22 November 2010

Economists are hyperinflated

My profoundest apologies to my gentle readers for the terrible, terrible pun in the title, but I really needed to find a snappier and more appropriate way to vent my frustration at our required course content than ‘Jeff Sachs and Bill Easterly are both completely full of horseshit, and we would do well to give them each their fifteen minutes of infamy and move on to useful things for a change’. One unexpected benefit, I suppose, to having been overexposed to the Sachs-Easterly debate, though, is that it is helping me to realise just how deeply our own discourse has been pruned down and confined within the stifling space of Whiggism – and that within that space we are given Coke-or-Pepsi options (which are really no option at all). As with the fratricidal theological-Whiggish offspring of liberalism and fundamentalism, we here face a non-choice between two rather perverse economic ideologies with the same pedigree.

Sachs’ argument, in a nutshell, is that with better policies in place, better coordination, more efficient operations and more concerted efforts to solve multiple problems at once, we can overcome all the trials of poverty in one ‘big push’. It presents a truly global perspective, and indeed a truly appealing one: the idea that we can lift all people from poverty through the concerted efforts of the well-intentioned of the ‘developed’ world. It is merely a problem of forming the right strategy, and bringing together the right organisations for the right goals. It is a highly technocratic vision as well as being highly optimistic – and it has roots in the High Modern theology of Schleiermacher and his spiritual descendants. There is a point on which I actually do agree with Easterly’s diagnosis in White Man’s Burden – such promises have been made before by governments, both national and supranational, of the ‘developed’ world, and they simply haven’t been fulfilled. Historically speaking, the grand schemes to rid the world of poverty have ended in varying degrees of tragedy and farce. I think it may be all too likely that such an approach now will ultimately serve first the values and assuage first the consciences of a wealthy liberal ‘new class’, rather than those of the starving poor they set out in their good intentions to help.

But that’s precisely where my agreement with Easterly ends, because – to put it as politely as I may without resorting to the invective common to such economic parlance – the man obviously hasn’t looked in a mirror and noticed the great honking plank in his own eye before groping Sachs’ face for a mote. The problem with Easterly is that somehow in all his hagiographical panegyrics of the ‘Searcher’ and vituperative scorn of the ‘Planner’, he fails to notice that of both Platonic ideals, he himself more closely resembles the latter rather than the former. He rebukes Sachs for promoting a ‘one-size-fits-all’ solution to poverty, though his own solution falls squarely under the same rebuke. Though he claims not to be a ‘Planner’, his plan in actuality is indeed far broader and at the same time far more banal, unimaginative and unworkable than that he accuses Sachs of having: in short, to end aid as we know it and allow markets and free enterprise to take its place.

Okay, let’s have a show of hands – how many of us haven’t heard this one before?

This is purely ideological: economic Whiggism at both its most egregious and its most patronising, in all its Calvinistic glory. Underneath the argument that there needs to be greater entrepreneurship, ‘free markets’ and ‘free trade’ in the global South for broader prosperity to take root is any or all of three assumptions: a.) this approach hasn’t been tried before, b.) it hasn’t been a total bloody disaster for the poor or c.) if it was, it has been because people living in need, in countries needing aid, have been too [corrupt / stupid / backwards / lazy / insert patronising colonial stereotype here] to implement it properly or appreciate its benefits. Easterly’s arguments, needful though some aspects may be for the advocates of conventional aid measures, all very conveniently dodge the matters of historical record that aid money from the Western world has been for the vast majority of its history either a.) contingent upon the adoption of the very market-fundamentalist measures Easterly champions or b.) palliative care for the economic fallout upon the poor from those very same measures.

While I agree that we do need aid-critical scholars, particularly in this most uncritical of times, can we find some more durable ones, please? The current model represented by Easterly and Moyo seems to have an expiry date of roughly 1815 – and I do consider it a market failure (or at the least a failure of common sense!) that they continue to be taken seriously. It is my hope that people continue to listen to the likes of Phillip Blond, John Milbank, Cornel West and Amitai Etzioni; it would be good to see some socialists, high Tories or real critical theorists come out of the corners and offer a more thorough alternative critique of current aid policies.

