Obama nominates man to head World Bank; noted economist infers that Obama is a fake feminist

Via Felix Salmon, I encountered an article, “Obama’s Blunder at the Bank,” by my Columbia colleague Jagdish Bhagwati.

It’s a strange article. I know basically nothing about the World Bank, so my criticisms here are not of Bhagwati’s policy prescriptions but of his abilities to communicate with laypersons such as myself.

Bhagwati begins by criticizing Obama for not nominating a woman such as Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Laura Tyson, or Lael Bainard: “What, then, does Obama’s choice tell us about the sincerity of his feminist rhetoric? Does he draw the line wherever it suits him?”

That just seems to me like a bizarre remark.

From Wikipedia, here’s the list of previous World Bank presidents:

Name Dates Nationality Background
Eugene Meyer 1946–1946  United States Newspaper publisher
John J. McCloy 1947–1949  United States Lawyer and US Assistant Secretary of War
Eugene R. Black, Sr. 1949–1963  United States Bank executive with Chase and executive director with the World Bank
George Woods 1963–1968  United States Bank executive with First Boston Corporation
Robert McNamara 1968–1981  United States US Defense Secretary, business executive with Ford Motor Company
Alden W. Clausen 1981–1986  United States Lawyer, bank executive with Bank of America
Barber Conable 1986–1991  United States New York State Senator and US Congressman
Lewis T. Preston 1991–1995  United States Bank executive with J.P. Morgan
Sir James Wolfensohn 1995–2005  United States
 Australia[note 1]
Corporate lawyer and banker
Paul Wolfowitz 2005–2007  United States Various cabinet and government positions; US Ambassador to Indonesia, US Deputy Secretary of Defense
Robert B. Zoellick 2007–present  United States Bank executive with Goldman Sachs, Deputy Secretary of State and US Trade Representative

Lots of male lawyers and bank executives there.

Bhagwati characterizes his three preferred choices as “vastly superior” to Obama’s choice of Jim Yong Kim. But he never says what’s wrong with Kim, first describing him as “a Korean-American and public-health specialist who is currently President of Dartmouth College” and later writing that “A decade ago, he cheered on the tirades against ‘neoliberal’ reforms that, in fact, were the harbingers of higher growth and lower poverty around the world.”

I feel like there’s something else going on that Bhagwati isn’t saying. I can’t believe he’s so sure this guy is a bad choice because of some statement from ten years ago (no link was supplied so I don’t know what the cheering or the tirades or the neoliberal reforms in question actually were). There must be more reason than this for Bhagwati to feel so strongly?

Meanwhile, Salmon slams Kim for being a backroom appointee (like most of the other people on the above list, I assume)?

Salmon doesn’t label Obama as a fake-feminist, nor does he object to Kim’s reputed history of cheering of tirades. So it seems that Kim is getting it from both sides of the political spectrum.

P.S. Commenter LFC points to this helpful bit of explanation from Josh Busby.

16 Responses to Obama nominates man to head World Bank; noted economist infers that Obama is a fake feminist

  1. RobW April 7, 2012 at 7:45 pm #

    I don’t presume to speak for Bhagwati so I won’t try and ferrit out what he might or might not have been trying to say. I think Steve Walt had a better take on the matter.

  2. ricketson April 7, 2012 at 8:13 pm #

    FWIW, the Economist magazine editorializes that Kim just doesn’t have the appropriate credentials, and supports the appointment of an African lady instead. Maybe Obama the anti-American feminist intentionally nominated a weak candidate so that this woman would get the position.


    • RobW April 7, 2012 at 9:09 pm #

      It is possible….but if that’s the case, Walt’s point is apropos. Why not support Okonjo-Iweala and earn some good will around the world in the process?

  3. RobC April 7, 2012 at 9:56 pm #

    I don’t really know Dr. Okonjo-Iweala, but I was honored to receive an email from her last week asking my help in investing some funds tied up in red tape in Nigeria. I’ve sent her my bank account information and am expecting to turn a nice commission on the transaction.

