Afghanistan wins the $1 trillion Powerball jackpot
In the United States, winning the lottery is sold as a hugely positive, life changing experience. But the truth is a little more complicated; every life bettered by winning millions of dollars is countered by those lives shattered by the sudden influx of cash and attention. Often, lotto winners are so besieged by problems — greedy relatives, untrustworthy friends, bad business decisions — that they walk away from the experience battered and broke.
At the risk of over-extending the analogy, you can think of this discovery in similar terms:
WASHINGTON — The United States has discovered nearly $1 trillion in untapped mineral deposits in Afghanistan, far beyond any previously known reserves and enough to fundamentally alter the Afghan economy and perhaps the Afghan war itself, according to senior American government officials.
The previously unknown deposits — including huge veins of iron, copper, cobalt, gold and critical industrial metals like lithium — are so big and include so many minerals that are essential to modern industry that Afghanistan could eventually be transformed into one of the most important mining centers in the world, the United States officials believe.
It’s hard to understate the significance of this; $1 trillion dwarfs the Afghan economy by a factor of 62. This kind of wealth could transform Afghanistan for the better in ways that are a little hard to fathom. Unfortunately, that’s not terribly likely. More often than not, underdeveloped, unstable countries that stumble onto natural resources remain underdeveloped and unstable, but are left with more violence, more corruption, and more class stratification.
For lotto winners, part of the problem in winning comes from the sheer scale of the wealth. Winning tens of millions of dollars is nice, but when you’re accustomed to dealing with — and worrying about — $50 here and a $100 there, and when you have weak financial literacy skills (which is the case for many Americans), it’s virtually unmanageable. Likewise, it’s often the case that poor countries lack the infrastructure, experience or professional expertise necessary to manage the massive wealth that comes from oil reserves or mineral deposits. And without strong institutions, these countries are ripe for corruption, factionalism and violence.
I would love for this discovery to benefit Afghanistan, but my hunch is that it won’t, and will instead leave Afghan’s in worse shape than before. It doesn’t help either that there is a good chance that this will push the United States into an indefinite occupation of Afghanistan, lest China tries to take advantage of the country’s newfound mineral deposits. Given the likelihood that this will spawn more violence, more suffering and a longer occupation, I’m not sure that this is good news. But it’s still early, and precedent notwithstanding, there isn’t a ton of evidence to justify my pessimism. So we’ll see.