Sunday, October 31, 2010

History, genocide, memory

The current issue of the New York Review of Books has a fine review by Anne Applebaum of two books that treat the mass-scale murders that took place under the despotic leaderships of Hitler and Stalin: The Worst of the Madness.

Timothy Snyder has written Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, a discussion of the fate of the region between Germany and Russia which suffered the worst and most systematic killing to take place not only during World War II, but also during the years before and after under Stalin's control. Norman Naimark's Stalin's Genocides focuses more narrowly on Stalin's various genocidal campaigns.

As Applebaum points out, the key contribution of each work is to shine a new light on evidence that is already generally known. In Snyder's case, the emphasis is on the fact that, to those living in the 'bloodlands', World War II does not stand out as a unique historical episode as much as it does in Western Europe. Instead, these years were simply the continuation of, or a preface to (or sometimes both) many years of similar domination by a brutally murderous foreign oppressor.

Not only does this have implications for how we should think about what happened in those regions during World War II, but it also forces us to acknowledge that overthrowing Hitler, and ending World War II, did not do much to improve the situation of those in parts of Eastern Europe and that, moreover, Western leaders almost certainly were aware of this.

Naimark's book is particularly valuable for addressing head-on an issue that has frustrated those who study genocide: that the legal (UN) definition of genocide excludes genocidal policies that target political, economic, or social groups. This was done in part at Stalin's insistence, and it has meant that Stalin's campaign against the kulaks is often not listed among the major genocides of the twentieth century.

In fact, a similar problem applies to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime (see previous post), which killed about a fifth of its own population. It undeniably committed genocide against ethnic and religious minorities in Cambodia, but the vast majority of the regime's victims were fellow Khmer, singled out for political or socio-economic reasons (for example, anyone who wore glasses was suspect for being almost certainly literate). Here, too, one finds occasional debates in the literature as to whether or not this ought to count as a genocide.

On the other hand, it should be noted that Applebaum exaggerates the nomenclature issue a little. Most genocide researchers do use more inclusive definitions of genocide, while those that do not will often include similar crimes ('politicide' or 'democide') in their studies, given the obvious similarities in motivation and perpetration.

Challenges of post-conflict justice

Earlier this year, the first sentence was handed down the hybrid national/international court in Cambodia that is attempting to try the leaders of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime three decades after the fact.

The leader of S-21, the detention/torture center in Phnom Penh where at least 12,000 (but more likely closer to 20,000) people were killed was sentenced to 35 years in prison (of which he has already served about 11). However, Kaing Guek Eav (Duch) is now appealing his sentence, arguing that he was not sufficiently high-ranking in the Pol Pot regime to fall within the purview of the Court's mandate.

In the blog section of the New York Review of Books, Stephanie Giry offers a thoughtful analysis of Duch's comportment during his trial — during which he mostly acted remorseful — and of his more recalcitrant actions since.

Her discussion makes clear that the Cambodia Court faces additional challenges above and beyond the already not inconsiderable difficulties inherent in pursuing post-conflict justice elsewhere. First, many potential witnesses have died in the three decades since the Khmer Rouge's were finally overthrown. Second, the court does not have a sufficient budget to do serious investigations, and has been forced to rely on the imperfect efforts of non-governmental organizations. Third, the current regime of Cambodia has been ambivalent at best about the Court's activities.

It is to be hoped that, whatever the final outcome in Duch's case, his testimony will help the Court pursue convictions in the key trials of four top-level Khmer Rouge leaders, which are to begin in 2011.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Child soldiers and military aid

Worrisome news from Washington: the New York Times reports that four developing countries that conscript child soldiers were given a waiver by the Obama administration to allow them to continue to receive military aid from the United States, overriding the provisions of the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act.

The administration states that the waiver is in the national interest, the argument apparently being that these countries are important allies in the struggle against terrorism. However, this argument assumes that they would no longer be allies in that struggle if denied military aid, which implies that the administration sees them as mercenaries. Somehow the idea of allowing mercenaries to recruit and train child soldiers does not strike me as a great long-term strategy to reduce terrorism.

Apart from that, the child soldier problem is associated with a wide range of serious human rights violations. Allowing the systematic use of child soldiers to go unpunished does not reflect well upon the Obama administration.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Educating immigrants

As I noted yesterday, the US immigration authorities take a dim view of those who vote without being citizens; it displays poor moral character. It is less obvious what their take is on undocumented immigrants who avail themselves of other forms of political expression.

The New York Times Magazine had a fascinating story last weekend about undocumented college students: Coming Out Illegal, describing their efforts to engage in political action without being expelled from the country. Fortunately, and to the immense credit of the immigration authorities, the Times notes that "the Department of Homeland Security has so far spared undocumented youth who have been arrested during Dream Act protests."

The story centers around the Dream Act, a legislative proposal dating back to 2001 (and most recently reintroduced last month by Senators Durbin, Lugar and Leahy), which would allow immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children, have been in the country for years (at least 5), and have graduated from high school in the U.S. or obtained a GED, to obtain conditional permanent residency (a green card).

According to the Migration Policy Institute (as cited by the Times), these conditions may apply to as many as 825,000 people. Those people would need to either serve in the uniformed services or attend college in order for the permanent residency to become truly permanent. Those who oppose the Dream Act argue that it is a form of amnesty, and may create additional incentives to those considering entering the United States illegally.

