This piece is the first in the series “Episodes in the Life of an American, Woman, Development Economist.” Future episodes will be posted over the coming months.
For readers who don’t know me: After almost 20 years at the World Bank and Inter-American Bank, the latter as the executive vice-president, I have spent another 20 years in think tank life—a few years at the Carnegie Endowment, and the rest as founding president of CGD. Go here for the standard education/work bio; here for many outdated photos, including one with Bono and CGD co-founders in 2002); and here for research publications. Equally important, I’m a lucky and proud mother (of three), grandmother (of five), wife (second husband, now of 40 years); and a serious friend to a dozen college schoolmates and former work colleagues. I have lived in Washington, DC, for almost all my adult life.
These episodes are meant to capture the role of luck and privilege in my life, as an American during America’s near-hegemon years, and as a woman in a period of growing opportunities for women. They reflect a surprising and unusual path to a career as a development economist, mixing management, research, and advocacy. I am asking myself: Beyond luck and privilege, what mix of curiosity, ambition, hard work, and all-female Catholic schooling has mattered? They are meant to illustrate, indirectly—no preaching—how being a development economist gradually awakened me to the deep responsibility of the rich (those of us with luck and privilege) to rectify the injustices we visit on the poor, abroad and at home. I hope they help inspire young people to find their own paths to assessing and addressing those injustices—in their own way.
The situation in Ukraine today, with over a million people fleeing the Russian advance, reminds me of Emil. I was in sixth grade, 10 years old, in a Catholic parochial school in New Jersey, when Emil joined our class. It was October 1956, and Emil had left Hungary during the short, failed Hungarian resistance to the Soviet Union’s Communist regime. It was exciting; they had escaped the bad and scary Communists. They were free in America, a “good” country where everyone could practice her religion. They were safe now.
I was growing up safe and free in America in every way, in an upscale suburban New Jersey town. I walked back and forth to school including home and back for lunch, along tree-lined streets with big rambling houses, most of the time with a friend or friends—it was the age of the postwar baby boom and almost every house on our street had school-age children. We played street games of “Spalding” ball on weekend afternoons; and went sledding and ice skating at the local pond on weekends (a pond that no longer freezes over). My father went to the local public library most Thursday nights, when it was open until 9 pm, and we kids could go along and get two books on each visit—then the library limit for children. In the summer, my mother drove us kids (there were four of us) to the country club, for tennis lessons and to hang out at the pool, where my older brother was a lifeguard, and the sun always seemed to be shining.
Day-to-day life was easy, safe, and completely predictable. My father took the bus or the train to work in New York City daily; my mother always had lunch ready on schooldays; Mickey Mouse came on TV in the late afternoons and Father Knows Best in the evenings.
I knew Emil’s family was poorer—they lived in an apartment on a commercial street too far for him to walk to our school. Did Emil have to take the bus, and how did he manage that without good English? And if it was just him and his mom living there -- had his father died? Was his mom working—something none of the moms I knew did? If so, what was she doing?
I had a hint of a life that was, well, less cosseted—less privileged and lucky—than mine. It was good for Emil to have escaped the Communists. But I got the sense it was a whole lot better not to have had to flee at all—to have been born in safe and free America.
I didn’t think about it at the time, and no one ever made a point of it when I was growing up, but I was lucky to have been born in America, and because I am white and my parents were well-educated, my luck in the lottery of birth came along with “privilege,” in the narrow sense that privilege is associated with wealth and implies an advantage relative to others.
Emil’s mother lived the rest of her life in my hometown (still one of the richest in the country; her obituary indicates that she left a son Emil and his wife Karen, living in a close-by North Jersey suburb. In the end, Emil was lucky too, to grow up in America.
Warren Buffett refers often to the birth lottery in speeches, asking listeners to imagine that before they are born, they’re invited to pick one ball out of a pile of about eight billion available today: “You're going to get one ball out of there, and that is the most important thing that's ever going to happen to you in your life.”
I’m struck by my “American” luck growing up now as an economist who has spent decades working on and worrying about the lives of people in the developing world. When I was growing up in the 1950s, the average income (GDP per capita) in the United States was on the order of 45 times greater than that of the poorest of “Third World” colonies and newly independent countries. The average gap between the rich industrialized countries and the poorest countries of South Asia and sub-Saharan continued to grow, in what Lant Pritchett referred to as “Divergence: Big Time,” until the 1990s, when finally the economies of China and India, among others, began to grow faster than the US and other rich countries.
As remarkable as that gap was, it never came up at home or in school. In school, I heard about Catholic missionaries travelling to strange places, but to save souls from alleged ignorance, not bodies from the ravages of poverty. And though Jesus was poor and born in a manger, and loved the poor, that was long ago, in another era altogether, and well over the border from day-to-day reality in the small world I knew. I read Dickens, but the orphan Oliver Twist, denied another bowl of porridge, came from another place and another time. The simple fact that vast numbers of people in the world then at that time were savagely poor arose solely in the context of dinner table admonitions to us children to clean our plates given the “starving children in China.”
Are America’s young children, and the children of other advanced economies, any more aware today of their good luck in the lottery of birth than I was? Probably some are – those older siblings who were born in Mexico or Somalia or the Philippines and are now registered in the DACA program (Deferred Action for Children), and many are children and grandchildren of the waves of immigrants that entered the US after World War II. But I suspect my own children and their children, fourth and fifth generation Americans, take their American luck in the place lottery of birth for granted.
Not to say that America, marred by the pathology of racism and a history of neo-imperialist aggression in the developing world, is a paradise, nor to say that many developing countries are not also lands of freedom and opportunity. Just to say, as social scientists often do, that all other things equal, it’s good luck to be born in America.
In a future episode, I consider the economic benefits to my Irish grandparents, who arrived in New York in the early 20th century, of their decision to come to America, in comparison to the benefits today’s immigrants from developing countries capture. As with Emil, and my Irish grandparents, it turns out America is a good place to land as well as a good place to be born.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you wish to be added to a mailing list for future episodes.
Find me on Twitter: @nancymbirdsall
https://www.opportunityatlas.org/ (Raj Chetty): Clarewill Ave, Upper Montclair, New Jersey
Explained to a group of Univ of Florida students. Cited here: https://www.getrichslowly.org/warren-buffett-on-the-lottery-of-birth/
 Pritchett, Lant. “Divergence: Big Time,” Journal of Economic Perspective, vol. 13, #1, Summer, 1997, Table 2.
Chairman Mao’s “Great Leap Forward” of 1958-1961, meant to modernize China’s agriculture, led to the deaths of as many as 45 million people. Production was organized into communes and distribution managed by the state, with the idea was of extracting resources from agriculture to build up industry. The problem was not insufficient agricultural production. The problem was that the state could not do as well as the market on the production side, and that taxing agriculture to promote industry put the cart before the horse. . .In less dramatic form, agriculture in Latin America was also taxed to finance industry, and also failed though much less dramatically.
Lessons about global poverty could be built into grade school curricula: https://www.edutopia.org/blog/film-festival-poverty-education-lesson. This is as important in the US as it is to include appropriate lessons on America’s history of slavery and its aftermath, and the systematic slaughter of indigenous people here.
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