/ 8 April 2011

… And how the West was lost

How the West was Lost by Dambisa Moyo (Allen Lane) and Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism by Chandran Nair (Infinite Ideas)

Dambisa Moyo is a young Zambian-born economist who made her money at Goldman Sachs and her name with Dead Aid, a provocative book about Western aid that claimed that rich countries make things only worse for the poor.

On this basis she was picked by Time magazine to be one of its 100 most influential people in the world in 2010. That was absurd and should have been enough to end any promising career, but she has soldiered on and has now written a post-wreck treatise examining how the United States economy has collapsed.

In its favour, How the West Was Lost is more interesting, wider in scale and more important than Dead Aid. It sketches how, in less than 50 years, successive administrations have not just lost the US’s way but have wilfully handed leadership to the rest of the world in a series of flawed economic policies. Moyo shows well how fundamental economic liberalisation espoused by what she calls the profligate, greedy, self-interested West has come back to bite it.

She clearly despises Western free-market capitalism, the economies of which, she says, are based on ruthlessness, self-interest and an ability to exploit resources and people from other countries. But her fawning admiration for the state-sponsored Chinese version of capitalism wears thin. China can build a city like Shanghai in a few years, she says; China can change the weather and turn the deserts green; China can take streamlined decisions; China can save trillions of dollars; China can have 100-billion cars and win the World Cup, too. She doesn’t actually say that last bit, but you get the idea.

For all her brio and glamour, Moyo is a very orthodox thinker, unable to consider a world beyond free markets and underpriced resources and blind to the social effects of what she proposes and celebrates. Gross domestic product is her best measure of a country’s success or failure; growth is her grail. Her prose is littered with images of winning and losing races, conflict, aggression, submission, domination, victory, violence and triumphs. She sees the US as locked in a fight to the death with China, she advocates that states take “nuclear” options and she sees countries being “strangled” by one another. But she pays little attention to the ecological constraints of capitalism or to what may or may not be desirable. For Moyo, the great game of making money, preferably by technological advances, is all.

Unsurprisingly, then, her choices for the US in these miserable times are pretty stark: to retreat into protectionism, become effectively a socialist state or to default on its massive debt to China. The stock markets would crash, she says, the dollar would turn into Monopoly money and there would be uproar, but the US would wipe its slate clean. She reckons that the US’s reputation would take a knock, but it could start growing all over again pretty soon.

Chandran Nair’s book, Consumptionomics: Asia’s Role in Reshaping Capitalism, is altogether more subtle. Unlike Moyo, he is not part of the elite discussion groups convened at Davos or the Aspen Institute. The head of the Global Institute for Tomorrow, a think-tank that tries to make sense of globalisation, he follows creative development thinkers such as Jonathon Porritt, Eduardo Galeano and Lester Brown.

Without being a Malthusian fear-monger, he dares to ask calmly what may happen if Asia continues to develop along Western lines and adopts the same old consumption-driven capitalism that Moyo and other economists like.

What we get is not an attack on the West so much as a powerful critique of the development path that Asia, and especially China, is taking and a healthy questioning of markets. Nair questions the assumptions that everyone in China and India should — or needs to — have a car, live and work in air-conditioned buildings and consume food and goods shipped from everywhere in the world. He argues that Asian capitalism must be reshaped for a resource-constrained world rather than be replaced. There must be a better way to live, he says.

But like the Guardian‘s Asia environment correspondent, John Watts, Nair warns that the kind of growth that propelled the West to global dominance can lead to ecological and political crises only if repeated in Asia. The have-it-all life of abundance now being adopted by hundreds of millions of Asians will create further tensions, resource disputes and environmental and social disasters. It is in the interests of a confident China, India, Thailand and Korea to consider the true costs of their countries’ growth, set limits, exploit resources less and constrain their consumerism.

Where Moyo and Nair converge is on the role of the state. The West has blown its chance, they each suggest, by fatally abdicating responsibility to the free market and the bankers, but China and other Asian countries are being led by strong governments with both the power and the confidence to take the hard decisions to avoid the West’s mistakes. It is this that gives both authors some optimism for the future, albeit for different reasons. —