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September 25, 2012

Rating Romney at CGI
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

My friend Jon Cohn and others are all excited that Mitt Romney gave a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative this morning that reminds “how different and, I think, more appealing Romney can be when he’s not trying to be such an ideologue.”

I’m going to suggest, gently, that they perceive this speech as more positive and intelligent because they are less well-acquainted with its subject matter.  Let me offer three examples:

First, Romney starts his speech by trotting out that hoariest canard, that aid doesn’t work:  “We wonder why years of aid and relief never seem to diminish the hardship, why the suffering persists decade after decade.”

This is conventional wisdom that is very far from true. Just since 2000, child deaths have fallen by almost 30% worldwide, with some countries reducing under-five child mortality by as much as 60%. The total number of children out of school worldwide has fallen, even as the global population of school-age children has grown; for the first time, every region has more than ¾ of its youngest children in school. How’d that happen? Not through the magic of private enterprise, but the UN, government, foundations, charities, and public-private partnerships – all spurred by the UN Millennium Development Goals which were a project of government, and by national governments themselves deciding investment in child health and education were fundamental building blocks to economic success, be it in free-market or managed economies.

If you go back more than ten years you will find other successes led by governments of equal or larger-scale:  the Bush Administration’s leading role in nudging the world to scale up its response to AIDS (a role which included nudging private enterprise to do better in cutting vaccine and treatment costs); and the multi-decade effort to eradicate polio and some parasitic diseases.

 Second, the role of government in fostering free enterprise and promoting direct business engagement. Romney spoke at length and movingly about this. Few aid experts would disagree with his words. They would, however, as I do, wonder whether he is aware that his party has repeatedly criticized, cut and threatened to cut economic assistance to Middle Eastern societies, including support for business and public-private partnerships – most recently last week after the embassy attacks. In particular, one wonders whether he knows that his running mate Paul Ryan’s budget would cut spending on foreign aid (and also embassy security…) by 10%.

Finally, the role of trade in lifting communities and societies from poverty and into dignity and self-sufficiency. Romney’s rhetoric here would be cheered by many, if not most in the aid community and in developing countries themselves, who have long sought freer access to our markets and said they would prefer it to aid.

One wonders, therefore, why he has not been a strong proponent of efforts to reform U.S. farm subsidies to offer more of an opening to dirt-poor farmers in Africa, Asia and the Middle East. One wonders whether he knows that Paul Ryan supports a budget that would actually cut U.S. support for poor farmers growing their own food and food for export – in favor of programs that ship surplus U.S. agricultural products and undercut local farmers. No, one doesn’t really wonder at all – it’s domestic politics. One just wishes that the reporters and columnists who are gaga over his apparent reasonableness would ask him about it.

One might also remember that his autobiography contains some similarly ringing language about the value of open trade with China – a view he seems to have completely discarded in favor of campaign-trail attempts to curry favor with economically-threatened voters in the industrial Midwest.  So private enterprise works better to fight poverty… unless that poverty is in China. In which case, folks, you better hope communism works out for you.



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