Young Activists Join Economic Lions at Davos Parley

By Allison T. Hoffman

Published January 28, 2005, issue of January 28, 2005.
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Greenspan, Friedman, Fischer, Reich, Rubin, Stiglitz, Summers, Wolfensohn: For years, the single-name figures of the economic world have been men, many of them Jewish, almost all of them weighing in on issues of globalization and economic development from university chairs, institutional headquarters or government departments.

But faced with the alarmingly real problems of 3.7 billion people living in poverty around the world — people who don’t have time to wait for endogenous-growth models to pay off — a newer generation of Jewish social scientists has decided to preach their ideas to the streets instead. They have dropped armchair activism in favor of real-world revolution, trading the role of tweed-jacketed researchers for stripes fighting with the grass-roots activists who have preached “the spirit of Seattle,” since the infamous protests at the World Trade Organization gathering there five years ago. Along the way they’re getting their hair highlighted, wearing designer clothes and hanging out with rock stars.

Noreena Hertz, the wunderkind British economist and Julie Delpy lookalike, has been called a rock star herself, along with “certified infobabe” and “the Nigella Lawson of economics.” Jeffrey Sachs, long known for his high-profile work restructuring Eastern Europe’s economies in the early 1990s, has thrown in his lot with Bono, the U2 front man, to lobby in the halls of Congress and the United Nations on behalf of the world’s poor. Paul Krugman, a prizewinning theoretician, has traded the ivory tower for the soapbox of The New York Times’s editorial page. Economic activist Naomi Klein, the force behind No Logo, is busy making high-profile documentaries and spreading her gospel throughout the blogosphere.

In the wake of last month’s tsunami, as politicians struggled to respond to the scale of the disaster — which hit developing nations, but claimed a number of first-world victims — these economists skipped backroom negotiations and addressed their appeals for immediate aid, debt holidays and relaxed trade restrictions directly to the public via op-eds, Web sites and appearances at tsunami relief events. And this week, in Davos, Switzerland, many of them will gather with corporate titans, heads of state and Bono at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum for a chance to communicate the suffering of people out in the field to the machers within the plush halls.

“My goal is to make sure that the concerns of the marginalized and excluded are raised loud and clear in the room so that politicians and leaders cannot escape their voices once they get inside the barricades,” said Hertz, who will speak both at the main forum and at the Open Forum, a session open to the public.

Long gone, it seems, are the days — only three years past — when the most recognizable names of the globalization debate belonged to men like Joseph Stiglitz and Stanley Fischer, respectively the former chief economist of World Bank andformer first deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund (and governor-designate of the Bank of Israel). The pair, both considered relatively progressive in world economic circles, argued bitterly on the op-ed pages in 2002 over whether those agencies should offer fairly unconstrained credit lines to shore up collapsing systems, as Stiglitz argued, or demand financial responsibility and restructuring from nations in crisis, an IMF approach that Fischer defended vigorously.

“In this age of celebrity, the more one is recognized as an academic, the greater a ready-made constituency I have,” said Hertz, a Cambridge professor, who argues that the massive debts of Third World countries are directly to blame for endemic social ills and political instability. Her latest book came with blurbs from both Bono and Bob Geldof, the man behind Live Aid and, in Britain, tear-off postcards addressed to Tony Blair demanding debt forgiveness for poor countries. “We thinkers in this area need to realize that these issues are not things that should only be discussed by policy wonks or in ivory towers.”

In the meantime, the rhetoric of “globalization” has shifted away from questions of corporate behavior and lending terms, partly in light of the sluggish worldwide economy and the increasingly obvious links between gross economic inequality and a variety of threats to the first world, terrorism and pandemic disease among them. In January, the United Nations’ Millennium Project, which Sachs chairs, issued a report arguing that extreme poverty could be halved by the year 2015 if rich nations simply double foreign aid flows to poor countries (from 25 cents for every $100 dollars of national income to 50 cents).

“Our public discourse is very confused — about what we are doing as a nation, about what we can do, about the power of our generation to solve practical problems on the planet,” said Sachs, who advocates addressing intractable poverty by committing more money in the short term to help countries rapidly restructure their social systems, much as he helped Poland “jump” from central planning to a free market in the 1990s.

Implicit in his ideas, Sachs szid, is the traditional Jewish concept of tikkun olam — though he is careful to emphasize the universality of development initiatives. “The world would find a much greater degree of cooperation to end suffering if we can reason together, and discover our common ethical roots and needs.”

Hertz, whose great-grandfather, Joseph Herman Hertz, wrote one of the classic modern Torah commentaries, made much the same point, quoting in ready Hebrew from Rabbi Hillel: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now — when?”

“As Jews, we do have a greater imperative to address issues of exclusion and marginalization,” she said. “We are exceptionally well placed to champion the excluded because throughout history we have been excluded ourselves.”

Indeed, these economists are in hot demand, as cultural figures with star power but little economic training turn to them for intellectual firepower. Sachs hitched up to the celebrity bandwagon in 1999, when Bono approached him for help in getting a $435 million debt-relief package through Congress as part of Jubilee Project. That project, an international effort to cancel Third World debts ahead of the millennium, was inspired partly by a passage from Leviticus that calls for debts to be forgiven every 50 years. It rallied grass-roots activists, religious organizations and the “rock economists” to the cause of relieving Third World suffering.

Still, even though Bono writes in his foreword for Sachs’s new book, “The End of Poverty,” that one day, economists’ autographs might be more valuable than his own, “economist” has yet to break onto the list in international surveys of the sexiest professions.

And, Sachs asked, “If I’m such a rock star, why hasn’t Bono let me into the band?”

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