Forget Grand Principles. Let's Stay Practical.

Common Wealth

Forget Grand Principles. Let's Stay Practical.
New books dissected over email.
March 12 2008 11:59 AM

Common Wealth


Dear Martin,

I'm delighted to be discussing the book with you. Thanks so much for your initial thoughts. Here are some of my reflections on your queries. Seven years ago, in early 2001, I went to the White House to make the case that the United States should invest around $3 billion per year to fight AIDS. I was given two respectful hearings by Condoleezza Rice, then National Security Council adviser. Still, I was met with some incredulity. Three billion dollars per year! Was I kidding? The president's economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsay, put his arm around my shoulder as he led me out of the West Wing. "Jeff, it's very nice what you are doing … but don't hold your breath." Two years later, Bush launched his $3 billion per year President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief program. Now it seems likely to be expanded to at least $6 billion per year.


Is the U.S. AIDS program "self-interest" or "morality"? It's obviously both. Many of the president's core supporters, notably in the evangelical community, regard the AIDS program as the Lord's work. Many in the Pentagon regard it as a contribution to U.S. national security. Many in the State Department regard it as good diplomacy. And many in the rest of the country and in the world regard it as common sense. Leaving a killer pandemic to run wild in Africa is surely unsafe for the whole world, they reason—a threat to regional and global stability, national security, and the moral integrity of those who would look on.

And it's not just "we" in the rich world who have joined the effort. China is building hospitals and staffing clinics throughout Africa. Countless other countries in the "South" (really those nearer the equator rather than the misnamed "South") are training doctors and nurses, sending engineers, stepping up aid projects, and generally acting on the realization that morality, self-interest, and global stability are deeply intertwined on our intensely crowded and interconnected planet.

The real issue of the book, I believe, Martin, is not the "we" and the "why" but the "how." If it's really right, as I claim, that by investing some 2 percent to 3 percent of the world's income, it is possible to save around 10 million children per year from death while stabilizing the world's population growth, ending extreme poverty, curbing climate change, and developing alternative energy sources (rather than the $100-per-barrel oil of a militarized Middle East), the "we" and the "why" would not be much of a question. Each of us, in rich and poor countries alike (remembering that many of the poor will soon be rich), would find many reasons, both selfish and selfless, to sign on, just as many signed up when they realized that treating AIDS wasn't a $10,000 per person per year proposition (as had been supposed) but was closer to a $200 per year opportunity to fight death and disease.

The real issue is what you and I would call "positive" analysis rather than "normative" analysis. Can it really be right that poverty can be ended for less than 1 percent of rich-world income? Is it really true that the world's population can be stabilized voluntarily at 8 billion, or are we destined to burden the planet—and burdened it will be—with 9 billion or more? Can a global sustainable-energy system cost as little as 1 percent per annum of the gross world product? If these things are true, and if basic institutions can be devised to implement them in a reasonably effective manner, the motivations will follow, and amply so. The bargains will be too good to pass up.

Too many economists spend far too much time debating grand principles rather than facts and evidence. For years I've been trying to stay practical and focused with regard to global poverty. My position—more aid directly targeted at specific needs—was widely dismissed at the start and has been an object of mirth among some mainstream economists. Three billion dollars per year for AIDS? A global fund to fight pandemic diseases? A 100 percent cancellation of many Third World debts? A mass distribution of anti-malaria bed nets? A fund for an African Green Revolution? All of these are now in development. And sooner rather than later we will begin to invest massively in demonstrating carbon capture and sequestration and other renewable-energy technologies (Japan just posted $10 billion for that purpose for developing countries). Sooner rather than later we will have a fund to avoid deforestation (Norway just put up $600 million for that objective). Let's turn to the "numbers" to discuss whether these things will work, at what cost, and in which institutional manner. 

I am not, to be sure, Dr. Pangloss. For every favorable trend, we also face hugely adverse and growing threats as well. The world population continues to grow. Today's impoverished drylands continue to combust in a tinderbox of violence, which we wrongly call Islamic fundamentalism. We send armies when we should send engineers and doctors. Violence is spreading. In seven brief years, we will have squandered more in the so-called "war on terror" than all the world has ever given in all of its aid to all of Africa for all time.

Is that self-interest? Is that morality? No, it's just foolishness and carelessness. The book is aimed to help us get off that dangerous course. We have low-cost ways to avoid the cliff, but heading for the cliff we are. Let us discuss in the next round how we—all of us—might steer the planet to a safer course.

Jeffrey D. Sachsis the director of the Earth Institute, Quetelet professor of sustainable development, and professor of health policy and management at Columbia University.

  Slate Plus
Slate Plus
Aug. 28 2015 12:31 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? International affairs writer Joshua Keating on what to read to understand the apparently permanent slowdown of the Chinese economy.