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Lecture Hop: Go East(erly), Young Man!

Bwog Official Economic Smackdown Arbiter Mark Hay joined the audience in 313 Fayerweather to hear from NYU’s significantly more sarcastic answer to Jeff Sachs.

1231518469When, while hosting a speech by our dear Professor Jeffrey Sachs last weekend, Columbia’s Delta GDP group announced that outspoken Sachs critic NYU Professor William Easterly would be coming to the same room at the same time the next week to give a response, a little awkward tension seemed inevitable. But yesterday’s presentation by Easterly was an absolute deluge (read: shit-storm) of biting sarcasm and harsh words.

With a giant picture of Sachs projected behind him, Easterly immediately recognized his rivalry with the famous Columbia professor and his way of thinking, acknowledging his sometimes egregious use of mockery and cynicism when dealing with the man, and, after such acknowledgments, profusely “thanking” Sachs for all of his hard work. He kept a straight face, but he had the audience in stitches and tears. Really, though, he insisted, he salutes Sachs for the man’s tireless work, which has raised awareness of global poverty and put it firmly on the international agenda. So, from Easterly to you, Professor Sachs, good on you… even if you are, as Easterly claims, parroting a sixty year old failed agenda for the poor with naïve zeal.

Easterly summarized the Sachs approach in three simple steps: fund monetary aid, identify and implement technological solutions to standard of living issues, fix poverty. But, he noted, nothing is new about this approach, and in the case of Africa, the supposedly innovative solutions to Africa’s woes in Sachs’s 2005 Millennium Development Goals had been, each and every one, suggested as early as 1938 by British colonial surveyors. So, Easterly asked, if Sachs’s solutions are not novel and he is not some singular savior figure, then why the hell do we think Sachs’s approach will end any differently? It will fail, he claimed, just like all of its progenitors.

But, said Easterly in his trademarked incisive and half-serious voice, he feels guilty for tearing down easy solutions and crushing idealistic hopes (all spoken with a glint in his watery, Santa Claus eyes). So, Easterly announced, “I’m finally willing to give an answer for myself.”

His answer came only after a great deal of self-congratulating and forced suspense that moved just beyond humorous and into the territory of the eye-roll. And what was it? “That question only makes sense in an approach to poverty that will not end poverty.” A bit convoluted, he admitted, but he explained that asking the question “what must we do to end world poverty?”, by asserting an exterior we as the force that will effect change, creates the concept that only an authoritarian regime of paternalistic development efforts, by robbing the poor of their rights and sovereignty, can solve the problems of global poverty, a view he claimed stems from the colonial British origins of the aid concept and has been the reigning doctrine since the inception of aid, pushing people like him to the backburner of history to sit and simmer in their own bitter juices.

Instead of pushing tired authoritarian paternalistic aid, Easterly argued, we should look to the success stories of development and realize that they grew by diverse policies. Homegrown solutions to development issues, individual entrepreneurship, freedom to find one’s own place and answer one’s own problems—these are the solutions to global poverty, he claimed, not aid. And this is Easterly’s real answer to defeating poverty: we must end the double standard of rights and freedoms for the rich and restrictions on the liberties and innovations on the poor by their imperialist overlords.

He may have a point. His explanation as to why paternalistic aid continues to receive support makes some sense as well: the needs for control and clear steps and the fear of the uncertainties that freedom of action for the poor would entail all make the current regime more attractive to politicians and celebrities (which is why Easterly’s camp gets Friedrich Hayek and Sachs gets Salma Hayek). As Easterly says, “I’m still struggling to understand why I’m losing the battle of ideas.”

