Back in May, I wrote about a business trip I was going to take to Ho Chi Minh City, and the irony of going there for humanistic capitalist purposes, 40 years after narrowly avoiding (legally) going there as an inductee into the Vietnam War.
Rachelle and I boarded Japan Airlines flight 65 on Friday, and arrived in South Vietnam’s former capital Saturday evening. The double irony of flying there with an airline from another former enemy is not lost on me.
The parallels between countries like Vietnam and Korea of decades ago and the civil divisions of Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Libya of recent years are many. Internal battles have erupted in most countries at one stage or another during their evolutions. As historians who study economics, or economists who study history, will tell you, the sources of such conflicts are most often related to motivations of control over the bases of wealth: resources, energy and labor.
Income inequality is measured by the Gini coefficient, which reflects the proportion of total national wealth that each individual possesses. A coefficient of 1.0 means one person owns everything. A coefficient of zero means everybody owns exactly the same amount. The higher the Gini coefficient rises towards unity, the greater the likelihood of social upheaval.
The countries that seem to avoid the internal struggle are those that pay close attention to wealth inequality, and do something about it proactively. Saudi Arabia spreads the wealth evenly enough that there’s little danger of an “Arab Spring” in that desert country, for example. Norway is another case where it’s so good for so many people, the collective unhappiness is very low, and thus there is little motivation for trying to change things.
North Korea is a puzzle, since the country has many starving poor, and much oppression. However, the privileged elite remain in power, apparently. One wonders just how long this can go on.
In our own country, the middle class has been eroding for some time, but the social structure is still strong, comparatively speaking, probably because our poor eat better than some countries’ wealthiest classes. If and when that may change, we could face the same internal struggles.
Another divisive factor in countries is when the wealthy fight each other for dominance. The general population might be fairly peaceable and experiencing manageable suffering, or even doing well. But if there is a power struggle at the top of the food chain, the average citizen is drawn into the Battle of the Giants. History is littered with as many of these types of wars as those caused by populations rising up to fight for survival.
It’s hard to tell which is which, and sometimes the two causes intertwine. Vietnam solved their division because they were largely engaged in a civil war that was a proxy for fighting Giants during the Cold War. The Giants couldn’t afford the risk of nuclear boxing directly, so lots of pawns were conscripted into the fringe battles.
The inflammations of the Middle East are the aftershocks of that era; each side of the Iron Curtain sent money, arms and support for dictators to divide the globe into two camps. The Giants settled their differences for the most part, but the minions still had the weapons and the skill to use them.
It’s too bad that the “Star Trek” Prime Directive — don’t interfere with the evolution of another society — wasn’t invented and applied by industrialized countries who viewed the “uncivilized” parts of the world as their own private reserves of resources and labor. But advances in science and technology have far outraced human evolution’s pace of adaptation to our ability to snuff ourselves out. We don’t procreate fast enough to change quickly enough to know how to handle the awful power we’ve invented.
But optimism about our future has some evidence to support it, if Rachelle and I experience what we think we will in the city once called Saigon. We think we’ll see a country largely healed from the physical and mental damage of 40 years ago, embarked upon a free enterprise experiment much like China’s, and open to the possibilities of creating a better future for its citizens.
As we stand before the Asian distributors of our products, we will invite them to hear how we attempt to solve our organizational challenges, have meaning in our work, create positive lasting memories and provide a brighter future for our tribe of employees who work around the world. If we can help even one of those organizations improve their livelihoods and the quality of their life, we will have contributed our own small part to the continued healing of a deeply wounded nation and region.
Sewitch is an entrepreneur and business psychologist. He serves as the vice president of global organization development for WD-40 Company. Sewitch can be reached at sewitch1@ cox.net