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Former World Bank President Reflects on ‘A Global Life’

October 19, 2010 at 6:21 PM EST
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Jeffrey Brown talks to James Wolfensohn about his memoir, "A Global Life," and his 10 years at the helm of the World Bank. Wolfensohn, who grew up in Australia, worked in London and on Wall Street, reflects on the increasing globalization and interconnectedness, both financially and culturally, that he witnessed in his career.
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JIM LEHRER: Now: the global life and times of James Wolfensohn. Jeffrey Brown has our book conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: A childhood in Sydney, Australia, investment banker at the upper echelons of Wall Street and London finance, president of the World Bank at a contentious time of battling global poverty, and even a performer on the stage of Carnegie Hall, and Olympic athlete, James Wolfensohn has packed a lot into his 76 years. That’s just some of it. He tells his story in a new memoir titled “A Global Life.”

And he joins us now. Welcome to you.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN, former president, World Bank: Thank you very much, Jeff.

JEFFREY BROWN: I want to start before this age of globalization that we think ourselves to be in now. In what ways was the world less global in your own Australian youth?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, when I was growing up in Australia, in order to get anywhere, you had to take a piston engine aircraft. There was no anywhere the degree of interconnection that we now have with Internet or even with television.

And so, growing in Australia, you were a long way away. And on my first trip to the United States, I took a piston engine aircraft, and it took me seven days to get to London. I was going with the military. And when I went back, I went in the jet, and the contrast between what I had experienced as a young man and then seeing the changes, in terms of communications of all sorts, has been a real theme in my life. </p>

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the changes for an ambitious young man, which is where you start here...

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... feeling almost as though he has to leave, I think, to get to the centers of power?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: You look at it today and how the world has changed, so that someone in a country that is in essence in the periphery, an Australia, a Brazil, an India, do you see the same thing of people still migration -- the migration of talent of ambitious young people?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Yes. Well, it's changing tremendously, because, in Australia now, they have 40,000 foreign students coming to the country for university...

JEFFREY BROWN: Coming to them.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: To Australia.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: As you have 100,000 Chinese coming here and into the United States.

And so, Australia, because, again, of communications, a very strong educational system, and because of its proximity to Asia, is finding a very different access in terms of its future and in terms of the contribution that it can make.

JEFFREY BROWN: The decades of professional work that you describe here in the investment world, incredible changes in global finance, right?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Just enormous. And we're seeing now, because of communications, a truly global financial market which basically never sleeps. And that is a huge change to which people like me had to adjust. And it was necessary really for me then in terms of Australia, if I wanted to be in the international community, to go study in America, and then work in a number of these markets.

JEFFREY BROWN: It's also a time where you get a sense of disconnect for many people, sort of this Main Street vs. Wall Street or London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, et cetera, where people don't quite understand this market that never sleeps and money that never stops.

And they feel that, what, greed is out there, and, you know, it's brought down the world in ways that affects them.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, there are two aspects to it. First of all, the amount of money which has been made in the financial industry has gone up very substantially. In fact, the financial market probably is 25 percent of the GDP now. And there are many people who profit very significantly from that, as we have seen.

And it also is not controlled. So, we had busts. We had the changes that have been so clear in the last couple of years. And I think everybody suffers. It's not something which goes unnoticed when you have six months of essentially recession in this country and around the world.

So, the changes have been very dramatic. And I think what we're seeing now is governments coming in to try and see if they can bring this under a greater sense of controls.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, the aspect of your very public life at the World Bank, a 10-year period of a lot of drama, right?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you describe a period of coming in to kind of shake up an organization and refocus the efforts of the West vis-α-vis the poorest countries.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right. Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think you succeeded at, and where not enough?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, I think that I was able, with the help of many of my colleagues in the bank, to project that half the world lived under $2 a day, and 1.3 billion people lived under $1 a day. That's hugely different from our own country.

And then we started to look at the reasons for this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, you mean, to make that -- I mean, made people understand that. People knew that, but they didn't...

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Well, they knew it, but it wasn't part of the regular consciousness. The average American really didn't think about what was going to happen to his kids if the world wasn't brought into a greater sense of balance.

And, so, we have seen a couple of things happen. First of all, at that time, there was a huge amount of corruption in the developing world. There is a fair measure in the rich world, too. But it was really standing in the way of development.

There are issues in relation to education of young people, issues in relation to the improvement of the lot of women. These are sort of cutting-edge issues which have emerged in the last 15 to 20 years. They were always there, but at least now we're trying to confront them.

And one of the great experiences that I had was, in fact, to be able to, with my colleagues, lead a greater thrust to try and get a sense of equity in the world.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think there's a better understanding, both at the World Bank, but, more generally, among international organizations of how to deal with the global poverty, debt problem?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: I think there is, but I think you see something else which is happening now.

For many years, the wealth of the world, the income of the world was 80 percent coming in every year to Europe, the United States and Japan. By 2050, which is 40 years away, that will be 35 percent -- 35 percent. And 65 percent of the world's income will be in Asia, 50 percent in India and China.

This is an amazing move that we really don't fully understand and do not appreciate in the West. And, so, for our children, there is a huge adjustment which needs to be made in terms of rethinking both the education system, rethinking what the future is going to be like. And it's a major, major challenge, which I try, at least in part, to bring out in my book.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, finally, I want to come back to the personal side that comes through here, because one thing that is clear is you believe in a -- I will call it a balanced life...

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: ... of the professional work and, in your case, a love of music in particular.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Right. The great gift, I think, of the United States in terms of the setup is that, for someone like me or others, you can have a business life, but you can also participate fully either in the cultural life or in the life of improving poverty or in health or in dealing around the world.

And my hope is that, in this book, it may stimulate some young people to recognize that life is not all about trying to make money. We have a unique opportunity...

JEFFREY BROWN: Although that's not bad, right?

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: It's useful, particularly if you start with none, but it's not the only goal. And we will not have a stable world unless our children and their children really think globally and think in terms of a balanced life, trying to contribute to those less fortunate.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. The book is "A Global Life." James Wolfensohn, thank you very much.

JAMES WOLFENSOHN: Thank you very much.