We’ve got just Bobo and Bruni this morning since Mr. Nocera is off, probably busy filling his water buckets for Big Energy. Bobo has turned his eye to Africa. In “The Battle of the Regimes” he babbles that with support, a new style of emerging market hero can lead African nations to a democratic rather than autocratic future. In the comments “gemli” from Boston starts his comment with this: “Another fractured fairy tale from David Brooks, in which he rewrites reality to suit his ideology. The bogey man in this one is the Authoritarian Regime, which starts out looking like China but morphs eerily into the U.S. government.” In “Plato and the Promise of College” Mr. Bruni tells us that one summer school seeks social mobility and better citizens through the classics. Here’s Bobo:
James Mwangi grew up on the slopes of the Aberdare Mountains in central Kenya. His father lost his life during the Mau Mau uprising against the colonial authorities. His mother raised seven children, making sure both the girls and the boys were well educated. Everybody in the family worked at a series of street businesses to pay the bills.
He made it to the University of Nairobi and became an accountant. The big Western banks were getting out of retail banking, figuring there was no money to be made catering to the poor. But, in 1993, Mwangi helped lead a small mutual aid organization, called Equity Building Society, into the vacuum.
The enterprise that became Equity Bank would give poor Kenyans access to bank accounts. Mwangi would cater to street vendors and small-scale farmers. At the time, according to a profile by Anver Versi in African Business Magazine, the firm had 27 employees and was losing about $58,000 a year.
Mwangi told the staff to emphasize customer care. He switched the firm’s emphasis from mortgage loans to small, targeted loans.
Kenyans got richer, the middle class boomed and Equity Bank surged. By 2011, Equity had 450 branches and a customer base of 8 million — nearly half of all bank accounts in the country. From 2000 to 2012, Equity’s pretax profit grew at an annual rate of 65 percent. In 2012, Mwangi was named the Ernst & Young World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Mwangi’s story is a rags-to-riches Horatio Alger tale. Mwangi has also become a celebrated representative of the new African entrepreneurial class, who now define the continent as much as famine, malaria and the old scourges.
But Mwangi’s story is something else. It’s a salvo in an ideological war. With Equity, Mwangi demonstrated that democratic capitalism really can serve the masses. Decentralized, bottom-up capitalism can be the basis of widespread growth, even in emerging markets.
That theory is under threat. Over the past few months, we’ve seen the beginning of a global battle of regimes, an intellectual contest between centralized authoritarian capitalism and decentralized liberal democratic capitalism.
On July 26, for example, Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary gave a morbidly fascinating speech in which he argued that liberal capitalism’s day is done. The 2008 financial crisis revealed that decentralized liberal democracy leads to inequality, oligarchy, corruption and moral decline. When individuals are given maximum freedom, the strong end up stepping on the weak.
The future, he continued, belongs to illiberal regimes like China’s and Singapore’s — autocratic systems that put the interests of the community ahead of individual freedom; regimes that are organized for broad growth, not inequality.
Orban’s speech comes at a time when democracy is suffering a crisis of morale. Only 31 percent of Americans are “very satisfied” with their country’s direction, according to a 2013 Pew survey. Autocratic regimes — which feature populist economics, traditional social values, concentrated authority and hyped-up nationalism — are feeling confident and on the rise. Eighty-five percent of Chinese are very satisfied with their country’s course, according to the Pew survey.
It comes at a time when the battle of the regimes is playing out with special force in Africa. After the end of the Cold War, the number of African democracies shot upward. But many of those countries are now struggling politically (South Africa) or economically (Ghana). Meanwhile, authoritarian Rwanda is famously well managed.
China’s aggressive role in Africa is helping to support authoritarian tendencies across the continent, at least among the governing elites. Total Chinese trade with Africa has increased twentyfold since 2001. When Uganda was looking to hire a firm for an $8 billion rail expansion, only Chinese firms were invited to apply. Under Jacob Zuma, South Africa is trying to copy some Chinese features.
As Howard French, the author of “China’s Second Continent,” points out, China gives African authoritarians an investor who doesn’t ask too many questions. The centralized model represses unhappy minority groups. It gives local elites the illusion that if they concentrate power in their own hands they’ll be able to move decisively to lift their whole nation. (Every dictator thinks he’s Lee Kuan Yew.)
