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"This is an inverted world": Interview with Jeffrey Sachs

"Unlike Europe, the American media hardly raise critical questions..The motives and reasons for war are not put in question...We could overcome malaria and Aids. We could give poor people access to clean water. We could stop the destruction of the rain forest. Why do we spend $100 billion for Iraq and only $200 million for the Global Fund? This is an inverted world." Translated from the German in Austrian Weltwoche
"This is an Inverted World"

Interview with Jeffrey Sachs

[The American economist Jeffrey Sachs is one of the sharpest critics of the policy of president George W. Bush. This conversation on the irrationality of wars, five-star hotels and his collaboration with the rock star Bono originally published in the Austrian Weltwoche 45/03 is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.weltwoche.ch/ressort_bericht.asp?asset_id=6169&category_id=62.]

You were a professor at Harvard and today you teach at Columbia University in New York. What do young Americans think about the war in Iraq?

My impression was that a majority was for the war. Interestingly the attitude of students was clearly different from the view of the faculty who are much more skeptical about the war. Many professors have not forgotten that the Vietnam War caused chaos. We are witnessing an exchange of roles of the generations.

Is support for Bush slackening since people see the problems of America in rebuilding Iraq?

Hardly. This isn't surprising. Unlike Europe, the American media hardly raise critical questions. No public debate arises about the sense and nonsense of wars. People obviously realize that the war is not going as promised and that the costs have skyrocketed. But the motives and reasons for war are not put in question.

How many dead soldiers will the American people tolerate?

The number of casualties is certainly important. However the war costs are even more important. At the moment, they amount to $4 billion a month. You must try imagining this enormous sum: $26,000 per soldier every month. What is remarkable in the Bush administration is its avoiding additionally burdening the American people. The result is an incredible deficit of $500 billion per year. I regard that as an entirely irresponsible policy. Still Bush is not called to account. He has a free ticket.

Perhaps this was once true but recently he had to ask Congress for additi0onal funds. Europeans should also be actively involved in the rebuilding.

Yes, even conservative members of the House and Senate ask whether the costs aren't too high and urge Europeans to participate. Many Americans are blind and self-righteous. They believe the rest of the world will get them out of a tight spot. Originally the government assumed that the Iraqi oil would cover the costs. However too little flows partly because pipelines are exploded again and again which is not really surprising.

Does the citizen feel this enormous deficit?

America is a very rich country and therefore enjoys the luxury of being irresponsible for a long time. That was part of the success of Ronald Reagan. Compared to his son, Bush senior acted relatively responsibly. He wanted to raise taxes and accordingly lost his reelection. Ten years were needed until we brought the budget into order again. Ironically the Democrat Bill Clinton from whom one expected a more relaxed relation with finances even attained a budget surplus. Practically overnight George W. Bush destroyed that surplus. He granted two trillion dollars in tax relief over the next ten years to his rich friends and increased military spending by more than a $100 billion dollars per year. Now we have this tremendous deficit that represents an enormous burden for the next generations. At the moment Bush still gets off scot-free. However more and more people slowly see the mess. They ask: How will this indebtedness affect our pensions and our public health system?

You said early on that the war involves oil. Do you still see it that way?

Do you seriously believe that we would spend $50 billion if no oil flowed beneath the Iraqi desert? Magnanimous people do not sit in this administration that wander about in the world to overthrow dictators and liberate people. Our government doesn't care when millions of poor people die in Africa. But a strategic interest is immediately involved if oil flows somewhere. There is no doubt that oil is central.

What about the weapons of mass destruction?

Saddam had these weapons in the past. We know this best since we gave these weapons to him in the eighties. The US and Europe gave him the necessary technical know-how to produce chemical and probably biological weapons. Why? Because he was our ally.

Scholars like you predicted much of what is now happening in Iraq. Did the government ever ask for your advice?

Are you serious? (laughs) This administration doesn't listen to people like me. Do you have any idea how hard it was before the war to get a critical opinion in the US media? I only succeeded once in publishing a long article in the New Republic in March. I wrote that military power is necessary for winning a war. But military power is never enough for governing a country. Neoconservatives today have not understood this. They seem convinced that they have a God-given right to rule other people.

The neoconservatives didn't appeal to God to overthrow Saddam.

The basic problem of neoconservatives is that they believe brilliant military power leads automatically to political or economic power. This isn't so simple. You can win the war but lose the peace. Bombing a country from thirty thousand feet is simple. However young Muslims rebelling against the American occupiers will shoot the soldiers on the ground from all sides. This Intifada is not only limited to Iraq but will extend over 9000 miles from Morocco to the Philippians.

