Nina Munk on Jeff Sachs

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For those who, like me, are not entirely sure what to make of (occasional Time columnist) Jeff Sachs’s conversion from prophet of sound-money capitalism to would-be savior of Africa, my old friend Nina Munk has a very entertaining piece in the new Vanity Fair that will probably leave you no surer:

When I ask Sachs about his failure in Russia, he becomes agitated, prickly, like a hedgehog: “Do I consider Russia a failure of the West? Yes, definitely. Do I consider it a personal failure? No, I find that absolutely preposterous. I don’t understand why somebody doesn’t ask Robert Rubin, or ask Dick Cheney, or ask Larry Summers, or ask anybody that actually had power at the time about it.” He’s had it with this line of questioning: “It’s preposterous by now, and tired. And it’s tiresome, and it’s a tired question, and it’s absolutely absurd.”

According to his account in The End of Poverty, Sachs’s focus on extreme poverty began in 1995, when, for the first time, he traveled to sub-Saharan Africa: “Never, not even in the highlands of Bolivia, where illness is rife, had I confronted so much illness and death.” Early in his career, when he was thinking about ways of improving people’s lives, Sachs had been convinced of the power of open markets, free trade, deregulation, privatization, and fiscal discipline. Now, perhaps in response to this first trip to Africa, he started to promote benevolent intervention.

Some people believe that Sachs’s crusade to wipe out poverty is the direct result of his failure in Russia, that he’s atoning for his public errors of judgment and compensating for them. Sachs dismisses that simpleminded theory out of hand. As far as he is concerned, his work in the developing world is not all that different from his earlier work in Bolivia and Poland. In an e-mail, he explains to me that his goal has always been “to take on complex challenges and bring to bear expertise in economics and other disciplines to find workable solutions.” What I think he means is this: it doesn’t matter whether you’re using shock therapy to save a nation’s economy or prescribing interventions for a village to save human beings. The messianic pattern is the same.

Update: While I’m plugging my friends’ work, I might as well mention that Jeff Gordinier has a great (and timely) article in the new Details about a guy with drug-resistant TB locked up in the criminals’ wing of a Phoenix hospital, which I only just realized now is online (lots of Details stuff isn’t). A sample:

In the middle of his locked door was a square glass porthole through which Daniels could see the guards, the nurses, and the cleanup crews passing by the void, going about their lives, waving to him, speaking in muffled voices. If he peered across the hallway, he could see other inmates, the criminal ones, drifting around or lying in their beds. Those inmates had it easy. They knew when they might be getting out of jail. Daniels did not know, and as far as he could tell, he could escape from Ward 41 only by accomplishing one of two things: Either he would rid his body of a bug that had proved resistant to some of the strongest drugs in the medical arsenal, or he would die.

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