French notes that popular support for representative democracy runs deep in most African countries. But there have to be successful examples of capitalism for the masses. There have to be more Mwangis, a new style of emerging market hero, to renew faith in the system that makes such people possible.
President Obama is holding a summit meeting of African leaders in Washington this week. But U.S. influence on the continent is now pathetically small compared with the Chinese and Europeans. The joke among the attendees is that China invests money; America holds receptions.
But what happens in Africa will have global consequences in the battle of regimes. If African nations succumb to the delusion of autocracy, we’ll have Putins to deal with for decades to come.
Now here’s Mr. Bruni:
Kimberly Lantigua, 17, is an avid reader, but of a somewhat unusual oeuvre. Not long ago she worked her way through novels that spawned movies starring Meryl Streep, one of her favorite actresses. “The Devil Wears Prada” was a breeze. “Sophie’s Choice” is Kimberly’s unsummited Everest.
But for three weeks in July, she kept to a literary diet that focused on Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke as she sat for several hours daily in a seminar at Columbia University titled “Freedom and Citizenship in Ancient, Modern and Contemporary Thought.”
On the morning when I dropped by, she and 14 other high school students between their junior and senior years were listening to their professor, Roosevelt Montás, discuss Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s treatise on “the social contract” and the balance of rights between an individual and a community.
Although the summer sun was shining like a cruel taunt outside the windows, the kids paid close attention, nodding and chiming in. There was no stealthy texting on smartphones. No fidgeting that I could see.
At a time when a lot of the talk about diminished social mobility in America is just that — talk, lip service, a wringing of hands rather than a springing into action — this seminar represents a bold exception, worthy of applause and emulation.
Most of the teenagers in the classroom with Kimberly — and most of another 15 in a separate section of the seminar — are minorities who were referred from the Double Discovery Center, a program in Upper Manhattan that couples undergraduate mentors from Columbia with New York City kids who hope to become the first in their families with college degrees.
This was the seminar’s sixth consecutive summer and the first in which the number of students rose to 30 from 15. The course intends to get them ready for higher education, and that isn’t unusual in and of itself. Many summer enrichment programs attempt as much.
But the distinction of this one and the reason it should be replicated is that it doesn’t focus on narrow disciplines, discrete skills, standardized tests. It doesn’t reduce learning to metrics or cast college as a bridge to a predetermined career.
It assumes that these kids, like any others, are hungry for big ideas. And it wagers that tugging them into sophisticated discussions will give them a fluency and confidence that could be the difference between merely getting to college and navigating it successfully, all the way to completion, which for poor kids is often the trickiest part of all.
Montás also wants for these kids what he wants for every college student (and what all of us should want for them as well). If the seminar is successful, he told me, they wind up seeing their place on a continuum that began millenniums ago, and they understand “their fundamental stake in our political debate.”
“They read the news differently,” he said. “They see themselves as political agents, able to participate.”
So as he toggled over the span of the seminar from the French Revolution to Obamacare, he wasn’t just connecting dots for them. He was rooting them in our noble, troubled democracy, and trying to turn them into enlightened caretakers of it.
For the course’s duration, thanks to funding from the Teagle Foundation and the Jack Miller Center, the kids live and eat free at Columbia. For Kimberly, who typically shares a two-bedroom apartment with her mother and five siblings, that was part of the lure. Another student, Mysterie Sylla, 17, told me that her time on campus was a reprieve from stints in foster care.
For every five kids in the seminar, there’s one teaching assistant, a Columbia undergraduate who will maintain contact with them over the next year and guide them through the college-application process. What a great model: Current college students who are blessed enough to be in the Ivy League extend a hand to would-be college students whose paths haven’t been easy.
The kids who completed Montás’s seminar in the summer of 2013 are bound this fall for a range of schools including Syracuse, Brandeis and, in three cases, Columbia itself.
Montás is the director of Columbia’s celebrated Core Curriculum, which requires freshmen and sophomores to dive into the Western canon. His summer seminar asks kids like Kimberly, who attends high school at the Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, to splash around in it.
She was intimidated only briefly by the texts. “Once Professor Montás walks you through them, they’re approachable,” she told me.
The proof was in her participation. I heard her pipe up repeatedly: about the meaning of liberty, about necessary checks on what she called our “innate thirst for total power.” Her voice was clear and strong.
I bet she wrestles Sophie to the ground soon enough. And I think that college could carry her far.