Getting Better All The Time

The British statesman Leonard Henry Courtney noted in 1895,

“…After all, facts are facts, and although we may quote one to another with a chuckle the words of the Wise Statesman, ‘Lies–damned lies–and statistics,’ still there are some easy figures the simplest must understand, and the astutest cannot wriggle out of.”

Several years later, in his autobiography, the American author Mark Twain reduced that kernal of truth to a more easily digestible nugget: “There are three kinds of lies –lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

And while the quotation might easily apply to discussion of the policy directives of just about every administration of public governance in the succeeding hundred and ten years, a simple query of your favorite internet search engine will show it has been a hallmark theme of debate during George W. Bush’s tenure as President of the United States.

Comes now the pundit David Brooks to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, touting the “good news” contained in a report on global growth released last week by the World Bank. Mr. Brooks appears the heir apparent to William Safire, who recently announced his disinclination to remain the Liberal Media’s premier apologist for all things Conservative.

Mr. Brooks’ chief conceit is to accept things as they are and wonder why, when it’s possible to spin all the world’s injustice, corruption, malfeasance, and greed into a remotely pleasant or uplifting narrative, anyone should feel moved to complain or argue for the rearrangement of our governing priorities.

All the Liberal handwringing and chazerai over the inequities of supply-side economics and globalization are trumped by a global growth rate approaching 4%. Calling 2004 “the most prosperous year in human history,” Mr. Brooks believes we should be ecstatic over the fact that only 271 million people in the region of East Asia and the Pacific live on less than $1 a day!

Actually, he didn’t put it that way exactly.

In 1990, according to the World Bank, there were 472 million people in East Asia and the Pacific living on less than $1 a day. By 2001, there were 271 million living in, according to Mr. Brooks, “extreme poverty.” The implication is that globalization has raised those 200 million people out of “extreme poverty” (the threshold for which may or may not be $1 a day), and that they and every intellectually serious person should be “cheering on those guys in pinstripe suits at the free-trade negotiations and those investors jetting around the world.”

Well, hip, hip, hooray! –and cue the band: For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow…

Making the absurd claim “when regions grow, that growth is shared up and down the income ladder,” when in fact –as in the United States and the rest of the “developed” world– those on the very highest rungs of the “income ladder” enjoy the vast majority of the benefits of “economic growth”, Mr. Brooks expects us to accept at face value the report’s conjecture that the 271 million alive in extreme poverty in 2001 “will only be 19 million people living under those conditions” by 2015.

Every jet-setting investor and pinstriped trade negotiator across the globe can now burst with pride knowing this year’s 6.1% growth rate in the “developing” world has us on course to nearly wipe out “extreme poverty” in the next decade. Can you hardly wait?

What, for example, does a serious intellectual like Mr. Brooks find inevitable, acceptable, or desirable in a “developing” country? Where is he apt to draw the line between “extreme” poverty and “standard issue” poverty? Is a country such as Thailand, now on the verge of moving from the “developing” to the “developed” world, to be applauded for having raised its standard of living by denuding itself of nearly all its native timber and befouling its once pristine air, land, and water with toxic runoff from the factories and industry that define a “developed” nation?

Statistics may show that poverty is on the run and inequality is disappearing, but the facts on the ground say otherwise. Rural areas in all “developing” nations are being stripped of every consumable natural resource, while their inhabitants are left to fend for themselves in the same degree of “poverty” they have known for centuries (except now they no longer have their natural environment to sustain them), or they are driven into teeming urban centers ill-equipped to meet their needs in any way Mr. Brooks or his beloved pinstriped jet-setters would find comfortable or appealing.

Sure, “developing” countries have today far more Mercedes Benzes and BMWs, more Ritz Carltons and Hyatt Regencys, definitely more stuff made by Boeing and Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics than they once had. They have increased access to modern healthcare, to television, and to American fast food. They also have more crime, prostitution, and social disease, together with rising oligarchs, who prove to be every bit as corrupt and oppressive and venal as their models in “developed” countries.

If the architects of globalization have their way, the few remaining farmers in the “developing” world will plant seeds available by annual subscription only from Archer Daniels Midland.

Mr. Brooks and the World Bank, the pinstriped trade negotiators, and the jet-setting investors of this world all hail from the “lie back and enjoy it” school of rape counseling. Finding “good news” in the degree of life’s “extreme poverty,” while the richest nations of the world export war and pollution and insatiable consumption, requires easy figures I’m too simple to understand, nor astute enough to wriggle into.

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