The War on Poverty

Combata la pobreza, ¡mate a un mendigo!” ⎯ Graffiti in La Paz, Bolivia

The grey-haired gentleman standing by the screen was dressed in a tailored suit and spoke like someone who knew what he was talking about. Translators buzzed in attentive ears as economists, military leaders and political tacticians from around the world scribbled notes. The boardroom was quiet and respectful, for the speaker was discussing a most important issue, and worlds were being molded in the dark, convoluted folds of their elite, collective mind.

“It has become indisputable,” renowned Dr. Llullaillaco said into his microphone, “that the vast majority of the problems of the world today—border conflicts, terrorism, religious fundamentalism, class-warfare, the rise of fascism and totalitarian regimes, the whole mess—are all rooted in a single overarching cause: the staggering level of international poverty.” He pressed a button and a computer- generated graph of data relating to standard of living indices, median incomes and poverty lines was projected on the screen.

An appreciative murmur of universal agreement resonated through the room.

“We’ve tried everything to combat it. Global aid programs have been implemented, promising leaders hand picked, noxious ones deposed. ‘Free economic zones’ have been built all around the world to stimulate multinational growth and employment. Nothing has worked. The dark specter of human misery looms larger every day. A prominent journalist reported yesterday that 98% of the world lives on only 15% of its wealth, and I shudder to imagine how things will look a decade or two down the road. The population of the destitute is outstripping the population of the affluent at an exponential rate. Transients line our streets, children barely able to walk

beg for food, and countless millions languish like refugees within the borders of their own so-called developed nations, never mind the real refugees washing up on every shore in a crisis the likes of which the world has never seen before.”

The finance minister of a Latin American country sighed audibly from a corner of the room, and no one present could avoid thinking of the horrific squalor of the people whose finances he oversaw.

“I have dedicated my entire life to the study of this issue,” continued the orator, “and believe I have finally developed an effective method to eliminate world poverty forever! My plan, if strictly executed, would—beyond any shadow of a doubt—cleanse the world of illiteracy, homelessness, and degradation for the rest of human history!”

A skeptical committee member scoffed for a moment, but quickly recovered his note-taking stoicism under the gaze of a scowling superior.

“The best and only way to effectively eliminate world poverty is,” the doctor declared triumphantly, “to eliminate the poor!”

The room fell silent for a moment as confused eyes stared at each other across the boardroom table. A pencil fell out of someone’s hand.

“Could you, perhaps, elaborate a little on your, well, last statement?” came the timid voice of a presidential aide at the back of the room. “I mean… I’m not an, um, economist, and sometimes I need to have things really spelled out for me before I can, you see, understand.”

“Certainly,” the professor assented, launching into an hour of detailed explanation, involving copious statistical prognostication and a number of well-timed jokes. When the discussion was finally wrapped

up, the great scientist was treated to thunderous applause and a standing ovation. It was then put to a vote as to which of the countries at the meeting would be the first to pilot the revolutionary program.

Never one to be left behind in the march of humanity’s progress, the most developed and powerful nation in the world promptly stepped forward to commit its full resources to an experimental trial.

***

Just as the professor had prescribed, currencies of paper and coin were soon completely phased out of the national economy, and newer, specially designed, government-owned bank card readers were set up in every place of business. After only a few months under the new system, suicide rates among the poorest sections of the population began to soar.

The economic miracle had begun.

Soon the trend became statistically undeniable. Per capita income was shooting up and the standard of living index was going through the roof! Street violence and unemployment began dropping to previously unimaginable levels, and even the darkest alleyways were becoming clean of bums and riff- raff.

***

Then came the expose. An obscure Chilean newspaper ran an article describing how a certain famous and well-respected professor of biochemistry and economics at the University of Santiago had been admitted to a madhouse, howling that he was responsible for the murder of millions of innocent people. Investigations of the

doctor’s seemingly preposterous claims soon revealed that he had indeed possessed an incredible network of connections in the international power community, and interviews with elite sources eventually confirmed his story to be true.

So the president of the great republic which had been the first to implement the professor’s grand design called a press conference, admitting on national television that the state had systematically poisoned the poorest levels of its society by selectively coating the bank cards of indebted users with a synthetic toxin, known as Gentrificon®, which induced suicidal depression.

The audience off-screen could barely contain its vociferous approval. After his declaration, the jovial, white-haired man of the people announced that he would be erecting statues of the venerable Dr. Llullaillaco in parks across the nation. Rapturous applause rippled through every television in the country.

Economists reeled with glee as the GDP shot up, while tens of thousands of huge, tax-dollar-financed statues of the renowned professor sprouted all over the country like mushrooms in a compost heap.

***

Then the government revealed a new policy to stimulate even further economic growth. Now, the television announcers smilingly reported, all citizens whose average monthly incomes fell below $2,500 would be administered a special, upgraded poison known as Impetus® by their banks and only receive the government-patented antidote if their earnings could rally within six months. Otherwise they would die of brain hemorrhages and ulcerative colitis.

And the boom times rolled on. Uneducated citizens fled the country en masse. Neighbors began denouncing each other, creeping into

police stations to whisper names and pass taped together scraps of bank balance receipts. Post-payday hypochondria became rampant. Anyone feeling even slightly ill would immediately begin to work himself harder, from dawn to dusk, forgoing breaks, eschewing vacations. Employees begged on bloody knees for raises, offering any amount of overtime for a few more dollars biweekly.

