There’s not as much Bush-and-Blair bashing as some of the audience would like. Every side-swipe at the US, often concealed with mock diplomacy (“we all know what country I am talking about”) prompts a ripple of applause – you get the feeling that a full frontal attack on these arrogant and deluded leaders would bring the house down.
Benign, wise and oddly at times a little tentative in delivery, Joseph Stiglitz stands at the podium in the big tent of the Edinburgh Book Festival, the spotlight glinting on his grey hair. The Nobel Prize winning economist is a big gun and he is aiming at the neocon philosophy of greed and growth at all costs.
Waiting for the lecture to begin, I spot a young friend queuing for one of the last few seats on the back row. “Here for a bit of Bush bashing Andy?” He grins widely, “You bet.”
The professor warms as he takes questions from the floor. This former vice president of the World Bank seems to have an awesome bird’s eye view of global economics. He draws together apparently disparate strands of information to provide a devastating holistic appraisal of the give and take between rich and poor countries. Or rather, the relentless take and take of rich from poor.
Stiglitz leaves no room for the belief that wealth ‘trickles down’. In the US under the Bush regime the rich have become richer to an incredible extent while lower-income America has not just stood still; incomes and standards of living have fallen back by several decades.
The same is happening to disenfranchised people across much of the developing world. Protectionist trade policies of US and Europe make sure that the gap between rich and poor is widening at the cost of the environment – while climate change looms on the horizon. Global capitalism does not deliver benefits for all unless there is the political will to create a fair market place. We are a long way from the fair, flat earth described by the US neocon writer Thomas Friedman. Wealth flows from poor to rich while risk flows from rich to poor.
To Stiglitz that’s not just morally wrong, it’s bad economics. This is his beef with globalisation. It’s not in anyone’s long term interest to create a dangerously unbalanced world. He believes it doesn’t have to be this way and sees signs – in China, in the World Bank, in the UK (but not yet in the US) – that policy makers understand the good economic case for social justice. There are ways of enabling truly free trade and creating sustainable loans for developing countries. We just need the will.
How do we achieve it? Stiglitz gives the audience hope in his answer to the last question from the floor. Citizen power is influencing change for the better. The changes are slow but they are evident (in China supporters of social justice have so far won the argument with the communist-capitalists who would go for growth at all costs) – but it depends on all of us with voting power to keep up the pressure. Prising the UK away from the Bush government is an essential step forward. We clapped for that in the big tent at the Edinburgh Book Festival. Now let’s tell Blair.