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.

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