Even taking into account economic conditions and the political sensitivity of immigration issues, however, it is hard to see much of a downside to the act: it is not as though there is currently a giant surplus of people willing to serve in the armed forces, and the U.S. unemployment rate among people with a bachelor's degree is less than half that among those with no college. As for attracting additional immigrants, the current version of the act requires that candidates have been present in the U.S. for at least 5 years prior to its enactment. Moreover, virtually nobody who today claims that the 1986 Immigration Reform Act (which applied to far more people) was a bad idea or failed to work as intended argues that it attracted large additional numbers of immigrants. It seems rather doubtful, then, that the much narrower Dream Act would do so.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Perils of petty bureaucracy

Lord Acton told us that power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Anyone who has dealt with government bureaucracies soon learns that this insight can be elaborated upon: circumscribing power (one way to minimize corruption) tends to make those who wield it petty, and also short-sighted.

Exhibit A: the DMV

The state of Virginia requires two identity documents to get a drivers' license. There is a separate requirement for documentation to offer proof of legal presence, so these documents only need to establish identity. (An official school transcript suffices as second document, if coupled with a primary document that has full legal name and date of birth). Nevertheless, an unexpired foreign passport is not valid as proof of identity, unless it contains an unexpired or expired long-term visa (student, working, permanent resident, etc.). In other words: a document that is accepted worldwide, including by the U.S. federal government, as proof of identity, is not valid as proof of identity for the state of Virginia. See the accepted document list here. Petty power-wielding? Check.

Circumscribed power also leads to the wielding of that power without understanding. For example, I was told by a DMV agent that I should have held on to the last I-94 form I had in my passport prior to receiving a green card, because that form would suffice to make my passport acceptable as proof of identity. Never mind that you are legally supposed to surrender the I-94 form when you leave the country, and that the immigration service strongly frowns on people who fail to do so: the DMV suggests you violate immigration service rules so that you may meet their own arbitrary requirements.

Worse still — and rather more significant in the grand scheme of things — every single time in the past decade or so that I have visited a DMV office to obtain a driver's license — in several different states — I have been asked whether I would like to register to vote. And this is after I have shown them my foreign passport. So every single time I have to inform the DMV person in question that it is in fact against the law to register to vote as a non-citizen.

But what about people who do not know the law? If you believe in democracy and in the importance of elections, and are asked by an official government authority (which the DMV is, after all), which knows you are a foreigner, whether you would like to register to vote, wouldn't it make sense for you to say yes? As the New York Times reported in a sad article two weeks ago, the immigration service does not think so. In fact, it seems that voting in an election, as a foreigner, constitutes evidence of bad moral character.

The immigration service does have a point, of course: when registering to vote, you have to certify that you are a U.S. citizen. On the other hand, common sense also tells us that many people do not read the fine print on all the official forms they sign. It would help a lot, therefore, if we could at least rely on official government representatives to be aware of the law. It's not as though this would require a lot of additional training.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Two good links

Just 2 quick links:

1. James Fallows wrote an excellent post on the value of NPR (National Public Radio) and on the differences between NPR, on the one hand, and organizations like Fox, on the other.

2. Since we know that the state of the economy is a key factor determining vote choice, this map of unemployment by U.S. county since Jan. 2007 does not bode well for incumbents next week.

Serbia, Mladic, and the EU

The European Union on Monday decided to move forward with Serbia's application for membership. The sole hold-out on this issue had been the Netherlands, which insisted that Serbia must first deliver the two most famous remaining fugitives from the wars in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s: Ratko Mladic and Goran Hadzic.

It is generally assumed, and the Serbian government does not deny, that Mladic is in hiding within Serbia, and Hadzic probably is as well. Both fugitives are wanted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Mladic in particular for his participation in the genocide in Srebrenica, and Hadzic for the ethnic cleansing of Croats from the Krajina Serb republic in Croatia.

The Netherlands has a particular interest in Mladic, because Dutch UN soldiers were stationed at Srebrenica when Mladic's troops overran the enclave in 1995. The problem with insisting on Serbia's delivery of Mladic and Hadzic before even considering Serbia's membership application is twofold. First, in recent years Serbia seems to have been genuinely trying to apprehend Mladic in particular. (As the New York Times pointed out earlier this week, Serbia had earlier been less than cooperative on this issue, but this has changed more recently.) Second, there is another pending issue on which the EU would like Serbia's cooperation: the status of Kosovo.

The EU is insisting that Mladic and Hadzic will still need to be delivered to the Hague before any substantive accession negotiations take place, but some of the political leaders quoted in the New York Times article no longer seem to consider this a key prerequisite. It will be interesting to see whether the Netherlands will attempt to veto further progress, if the Commission offers a positive opinion on the membership application before the fugitives having been apprehended.

Meanwhile, the ICTY is busy with the prosecution of several other indictees, including, most notably, Radovan Karadzic, who was finally apprehended in Serbia in 2008. At the time, most people thought a Mladic arrest would soon follow, but so far that has not happened. The ongoing ICTY trial hearings can be followed live on the internet at

Monday, October 25, 2010

Private citizens and foreign aid

The cover article of this past Sunday's New York Times magazine was Nicholas Kristof's "The D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution." It's an excellent article, featuring inspiring accounts of individuals who have taken into their own hands the challenge of trying to improve the fortunes of the world's most vulnerable people.

