June 26, 2005

Column 2005-6-26 Commentary

Today's column represents a return to Brooks's usual shtick of writing about the differences between liberals and conservatives. In order to remove all traces of originality, Brooks chooses as his theme the decidedly shopworn idea that liberals are pie-in-the-sky idealists while conservatives are hard-headed and serious men who understand that life is stern and earnest. Inspired either by his recent trip to Africa or Jeffrey Sachs's Saturday op-ed in the Times, Brooks chooses to contrast liberal and conservative approaches to the problem of poverty in Africa, with Sachs representing the unworkable ideas of liberals and Bush the solid plans of conservatives. What's even more fascinating and revealing, though, is Brooks's full-on attack on the Enlightenment. Sachs, we are told, is "a child of the French Enlightenment." Note: the "French" Enlightenment. This and other not-so-subtle hints that Sachs is French (later on, we find that "Sachs comes across as a philosophe for our times") are a good sign that reasoned, rational discourse is not to be expected (but after all, reasoned, rational discourse is a product of the Enlightenment). The Enlightenment itself is dismissed as a time "when leading thinkers had an amazing confidence in their ability to refashion reality so that it would conform to reason." Sachs is apparently an "unreconstructed" Enlightenment thinker, a term with echoes of unreconstructed Marxism. While such attacks are only to be expected from the crazy Christian right, Brooks fancies himself a thinker, and to see him disparaging the Enlightenment in such a fashion is truly frightening, especially when one recalls that the ideas of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, even the French ones -- Voltaire, Rousseau, and Montesquieu, to name three you may have heard of -- are central to both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. If even the supposedly thoughtful part of the Republican establishment is willing to turn on the Enlightenment (and perhaps soon its principles, such as individual rights, limited government authority, freedom of speech, and separation of church and state), the situation is even worse than it seems right now.

The rest of Brooks's column relies on misrepresenting Sachs and Bush, as can be easily seen by looking at Sachs's op-ed. " The Bush administration has nearly doubled foreign aid," Brooks says to counter Sachs's claim that the administration has abandoned Africa, but of course that represents total foreign aid. According to Sachs's piece, Bush's increase in aid to Africa consists only of a small amount of additional emergency food aid. Additionally, Sachs points out that Bush plans to offset the costs of forgiving America's portion of $1.5 billion a year of African debt by cutting other aid. Clearly, Bush is not planning to increase African aid very significantly, and as Sachs makes clear, most of what is spent goes to emergency food aid and paying for the salaries of American workers rather than actual structural investments. Using Sachs's numbers of $3 billion a year in aid and $2 per American spent on things like fighting malaria, we find that about 80% of American aid goes to emergency food aid and salaries. Both are important, of course, but they are not likely to solve Africa's problems, merely ameliorate the worst of them. Brooks hails Bush's Millenium Challenge Accounts and suggests that Sachs doesn't think much of them (they are "not dismissed by Sachs, but not heralded either.") To Brooks, the MCA's represent the conservative way of doing things, in which we learn from past mistakes, while Sachs, he sneers, merely wants to repeat the 1960's. Brooks does acknowledge that the MCA's have "been horribly executed", speaking specifically of a meeting in Mozambique where locals were frustrated by their inability to figure out what the Americans wanted in return for their aid and had thus received nothing over the past two years. What he doesn't mention, though Sachs does, is that the MCA program has disbursed almost nothing of the $10 billion it was supposed to give out over the past five years. And rather than ignoring the MCA's, the third part of Sachs's four-part program for Africa calls for them to be fixed and move toward actually giving out money.

As for the rest of Sachs's proposals, Brooks refers contempuously to "Sachsian grand ideas" and suggests that Sachs simply plans to funnel money into Africa and sit back and wait for poverty to end. In fact, Sachs says that "[f]oreign aid should be targeted to specific, measurable, achievable and bold goals." And "[t]he United States should help countries that are prepared to help themselves." He sets out four specific areas of investment in his op-ed: "growing more food, fighting disease, ensuring that children are in school and building critical infrastructure (including roads, energy services, water and sanitation)." His second point calls for quantitative goals to be set so that accountability can be enforced, and his piece is filled with specific goals to be met, such as the distribution of malaria nets, which Brooks mocks by saying "You can give people mosquito nets to prevent malaria, but they might use them instead to catch fish." Indeed they might, but not if you carefully explain to them what the nets are for and simultaneously, as Sachs proposes, help them to grow more food. And even if some do, does that mean that it's not worthwhile to give them out and save those who don't from dying from a completely preventable disease? In fact, for all of Brooks's talk of how Sachs is trying to "rescue [African societies] from above with technocratic planning" while ignoring individual Africans, it is clear from Sachs's op-ed that his plans largely work at the individual and community level and rely on giving people the opportunity to improve their own lives by distributing mosquito nets, helping them with farming techniques, or sending their children to school. Indeed, the program that Sachs describes as "[t]he only bright spot in America's policy on Africa", Bush's emergency anti-AIDS program, works in exactly this way, by distributing anti-retroviral medicines to Africans. Instead, it is Brooks, with his talk of "institutions, governance, conflict and traditions" who seems to be ignoring the people and concentrating on abstractions.

Of course, this assumes that the Bush administration has been acting in good faith and that Bush is going about the business of solving poverty in Africa as best he can according to his lights. While it is possible that such is the case, there is certainly room for plenty of skepticism. Consider the Millenium Challenge Accounts, the centerpiece of Bush's plan to help Africa. Sachs points out that "[t]he head of President Bush's Millennium Challenge Corporation [which administers the MCA's] recently resigned after failing to get the program moving." We noted earlier that the program has disbursed a tiny fraction of what it was supposed to, and that even Brooks admits that the execution was horrible and "[t]he locals had been given only the vaguest notions of what sort of projects the U.S. is willing to finance." At the very least, this makes it clear that the MCA's are not a high Bush administration priority. In fact, it's not impossible that, under the guise of encouraging good governance, the administration is hiding its poverty-fighting money behind layers of inept bureacracy and vague instructions. Sachs's charge that the administration has failed the world's poor seems a lot more credible when one considers how little it cares about its signature poverty-fighting program. Combine this with Bush's reluctance to increase aid and his plan to compensate for debt relief (the amount of which is, according to Sachs, only 6% of what is needed) by cutting aid in other areas, it certainly appears that fighting poverty to Africa is not something that is really important to the administration. Perhaps the difference between liberals and conservatives is that liberals want to end poverty and conservatives just don't much care.

N.B.: Just as egregious is Brooks's flippant introduction: " Karl Rove has his theories about what separates liberals from conservatives and I have mine." Rove's "theory" is that liberals don't really want to fight terrorism: instead, they are all traitors who want to kill American troops. While it is too much to expect Republican party lapdog Brooks to repudiate this slur, he could at least have the common decency not to mention it.