[Washington Babylon ]History Rewritten at the Washington Post | Harper's Magazine

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[Washington Babylon]

History Rewritten at the Washington Post


Robert Samuelson is stumped. “One of the big debates of our time involves the causes of economic growth,” he writes today in the Washington Post. “Why is North America richer than South America? Why is Africa poor and Europe wealthy?”

Luckily, Samuelson seems to have found the answer. His column, citing a new book by Gregory Clark called A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World, blames poverty in the South on the inferior culture of the world’s poorer countries. “Modern technology and management are widely available, but many societies can’t take advantage because their values and social organization are antagonistic,” Samuelson writes enthusiastically in summarizing Clark’s viewpoint. “Prescribing economically sensible policies . . . can’t overcome this bedrock resistance.” Given the backward nature of people in poor countries, poverty is “semi-permanent.” One might reasonably conclude, there’s no point worrying about it or trying to do anything to change it.

I’d suggest Samuelson read King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. That book explains how King Leopold II of Belgium stole the Congo’s rubber and other natural resources while terrorizing its population–which dropped by ten million people during Leopold’s rule. Samuelson might also want to examine modern Africa, where the French installed numerous crooks (like Omar Bongo of Gabon) who rule to this day with French support. Then there’s oil-rich Equatorial Guinea, where the Obiang dictatorship is sustained by the U.S. government and American oil companies.

It’s also important to remember that the United States for decades employed military force in Latin America and imposed dictatorial regimes that served American economic and political interests–sort of like the Soviet Union’s relationship with Eastern Europe during the Communist era.

Economic exploitation and military domination aren’t the only explanations for Third World poverty, but any analysis that ignores those factors isn’t worth much.

For a more complete critique, see this terrific post at digitalemunction.com.

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