Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Mountains Beyond Mountains a biography by Tracy Kidder: or why anti-poverty crusader Paul Farmer irritated me

Paul Farmer is a Harvard medical school professor who spends most of his time in Haiti fighting tuberculosis, AIDS and more generally poverty, both in Haiti and around the world. As someone who has dedicated his life to providing medical care for the truly impoverished, Farmer is a hero for my girlfriend, a med student, but somehow I always found him to be unsettling.

Tracy Kidder is the author of Soul of a New Machine, a Pulitzer Prize winning ethnographic analysis about the motivations of geeky computer engineers. It was the most compelling non-fiction book I have ever read and a crucial part of my education as an economist. As soon as I saw that Kidder had written a new biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains, subtitled the "The Quest of Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World" it was a book I bought at once for the both of us.

Kidder somehow accurately articulates exactly what always unsettled me about Farmer. It is some combination of his holier-than-thou crusade for the poor, his purposeful inspiration of guilt into all around him, his Communist ideology, and his utter disregard for efficiency. However, through personal narrative, Mountains Beyond Mountains leads the reader through Kidder's budding appreciation of Farmer as he they travel together in the course of Kidder's research for the book. Kidder helps the reader understand Farmer by showing how the medical crusader overcame Kidder's own misgivings, partly through his important academic contributions to the understanding of epidemics, partly through his immense personal dedication toward the eradication of poverty, but primarily through the inherent goodness of Farmer's morality which Kidder comes to appreciate.

(see full review here at epinions.com)

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

A Progressive Case for US involvement in Iraq

Many liberals and now many conservatives have used the 3rd anniversary of the Iraq war to renew their attacks against US involvement in Iraq. My position three years ago was insufficient information to pass judgment (I tend to have a high bar) and thus willing to defer to those with more information. Someone asked me today how my opinion has changed. It hasn't.

West Wing (excellent show) has just had Jed Bartlett sending a comparable number of US troops to an oil rich central Asian country to avert a civil war. It seems this is a typical left wing progressive position: US troops should be used to stand between combatants in potential civil wars, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Nigeria, i.e. nation building. It seems that a large part of the attacks in Iraq are between Iraqis. Shouldn't the US be there to minimize the damage? Yes, there are other problems we are ignoring, but isn't something better than nothing?

Note that this is totally independent of the US invading in the first place. Even if you disagree about that, what's that have to do with pulling out today. And there are strong progressive reasons for invasion as well. The people of Iraq clearly wanted to be free of Sadaam Hussein's rule. Every opinion poll shows they are still overwhelmingly happy to be rid of him. Isn't inaction in helping kick out a dictator the same as action in propping up a dictator (a standard left wing indictment of US foreign policy) [And yes, those classical liberals/libertarians especially make a big difference between action and negative inaction, but economists and progressives tend not to care] {And of course I always thought there are good reasons sometimes to support dictators, it's just interesting now that there are so many progressives out there that wish we had.}

Sunday, March 19, 2006

Chronicle for Higher Ed Column #3

This one got a bit more personal that I would have liked. The editor asked for a new ending at a weird time for me, but it did make the piece much better.

Chronicle Column #3

For those who don't know, I am taking a job as Assistant Professor at the Johnson School of Business at Cornell. Yes, Ithaca is Gorges, though it is alas in the middle of nowhere. Still, it all seemed to work out. So if you have any suggestions on how to conclude my column, I'd be happy to hear them. I have no idea.

I don't want to come across like the MIT professor who told me, Ben, you should be happy you didn't get a job at MIT. Maybe it's the best thing that ever happened to you, it forces a reevaluation of what's important. Also, when people find out you are an MIT professor they think you're some kind of God or something and you're lucky you don't have to deal with that. Gee, thanks...

Though on the whole he was right. The whole search process allowed me to reevaluate what I want out of life, and what is important. Now, the task just is to condense that into an engaging non-off-putting 1000 word essay.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

jimmy carter and george bush got it right

The forces of rationality lost another one today to the forces of politically inspired stupidity, as the Dubai Ports World was forced to divest its holdings in the US Ports.

The combined forces of Jimmy Carter, NPR and the Economist who all thought the deal was unquestionably a good thing as well as a veto threat by George Bush couldn't stand up to the combined political pressure by senators from both parties (led by among others Hillary Clinton who loses all moral high ground on this one), abetted by Lou Dobbs on CNN openly mocking anyone who would suggest that the port deal is a good idea.

It is not just a blow against free trade, and against all rational sense (NPR lined up dozens of experts, and only one had reservations about the deal. The politicians could find no expert that supported their opinion), but also it was a chance to show the Arab world that in the US, freedom and trade outweigh petty tribal disputes. That we live in such a Cosmopolitan society that until the likes of Hillary Clinton and Chuck Schumer stepped in, an Arab company running parts of major US ports would have gone completely unnoticed.