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Global Disparities: Of People and Pets
by M. Shahid Alam
March 5, 2005

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Judging from the ever-more accurate measurements of global disparities that flow from the world’s leading humanitarian organizations -- with the World Bank, IMF, WTO and OECD taking the lead -- it would be no exaggeration to state that scholarly interest in this subject has now turned into a nearly unstoppable epidemic.

These estimates of global disparities still follow the established practice of comparing some characteristic, X, of economic development as it applies to people in rich and poor countries. Most commonly, X refers to per capita income. At other times, X refers to various indicators of the quality of life, such as life expectancy, infant mortality, adult literacy, or some combination of the previous three.

We need a different approach to the measurement of global disparities. The disparities between the rich and poor people are now so large, one has to ask if these comparisons make sense any more. When 25 million of the richest people living in the United States enjoy nearly as much income as 2 billion of the world’s poorest people, one begins to wonder if the ‘people’ in the two groups are the same. It is likely that if knowledge of these comparisons became common, they could lead to the revival of old racist attitudes in the United States. Alternatively, they could induce feelings of deep despair among the world’s 2 billion poorest people. And this could turn them into recruits for al-Qaida.

This is why I am proposing an alternative measure of global disparities. Instead of comparing X across people in poor and rich countries, I am suggesting that we make these comparisons for people in poor countries and mammalian pets in rich countries. In other words, economists at the World Bank, IMF, WTO and OECD should devote some of their resources to tracking how the economies of poor countries –- especially in Africa, Latin America and Asia –- are faring relative to the economies of pets in the rich countries.

I doubt if the world’s leading crusaders for a better world will heed my call anytime soon; they are still fully committed to demonstrating that globalization, the greatest humanitarian project the world has ever seen, is slowly narrowing the gap between the world’s rich and poor people -- never mind how large the gap is currently. In the event, I will be so bold as to offer my own admittedly crude comparisons of the economies of the poor people and the pet economies of the rich. A sophisticated estimation of these disparities must wait until I can raise several thousand US dollars to pay for the proprietary data on the pet economies of the rich countries.

We begin this exercise by first establishing some basic facts about the pet economy in the United States. Lest this be taken as an indication of my latent partiality for this great capitalist democracy, I have to protest that I would just as willingly have used the European Union for making my comparisons. Unfortunately, there does not yet exist a European counterpart to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association (APPMA), which might have provided some of the basic data on which I base my analysis of the pet economy in the United States.

First, let us establish the size of the mammalian pet economy in the United States; we define mammals to include dogs and cats. According to the APPMA, the total US pet industry expenditures for 2003 were $32.4 billion. I assume that 90 percent of this total was allocated to the canine and feline portion of the pet economy; this gives a total expenditure on this segment of the pet economy of $29.2 billion. Although impressive, these numbers seriously underestimate the true size of America’s pet economy.

To the figures provided by APPMA must be added the value of the time that dog and cat owners dedicate to the care of their pets. Caring for pets can be a daily activity.  Naturally, the pets have to be fed daily; they have to be groomed; they have to be taken out for walks; they have to be taken to the vets for shots, worming, injuries and illnesses. And let us not forget that many pet owners, following the advice of holistic veterinarians, avoid ready-to-eat foods for their pets. Instead they prepare home-cooked meals for their dogs and cats. In order to guide them in preparing healthy pet foods, the National Academies published in 2003 a revised edition of Nutrient Requirements of Cats and Dogs, a 500-page report prepared by an international team of experts, providing a most comprehensive assessment of the daily nutrient and calorie requirements for dogs and cats.

But that is not all. America’s cats and dogs are a pampered lot. According to the results of a survey of 1100 pet owners by American Animal Hospital Association in 1999, 100 percent of the respondents indicated that they give their pets a Christmas or Hanukkah present; 87 percent include their pets in holiday celebrations; 65 percent sing or dance for a pet; 53 percent take time off from work to care for a sick pet; 52 percent prepare special meals for their pets; and 44 percent take their pets to work. Clearly, a majority of pet owners in the United States bestow tender loving care on their mammalian pets.

