Consider the irony: Bernie Sanders was seated alongside Bolivian President Evo Morales as he participated in a conference on social, economic, and environmental issues hosted by the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Meanwhile, in news reports concerning Sanders’s visit to the Vatican, I learned that Jeffrey Sachs is one of the democratic socialists’s foreign policy advisers.
Why the irony? Because Sachs, aka Dr. Shock, was responsible not only for the economic and social disasters his version of shock therapy created in Poland and Russia, but also—at least indirectly—for the rise to prominence and ultimately the election of Morales.
As Benjamin Kohl and Linda Farthing explain, in challenging Sachs’s 2012 campaign for World Bank president,
What Sachs fails to mention, however, is the clear link between the SAP [structural adjustment program] in Bolivia and the 1980s coca and cocaine boom. Thousands of miners, peasants, and factory workers who lost their livelihoods because of ‘stabilization’ fled to the agricultural frontier to sow coca, the one crop that had a guaranteed market. The government implicitly allowed the laundering of drug money through offering certificates of deposit in US dollars at the central bank, no questions asked. The influx of money from the drug trade, perhaps the best expression of what capitalism can do in an unregulated market, was responsible for a substantial part of the economic growth for which Sachs wishes to claim credit.
We show in Impasse in Bolivia that the neoliberal ‘stabilization’ plan that Sachs is so proud of set the stage for 15 years of slow economic growth and increasing opposition to neoliberalism. Bolivia, promoted by the World Bank and IMF as a neoliberal success story in the 1980s and 1990s, morphed into the poster child of the anti-globalization movement when the people of Cochabamba rose up in the ‘Water War’ of 2000. This set in motion a period of unrest that led to the resignation of two presidents before a leader committed to the interests of the poor majority was elected in 2005.
More recently, Sachs has been criticized for the exaggerated claims he has made concerning his use of a handful of African villages as test cases for his Millennium Villages Project.
But we shouldn’t forget Sachs’s checkered history as an imperious, globe-trotting development economist or, for that matter, his enormous ego,
which exposes almost anything he does to the suspicion that he’s in it mostly for the attention. But while his work in Russia, though it drew attention, was mostly destructive – something he still can’t admit to – his concerns today are a lot more admirable. His criticisms of American warmongering and Western indifference to the poverty of a billion or two of our fellow humans are mostly on the side of the angels. Maybe the best summing up of the latest incarnation of Jeffrey Sachs comes from David Ellerman: “I hope he gets what he wants, but that he doesn’t get any credit for it.”