As Barack Obama huffs and puffs about his tax plan, which is unlikely to pass in the Democratic-majority Senate much less the Republican-controlled House, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, has provided a much broader view of where the United States stands amid great changes in the world and some useful guidance on what direction public policy ought to take.
Zoellick spoke at George Washington University on Sept. 14, midway between Obama's Sept. 8 speech to a joint session of Congress calling for a second stimulus package and his Sept. 19 speech in the Rose Garden laying out the tax increases that he evidently believes will, somehow, lead to the creation of jobs.
Zoellick devoted some of his speech to World Bank business -- his "Beyond Aid" proposals to stimulate Third World development through private-sector involvement and his call for programs to address the needs of women.
But he also provided a much broader perspective than most officials do, starting with a comparison of where things stood when the foundations of the World Bank were laid at the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944 and where we are today.
Back then, developed countries accounted for 80 percent of the world's gross domestic product and the United States for nearly 50 percent. Much of the world was in ruins, starvation was rampant, disease afflicted millions of children.
Today, we've been seeing enormous growth in what we have been accustomed to call "developing" countries. They have been growing nearly four times faster than "developed" countries, and they account for nearly half of total global investment and global economic growth today.
In effect, we are going through a period when China and India -- with one-third of the world's population -- are moving rapidly from (to use the old terminology) Third World to First World status. That's true as well of millions in developing countries in Latin America, Asia and even Africa.
Nothing like this enormous transformation has ever happened before, and nothing like it will ever happen again.
Interestingly, these countries have developed in part by copying Western institutions but also by creating their own public policies. Examples cited by Zoellick include Brazil's and Mexico's cash transfers (bolsa familial) to mothers who vaccinate children and send them to school, Turkey's macroeconomic policies, Singapore's open economy and intolerance of corruption, India's information technology services and Colombia's mass transit systems.