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Good grasp on the issues, not necessarily the solutions
on November 26, 2012
Jeffrey Sachs Critique
To start off this paper I would like to say a couple things about myself with regards to Jeffrey Sachs's book Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet. I think that the environment is a major problem in today's world, furthermore I believe that global poverty and overpopulation are also issues, the difficulty I have with Jeffrey Sachs's book, aside from his solutions, is the degree of severity of these issues. Sachs argues that the biggest issues facing the world during the 21st century are environmental degradation, overpopulation and extreme poverty, which is coupled and compounded by an ineffectual international system. Rather I believe that the major issues facing us today instead stem from the developed nations and the economy.
Jeffrey Sachs first identifies greenhouse gasses as a major concern, and how the world is approaching thresholds that will be increasingly difficult to come back from. He also ties these exponential rises in CO2 to the increasingly severe weather seen around the world, in heat waves, droughts and hurricanes. To combat this rise in greenhouse gasses Sachs goes with the standard, "stop deforestation", "cleaner electricity", and "reduce car emissions", but the way he suggests to do some of these things is somewhat odd. On deforestation he proposes to pay land owners in critical areas of the developing world, such as the Amazon to not cut down their trees. With regards to electricity and automobile emissions, Sachs advocates for a very centralized approach where we use clean electricity to power most if not all facets of our lives. Both of these cases looks fabulous on paper, but the real world is a far stretch from the hypotheticals of the pen. Paying foreign land owners to not deforest their own land is a tough sell not only to the taxpayers but also to the foreign government where said land resides. One has to have heavy international cooperation, which is difficult to come by and even more difficult to maintain, for a long term solution. There is a similar problem with cleaner electricity using plug in cars and electric heating in that on top of moving nearly all of our power to clean sources; it would require a major overhaul of the electrical grid, just to allow for the very high required output.
At the same time, even if the above problems are dealt with, there is the fact that any effort to minimize climate change does not work unless all nations, both developing and developed, work together cohesively towards mitigation. In a global economy companies can simply move to foreign nations that do not have as harsh environmental controls, resulting in no overall mitigation and a transfer of jobs out of the countries that attempt to mitigate climate change. The Kyoto protocols, which Jeffrey Sachs quotes often, ignore this fact, based upon the correct idea that developing nations, such as China, cannot handle and would be completely unwilling to take on the extra burdens of carbon emission controls. This is best exampled when Canada left the Kyoto protocols in Dec. of 2011 citing the fact that "we do not agree with a protocol that only controls a little bit of global emissions, not enough to actually make any difference but enough to transfer Canadian jobs overseas."
Truthfully I do not believe that the mitigation of climate change will ever find significant progress through the Kyoto protocol or anything like it. What Jeffrey Sachs either doesn't realize, or more likely, conveniently forgets (though he does make a haphazard attempt touch on it later) is that western governments' objective, for better or worse, is first and foremost about getting reelected. This political reality unfortunately does not translate well into long term solutions for a nation, and instead emphasizes short term gains. At the same time one must remember that climate change cannot be quantified. It is an unknown variable, even when taking climate change to be 100% manmade there is no absolute, no undeniable statement of "if such and such does not occur then this will happen." At best we are given general statements that there would be changes, most of which would be bad. Politicians do not work well with uncertainty like this, especially in areas where they must rely on others for knowledge. The current political system can easily understand the uncertainties due to extremists, dictators, and the masses, because to be elected politicians must understand humans; however the cold and unfeeling power of nature and climate change is so far outside of current politicians' experience that they are ill-equipped to put climate change forth as a true national agenda. This is a situation unique to environmental issues, unlike other esoteric and difficult to understand fields, such as finance, military, and industry, where individuals regularly transfer into the political system, environmentalists have no direct route from tree-hugging to being politicians.
In the end the current environmental movement, like all things in a democratic state is driven by the electorate who, unfortunately, are more distractible than toddlers, and are reliant on the candidates to bring up the issues that of the greatest concern. Politicians won't set a complex issue such as climate change as a central issue to their campaign, not only because they are not qualified to talk on the matter but also because it is difficult to propose. Perhaps in 20 years climate change will flood half of Florida but because of the fact that this dire consequence is an uncertain estimate of the distant future (at least in political terms) the electorate does not care. Especially when compared with the ability to get a job and feed your family for the next year, in tough economic times or, when economic times are good, lower taxes and a purchase of a new TV.
Another major point of Sachs is that global population growth needs to stabilize to maintain the availability of scarce resources, to ensure continued economic development, and to maintain "global political stability" (pg. 185) where Sachs points to developing Africa as the major issue. Sachs argues that a reduction in fertility rates will lead to less regional instability due to resource scarcity, and the fact that the population will be on average older, they will also be not as easily swayed and made to dance to the tunes of popular figures. Along a similar line of thought Jeffrey Sachs puts forward that the reduction and elimination of poverty traps should be a major goal of any forward looking developed nation. He then Logically goes on to explain that this would curb terrorist extremist groups' ability to recruit leading to enhanced security at home, as well as increased prosperity and greater wealth for all in the long run.
Compared to his solutions for climate change Sachs's answers to stabilize the world population are much more filled out. His states family planning, contraceptives and even abortion, as needed options to combat this growth, going on to make a convincing case that a cut in infant mortality will also decrease the birth rate. This is one of Sachs's strongest points in the book and one that I generally agree on, though one must wonder if he underestimates the strong religious and pro-natal groups that have a presence in Africa. At the same time I find his arguments towards eliminating poverty traps to also be fairly well thought out. The question for me is whether these issues are large enough for governments to interfere and while Jeffrey Sachs would certainly say yes I say no.