Some see the occupation of Iraq as an expression of a new American imperialism...

That is absurd. We have the strongest military power of the world but can't supply a city like Baghdad with electricity. Whatever some people in Washington claim, the age of imperialism is over. People cannot be foreign-determined any more today.

Perhaps America must only appear decisively as an occupying power anxious for peace and stability.

Oh, that idea is incredibly na´ve and thoughtless. A dreadful blood bath is likely. That members of the American government defend the thesis of US Empire only shows how little they understand the rest of the world. The arrogance and ignorance of these people should not be underrated. They believed with all seriousness that the GIs in Iraq would be loudly acclaimed and welcomed as liberators. They have no understanding for the humiliation and rage that arise when America sets itself above the law and occupies other countries.

Five months have passed since the end of the war. Isn't too much expected in so short a time?

Zealots or fanatics like Rumsfeld say: We will not be intimidated. What are a few dead? The murder rate in large American cities is just as high. For people like Rumsfeld, the war is a men's game. Incompetence is joined to this ignorance. They cannot imagine the amateurishness of the White Housed. Practically no knowledge about the region exists there. Whenever I dealt with the government, I was astonished about the extent of dilettantism. The State Department is not much better. The Treasury Department that I know well has almost no understanding of developing economies. Only the military has done its homework.

From your perspective, only absolute beginners sit in Washington who don't give a damn about the rest of the world.

What is completely missing to them is empathy, empathy for people living in poverty and chaos. They cannot transpose themselves into the situation of a young Shiite in Nadschaf and imagine how they see the American troops. These people know how to become rich in the American system but have no understanding about the concrete life of poor people. The world now consists mainly of poor people. Ninety percent of humanity fight for their dignity and their daily survival and constantly ask: Why are we poor and they are rich? .

We are sitting here in the foyer of the "Intercontinental", a five-star hotel...

... in which I check in one hour and check out the next hour...

Will you only stay an hour?

Yes, I arrived this morning from America and will leave this afternoon for a meeting with representatives of the World Health Organization.

And you know what moves people in poor countries?

I spend much time in villages, clinics and schools. This summer I visited rural areas in Ghana and Ethiopia. I was in Paraguay and in the mountainous regions of Bolivia and Peru. Early on I learned: one must see with one's own eyes to understand. In Africa, I witnessed how patients didn't die in hospitals because of a shortage of medicines. The medicines were in the next room. They died before my eyes because they couldn't afford them. This has to be seen. Unfortunately our politicians seldom make such experiences when they travel to Africa on state visits. They only hear: "Thanks for coming". One has to see the misery with one's own eyes to realize how hollow and empty are the theories of the Wall Street Journal's editorial writers and the neoliberals of the Bush administration. "Liberalize your markets and pull yourselves together" is their creed. In the meantime, masses of people are dying.

Some time ago you sounded very different. As Russia's advisor, you stood up for a neoliberal shock therapy. What opened your eyes?

No, that is a constantly repeated misunderstanding. I never recommended a pure free enterprise strategy. In all my publications, I have always emphasized the importance of social spending, public oil age insurance and health systems, to say nothing of state infrastructure measures and public support of science and technology. Only the most foolish simplifications of the media claimed the opposite. In reality, I have pleaded for more than twenty years for more aid to developing countries and debt cancellation - for countries like Russia to finance social spending and investments. Of course, I believe in market forces, international trade and private investments as motors of growth. But I was never an ideologue of the free market economy. False charges come from not reading my works.

Back to Iraq again: What would be the solution?

Very simply, we should never have invaded Iraq and must leave as quickly as possible.

And the country will sink in chaos...

The chaos already exists; we cannot prevent the chaos. We should hand over control in a brief transition phase to the UN and then to the Iraqis. Iraq is ethnically splintered. Whether peace will return in the near future is doubtful. Neither the Americans nor the UN will solve the problems. The Iraqis must do that themselves. What is crazy is that there are enough injustices in the world that we could solve and should worry about. We could overcome malaria and Aids. We could give poor people access to clean water. We could stop the destruction of the rain forest. Why do we spend $100 billion for Iraq and only $200 million for the Global Fund to combat Aids, malaria and tuberculosis? This is an inverted world.

Didn't president Bush recently promise $15 billion to combat Aids in Africa?

That was no more than a promise. We are already in the fourth year of the Bush administration. What has happened so far? We heard nothing but announcements that we may spend money some time or other. What I know for certain is that we urgently need funds here and now for existing relief programs. Why doesn't he simply contribute the $15 billion to this fund?

The cry for more money is always loud. The balance sheet of development policy shows that it has failed in most cases.