Continuing the theme of being clear-eyed yet optimistic (see Saturday's post), Kristof points out that altruism and determination are not enough:
"it’s complicated. Scharpf is engaged in a noble experiment — but entrepreneurs fail sometimes. And anybody wrestling with poverty at home or abroad learns that good intentions and hard work aren’t enough. Helping people is hard."
Moreover, the kind of development initiative that can be spearheaded by a single individual rarely has an impact that is measurable on a global scale, as Kristof concedes. This may explain why major development agencies have tended to ignore such efforts.

There are two responses to this, one of which Kristof offers (and abundantly illustrates in the article): the local impact can be tremendous. The other response is that international development agencies may be looking at a bigger picture, but they still fund individual projects. And it is not clear that those are any more likely to have an impact on a global scale than the efforts discussed by Kristof.

Moreover, individual aid projects funded by the major development agencies are often not any larger than the private initiatives Kristof discusses. This can easily be verified by looking through the projects listed at AidData, which over the past few years has put together an unrivaled database of official development assistance at the project level (disclosure: AidData receives institutional support from the College of William & Mary, as well as from Brigham Young University and Development Gateway)

Since private initiatives may have an enormous local impact, it stands to reason that many individual efforts might, put together, exceed the global impact of larger, official development initiatives. Kristof thus argues that "The challenge is to cultivate an ideology of altruism, to spread a culture of social engagement — and then to figure out what people can do at a practical level," referring to Peter Singer, who last year published The Life You Can Save, a book that has precisely this goal.

Another conclusion one can draw from Kristof's article, however, is that official development agencies should start thinking about better ways to harness and build on these types of initiatives, which start as one-person efforts but frequently morph into non-governmental organizations of a type that the official agencies are quite used to working with.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Optimism & realism in foreign aid, redux

Rieff's criticism of Bono and Bob Geldof (see yesterday's post) reminded me that earlier this year, Jagdish Bhagwati offered an interesting, brief overview of some of the historical motivations for foreign aid -- or, more precisely, development assistance -- including altruism, moral obligation, enlightened self-interest, and geopolitics. As someone who has been prominent in the fields of international and development economics for decades, Bhagwati has a valuable insider's perspective on the failure of so much aid to help promote growth and development.

His comments came in the context of a review, published in Foreign Affairs, of Dambisa Moyo's trenchant aid critique Dead Aid. Like Rieff, Bhagwati is critical of the influence of popular entertainers in the debate on economic development. His conclusion displays his exasperation with public aid debates quite nicely:

"Moyo is right to raise her voice, and she should be heard if African nations and other poor countries are to move in the right direction. In part, that depends on whether the international development agenda is set by Hollywood actresses and globetrotting troubadours or by policymakers and academics with half a century of hard-earned experience and scholarship."

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Optimism and realism in development assistance

The New Republic has a fairly grumpy review by David Rieff of a new book on Ethiopia by Peter Gill: Famine and Foreigners: Ethiopia since Live Aid. (The full review is available only to subscribers, including through LexisNexis and similar subscription services).

Rieff, author of the critique of humanitarian aid A Bed for the Night, is often grumpy about humanitarians and humanitarianism — usually with reason — but his grumpiness here is oddly inconsistent and somewhat unfair.

He opens the review by praising the late James P. Grant, former executive director if UNICEF for being "as unyieldingly optimistic about human possibility as he was clear-eyed about the extent of human suffering among the bottom half of the world's population." This seems a fair characterization of many of those who have dedicated their lives to reducing that human suffering, but for some reason some of those people appear to be insufficiently clear-eyed for Rieff.

In particular, he criticizes Bob Geldof, Bono, Tony Blair, and Jeffrey Sachs, each for some combination of wild over-optimism or refusal to consider the likelihood that aid might not help or even be counterproductive. However, he fails to make clear how one might distinguish "unyielding optimism" (good, according to Rieff) from "wild over-optimism" (very bad).

As to the insufficient clarity ("clear-eyed"ness?), Rieff is on firmer ground, at least where Geldof and Bono are concerned. But then again, both are musicians, not politicians or economists. It is not surprising that their portrayal of humanitarian issues is oversimplified, and that they are sometimes fooled or taken in by governments that are deeply flawed (as almost all Ethiopian governments have been). The real criticism ought to be leveled at those who look to Geldof or Bono for expert advice, rather than just for inspiration.

Rieff's review is nevertheless well worth reading, because he makes some important points about family planning, the political nature of famines in the modern world (drawing on Sen's seminal Poverty and Famines), and the tendency of actual Western experts and politicians (not just musicians) to support (and want to overlook the negative sides of) governments that are a) capable and b) far less likely than their predecessors to massively violate human rights. Meles, in Ethiopia is one example; Rieff also mentions Rwanda's Kagame and Uganda's Museveni.

