Monday, May 19, 2008

Gross Thoughts

Daniel Gross' review of Jeffrey Sachs new book, "Common Wealth", involves a certain kind of confused leftist thinking that is pervasive these days. Those on the left have competing agendas that require a twisted logic to keep their heads from exploding. After pointing out that Malthus got it wrong in the 1800s and the Club of Rome got it wrong in the early 1970s, Gross says:

And yet. Even congenital optimists have good reason to suspect that this time the prophets of economic doom may be on point, with the advent of seemingly unstoppable developments like climate change and the explosive growth of China and India. Which is why Sachs’s book — lucid, quietly urgent and relentlessly logical — resonates. Things are different today, he writes, because of four trends: human pressure on the earth, a dangerous rise in population, extreme poverty and a political climate characterized by “cynicism, defeatism and outdated institutions.” These pressures will increase as the developing world inexorably catches up to the developed world. By 2050, he writes, the world’s population may rise to 9.2 billion from 6.6 billion today — an increase of 2.6 billion people, which is “too many people to absorb safely.” The combination of climate change and a rapidly growing population clustering in coastal urban zones will set the stage for many Katrinas, not to mention “a global epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease and adult-onset diabetes.”

So, in other words, the prophets of doom have never been right, but it's different this time. How does Sachs know that an extra 2.6 billion people is "too many to absorb safely"? And how can you square that with the idea that we will have a global epidemic of obesity, cardiovascular disease and adult onset diabetes? There are lots of people on this planet that would love to be rich enough to worry about obesity. Sachs seems to think they will have the privelege - and yet that's a bad thing? As for the political climate being characterized by "cynicism, defeatism and outdated insitutions", has it occurred to Sachs that maybe the cynicism is warranted? Maybe the world would be better off if do gooders like Sachs would stop telling people that politicians can solve the world's problems. That is a guaranteed disapointment. And those creaky institutions (like the IMF) are nothing more than the last generation's best ideas for how government can solve problems. What makes Sachs think this generation will do any better?

Gross continues:

“In the 21st century our global society will flourish or perish according to our ability to find common ground across the world on a set of shared objectives and on the practical means to achieve them.” By working together and harnessing the productive genius of the public and private sectors, Sachs argues, we can build sustainable systems, stabilize world population at about eight billion and end extreme poverty by 2025.

And how exactly are we to arrive at that common ground? And why do we need to harness anything? What if my agenda is different than Sachs'? Do I still get harnessed?

The bien-pensant classes, of which I count myself a paid-in-full member, will coast through this well-constructed book (sipping fair-trade coffee, nibbling organic carrots and pausing to catch the headlines on National Public Radio) and nod along through the primers on greenhouse gases, China’s development and the potential for carbon capture; the digs at President Bush; and the call for the creation of seven global funds concentrating on areas like agriculture, the environment and infrastructure. In a particularly trenchant passage, he gently fillets critics, like William Easterly, who have argued that foreign aid doesn’t work. (Aid money spent bringing fertilizer to India in the 1960s, Sachs notes, yielded spectacular returns.) And it’s refreshing to hear a distinguished economist declare that markets alone can’t get us out of the mess markets have created.

Bien Pensant. That says more about Gross than I suspect he realizes. Fair trade coffee, organic carrots and NPR. Yep, that sounds bien pensant to me. "Accepting of fashionable ideas with little critical thought". That describes Gross and most of the other readers of the NYT to a tee. But I digress. Seven global funds? Administered by whom? Managed by whom? Any chance that the funds will be used to funnel money to bien pensant projects that are unlikely to accomplish the stated goal? And Easterly is right; foreign aid doesn't work and Gross and Sachs prove the point. They had to dig back 40 years to find one aid project that accomplished something other than enriching a nasty dictator?

Sachs has a prescription for every world problem. Unfortunately, few of them involve allowing people to do what they want with their own lives. The leftist conundrum is that they can't get what they want in one area without giving up what they want in another. They want to solve world poverty, but at the same time they want to limit carbon emissions that will limit growth and extend poverty. They want a world government but also want to protect American workers from foreign competition (trade restrictions). And that's the problem with top down solutions; you can't have everything. Economics teaches us that there are always tradeoffs. Gross and Sachs want to live in a world where tradeoffs don't exist. Unfortunately, that world doesn't exist.

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