In Praise of Dead White Men

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva’s recent accusation that the financial crisis was caused by “white people with blue eyes” at a joint press conference with UK Prime Minister Brown is illuminating if not entirely accurate. [1] Everyone involved in the financial crisis certainly does not have blue eyes, although they may all be uniformly white. Da Silva claimed that he had never met a black banker.

One evening last week in Mumbai, a friend said that it was remarkable that the financial crisis was the work of a handful of extremely greedy and immoral people. These people personally gained enormously but the cost that they imposed on the rest of the world was many magnitudes higher. The negative externalities, as economists would say, amount to trillions of dollars. These handful of people were white men.

To me, all this talk of white men causing all the trouble in the world feels a bit like the “man bites dog” situation. I have nothing against white men (and hastily add that some of my friends are white males.) Indeed, I have nothing against any group — white, brown, men, women, Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Jews, whatever — because to me, individuals matter not groups.

The global financial crisis in the US and the resulting on-going global economic crisis can be laid at the feet of a few white men. The operative word is few because it is always a few that are responsible. Look around you and you will notice that everything we enjoy or suffer has been brought about by a few. The modern world we inhabit is manifestly created by the genius (both for good as well as for the bad) and the actions of a few. More often than not, the modern world is influenced overwhelmingly by white males — most of them dead. Dead white males did it.

I think that when pointing fingers at a few white men (with or without blue eyes) for all that is wrong with the world, we should spare a thought for the other few white men who did a lot of good things. The science and technology, not to mention the institutions, which defines the modern world is for the most part the work of a few people — mostly men and mostly white. I cannot go into why this is so but it is an empirically verifiable fact. Mr da Silva has not met a black banker. But neither has he met a black person who has invented anything we so routinely use and take for granted.

We are prone to a special myopia when it comes to pointing fingers at others, particularly at those who are more successful than us. Perhaps it arises out of envy and jealousy. But at its root must lie basic ignorance. Not just people, entire systems are considered worthless and totally flawed when viewed with blinkered ignorance.

The global economic system is slowing down. The cry goes out, “Globalization has failed. The market system is bad. Capitalism is evil.” Yes, the market system is not perfect. After all, it is man made, not handed down from on high by an omniscient being. It has its faults just like any other human artifact. It does not always function well — but compared to what? Certainly the market system performs magnificently compared to socialist or communist command and control systems. The market system only appears to be bad when you compare its occasional failures relative to its long-run successes.

If we take the long view of it all, we cannot fail to notice that for most of human history, the world barely changed over hundreds of years. With the invention of markets and capitalism came the astonishing rate of change, most of it for the better. States that failed to recognize the power of markets and capitalism, stagnated and lost ground. The US, to take an example, rapidly developed in the 20th century and increased its per capita income seven-fold in a matter of a generation and a half. The US evokes envy among economies that made the wrong choices — but the fault lies not with the US but with the envious others. Even now it is not too late for some economies to take a long hard look at reality and recognize that karma — actions — matter and it is no good pointing fingers at others for their own failures.

Globalization has its discontents. But that is not sufficient reason to blame globalization. Perhaps the fault lies with the discontented and not with globalization. After all, one can refuse to be part of the global economy. India under Nehruvian socialist dispensation did precisely that, and ended up not surprisingly underdeveloped and abjectly poor.

India can still go back to its autarkic post-independence stance and get back to its dismal 2-3 percent Nehruvian rate of economic growth. No one is forcing India to become a developed economy. It can continue to keep the majority of its people imprisoned in small villages, barely scratching out a subsistence living. It can continue to keep its archaic labor laws and insane industrial policies that guarantee low productivity and low production. It has the liberty to do that and its people are free to vote for such policies. And most likely they will shortly.

It’s strange how it is fashionably PC to point fingers at white men over there but damnably un-PC to point fingers at brown sahibs on our own side. These brown bosses — few of them in this case as well — have dug us a hole from which we the unwashed masses may never ever climb out of. Thank god for the dead white men, for without them, we would have never even known that another way of living was even possible.

[1] President da Silva said:

“This is a crisis that was caused by people, white with blue eyes. And before the crisis they looked as if they knew everything about economics. Once again the great part of the poor in the world that were still not yet [getting] their share of development that was caused by globalisation, they were the first ones to suffer.

“Since I am not acquainted with any black bankers, I can only say that this part of humanity that is the major victim of the world crisis, these people should pay for the crisis? I cannot accept that. If the G20 becomes a meeting just to set another meeting, we’ll be discredited and the crisis can deepen.”


3 thoughts on “In Praise of Dead White Men

  1. pankaj Tuesday April 7, 2009 / 5:23 pm

    Good post atanu , we are able to blog and get employed(IT Sector) only because of the white man , the white mans contribution to the world is a thousand times greater than their misdeeds.


  2. Ceraph Tuesday April 7, 2009 / 7:11 pm

    I am reminded of the following quote whenever I hear people like Mr. Da Silva, this comes from Teddy Roosevelt:

    “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”


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