Rather oddly, given his swipes at Sachs for being over-optimistic and insufficiently clear-eyed, Rieff closes his review by citing the man: faced with the population challenges of Ethiopia, Sachs replies that "it is absolutely unmanageable... beyond any of our [development] tools right now." To me, this suggests that, like James Grant, Jeffrey Sachs, too, is "as unyieldingly optimistic about human possibility as he [is] clear-eyed about the extent of human suffering among the bottom half of the world's population." To Rieff, it further illustrates Sachs' foolishness. Why?

In any case, Gill's book sounds like a valuable contribution to the literature on the promises and pitfalls of humanitarian intervention and development assistance, and I look forward to reading it.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The low, low financial cost of global transportation

Fascinating blog post by Ethan Zuckerman: "The ley lines of globalization", in which, with the aid of Maersk's online shipping rates calculator, he discusses the cost of shipping various goods from point A to point B on the globe.

It turns out, for example, that it costs just $0.18 to ship a liter of water from Suva, Fiji, to Cambridge, MA, of which just $0.15 is for the literal "shipping" from Fiji to Philadelphia, with the remaining $0.03 consumed by truck transportation to Massachusetts. This explains why it can make financial sense to bottle water in Fiji for consumption on the other side of the world. (Whether it makes sense carbon-footprint-wise is of course a different question.)

Interestingly, Zuckerman finds that since there is much more demand for goods from China elsewhere in the world than there is for goods from elsewhere in China, it costs much less to ship something to China than the other way around.

The low cost of global shipping also helps explain why it may make financial sense for various groups to collect books, shoes, etc. in the United States for distribution in developing countries. Again, there are other considerations that may make this a bad idea (Are the donations useful and appropriate? Do they displace or undermine local production? And is paying for those transportation costs the best use of that money? What about the carbon footprint?), but if it costs little more than $0.50 to get a pair of shoes from, say, Cambridge, MA to Mozambique, that may well be worth doing.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Foreign assistance and opportunity cost

Nicholas Kristof's column in the New York Times today discusses the importance of supporting education in Afghanistan, and notes that the Taliban rarely, if ever, attack schools that have the support of the locals and (especially) of local religious leaders.

Given the unquestioned importance of making education accessible to everyone growing up in Afghanistan, boys and girls equally, and given the Taliban's notoriously sexist predilections, the evidence Kristof provides is striking and crucial to include in policy deliberations going forward.

Meanwhile, the most important insight in Kristof's column is a different one, in my opinion. He points out that it costs about $1 million per year to send a U.S. soldier to Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea and the driving force behind one of the organizations that has been building schools even in Taliban-controlled areas, notes that all higher education in Afghanistan could be funded for $243 million/year.

Mr. Mortenson suggests, therefore, "that America hold a press conference here in Kabul and put just 243 of our 100,000 soldiers on planes home. Then the U.S. could take the savings and hand over a check to pay for Afghanistan’s universities. "

Such a symbolic step would be significant. But there is a deeper lesson here. We do not have troops in Afghanistan just because we think it is a good idea to have troops there; those troops are there to serve a specific purpose. Yet whenever the issue of sending additional troops to Afghanistan is debated, whether by policy makers or in the media, the most salient question tends to be:

• Will these X additional soldiers allow us to achieve our goals in Afghanistan (or, in a less demanding version, to come closer to achieving those goals than we have so far)?

Meanwhile, the correct question to ask is:

• If we are willing to spend an additional $X million on achieving our goals in Afghanistan, is it the best use of that money to spend it on X soldiers?

In addition, from a budget point of view, there is of course an important prior question:

• If we are willing, as a government (or a nation), to spend an additional $X million, is Afghanistan the policy issue where that money is best spent?

Policy-making is about opportunity cost: a given dollar in the budget can only be spent once. Deciding to spend it on one thing means you cannot spend it on something else. This fundamental point gets overlooked far too often in general, but especially when the discussion involves troops. To a government, a soldier is not just a soldier; he or she is also a budget expense. And a soldier in Afghanistan is a pretty large budget expense at that.

As numerous analysts have complained, it is far too easy for outsiders to ignore the human cost of the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan (and that human cost is very high, for soldiers and their families, for the U.S. as a nation, and also for the people of Afghanistan). Oddly enough, it also turns out to be too easy to ignore the financial cost of that presence.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Zen and the Art of Foreign Aid

Charming article by Tina Rosenberg and David Bornstein at the New York Times: Health Care and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (both its title and the title of this post borrowed, of course, from Robert Pirsig's classic Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance). The article illustrates the importance of infrastructure & transportation in development, noting how just providing health care professionals in developing countries with reliable transportation (motorcycles in this case) can dramatically multiply their effectiveness.

Also pointed out in the article (hence the title), is that infrastructure and means of transportation are no good without regular maintenance. This is an old complaint in the aid literature; most aid donors are more interested in big new projects than in maintaining older and existing initiatives. Interestingly, even in this case the motorcycles themselves and their maintenance are funded by two different aid organizations.

The article nicely illustrates two important points: 1) foreign aid really can have a major impact, for a relatively small investment; 2) the challenge in aid is not that we have no idea how to have an impact, but rather to convince aid donors to give less glamorous types of aid.

