Prospects for peace dim in many poor countries

December 25, 1998|By Marilyn Geewax

ATLANTA -- Those new "icicle" lights hanging from suburban roof gutters during this Christmas season tell us a lot about the global economic outlook and the potential for worldwide political instability.

And you thought the dangling bulbs just looked pretty.

Well, they do. But they also help explain why the world is getting to be a more dangerous place. Let's start at the beginning:

For decades, Americans have been stringing colored lights on their houses to brighten the holiday season. But in recent years, the booming economy has created enough wealth to allow many homeowners to upgrade to spectacular displays of lights.

But now even that seems tired and we are eager for a new fad in decorative lighting. And darned if someone hasn't come up with a cute idea, vertical strings of clear lights that hang from an electrical wire. When tacked along a roof's edge, they appear to be shimmering "icicles" hanging down.

Lighting fad

This "ice" could not be hotter. Tens of millions of icicle lights have flown off of store shelves. Many retailers, who have been sold out for weeks, describe the consumer demand as "an

explosion" in the lighting industry.

Meanwhile, some electric utility companies are reporting record demand for energy as more and more homes add those new lights. Electric bills will be steep in January, but no one seems to mind; we just want to see those beautiful lights in December.

This is part of a very big trend in the U.S. economy. We no longer are worried about energy conservation. From the Las Vegas strip to our own front yards, we are turning on the lights and revving up our engines as energy prices fall.

By far, the biggest energy bargains can be found at the gas station, where prices have dropped to early 1970s levels. Because of a global glut, oil now costs less than $11 a barrel, down from more than $35 a barrel in the early 1980s.

These plunging fuel prices are leaving poor nations much poorer and less politically stable. Some of the world's most dangerous countries, such as Russia, Libya, Iran, Iraq and Algeria, are among the biggest oil producers. With oil profits collapsing, the people in those countries are becoming more unsettled. One Libyan official recently described the social unrest in his country as "becoming very dangerous."

Holding down prices

In Asia, the economic crisis continues. The Chinese workers making Christmas lights are earning a pittance. Millions of other Asians are desperate for any kind of income. Their willingness to work for pennies makes it possible for U.S. retailers to hold down prices for our consumers.

This Christmas, it's clearer than ever that Americans are the big winners in the global economy. Most U.S. children will get mountains of toys.

But in the rest of the world, the combination of plunging energy revenue, deflating commodity prices and brutal wage competition are driving millions into dire conditions. The fantastic disparity between our fortunes and theirs is disturbing. How long can the United States continue to be the peaceful, prosperous island surrounded by so much poverty and turmoil?

Through hard work, good government and ingenuity, Americans have ended up being the world's economic victor. But it's a dangerous game when the winner gets to take all. Unless other countries get a bigger share of the wealth, the chances for peace on Earth will be slim.

Marilyn Geewax is a member of the Atlanta Constitution editorial board.

Pub Date: 12/25/98

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