Friday, May 23, 2008

An expert disappoints

Apocalypse hunting seems to have become a favoured pastime with learned souls who roam the hallowed portals of western academia. First, we were issued dire warnings of climate change, with no less than Nicholas Stern, the renowned civil servant mandated by the British government to prepare a report, expressing pessimism over the future of humanity if our collective wayward actions were not checked.

Now, Jeffrey Sachs, a well-known American economist who has played adviser to governments in Latin America and Eastern Europe, and who now heads the Earth Institute at Columbia University, joins the debate with his ideas on what the world needs to do if it is to escape annihilation.

Sachs' scope is much broader, however. In his view, rising carbon levels in the earth's atmosphere pose but one challenge to our future. The other clear and present dangers are the demographic challenge, the mind-numbing poverty of millions of people across the globe, and the ineffectiveness of governments to create mechanisms to fight these menaces.

Like with his earlier book, The End of Poverty, which prescribed solutions to eradicate the scourge by 2025, in Common Wealth, Sachs speaks of setting benchmarks and realizing goals with the year 2050 as target. This gives the book an unreal, oracular texture. Right through reading it, I kept wishing Sachs had read Nassim Nicholas Taleb's The Black Swan, before embarking on this work. In that charming book, Taleb denounces the peculiar academic tendency for grand theorizing by showing that most major, truly ground-shifting, events in history could not have been predicted. The rise of the Internet was one such "black swan".

Much of what Sachs argues is not new. What is one to make of his assertion that "the world's population growth remains too rapid", while simultaneously quoting an Economist article that cautions against giving credence to a "Malthusian catastrophe". He advocates a decline in fertility rates in the developing world by a series of measures, and builds on this to forecast a global population of eight billion or less for 2050.

Sachs' advocacy of certain ideas, like exhorting rich nations to contribute 2-3 per cent of their national incomes towards eradicating global poverty, jars. He posits similar colossal solutions to contain global warming, all the while crystal-gazing from an available— one may add, limited— frame of reference, not paying heed to technological/socio-economic black swans that may soar in the future.

On the economic front, for a one-time proponent of free market reform to say that market forces do not always determine the best outcomes of situations, is less a suicidal volte-face and more an acknowledgment of recent stresses in the global economy. But Sachs fails to further his argument and ends up waving the flag, inexplicably, for a social welfare model.

The book is the weakest when Sachs champions greater co-operation among nations to tackle "critical global problems". He calls the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty a success: "Global cooperation has dramatically slowed the proliferation of nuclear weapons and encouraged several dozen countries to abandon their quest for such weapons." Perhaps, Sachs meant "encouraged several dozen non-rogue state actors to abandon their quest for such weapons."

Sachs, facetiously, commits the error of comparing Western aid to poor nations with US military spending. A well-worn complaint of left-leaning intellectuals, this argument is so self-evidently hollow that one is at pains to fathom how it continues to find its way in print. An unabashed critic of George Bush's foreign policy, Sachs nowhere hints at the pressing need to create a "league of democracies", an eye-catching idea that has gained currency since John McCain propounded it on the campaign trail.

In an email exchange with the FT's Martin Wolf, reproduced on Slate (, Sachs says, "We are at a time when ideas will count—technical ideas to be sure, but also ideas about cooperation and conflict. The frames of reference of our political leaders will matter greatly. If they view the world as us versus them, we will indeed live in a world of growing conflict….In the end, interestingly, the politicians will be listening and responding to the world public. Perhaps as in all ages, our fate is truly in our hands." This seductive, dreamy way with words is Sachs' special gift. If only the ideas wrapped in them were as attractive!


This review appeared in Business Standard.

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