A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

If the world's wealth were divided equally, how much would each of us have?

April 5, 1991

Dear Cecil:

Thank you for your answer to my question on the cost of the Vietnam war. I was astounded to think we spent the equivalent of 32 years' worth of Vietnam's GNP trying to kill half the people who lived there. Now I have another question. Imagine that instead of the former Soviet Union rushing headlong toward capitalism, the rest of the world decided to become socialist. If all the world's wealth were divided up equally among all its inhabitants, how much would each of us have?

Cecil replies:

What was once the Soviet Union is definitely rushing headlong toward something, Steve; would that it were only capitalism. Be that as it may, you do raise what seems like the obvious next question.

As before, the answer has to be larded with caveats. The numbers for world wealth are even shakier than those for the Vietnam war, where at least you had the benefit of unlimited MBAs to count the change. National bumbling aside, the figures reported by former Communist bloc countries have to be regarded with skepticism because there's no free-market valuation of goods and services. Ditto for countries where a sizable portion of the population relies on subsistence agriculture.

Perhaps for these reasons, the numbers published by different sources don't mesh very well. Adding up the GNPs in the Europa World Year Book 1990, we get a gross world product for 1988 of $21.8 trillion, with a 1985 population of just over 5 billion, excluding some minor principalities. This works out to $4,339 per person. However, the The World in Figures, compiled by the Economist of London, says "national income per person" in 1979 was only $2,130, and the New Book of World Rankings says worldwide GNP per capita in 1980 was $2,430. Either the 1980s were the most prosperous era in history — 10 percent annual growth — or somebody's calculator needs new batteries. (To be fair, inflation and shifting exchange rates relative to the dollar have probably also helped boost the numbers.)

At any rate, extrapolating from the Economist's conservative numbers, we come up with a current per capita world income of more than $3,100, or an average household income for a family of five of $15,500 — a tidy sum. (Forgive me if I don't try to figure out per capita share of world resources, as opposed to income; life is short.) Pretty cold comfort for the average guy in Bhutan, where per capita GNP in 1980 was $80, the world low. But it does indicate a more equitable distribution of resources wouldn't beggar everybody.

Other interesting numbers: according to various sources, the world has 258 million automobiles, 1.2 billion cattle, 6.7 billion chickens, 111 million turkeys and 43 million asses. Now you know where they get all the participants in the St. Patrick's Day parade.

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