The first thing that one has to remember before delving into this argument is "what is the role of government in most developed nations?" I would say to protect the interests of their own people. If people are starving in poverty trap in a foreign country other governments should not feel any obligation to minimize this. Any humanitarian aid to foreign nations needs to be weighed dollar for dollar against what the donating nation gains, whether they gain an increased presence in a particular region or something else. Jeffrey Sachs says that what we gain (safety from terrorism and a more prosperous world) is worth the 280 billion in expenditure (pg. 311). Sachs argues that the cost of this investment could be spread amongst the wealthier nations and that this high annual cost would merely be a temporary kick starter for economic development in subsistence economies making long-term costs null (pg. 12). He then goes on to expound on the benefits of the millennium villages.
At first glance this looks like a no brainer, less poverty equals less anger equals less terrorism equals happier world, and to a degree this is probably the case. What I question is the feasibility of what is essentially a plan to industrialize the world. The first issue I see is the obvious one that any development using public funds will not only require a relatively responsible government and a willing population but also will have to have at least some ability to align culturally with the donor nation(s). Governments are not going to invest billions to minimize poverty in a region without some assurances that the money will be well spent. The second issue I see here is natural resources, and future instabilities. For all the problems with developing nations I fear that industrialization will just trade one problem for another much worse one. No matter how one looks at it terrorism will never be a credible threat to the sovereignty of the United States or other nations. Five thousand people dead in a plane crash in New York compared to forty-five thousand dead annually due to gun crime, the number five thousand is insignificant. A modern resource war, on the other hand, between developed nations in Africa to maintain their economic development, now that is scary.
Lastly I question the intelligence of forcing farmers and agriculture in the developing world to rely on expensive genetically modifies crops and fossil fuel based fertilizers which he advocates with the millennium villages. Even If we assume that they use these technological advancements responsibly and do not over nitrogenize the soil, then farmer will be relying on prohibitively expensive solutions to maintain crop yields. While theoretically genetically modified crops could be priced based on what the consumers can pay, nitrogen fixation, the centerpiece of modern agriculture, is tied to fossil fuels, natural resources that are becoming increasingly rare and thus more expensive, especially in developing nations that do not have a developed energy sector. This would require long term subsidizing of foreign farmers, which is not a reasonable possibility.
This moves into the final blatant leap of logic in Sachs' arguments, which is how this will be accomplished. Sachs argues for the need for "global participation in global problem solving" (pg 295) yet the only way he proposes to accomplish this is through the establishment of "global funds" that would provide a "highly visible [Places] where governments could seek help." (pg. 300) This of course brings about the question of who looks over these solutions, is it the U.N.? He establishes that the UN needs to be revamped and we cannot work under the current scheme, we need "global legislation" (pg. 334). It seems to me that Sachs is hinting at a supranational authority, but not going as far to say it. Governments take years to agree on trade policies, a climate change policy or a policy to minimize global poverty is much more complex, and politically tricky. Any comprehensive oversight is impossible as nations will not give up sovereignty for anything short of a global catastrophe. In the end using either the UN to implement a policy or some supranational authority it does not work and I found Sachs's solution to this dilemma to be absent. While there have been major pieces of international regulation in the past they were to deal with issues that were drastically different than the problems facing us today. Sachs' primary examples, CFCs and sulfur dioxide, are perfect example of the disparity between the issues of the past and today; Acid rain is a local issue with simple consequences that can be fixed easily within a state. CFCs are also drastically different than CO2 in that they were not difficult to switch away from, and more importantly it was easy to see quantifiable problems with their current use by just looking at simple inferred images of the upper atmosphere, there were no maybes. Furthermore, Governments are not going to give into public funds around the globe, where they do not have a say in how that money is being spent. Compounding this problem is the fact that different cultures are naturally going to want these "global funds" spent differently. Sachs says that we must focus on our similarities and we will get through this, this seems overly optimistic.
The point that I disagree with Jeffrey Sachs on the most is that these issues are the greatest of my generation. While I may give him climate change and faulty international institutions as being high on the list, poverty traps and global overpopulation are not. Certainly in some cases I can see the benefits of a relatively small amount of money being invested towards these goals but for all the problems that developing countries have the scope of the problems is very limited. On the other hand the problems facing developed nations have much greater and far reaching affects. An economic collapse within a developing nation causes an isolated slump that can be fixed (relatively) easily; in a developed country an economic collapse can cause a worldwide depression. I am reminded of an airplane and how when the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling you are supposed to help yourself first, then others. While eliminating poverty traps and reducing population growth are admirable and worthy goals, we must prioritize. If we invest in the developing world while avoiding problems at home then could find that both ourselves and the developing countries are without oxygen.
In the end however we must look at this book as a whole in the view of what it is meant to accomplish. Common wealth is not meant for policy makers, or economists, or even those who are simply knowledgeable about the issues facing us today, rather it is a book for the uninformed that gives positive outlook for the world ahead in order to oppose the doom and gloom that we are inundated with daily. Perhaps I am a pessimist, and I am being overly "cynical" and "defeatist" as Jeffrey Sachs would say about topics that are facing today's world. (pg. 6) It is possible, but I think not. Rather I think that there is a line between being optimistic and being silly and that Jeffrey Sachs crossed it.
Sachs, Jeffrey D. (2008-03-18). Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet Penguin Group. Kindle Edition.