seems natural and it seems clean and it seems lovely, and here this is just poverty-struck, and so not natural.
It’s easy for Westerners and/or upper class people to think they know what’s best for the poor. But unless they’ve actually lived that life, they may end up substituting aesthetic judgments for utilitarian criteria. The Mongolians had to decide whether their country was going to be a place of yurts, or a place full of large open pit mines and cities with high-rise apartment buildings. They chose the latter. The Mongolian she interviewed pointed out that Mongolians wanted to live in these modern apartment buildings because “they don’t have to make fire anymore, they don’t have to carry water anymore.” They moved to the city to increase their chances of getting a modern place to live. (Although it looks like most face a long wait.)
The average income of Hispanics is about 79% of the average income of all Americans. The IMF says that per capita income in Spain (PPP) is about 62% of per capita income of the US. And yet in my mind Hispanics seem “poorer” than Spaniards. My mental image probably reflects the fact that I find Barcelona and Sevilla to be more attractive that the typical Hispanic neighborhood in a large Sunbelt city. It’s fine to have those images in your mind, as long as your don’t confuse aesthetics with utility.
PS. My God! Some of my 2009 posts were really long-winded.
PPS. Yes, my previous example is slightly distorted by the above average size of Hispanic families, but not enough to change my point.