(Further relevance of this post's title and that of the NYT article: in Pirsig's book, there is a priceless moment where a motorcycle can be repaired by a shim cut from a beer can, but its owner refuses, not because it won't work, but because it is such a low-tech, unglamorous repair. Many aid donors are a little like that motorcycle owner)

P.S. Rosenberg also wrote the excellent The Haunted Land, on the very different issue of how the post-socialist societies of Central and Eastern Europe dealt with their past after the end of the Cold War.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

How to lie with statistics, once again

David Brooks in his column in the New York Times today:
"The vast majority of campaign spending is done by candidates and political parties. Over the past year, the Democrats, most of whom are incumbents, have been raising and spending far more than the Republicans.

And from the Center for Responsive Politics overview of raising and spending (a source that Brooks cites):
Democratic House candidates have raised $444 million, while Republican candidates have raised $473 million (rounded to the nearest million). Democratic Senate candidates have raised
$229 million, while Republican candidates have raised $238 million.

I don't know in what world $444 million is "far more" than $473 million, but apparently that's where Brooks lives.

David Brooks again:
"According to the Wesleyan Media Project, between Sept. 1 and Oct. 7, Democrats running for the House and the Senate spent $1.50 on advertising for every $1 spent by Republicans. Despite this financial advantage, Democrats have been sinking in the polls."

And from the Wesleyan Media Project's press release that is the source of this data:
"Candidates in federal races have spent roughly $130M and Democrats have a 1.5:1 advantage in that spending. However, between 9/1 and 10/7, almost $65M has been spent by interest groups in key federal and gubernatorial races. “Breaking down the air war by party reveals big advantages to Republicans in both party and interest group investment in federal races,” said Franz. “Combining party and coordinated totals, Republicans are outspending Democrats by almost 3 to 2. Among interest group spenders, Republican-leaning organizations are outspending Democrats by a margin of almost 9:1 in House and Senate contests.”

Brooks argues in the remainder of the column that outside spending doesn't matter (although the best he can offer is some anecdotes of questionable relevance), but even so his highly selective use of data from the Wesleyan Media Project strikes me as disingenuous, to say the least.

More generally, it may well be true that Democratic party candidates are doing better at raising funds in some key races than the general public believes at the moment (and Brooks cites some data that suggests this is true). But if money is as unimportant to election outcomes (or to the behaviour of those elected afterwards) as Brooks suggests, then why does he feel it necessary to distort the evidence as he does?

Update: some of the other "evidence" in Brooks' column is also highly misleading (or worse), it turns out, as Glenn Greenwald discusses at

Morality and religion

My compatriot Frans de Waal wrote an interesting discussion of the evolutionary roots of morality in the New York Times over the weekend: Morals without God? He frames the article with a reference to Hieronymus Bosch's Garden of Earthly Delights. It's a great painting, but I'm not convinced it works all that well as a framing device. De Waal argues that the central panel of the triptych depicts humanity free from guilt and shame; I think he intends to argue that, at the same time, the humans depicted are not behaving immorally, but he does not make this explicit.

A key point of the article is that there is no evidence that religion is necessary for morality. Moreover, religion, while being key to certain specific systems of morality, also tends to introduce morals that, to external observers, appear arbitrary at best (and reprehensible at worst). It is in this sense, I think, that de Waal points to the central panel of Bosch's painting as showing behaviour that appears not to have been considered immoral by Bosch (hence the panel's occupants display no guilt or shame), although religious mores at the time probably held some of it (naked frolicking! :-) to be immoral.

The article's main contribution is to put forth a number of striking examples of apparently 'moral' behaviour among animals, and it is worth reading for those examples alone. I think de Waal is less successful in making his more philosophical point about religion and morality.

As de Waal notes, the problem is that we don't really have a good example of a society with no religious influences. So we know that it is perfectly possible for an atheist to live a very moral life. But although it seems certain that atheists can derive a set of moral values without any external input from (or reaction to) any religion, this cannot be demonstrated empirically. Moreover, de Waal suspects it cannot be proven, since this would require a stable society without religion, and he suggests that a religion would inevitably emerge in such a society almost as soon as (and maybe even before) any coherent moral code were established.

Of course, this quandary does point to a key issue with the relationship between religion & morality: depending on your beliefs, either all religions or all but one (your own) are human, not divine, creations and thus no more than an instrument to obtain some other benefits. Morality may be one of those benefits, or it may be an unintended side effect; in either case, to suggest that morality requires religion is to suggest that people will not behave morally unless fooled into doing so by religion. This is both a rather depressing view of humanity and entirely at odds with the evidence from the animal kingdom offered by de Waal.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Pitfalls of nation-building

Today's column in the New York Times by Nicholas Kristof, "Tea in Kabul," illustrates the problems with the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. Most disconcerting sentence in the piece: "A single American soldier in Helmand Province… causes enough money to leak to the Taliban to recruit another 10 fighters trying to kill that American."

Over at the New York Review of Books, Christopher de Bellaigue has a longer, more in-depth article, "The War with the Taliban," that reaches a similar conclusion. Both articles point to the fact that the Taliban are hardly a purely religious movement (if they ever were): Kristof mentions that they sell themselves as offering law and order, as well as higher wages; de Bellaigue notes that they have partially morphed into a patriotic movement.

