Friday, February 9, 2007

It's Harder than you Think!

While we may view Iraq as the most important war being waged, in the world of banking and finance, there may be an equally, if not more, important war being waged over Africa. This is the subtext of a story by Andrew Bounds and Sarah Laitner that has appeared on The war concerns who will finance development projects in African countries and under what terms. That there is a war at all comes from a "shot across the bow" (to pursue the metaphor) fired by China and its recent high-profile visit to Africa:

The European Investment Bank has lost business to Chinese banks because they apply lower ethical and environmental standards, the head of the EIB said on Thursday.

This is not a new story. If the metaphorical shooting had not begun prior to the Chinese visit, we had at least seen reports that China was offering development support to potential African clients with few strings than those attached by the EIB or the World Bank.

This has got to be about as complex a problem as one can encounter, so we should use it to recall what H. L. Mencken said about such problems:

For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

In this case the danger of simplicity is one of trying to reduce the problem to a choice between right and wrong. Whether we like it or not, our system of ethics is fundamentally European, going all the way back to Ancient Greece; but, as is the case with "enlightenment" thinking, we tend to delude ourselves into believing it is the only system. Having just raised this same difficulty as it pertains to the "debate between faith and reason," I cannot say I am particularly optimistic about the prospect of a dialog opening up between China and the West over questions of either ethical or environmental standards. Recent reports from China on the latter issue seem to reflect a government policy that environmental problems are the fault of the West, so the responsibility for solution rests entirely with the West. Where ethics are concerned, one does not find many words; so the deeds have to speak for themselves.

Am I being too reckless with my own language by invoking the "war" noun? My previous analysis was triggered by the use of the phrase "war on evolution;" and, while the noun may have been intended as a metaphor, we have seen in at least one similar confrontation (abortion) how it can lead to physical aggression. I think we face a similar threat over the question of who can lend money to whom on what terms. At the risk of sounding too Californian, I might suggest that we now have a global Zeitgeist that has become far too stressed out; and one of the lessons is that too much stress often begets too much aggression. The United Nations used to be the place where we could all take deep breaths and count to ten; but not many of us are left who honor that role, more's the pity.

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