Tuesday, July 14, 2009



JULY 14 2009

There's a striking passage in "Dreams From My Father," in which a young Barack Obama, on safari in Kenya, gets an unembellished picture of everyday African life from his driver, a man named Francis.

"[Francis] said he enjoyed his work with the travel agency but disliked being away from his family. 'If I could, I might prefer farming full-time,' he said, 'but the KCU makes it impossible.'

"'What's the KCU?' I asked.

"'The Kenyan Coffee Union. They are thieves. They regulate what we can plant and when we can plant it. I can only sell my coffee to them, and they sell it overseas. They say to us that prices are dropping, but I know they still get one hundred times what they pay to me. The rest goes where?' Francis shook his head with disgust. 'It's a terrible thing when the government steals from its own people.'"

Terrible indeed. And perhaps it was an echo of Francis's voice that shaped Mr. Obama's speech last Saturday in Ghana, by far the best of his presidency.

Here's some of what Mr. Obama said: "No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20% off the top." "The purpose of foreign assistance must be creating the conditions where it's no longer needed." "The West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants." "We must support strong and sustainable democratic governments." "America can also do more to promote trade and investment." "We have a responsibility to support those who act responsibly and to isolate those who don't, and that is exactly what America will do." "History shows that countries thrive when they . . . create space for small and medium-sized businesses that create jobs."

All this is not only true, it's groundbreaking. Since British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan gave his "Wind of Change" speech (also in Ghana) nearly 50 years ago, Western policy toward Africa has been a matter of throwing money at a guilty conscience (or a client of convenience), no questions asked. The result, as Mr. Obama pointed out, was that countries such as Kenya, which had a larger GDP than South Korea in 1961, "have been badly outpaced."

Maybe it took a president unburdened by that kind of guilt to junk the policy. Or maybe it simply took a conversation with some of the Francises of Africa -- the politically invisible middle classes held down by their own kleptocratic rulers. Whatever the case, Africa will be well served if Mr. Obama can make good on his rhetoric.

Now if only Mr. Obama would apply those same principles to the rest of his agenda, foreign and domestic.

For instance, if trade and investment are good ideas for the U.S.-Africa relationship, why has the Obama administration dragged its feet on free-trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea? Or, if the U.S. owes Africa no apologies for its recent disasters, why has Mr. Obama gone to such lengths to apologize to Iran for the 1953 Mossadegh coup, and, in his Cairo speech, to the entire Muslim world for the politics of the Cold War? Or if Mr. Obama wants to "isolate" irresponsible actors, why does he continue to promise engagement with Iran, Syria, Russia and perhaps North Korea no matter how they behave?

Similarly, while U.S. government officials don't usually demand bribes (at least outside of Illinois), the U.S. corporate tax rate, at 39%, is the second highest in the industrialized world. That's about 10 percentage points higher than the OECD average, or nearly twice the 20% "bribe tax" that scandalizes Mr. Obama.

As for creating "space for small and medium-sized businesses," it's ironic that Mr. Obama would make this point on the same weekend that House Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel is calling for a 3% surtax on the wealthy -- many of whom, as Scott Hodge of the Tax Foundation notes, happen to be business owners. These are the same people now facing the prospect of next year's expiration of the Bush tax cuts and the return to the 55% top rate on estate taxes, another scourge of small-business owners.

Finally, if the $2.3 trillion the West has given in foreign aid over the past five decades -- a "stimulus" package if ever there was one -- has done nothing to raise Africa out of poverty, why does Mr. Obama think that any amount of stimulus spending is going to revive America's economic fortunes? At least in Africa's case, the West could periodically forgive its debts. Who will forgive ours?

In his conversation with Francis, Mr. Obama records his lament that Kenya's "big men" fail to take responsibility for their country:

"'Attitudes aren't so different in America,' I told Francis."

"'You are probably right,' he said. 'But you see, a rich country like America can perhaps afford to be stupid.'"

Somebody make this guy treasury secretary.