Whether this means that Afghanistan is less likely to fall apart into warring factions each with their own territory once the U.S. begins pulling out remains to be seen, of course. Even so, that would be a pretty meager accomplishment for a long and costly war.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Nature's wealth and human nature

Last summer's BP oil disaster in the Mexican Gulf was a reminder that in our eagerness to get at the earth's natural resources, our reach often exceeds our grasp, resulting in massive environmental damage. Thousands of coal fires burn worldwide, sometimes for decades (the one in Centralia, PA has been going for about 50 years), and most often ignited as a result of human mining activity.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, while the environmental damage often remains local, the economic benefits rarely do. The Niger delta's oil industry is notorious for causing local immiseration while producing billions in income for corrupt political leaders and foreign multinationals.

Add to the mix a weak state and the availability of cheap weapons, and you have the recipe for an indefinitely sustainable local conflict combining local immiseration and insecurity, environmental degradation, and widespread human rights violations. Coltan mining in the eastern Congo is perhaps the best-known example of this, but it is hardly the only case.

The current issue of Foreign Policy magazine covers another chronic conflict of this kind, this one in India. In "Fire in the Hole," Jason Miklian and Scott Carney describe how self-identified Maoist rebels have killed thousands of people over the past decade, and driven tens of thousands more away from their homes. The cause is depressingly familiar:

"Revenues from mineral extraction in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand topped $20 billion in 2008, and more than $1 trillion in proven reserves still sit in the ground. But this geological inheritance has been managed so disastrously that many locals -- uprooted, unemployed, and living in a toxic and dangerous environment, due to the mining operations -- have thrown in their lot with the Maoists."

The consequences are no less depressingly familiar. The Maoists "are less an organized ideological movement than a loose confederation of militias, and many of their local commanders appear to be in it for the money alone." Meanwhile, the authorities have lost control, and both sides engage in human rights violations against the local population. Comments the founder of an anti-Maoist militia: "If we kill a Maoist, then how is that a violation of human rights?"

These situations cannot be allowed to fester indefinitely. But addressing them will not be easy, and will almost certainly require more international involvement than the world community currently seems to be willing to spare.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Technology, governance, and development

Useful article over at Foreign Policy by William Easterly on the importance of path dependence and of grass-roots initiatives in economic development: Reinventing the Wheel.

On path dependence, Easterly notes "that there was a remarkably strong association between countries with the most advanced technology in 1500 and countries with the highest per capita income today." This sounds pretty similar to Jared Diamond's argument in Guns, Germs, and Steel, and indeed some of the key technologies on Easterly's list are firearms, artillery, and steel.

The article is useful not so much for this claim, then, as for the implication Easterly derives from it: "the blank-slate theory is a myth." In other words, it makes little sense to try to impose grand models and theories of development on countries in a top-down fashion, without taking into account their own specific background and context.

This argument, too, is hardly new. Many people have made it over the years, (a comparatively recent example is Stiglitz in Globalization and Its Discontents). Still, the article is an interesting attempt to tie these two very broad arguments (path dependence and bottom-up development), each with their own enormous literatures, together into a single framework.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Industrial policy and government intervention

In my International Political Economy class, we will be covering international competitiveness and
strategic trade policy tomorrow. This past summer, the Economist featured a very informative debate on the issue of industrial policy (government promotion of particular industries) between Josh Lerner and Dani Rodrik. Worth reading in its entirety (the link is to the overview page, but there are opening statements, rebuttals, and closing statements by both economists as well as the moderator). None of the contributions really break new ground, but they do a nice job of highlighting the promises and pitfalls of government intervention in industry.

(update, 15 Oct.)
The Economist also had a nice article later in the summer (Aug. 15th) about the renewed appeal of industrial policy in rich countries: Picking winners, saving losers.

Medical studies show...

Excellent article in the November 2010 issue of the Atlantic Monthly: Lies, Damned Lies, and Medical Science, by David H. Freedman. The title is an obvious reference to "lies, damned lies, and statistics", a popular indictment of the way statistics can be used to deceive as easily as they can be used to inform. (Side note: I always thought it was a quotation from Disraeli, but Wikipedia informs me that this attribution is faulty; apparently Mark Twain introduced the attribution back in 1906 but without any evidence to back it up).

The Atlantic article is a profile of Dr. John Ioannidis, who has made a career of pointing out the low quality of published medical research. He has hypothesized that about 80% of non-randomized studies are later refuted, as well as 25% of studies involving randomized trials, and even up to 10% of large-scale randomized trials. The article does a fine job of discussing the myriad ways in which the structure of the field and its professional incentives make such high levels of faulty research likely: "Simply put, if you’re attracted to ideas that have a good chance of being wrong, and if you’re motivated to prove them right, and if you have a little wiggle room in how you assemble the evidence, you’ll probably succeed in proving wrong theories right."

(Although it is not one of the main points, Freedman also notes that many published findings may be not so much wrong as spurious: if you take a large enough sample, you will inevitably find some patterns that appear meaningful even though they are not.)

A key message in the article is that the medical research community is not surprised by Ioannidis's findings, but that faulty research continues to have an impact on medical treatment and on public perceptions. One obvious conclusion from the article is that the incentive structure in medical science (the need to have interesting findings, the need to obtain funding from sources that introduce a conflict of interest into one's work) is deeply flawed and should be overhauled if possible. This is not a new argument, but Ioannidis' work gives us added ammunition for making it.

