This past Sunday I read the cover story from TIME magazine and hastily dashed off an irreverent critique of Bill Clinton’s five ideas that were supposedly changing the world. I posited that these were not particularly new ideas, not “changing the world” in a very revolutionary way, and similar to the happy talk so common to American politicians as a way to distract us from the real problems we are facing.
I was largely wrong, and definitely spent insufficient time in contemplation before hitting “publish.” I think I know why I made these cognitive errors. Hear me out.
First, my biases: the TIME cover story produced an allergic reaction in me for reasons that do not necessarily have much to do with the article itself. Clinton just came off a monstrous success with his speech at the Democratic National Convention. It was one the greatest political speeches in 100 years, and I cannot deny that Clinton may be one of the few speakers in the leadership class that can actually tell a story that hangs together. That this is so rare is a testament to our age, but still, his intellectual prowess is towering, duly famous. Still, I thought that a lot of his speech obscured many of the striking failings of American leadership in the last four years – notably returning the rule of law to finance, rebuilding infrastructure to reduce our need for petroleum, and articulating a coherent foreign policy, all promised during Obama’s initial campaign. Granted, he was selling the Democratic Party for another four years, so happy talk was the order of the day – but that didn’t change what I felt was a whitewash for the failure of many of our institutions. It seems like we’re still just getting around to dealing with the true problems of our nation, and yet here was another chance to get excited about a national strategy that does not appear to be working by many measures – falling incomes, reduced life expectancy, continued economic fragility, regulatory capture in several concentrated industries.
When I saw that Clinton was given the cover of TIME, I thought that he was expanding that happy talk to include the globe, using several “ideas” that have been developing for as long as I have been a futurist, nearly fifteen years. Hence my hasty judgment that this was one more cheerleading operation for initiatives that have been underway for a long time, and which may not, in and of themselves, be cause for optimism.
The article itself is still not especially convincing, relying considerably on a lot of anecdotes instead of laying out trend data that shows the discrete impact of each idea. But my critique from the other day has been gnawing on me – and now that I think about it, many of the initiatives underway through his and other charities are in fact changing “the world” for the better. His argument breaks down in the industrialized West – but before that, let’s cover how he was right and I threw his arguments out too quickly.
Undeniable positive change in many developing countries
Let’s just quickly recap the initiatives from the article in order, and let me argue in favor of most of them.
Idea #1: Phones mean freedom
Shimon Peres is quoted as saying “Television is the technology that makes dictatorship impossible, and democracy unbearable.” We may one day come to say that mobile telecommunications have made dictatorships fall and democracies flourish. On the political side, there is no question that the world would not be nearly as aware of democratic movements in Iran, Egypt and Tunisia if there was only the official state media. World opinion has played a huge part in these movements, and real-time knowledge of Muammar Qaddafi’s plans to massacre his own people helped us avoid a bigger humanitarian crisis.
From an economic perspective, mobile banking is helping accelerate microfinance (which I stated in my critique) and is also helping coordinate markets in rural areas in ways that were impossible without the devices. Indian farmers out in the sticks used to get regularly cheated by middlemen, but cell phones put them in touch with real time market prices.
The more of this the better.
Idea #2: Healthy communities prosper
This idea is somewhat obvious – but in the developing world, the changes are major improvements. A $1 mosquito net helps prevent malaria. Anti-retroviral drugs, though still too rare, are keeping men and woman working in their villages. Telemedicine promises to increase life-expectancies and in turn improve the economy.
Idea #3: Green energy is good business
I have to grit my teeth for this one, since in the West, it is much more complicated – but in the developing world, “green” energy (by which Clinton means renewable) can have a big impact. Isolated rural places in, say, Mozambique will never get the capital together to put together a standard electrical grid. But solar panels and windmills can provide small amounts of power exactly where it is needed for things like wells, water purification, and medical devices. This is a major leap forward.
Idea #4: Women rule
Clinton’s support for this argument is entirely anecdotal, which is too bad since trend data is available and would have helped the case. Otherwise, the advancement of woman is a good thing, and for some reasons that are not terribly flattering to my gender. My work in economic development showed that putting women into economic leadership roles tended to increase stability. Men, it turns out, are very likely to blow their money on alcohol and debauchery, often to the clear detriment of the family. Armed with mobile phones, women in the developing world are taking care of business.
Idea #5: The fight for the future is now
Well, this one is a platitude, not an idea. Let’s move on.
Clinton’s ideas only mean change for those starting from scratch
The timing of this article was to coincide with the Clinton Global Initiative, which collects donations for the projects named above. But it can’t be overlooked that Clinton’s news-worthiness is also based on his role in the Democratic Party and his recent speech in support of Barack Obama. Given that I am an American residing in America, I can’t avoid the fact that some of this article is political, intending to conflate Clinton’s optimism about his own initiatives with the election in the United States just around the corner. His speech at the DNC was about how we should be positive, since just like in the early 90s, things are getting better but “you just can’t feel it yet.” So his agenda is for people to be optimistic in his home country.
That’s the problem – these ideas don’t have the same optimism in countries with developed economies.
Phones don’t mean freedom in the poor suburbs of Paris or in the Ozarks. Sure, they have their uses, but the presence of cell phones in places like Detroit, north St Louis and Camden, NJ is not really a world changing thing.
Healthy communities prosper? Sure – and unfortunately America’s life expectancy is dropping.
Green energy is good business? Yes, but compared to the demand for petroleum and coal, the increase of renewables from a low base is nowhere near able to “change the world.”
Do women rule? Yes, and that is something we should be proud of. But in the developed world, many of the gains have already been realized. The major changes in this area are behind us, not in front of us.
There are causes for optimism in America – though I don’t think Clinton really explores them in this article. The discussions of the 99% versus the 1% will likely move us beyond the tired argument of “capitalism” versus “communism.” People are moving back into city centers after decades of neglect. We have a burgeoning appreciation of local and organic food that may help combat the awesome health problems that accompany factory food. Time banks, barter and local currencies are beginning to re-establish social ties that have been frayed by a globalized economy.
These are the kinds of things Clinton would talk about if America was a developing nation – which it kind of is in many parts of the country. Ironically, during the Democratic National Convention he spoke more about how our current institutions are making things better without the grassroots efforts that Clinton cites in Malawi, Rwanda and Brazil. That’s happy talk, and we have had a lot of it.