Aid to developing countries has a miserable reputation. Why? Because we spent enormous sums in the past for dictators who by chance were good friends of the US. The irony is that aid is so simple to accomplish if the will exists. Let me give you an example. Around $100 million is presently spent per year to combat the 500 million to 1 billion malaria cases. This amounts to 10 to 20 cents per sufferer. That is absurd. As another example, the US with great fanfare presented a water supply project for West Africa at the UN summit in Johannesburg last summer. I saw the details. $5 million was earmarked for a region with 100 million people, 5 cents per head. That may be enough for a paper cup but probably not a cup with water. A media event was staged for the project. To emphasize the proportions again, the US spends $1 billion for all Africa in one year and $4 billion a month for Iraq.

Some countries like Brazil are now taking the initiative in the struggle against Aids. They copy Aids medicines much to the dismay of the large pharmaceutical companies and distribute them free of charge to the infected. Is that the way of the future?

Threshold countries that have the necessary know-how should take this initiative. However poor countries like Malawi, Tanzania and Burkina Faso don't have this possibility. Even the imitated products cost $200 to $300 per patient a year. This is more than the average per-capita income in these countries. Take Malawi as an example. Per-capita income there is $200; in Brazil it is $3000. In other words, the economic burden is 100 times greater than in Brazil. Even if Malawi followed the Brazilian way, it simply couldn't afford the medicine.

Should Aids-sufferers receive medicine free of charge?

Absolutely. The pharmaceutical industry cannot give medicines for nothing since the industry isn't a charity organization. It could supply them at production costs. The rich countries must be responsible for this subsidy. We can save millions of human lives. The US government constantly speaks of the liberation of the Iraqi people - and abandons millions of people to certain death.

You call the superrich in America to give part of their assets to alleviate poverty. Are you given a hearing?

I will first give you the facts since they are really impressive. According to the tax returns, the incomes of the 400 richest Americans in 2000 amounted to $69 billion, $174 million per person. When president Bush set out on his Africa journey, I made a little calculation. The combined income of these 400 Americans is equal to the gross national product of Nigeria, Senegal, Uganda, Botswana and Ethiopia together. 200 million people live there.. Bush's greatest desire was to give tax relief to these rich Americans. I recommend that Bush urge these 400 superrich to give ten percent of their income to the fund for combating Aids and malaria, $7 billion a year. What could be more beautiful than saving millions of people from death? This gives a meaning to wealth. Wealth could make a genuine contribution for humanity.

What happened to your proposal?

I heard of one person who had a prima idea, Bill Gates, and he has already accomplished many things. He established an endowment with $20 billion. No one can say this about the Bush administration. Still I was disappointed that he was the only rich one to volunteer. No one asked: What is this Global Fund? How can malaria be overcome? On the other hand, dozens of poor countries wrote me that it was a fantastic idea...

Appealing to the personal responsibility of the rich has had little fruits.

In the US we emphasize the freedom of the individual. But the freedom of individuals needs the counterweight of individual responsibility. This doesn't seem to affect the rich.

You are described as an "enlightened optimist". However everything sounds so hopeless. Where do you gain your optimism?

I've been called a "mad optimist" and a "great fan of the Enlightenment". The Enlightenment in fact was a glorious time of intellectual history. Adam Smith, David Hume and Immanuel Kant all believed we could improve the condition of the world with our intellectual abilities. I also believe this. The irrational in the person was hardly considered in the past. Many of these irrational forces are part of our evolutionary origin. Many wars had an irrational origin and cannot be rationally justified. Cooperating is difficult for people. Every party has its own god authorizing the conquest of a spot of land.

Are you optimistic despite everything?

We have intellectual abilities to solve the problems of this world with modern technologies and sciences. That is the great tragedy, irony and absurdity in our dilemma, whether treating Aids, TB- and malaria patients, providing drinking water or saving the rainforest. When all the costs are calculated - which is how I earn my livelihood - the solution of all these problems requires less than one percent of the economic power of the industrial countries. It is absolutely grotesque. I spend my whole adult life convincing well-to-do people that they should give one percent of their affluence to the poor. That sounds so trivial. Actually I should urge ten percent but I haven't even won on one percent.

Are you frustrated?

No, one percent is an absurdly small amount. Some time or other we will realize that the costs are much less than the benefits. You know, all these problems are solvable. If I had any doubt, I would do something else, perhaps write novels.

You are often seen with Bono, the lead singer of U2. The intellectual and the pop star unite in the struggle against poverty. Is this a new trick to gain attention?

Bon o is more than a pop star. I have collaborated with him for four years. He is one of the best experts on the subject of development and a first-rate negotiating partner. He wants real changes. I must admit that working with him is great fun.

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