In order to arrive at an estimate of the true size of the pet economy (mammalian section), we would have to add to the APPMA’s estimate of expenditures on pet products and services, the value of the time that pet owners devote to their cats and dogs. We make the modest assumption that dog owners spend one hour each day on their dogs, and cat owners spend 20 minutes each day on their cats. At the same time, we assign a value of US$ 10 per hour to the pet owner’s time. With 65 million dogs and 77.7 million cats, the value of dog-and-cat owners’ time comes to $330.9 billion. Altogether, the value of total expenditures on dogs and cats in the US economy was $360.1 billion in 2003.

Judging from its size, this is no paltry economy. How does this pet economy compare with the poor economies of the world? To give the poor economies the greatest advantage in the comparisons, we will measure their size in terms of international dollars. By this metric, America’s pet economy is 1.2 times larger than the economy of Pakistan with a population of 148 million; it is 1.4 times larger than the economy of Bangladesh with a population of 138 million; it is 2.7 times larger than the economy of Nigeria, with a population of 122 million; and it is 10.6 times larger than the economy of Congo (Democratic Republic) with a population of 34 million; and 24 times the size of the Albanian economy with a population of 3.2 million. In other words, the US pet economy is larger than most of the poor economies in 2003.

How does the US pet economy compare with the world’s poor economies on a per capita basis? In 2003, the 142.7 million dogs and cats in the United States enjoyed a per capita consumption of $2523. The per capita income of world’s 2.3 billion people in low income countries (LICs) was $2190 in 2003 international dollars. This means that the average mammalian pet in the US had a considerably higher standard of living than the average man, woman and child living in the LICs.

The American dogs and cats enjoyed a much larger advantage in their living standards over many individual LICs. The advantage over Sierra Leoneans was 4.8 to one; 4.1 over Tanzanians; 2.8 over Nigerians; 1.3 over Bangladeshis; and 1.2 over Pakistanis. The average Indian had a small advantage of 1.1 over American dogs and cats. The Chinese had a larger lead of 2.0. It is heartening to note that these disparities are considerably smaller than the yawning gaps that emerge when we compare people in the rich countries against people in the poor countries.

One might think that these more upbeat comparisons give reasons for optimism for the world’s poor. Given the smaller disparities between the poor people and rich pets, the poor people can at least dream that once the great humanitarian project of globalization begins to yield its trickle-down benefits to the poor, they will, in the not-too-distant future, be able to catch up with the dogs and cats in the United States.

Or is this hope only a delusion? That will depend on how fast the two economies grow: to what degree they benefit from globalization. The promise of globalization is to make the rich richer so that some of their prosperity can trickle down to their pets and the poor peoples. Although I hate to be a spoiler of this ingenious narrative -- very ably modeled by Ivy League economists -- with some trembling, I must vent some dark thoughts on this subject. I fear that the pets will come out better as globalization unfolds. As I see it, the reason for this is quite simple. The rich are much more likely to coddle their pets than the poor of the world, unless they employ them as maids, mail-order brides or au pairs. This is not because of any prejudice the rich have against the world’s poor people. It’s just that the poor people live in difficult-to-reach, mostly hot and humid countries, whereas the pets share the same living quarters with the rich.

Does this mean that if the poor people could be used as pets by the rich, this would greatly improve their chances of deriving stronger gains from globalization? If this is indeed true, we can confidently expect that the US delegate to the World Trading Organization will soon propose appropriate changes in the global trading regime to allow for the large-scale adoption of children from poor countries as pets by people in the rich countries. I have no doubt that this proposal will command unanimous support from all the civilized peoples of the world -- who, thankfully, inhabit the rich countries.

M. Shahid Alam is professor of economics at Northeastern University. His political essays are now available in a book, Is There An Islamic Problem (Kuala Lumpur: The Other Press, 2004). He may be reached at Visit his website at Copyright © M. Shahid Alam

Other Articles by M. Shahid Alam

* America’s New Civilizing Mission
* Testing Free Speech In America

* America and Islam: Seeking Parallels
* America, Imagine This!
* Making Sense of Our Times
* Some Economic Results of the Civilizing Mission
* Israel Builds Another Wall
* A Comic Apology
* World’s Greatest Country: Do the Facts Lie?
* Lerner, Said And The Palestinians
* Semantics of Empire
* Voiding the Palestinians: An Allegory
* A Muslim Sage Visits the USA
Dialectics of Terror

* Pakistan “Recognizes” Israel

* Is The United States “A Terrorist Magnet”?

* A Short History of the Global Economy Since 1800

* Illuminating Thomas Friedman