To be sure, the writer addresses a serious problem. All of our competitors in the industrialized world have some form of national health insurance. Because we do not, major firms, especially in the auto industry, have assumed a massive burden of covering employees, including retirees. It is estimated that this disparity may add as much as $1500 to each American car. The resulting competitive burden is hastening the process of deindustrialization that is devastating this country.
Gladwell goes back to an idea advanced half a century ago by Walter Reuther, head of the auto workers union. Reuther proposed spreading the risk pool for pensions and health care among a number of industries in each locality. Gladwell implies that this plan was a forerunner of national health coverage (which he and I agree we need). This seems unlikely. Moreover, Social Security, which he also cites, is not a form of insurance, but an income-transfer program. (Hat tip to Gayspecies for this point.)
Gladwell is enamored of a principle he calls the "dependency ratio." He thinks that the reason East Asia progressed so spectacularly vis-a-vis Africa is that people in those countries cut down on the number of children they had. Proportionately there were more workers in comparison to those who were dependent.
So having few children yields prosperity and having many spells poverty. How then does Gladwell explain the village of Hasidic Kiryas Joel in Orange County, NY. People in this place, now a town of some 18,000 inhabitants, have many children. The average age of the town is fifteen! Yet the citizens of Kiryas Joel are not poor. Culture trumps dependency ratios.
Another counterexample communicated to me by a friend.
"[T[hat explains why Ukraine, with a total fertility rate of 1.17 babies per woman, is so prosperous these days. Yet, Ukraine has a higher percentage of its population in the age 15-64 bracket than Ireland, which Gladwell cites. But Ukraine's per capita income is barely 1/6th of Ireland's.
"No, I think, internationally, that it's the productivity of the workers that differs more than the ratio of workers to dependents."
In large measure East Asia has progressed because of culture. Economic advance corresponds to the heritage of Confucianism. Countries that have been exposed to this influence--China, Korea, Japan--are advancing, while the Philippines (Catholic) and Indonesia (Muslim) are not. This is not the only variable but, Gladwell to the contrary, it is a very significant one.
Africa fell behind because of a number of factors, including culture and misdirected foreign aid. To say that this result is the product of "dependency ratios" is simplistic.
Speaking of villages, a remark by Gertrude Stein applies to Malcolm Gladwell and others of his ilk. "He is a village explainer. Excellent if you are a village. If not, not."