Another possible conclusion is that somehow the medical community is being disingenuous and/or deceptive, because although they are not surprised by the findings, they continue to publish faulty studies, and do flawed research. But I think this conclusion would be unfair. I don't think anyone who has thought about the pressures of publishing in science and about the scientific method (i.e. a much larger population than just medical researchers) would be particularly surprised by Ioannidis' findings.

Indeed, I would argue the situation is cause for concern at least as much because of what it tells us about the lack of understanding of the scientific method and the publication process among the media that transmit the findings and among the general public that 'consumes' them. Improved statistical literacy among reporters and the public alike would go a long way towards making Ioannidis' findings a lot less shocking. Yet one more reason to think Darrell Huff's charming classic How to Lie with Statistics ought to be required reading in high school.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Benevolent dictators?

The current (Oct. 11) issue of the New Yorker has an intriguing profile of Justin Yifu Lin, the chief economist of the World Bank, who is the first Chinese citizen to hold that position (article abstract online; full text for subscribers or through services such as LexisNexis).

The profile is striking for Lin's studied evasion of the issue of political reform, and whether it might be either a) good for Chinese economic development, b) impossible to avoid in the long run, if economic development is to continue, or c) desirable in and of itself.

China's economic success has revived arguments about the possible desirability of authoritarian government for developing countries. These arguments crop up at regular intervals, whenever
an autocratically ruled country enjoys a number of years of steady growth. The notion seems to be particularly appealing to economists, whose own theoretical models sometimes posit a "benevolent dictator."

The problem, of course, is that benevolent dictators are comparatively scarce in the real world, and benevolent dictators who select the right economic advisers to listen to are even more rare. Indeed, perhaps the most valuable point made in the article is Dani Rodrik's comment at the end: "For every Lee Kuan Yew, of Singapore, there are many like Mobutu Sese Seko, of the Congo."

By convenient and coincident timing, China's political shortcomings were brought into sharp relief earlier this week when the Norwegian Nobel Prize committee awarded Liu Xiaobo the Peace Prize. Some useful basic information about Liu and the Chinese government's case against him appeared in the New York Review of Books last year. The Guardian published a nice, thoughtful reaction by Timothy Garton Ash to the Nobel announcement which discusses some of the likely implications of the prize.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Getting the eurozone out of its troubles

Last month, the Economist had a nice article about the challenges facing the EU's euro zone. They did a good job of reviewing Greece's problems and discussing the problems of the other countries that may follow that country into trouble (Ireland and Spain, most prominently). They also pointed out that fiscal centralization is not as promising a recipe as some commentators believe.

Their main call is for more spending by trade surplus countries. They point out that higher inflation (and quantitative easing) might be a good idea, but that this would be anathema to the European Central Bank (ECB).

Conveniently, this last point was just confirmed by a member of the ECB's Governing Council in a talk at the Yale Law School. So more spending by Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands appears to be the best hope for now.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chronicle of a crisis forestalled?

The current issue (Oct. 14) of The New Republic has a good overview of recent developments in Kyrgyzstan by James Kirchick: Dispatch from the Knife's Edge (only the first part is available online to non-subscribers; also accessible through LexisNexis and similar services).

Kyrgyzstan was the scene of riots between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks in June of this year, causing hundreds of deaths and resulting in a massive stream of refugees across the border to Uzbekistan (followed some weeks later by a massive return stream, as Uzbekistan's authoritarian leader kicked his fellow ethnics out).

Kirchick offers some post-riot anecdotes that indicate a process of dehumanization of the 'enemy' is well under way among certain groups. The rhetoric has not reached the level seen in pre-genocide Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia, but the situation bears careful watching.

On the positive side, Kyrgyzstan held elections yesterday and by all accounts they seem to have gone quite well, as the Guardian reports. It is to be hoped that the political reforms earlier this summer (moving from a presidential to a parliamentary system) will provide the proper incentives to local leaders to work together.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Accountability in humanitarianism?

Philip Gourevitch has a brief, thought-provoking, but ultimately unsatisfying article in the Oct. 11 issue of the New Yorker, titled "Alms Dealers" (only the summary is available online; full article available to subscribers, and also through sources such as LexisNexis).

The article's subheading is "Can you provide humanitarian aid without facilitating conflicts?" In it, Gourevitch discusses a new book by Linda Polman, the Crisis Caravan: What's Wrong with Humanitarian Aid?, which highlights the ways in which humanitarian initiatives — or even simply the possibility of attracting humanitarian interventions — may aggravate or perpetuate conflict situations and human rights crises.

As Gourevitch points out, Polman's polemic is not particularly new: it "leans heavily" on a number of important earlier books, published in the late 1990s or the first few years of this century. Gourevitch just lists the brief titles of these works; I reproduce the secondary titles as well, which underscore how similar the messages of these books are:

• Alex de Waal's Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa
• Michael Maren's The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity
• Fiona Terry's Condemned to Repeat? The Paradox of Humanitarian Action
• David Rieff's A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis

I have not yet read Polman's book, but Gourevitch's discussion does not make it sound as though she has any new ideas to add; on the other hand, it does appear that she offers some new stories and anecdotes from her own reporting. I look forward to reading the book for that reason.