But it is so hard to take Easterly seriously nonetheless. Pushed by one audience member, Easterly admitted to embellishing the language in many of his sources. But, he argued, what he inserts is really true the actual meaning of the quote. Not so, dear Professor, not so. Easterly’s insistence on replacing moderate terms with more pejorative and strong phrasings, his admission to using harsh and bitter language especially when dealing with critics, his constant digs at Sachs (at one point pretending to receive a call from the man and hang up on him), and his refusal to adopt a more moderate, conciliatory tone all make him seem, well, paternalistic towards his opponents. So, until Easterly learns to engage in a more civil discourse and accept that perhaps smug cynicism cannot carry him to glory against such a determined opposition with its own strong and valid points, until he ceases to gloss over problematic issues (i.e. making assumptions as to what would have happened without an aid regime that support his own views without much basis than his own intuition), until such a time, Professor Easterly, this correspondent has no trouble understanding why you are losing the battle of ideas.

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  • 3423432749 says:

    @3423432749 Easterly was a smug bastard, who even after acknowledging that he simply tore down others’ ideas without proposing his own, continued to do just that. He was completely unprofessional, offering nothing but destructive criticism. The “lecture” was a waste of time.

  • smug Columbia student says:

    @smug Columbia student oh bullshit, this write up was completely one sided. The reason Easterly didn’t offer one big alternative to traditional aid packages is because people like him aren’t likely to think them up, as he said in his lecture. Solutions need to be individualized to the situation. Just because this guy disagrees with our superstar prof and has a dry wit about him doesn’t make him the talk-radio pundit you’re turning him into.

    1. seriously says:

      @seriously This article was terribly biased. The ‘shit storm’ of “biting sarcasm and harsh words” sure didn’t seem like it to the people in attendance, who laughed out loud on multiple occasions. His wit was certainly more funny, and less harsh, than bwog articles and comments (for whatever that’s worth).

      Easterly is a minority voice dissenting from ‘accepted’ thought on international aid, and while this is the first time I’ve heard any of his viewpoints (after taking Prof. Sachs’s class) I have to admit that they’re pretty logical. He was perfectly civil and his ideas deserve more engagement, but of course decentralized schemes that threaten highly trained macroeconomists’ jobs will always face opposition from the crowd that could prove them right or wrong.

  • excuse me says:

    @excuse me but I don’t remember Easterly citing any feasible solutions. And anyways, I think J Sachs completely agrees that solutions need to be individualized to the situation. As it says on the Millennium Villages website, “With the help of new advances in science and technology, project personnel work with villages to create and facilitate sustainable, community-led action plans that are tailored to the villages’ specific needs and designed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.” Yes, in his speeches he focuses on actual basic and adaptable ideas. But isn’t that better than Easterly who spent an hour talking about colonial rhetoric while people are dying?

  • Attendee says:

    @Attendee So I think this author misses some of the nuance. Easterly’s biggest argument was that development economists are inherently in no position to judge where a country’s economic growth will emerge from. Creative, ambitious and self-interested individuals always have and still today hunt for business ideas that breed exports, investment in technology and employment. They search for something (failing many times) that they can comparatively produce cheaper and better than the rest of the world, and these ideas and business models fuel economic growth (read about the founder of Hyundai). Easterly preached modesty to our all knowing and expert development economists.

    I agree with the correspondent that Easterly’s sub-par delivery didn’t actually convince anyone from the Sachs camp of these ideas. He stomped down the libertarian path of freedom and individual rights, leaving the audience searching for any sign of novelty and nuance in his arguments. He was un-empathetic, nerdy and academic. Questions at the end were either specific to his book or so bald it was evident audience members hadn’t grasped a word he said.

  • Sarah says:

    @Sarah I agree that while Easterly was a little humorously sarcastic and perhaps a bit self-indulging, he was nowhere near as uncivil or acerbic as this article portrayed him to be.

    Although Easterly does believe in homegrown (from the native country, not from external outsiders), piecemeal solutions (which is a bit frustrating because they do not have the coherency of a central plan), that was not the main thrust of the talk. He was more focused on breaking down barriers in our attitudes towards the developing world which often paints them as helpless and incapable, dependent on the Western world to save the day. He, of course, provided evidence of homegrown solutions to support his claim, but given the hour he had, he focused on tackling the conceptual problem that under-girds every policy – which can be frustrating if you’re looking for concrete, practical answers. But you can always look those up online or read about them. To piece together from the data an overarching trend is a much harder task, and I think Easterly tried to do that.

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