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‘The off-ramp out of extreme poverty’

How one of the world’s biggest rock stars learned to love capitalism.

Bono has learned a lot about alleviating suffering in the world and has come to understand that demonizing corporations and the people who run them doesn’t help.Aaron Favila/Associated Press
Heather Hopp-Bruce

Bono, the lead singer for U2, is a longtime activist who has raised billions of dollars to fight hunger and disease in Africa. If asked about Bono’s politics, most people would probably consider him a man of the left. But judging from a recent interview he gave to The New York Times Magazine, he can’t be so easily labeled.

Speaking with writer David Marchese to mark the publication of his new memoir, “Surrender: 40 Songs, One Story,” Bono made it clear that he rejects conventional leftist views about the evils of capitalism and the immorality of the superrich. Decades of social activism, he said, have taught him how foolish such attitudes are.

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“I ended up as an activist in a very different place from where I started,” Bono said. “I thought that if we just redistributed resources, then we could solve every problem. I now know that’s not true. There’s a funny moment when you realize that as an activist: The off-ramp out of extreme poverty is, ugh, commerce, it’s entrepreneurial capitalism.”

That ironic “ugh” was presumably for the interviewer, who had quoted a line from Bono’s new memoir — “Why is there hunger in a world of surplus?” — and snarkily inquired “whether you ever asked that question to all the billionaires you write about glowingly.”

Bono wasn’t fazed. He’s learned a lot about alleviating suffering in the world and has come to understand that demonizing corporations and the people who run them doesn’t help.

“The question that I’m compelled to answer is: How are things going for the bottom billion?” he said. “It’s very easy to become patronizing. Capitalism is a wild beast. We need to tame it. But globalization has brought more people out of poverty than any other -ism.”

Unlike too many politicians and activists, Bono doesn’t cling to theory that has been superseded by experience. “I didn’t grow up to like the idea that we’ve made heroes out of businesspeople,” he remarked, “but if you’re bringing jobs to a community and treating people well, then you are a hero. That’s where I’ve ended up.”

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Bono’s attitude didn’t sit well with Marchese. “I’ll admit my biases here,” he told the rocker. “When I see billionaires, I’m inclined to see them as systemic problems. And I think when you see them, you’re inclined to see them as solutions.” Marchese’s view is popular on the left, where it is widely held that billionaires are a policy failure.

Reality disagrees.

“Trade and global integration have raised incomes across the world, while dramatically cutting poverty and global inequality,” the World Bank noted in 2017.

Across the planet, about 38 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1990. By 2019, that had dropped to under 9 percent. The steady eradication of crushing poverty in the modern era is one of the most extraordinary developments of our lifetimes. It could not have happened without capitalism — without the buying and selling, the offshoring and outsourcing, the manufacturing and moneymaking that enables some people to grow extremely wealthy in the course of making it possible for hundreds of millions of others to grow less poor.

Yet for far too many self-described progressives, castigating billionaires takes precedence over uplifting what Bono calls “the bottom billion.” So does drawing partisan battle lines and seeing only foes on the other side. That too is an indulgence Bono has lost patience with. At one point, the interviewer asked him about Rupert Murdoch, whom Bono approached about media support for African AIDS relief. Why, he wanted to know, didn’t he condemn Murdoch in his new book? Patiently, Bono explained again that his overriding goal is to reduce misery, not to strike a pose:

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“It helps, if you’re asking people to come to the aid of hundreds of thousands of people they don’t know, maybe even millions, not to call them names,” he said. “You set aside your own prejudices. You don’t have to agree on everything if the one thing you agree on is important enough.”

For Bono, that one thing is improving the lives of the world’s poorest human beings. Like many people, he grew up thinking of capitalism as immoral. Unlike many people, he knows better now. Socialism doesn’t cure poverty; free markets do. Does that mean Bono is no longer a liberal? Maybe it just means he’s a rock star in more ways than one.

Jeff Jacoby is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. This column is excerpted from the current issue of Arguable, his weekly newsletter. To subscribe to Arguable, visit bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.