    • Andrew Gelman April 7, 2012 at 10:07 pm #


      That’s funny, but . . . the analogous joke about Americans might be something like this: “I don’t really know General Smith personally, but I was honored to have his drones blow up my village last week. I have responded by expressing gratitude at our liberation.”

      • RobC April 7, 2012 at 10:18 pm #

        For real humor, I tip my hat to the person who commented on the death of Malawi President Bingu wa Mutharika: “and Bingu wa his nameu.”

  4. Kaleb April 7, 2012 at 9:58 pm #

    I heard a radio interview where a self-proclaimed feminist-economist conveyed fears about Oknojo-Iweala because of Oknojo-Iweala’s attachment to neoliberalism. (link: http://www.wbez.org/worldview/2012-04-02/worldview-4212-97816)

    My guess is that the something “not being said” is that a neoliberal (Bhagwati) is trying to get a neoliberal into the World Bank. That fact that Oknojo-Iweala is an African woman makes her significantly more attractive to those who would often be against neoliberalism and see it as the ideology of exploitative Western men.

    • RobW April 7, 2012 at 11:52 pm #

      “Exploitative neoliberalism”…..yawn. It saddens me to see how pervasive this view is within our profession. Never mind that all of those who call for the downfall of neoliberalism appear quite unable to produce a coherent alternative.

      • Kaleb April 8, 2012 at 12:30 am #

        I’m not sure if that yawn was directed at me or to the world at large. Just to be clear, I know my own ignorance enough to remain neutral regarding whether or not neoliberalism is exploitative. I’m just trying to throw out answers towards Andrew’s feelings that Bhagwati is withholding something.

        • RobW April 8, 2012 at 1:09 pm #

          The comment was not directed specifically at you but I do encourage you to look into the issue more. I will speak from personal experience to say that I was once of the anti-neoliberal persuasion until I realized that so much of it is based on anti-freedom and small groups of people telling large groups of people how they should live their lives. Empirically too, I find it quite hard to argue with the success of neoliberalism IN the developing world (though here again I point to the fact that critics have never come up with a viable alternative).

          • LFC April 8, 2012 at 5:21 pm #

            I would think Bhagwati’s opposition to Kim is all about neoliberalism/neoliberal globalization. Kaleb seems right about that. The question was why Bhagwati is opposing Kim. Whether Bhagwati is right on the merits of his preferred policies is a separate question.

    • Realist Writer April 8, 2012 at 3:28 pm #

      Could that be reversed to explain support for Jim Yong Kim? Jim Yong Kim is not a neoliberal, so people who are against neoliberalism are going to support him, even if they are more experienced candidates out there?

  5. Lorenzo from Oz April 8, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    One of the basic issues in development economics is the role of women in household economics. This might also be a factor.

  6. LFC April 8, 2012 at 5:54 pm #

    For my money (so to speak), Joshua Busby’s post on this issue at Duck of Minerva a couple of weeks ago was an excellent defense of Kim. Completely convincing.

    And fwiw, contra A. Gelman, Salmon and Bhagwati are not, I think, at different ends of the spectrum. Salmon is a financial journalist/writer. Bhagwati is an economist and proponent of policies that most writers on finance would be inclined to favor or at least be comfortable with.

  7. LFC April 8, 2012 at 5:56 pm #

    Link to Busby’s post:

  8. Steve Sailer April 10, 2012 at 8:18 pm #

    Having read Obama’s “Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” several times, I can only recall part of a single sentence in that 150,000 word book that sounds like standard feminist rhetoric. Obama’s book gives the impression of finding feminism to be much less interesting and rather annoyingly derivative compared to the black civil rights movement. For instance, he gives some credit to his grandmother, who supported him, for being a pioneering female bank executive, but he devotes vastly more emotional energy in his book to complaining about the insult to his personal feelings the one time she was worried for her safety after being harassed by a black streetperson. He revived this complaint about his dying grandmother in his celebrated race speech excusing his long relationship with his role model Jeremiah Wright.

    Thus, I wasn’t surprised that he gave so much power to feminist bete noire Larry Summers. Nor was it startling that Jody Kantor’s book The Obamas reported that female staffers demanded a meeting with Obama to complain about the boys club atmosphere of the White House shutting them down in meetings.