The Fix is a book for people who know enough to know there are no quick fixes.
Unlike so many of the globally-minded books I read in my twenties, this one is not for idealists. It’s a book for those prepared to accept unsexy, thoroughly pragmatic solutions to the seemingly intractable problems that confound governments and ruin lives – problems like terrorism, corruption, and broken immigration systems.
But following the argument of author Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, pragmatism shouldn’t be mistaken for cynicism. “This book makes a data-driven case for optimism at a moment of gathering darkness,” he writes. Over the course of ten stimulating chapters, we’re taken on brisk world tour, meeting the leaders – presidents and prime ministers, mostly, but some dictators and a mayor, too – who have made significant progress in some very challenging areas.
Taken together, these chapters form a book that is full of good news with caveats. The president lauded for rebuilding a broken-down, war-torn nation is also considered by many a war criminal. The president who breaks through decades of gridlocked bureaucracy also turns a blind eye to violence that’s spiraling out of control. The president who earns the love and admiration of his countrymen thanks to a trailblazing approach to lifting millions out of poverty ends up embroiled in an ethics scandal. And so on.
No one comes out of this book unscathed. But neither are these leaders’ legitimate, enduring successes dismissed out of hand on account of their respective mistakes and flaws as people. I found that sort of evenhandedness from the author refreshing.
As I considered the overall case Tepperman was making – that real fixes exist and that the right people at the right time under the right circumstances can set those fixes in motion – I couldn’t help but hear the voice of the development economist Bill Easterly and others from my grad school days, warning against the blind arrogance of “top-down” solutions (implemented by powerful “planners”), arguing in favor of “bottom-up” approaches to social, political, and economic problems (the work of scrappy, resourceful “searchers”).
I was also reminded, however, of the anthropologist and physician Paul Farmer, who has persuasively argued for the importance of well-funded (and well-functioning!) government institutions and agencies in developing countries, which he considers essential when it comes to preventing the worst kinds of suffering – like what was seen in Haiti following the devastating earthquake there in early 2010.
Of the two, Tepperman’s views probably align most closely with Farmer’s. Indeed, he writes with the assumption that government interventions and reforms are indispensable as far as social and economic fixes are concerned. But it was also fascinating to see that several of the leaders profiled in this book – men, mostly, who tend to have tremendous power and significant wealth on their side – have a track record of “searcher” behavior, even as they rule, a bit too much for my liking, with “top-down” heavy-handedness.
The problems that confound our own communities, to say nothing of the world at large, can threaten to overwhelm us. But if there’s one lesson we can take away from The Fix, it is that we need not give in to cynicism and despair. Solutions to complicated social and economic problems exist, although they are imperfect, incomplete ones.
Steven Garber of the Washington Institute has written about the need to make peace with “proximate justice” – the idea that when it comes to seeking the common good, something is better than nothing. In a provocative essay for Comment magazine, Garber writes:
Whatever our vocation, it always means making peace with the proximate, with something rather than nothing – in marriage and in family, at work and at worship, at home and in the public square, in our cities and around the world. That is not a coldhearted calculus; rather it is a choice to live by hope, even when hope is hard.
This can be a tough pill to swallow – especially, Garber says, for those of us “who yearn for the whole cosmos to be made right, and who know that someday it will be.” But as my friend Jim Mullins puts it, proximate justice points to a future restoration – a complete and perfect restoration, no less.
Seen in that light, we can celebrate the proximate fixes in Tepperman’s book and work toward proximate fixes within our own circles of influence – all in the certain hope of the already-but-not-yet Kingdom in which every single tear will be wiped away by a powerful and personal King, completely and forever.