Econometricians rejoiced as the Gini coefficient of wealth distribution approached zero, indicating the nearly complete elimination of societal inequality.

There were, of course, those few recalcitrant antiestablishmentarians who refused to accept the logic of the new system. They would set up communes based entirely on barter, or even try to reinstitute paper currency. Over time, however, such terrorists were always flushed out by the authorities. A single public appearance or online log-in of a black-listed citizen was enough to localize them and seal their fate.

Meanwhile, specially designed SmartHomes®, with self-shopping kitchens, self-incinerating trash, and self-generating entertainment systems were eliminating society’s unhealthy dependence on grocery baggers, waiters, garbage men and struggling artists. The chains that had denied civilization its true potential for so long were finally being cast off!

***

After a while, leaders of other countries decided to take up similar methods to deal with their own poor. Government-controlled plebiscites were conducted across the globe, showing overwhelming support of the proposed measures. Asian dictators inaugurated new epochs of unprecedented prosperity while bulldozers dug mass

graves in obscure tracts of farmland. Arab leaders praised their ineffable god while “development” contracts were given out to Western militias. South American presidents organized “debt squads,” trained in Panama and dispersed across the continent to eliminate whole shantytowns in the name of progress. African warlords sent their countries shooting up the standard of living indices by eliminating whole vast swaths of unsightly refugee camps.

***

Soon the world population had been reduced by ten percent, then twenty, then forty, and still the economic miracle showed no sign of slowing down. Asia declared the problems of its previously overburdened public transport system resolved, and announced barely believable abundances of food and electricity for all. Latin American slums disappeared, as the low-income paramilitaries and gangs that had occupied them were themselves gradually eliminated by increasingly elite and higher- paid killers with ever more powerful weapons. The African armed forces were similarly thinned out, until the common soldier had soon all but disappeared, and the meager “armies” left behind were composed almost solely of highly decorated top brass.

After a few decades, the entire populations of Africa, India, the Middle East and South-East Asia had been reduced to a mere handful of politicians, movie stars and military leaders. World poverty was almost completely eradicated, and monuments to the beloved Professor Llullaillaco were being erected around the globe.

***

But then the problems started. The vice-president of a multibillion-dollar fast-food chain was found slumped

over his desk with a bullet in his brain and a gun in his hand. The press was flabbergasted. The death of a rich man? Who was responsible?

Foul play and mood-distorting poisons were, however, soon ruled out. It became clear—as ridiculous as it might have seemed to contemporary journalists— that this was indeed an authentic suicide.

Then, a few days later, an examination of the company’s third-quarter balance sheet revealed a drastic decrease in the dead man’s profits. His multinational corporation was losing too many customers. The wealthy elite that now composed the majority of the population preferred caviar and fine wine to his low prestige hamburgers and chips. The economic base of the entire enterprise had disappeared, and the company had been forced to file for bankruptcy.

***

The reality TV syndicates soon followed suit, withering away without an audience. Then the harlequin romance publishers collapsed without their requisite demographic support, followed by the wrestling federations and tabloid newspapers. Only a very few select sectors of the economy still managed to flourish, like the pharmaceutical and psychiatric industries, but even these seemingly invincible paragons of the free market were becoming sparser every day.

Meanwhile, the economic miracle had advanced to such awe-inspiring levels that the leaders of thinned-out countries around the world started eyeing each other

hungrily, looking for a new base upon which to build their old pyramid of wealth and power. Germany invaded Poland to set up low-income “consumer camps,” where people were forced to spend every cent they earned eating greasy food, smoking cheap cigarettes, and watching low-quality game shows. Japan created the “Greater Oriental Prosperity Sphere” in South-East Asia, forcing the upper crust of Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam to wade back in to the knee-deep water of long-abandoned rice paddies. India stormed Pakistan to set up outsourcing offices. Kuwait rolled into the population- depleted wastes of the country previously known as Iraq, citing historic sovereignty of petroleum reserves. The handful of Ethiopians left in the Horn of Africa attacked the even scarcer Somalis across the border, and subjugated the last scions of their old clan enemy to years of low-yield desert crop farming. Russian tanks rolled into Eastern Europe to “share the benefits” of their new economic success story. Botswana’s skeleton army annexed Zimbabwe to “liberate” the four remaining citizens from the dictatorship of a fifth. On and on it went. The economists rejoiced. Borders were disappearing! The world was becoming flatter, fairer and more interconnected than ever before!

***

Finally, after decades of historically unprecedented global prosperity, the last ten people left alive on the planet, tycoons from eight different nations with money and privilege beyond the limited conception possible to an average human mind, agreed to gather at a ghost town in New Hampshire called Bretton Woods and mete out the world’s final solution face to face. And so they came, clad in mechanical suits terrifying to behold, and fulfilled the destiny of their millennia-old civilization in an arena full of guns, clubs and knives.

Unfortunately, by then no chronicler remained to record the illustrious name of the final champion of economic theory, but let his bloodied image never be forgotten, standing proud and victorious amongst the bodies of the slain, gazing out over the conquered landscape of an empty world, as the one who finally eradicated the grim specter of poverty forever from the face of the Earth!