Still, to quote Bob Dylan, "if there's an original thought out there, we could use it right now." It is not news that humanitarianism affects the calculations of participants in conflicts. Nor is it news that sometimes humanitarianism makes things worse rather than better. Nor should we be surprised, at this point, to learn of the evil human beings can inflict on one another, deliberately and with calculation.

Moreover, although it is true, as Gourevitch notes, that many humanitarians "readily deflect accountability for the negative consequences of their actions" this does not mean that the problem does not haunt many dedicated humanitarians. In fact, Terry continues to be active in humanitarian relief, and both De Waal and Maren were active in humanitarian initiatives before becoming disillusioned.

In my opinion, Terry's continuing dedication to humanitarian action, while being fully aware of the attendant difficulties, is what makes her book the most valuable of those listed here. It is easy to criticize the many ways in which humanitarianism goes awry, as Polman does; it is also easy to conclude that perhaps we are better off not getting involved, as some of the other authors (including Gourevitch) do, implicitly or explicitly. Gourevitch ends his article with an anecdote about a boy saved by humanitarian doctors in Zaire/Congo in 1996, wondering "If these humanitarians weren't here, would that boy have needed them?"

This is an excellent question, and one that must be asked, but to end with it is a bit of a cop-out; the real challenge is to think very carefully about the implications of humanitarian operations in a specific context, to weigh their costs and benefits, and then to decide how to proceed. Terry is willing to grapple with these questions, and that makes her book particularly valuable. Two years ago, she gave the Kenan distinguished lecture in ethics at Duke University, which offers a good overview of her approach. It is available on Youtube here, and is well worth watching (note: introductions take up the first 8+ minutes of the video).

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Failing to deal with torture and rendition

The New York Times today has a deplorable op-ed by Jack Goldsmith, former assistant attorney general under G.W. Bush, and now professor at Harvard Law, titled "Don't Try Terrorists, Lock Them Up." In discussing the challenges faced by the Obama administration in convicting Guantánamo Bay detainees, he matter-of-factly notes that some testimony was inadmissible because it would not have been available without the CIA interrogating the defendant at a secret overseas prison. The lesson, according to Goldsmith, is that the Obama administration should embrace what the Bush administration did so much of: "military detention without charge or trial."

Two basic problems here. First, this seems to imply that the Bush administration was sending people for "aggressive interrogation" (Goldsmith's term) to secret prisons run by the CIA without any intention of ever bringing them to trial before they had any evidence that such people qualified as candidates for indefinite military detention.

Second, Goldsmith suggests that the problem lies in the Obama administration's attempts to introduce the rule of law into the situation. However, his own argument makes it clear that the real problem is not that the rule of law cannot function in war, but rather that the Bush administration, with its secret prisons and "aggressive interrogation," flouted national and international laws, so that the subsequent application of the rule of law has become nearly impossible.

One might hope for some kind of mea culpa from a former high-ranking legal official in the administration that not only shot itself in the foot by these tactics, but is making things very difficult for its successor, but it appears that is too much to hope for.

For a far more interesting (and much less self-serving) article on the challenges facing the Obama administration (and more generally, the legal system) in dealing with Guantánamo, see David Cole's article in the current New York Review of Books, "What to Do about Guantánamo?"

Friday, October 8, 2010

Progress & challenges at the ICC

The International Criminal Court today ordered the resumption of the trial of Congolese militia leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. The trial had been stayed in July when prosecutors refused to release the names of some witnesses, arguing that doing so would endanger those witnesses. It's not immediately obvious how that issue will now be resolved.

Lubanga's case illustrates two crucial challenges to the Court's success. First, trials tend to last a long time (the arrest warrant dates back to early 2006). Second, the Court's cases are likely to primarily focus on regions where law & order continues to be uncertain at best, putting at risk both those directly affected (for example as potential witnesses) and some groups that have nothing to do with the trial at all.

Illustrating this last point, the New Republic earlier this week published a sad story about the life of a child bride in Sudan. The girl in question had been getting some assistance from a local organization, SEEMA, which in turn was funded primarily by CARE International. CARE International, however, was kicked out of Sudan last year, after the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Sudan's President, Al Bashir. So this girl, who has no apparent connection whatsoever to the case the ICC is pursuing in Sudan, nevertheless feels the effects.

The fault lies, of course, with the Sudanese government, not the ICC. It is not the ICC, after all, which cares so little about its own citizens that simply out of spite it will kick out organizations whose only purpose in being present in Sudan is to help those same citizens. However, it is probably too much to hope that, if and when Al Bashir is finally arrested, this pointless and spiteful violation of human rights (Sudan acceded to the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Covenant of the International Human Rights Charter in 1986) will get added to the crimes he is charged with.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Competitive devaluation vs. quantitative easing

Interesting and clearly written article (with a somewhat unfortunate title) by Barry Eichengreen over at Foreign Policy's website: Financial Shock and Awe. He makes the useful point that quantitative easing (a good thing in times where deflation is a real concern) is not at all the same thing as competitive devaluation (generally a really bad idea).

Worth noting is one key reason why so many central banks are now pursuing quantitative easing: "fiscal policy, for better or worse, is off the table." Eichengreen simply mentions this, almost as an aside, and then moves on. But from a political economy point of view it is quite important, as it underscores just how important politics is as a constraint on (or inhibitor of) economic policy options that most economics textbooks would expect to see in circumstances such as those we face today.