12 November 2010

A few thoughts on how the left should conduct its discourse

So, what are my thoughts on the election a good week after the fact? To an extent, I am still attempting to figure them out. On the one hand, I recently got some instruction on how not to react, tempting though it is, and as often as I have indulged in such reaction myself. Complaining about how moronic people are, particularly in an attitude of self-satisfied cynicism, is a.) not a winning strategy, b.) not good for the public discourse and c.) not healthy for one’s own spirit (I use ‘spirit’ in the broadest and most expansive possible sense here, as Kierkegaard did – referring to intellectual, emotional, physical and existential health). On the other hand, refraining from such complaints should not mean we must cease struggling for greater justice – reforming existing structures where possible and resisting them where necessary.

First, on the subject of complaining about how stupid people are: let me begin by saying that the results of the Pennsylvania elections were disheartening to me, but not surprising (we now have fringe Republicans as senator-elect and as governor-elect). That said, I took some strong exception to a recent blog post I read on the subject, whose initial reactions to the election were quite similar to mine but whose lessons drawn from the election seemed to me precisely the wrong ones: in essence, that we live in the best political system possible and that (I think) we need to live with bad consequences from that system because a large percentage of our population are ‘lazy, selfish, self-centered, egotistical, uneducated, easily manipulated idiots’. On the contrary, it is not that we have foolish and perverse people at the helm of a good system for which there is no alternative; it is rather that we have people prone to sin, who are encouraged in it by a highly-flawed system. There exist those in the present age who will assiduously create a ‘need’ for the latest fad, who will espouse fashionable notions of ‘progress’ which serve only their interests, who benefit from sowing the seeds of avarice, apathy and ressentiment; our political system and social values have evolved to the point where it caters shamelessly to such pedlars of despair. Though saying so outright does little good, and direct action little more, it is far worse to resign oneself to the conviction that we humans are intrinsically bad and incapable of receiving grace.

That said, where do we go? There exists sin, and those willing to exploit it. What to do about it? If I were to tell you there is nothing to do about it, that one is either damned or saved from the beginning of time, I would be as deep in sin and as blind to its true nature as those I criticise. Confrontation does no good either – a man sitting in Plato’s cave all too easily dismisses the freak, the crank, the lunatic with his wild nonsense of moonlight and fresh grass, which no one has ever seen. They are justified when this unfortunate soul takes to repeating his memories just a little louder. Only through pointing to the shadows on the wall of the cave can one ask of the man that he imagine just a little bit more.

This is why I refuse to take Peter Beinart’s tack on Jon Stewart and his endeavour (which I attended and thoroughly enjoyed – there are some photos below, for the interested). If I may speak directly, I believe that Jon Stewart is in the process of pointing to the shadows on the wall – he did his part to try to demonstrate (through comedy and through direct communication) that there can be a productive, respectful dialogue between those who disagree. It is not condescension to point to the shadows on the wall when the shadows are needed. Nor is it really condescension to scream at the men in the cave about moonlight and grass (though it may well be arrogance, and it certainly isn’t polite). It is condescending, on the other hand (and a measure of how deep in the cave one oneself is), to claim for one purpose or another that men in the cave have no way out.

For a good example of what productive and respectful dialogue can look like even when people disagree and have good reasons for disagreeing, I refer the gentle reader to Jon Stewart’s Rachel Maddow interview.

Second, I do not believe that insisting that there be a dialogue means that our job is done. There is a way out of the cave, a way to greater social justice, to equality, to liberation, to wisdom, to the Kingdom of God (if you will grant me the Christianism). The job of those closer to the mouth of the cave is not just to insist that there be a shadow-play, but to use that shadow-play to describe the world outside and to point the way. The questions we must raise about our present age are: whom does it benefit (if anyone)? Whom does it exclude? What tendencies does it encourage and what values does it serve? We have no shortage of false prophets of the present age, preaching a religion without sacrifice: salvation through ‘free trade’, through ‘growth’ (stipulated incorrectly as expansion of consumption and GDP rather than as the nurturing of broader human potential and durable institutions), through the marketplace, through the acquisition of the Next Big Thing; leading the American people into the lower depths of the cave and the rest of the world in a race to the bottom. We need to start asking hard questions – indirectly. Are this state of affairs and all the consequences attached to it truly of our own choosing? Are they something we truly want, or are they something we have been prodded and cajoled into wanting? Is there, as Margaret Thatcher insisted, truly no alternative? Can we not look to history for other answers instead of blundering blindly forward?

Something to think about, perhaps. And now, some photos from the Rally:

02 November 2010

Pointless video post - ‘Two Minutes to Midnight’ by Iron Maiden

Some vintage Maiden for my gentle readers; one of their classic anti-war numbers. Kind of reflects how I’ve been feeling all day.