Tuesday, November 30, 2010

More Civil War disingenuousness

We're coming up on the 150th anniversary of the Civil War, and the NYT's Katharine Seelye has an article in today's paper about "Celebrating Secession without the Slaves." The article is interesting enough, but falls into the common reporting trap of presenting two sides of an issue as roughly equivalent in defensibility. Especially on such a sensitive issue, it would be nice if a newspaper that aspires to quality journalism would point out that one side on the issue is being deeply disingenuous.

For example, the article quotes without comment a spokesperson for the Sons of Confederate Veterans who says "We're celebrating that those 170 people [who signed South Carolina's ordinance of secession on Dec. 20, 1860] risked their lives and fortunes to stand for what they believed in, which is self-government."

However, all it takes is one quick glance at South Carolina's "Declaration of the Immediate Causes", which explained secession, to realize that what they believed in was slavery, and if self-government was necessary to sustain slavery, then they were happy to believe in that too. The document mentions slaves or slavery more than a dozen times, and the key statement of grievances is quite unambiguous:
"We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection. "
And what prompted secession right then? Here, too, the document is clear: the fact that a man had been elected "whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery" and that in March 1861, his party would come into office, with as one of its goals "a war... against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States." Not a war against self-government, not a war against state rights, but a war against slavery.

Is it too much to ask that the NYT offer some factual evidence, rather than just competing opinions?

Monday, November 29, 2010

Aid and Haiti

Short and intriguing note in the current issue of Foreign Policy by Paul Farmer: "5 Lessons from Haiti's Disaster." Farmer is basically calling for "development, not relief." He is entirely correct in pointing out that creating jobs, even temporary ones, will do more than offering handouts to help rebuild Haiti, that building government capacity and offering people basic shelter, health care and education are crucial, and that too much aid never reaches recipients.

However, these are not "lessons from Haiti's disaster"; they are insights that have been around in the aid community for quite a while. At best the Haiti case illustrates their enduring validity. More importantly, building on these insights is not nearly as easy as Farmer implies.

Unfortunately, successfully building government capacity is very difficult. So is offering decent healthcare to all, as Farmer himself knows better than anyone (he created Partners in Health in 1987, in part to sustain his work with a healthcare project in Cange, Haiti). Creating a widespread public works program or a universal-access education system are not trivial either.

Farmer's appeal ought to be read not as lessons to be applied to the next 'disaster', but rather as a call for continued aid to Haiti even after the immediate post-quake emergency has passed. As one of the poorest countries on earth, there is a fair amount of "low-hanging fruit" in Haiti in terms of development initiatives that offer excellent bang for the buck. Taking advantages of these opportunities now can mean that the next disaster in Haiti will be far less devastating.

India's microfinance crisis (2)

Some more info about India's microfinance crisis (see earlier post here). David Roodman at the Center for Global Development is writing a book about the history and impact of microfinance. He offers a summary of his views on the crisis today, and a long and excellent interview with B. Rajsekhar, the CEO of the Society for the Elimination of Rural Poverty yesterday. Both are well worth reading.

It is worth noting that not the entire microfinance sector of India is in crisis. About 10 days ago, the Times of India reported on the awarding of the "prestigious Microfinance India Award 2010" to the Shri Kshethra Dharmasthala Rural Development Project (SKDRDP). This organization is apparently well-known for its low interest rates, which are comparable to commercial bank rates. It is also quite good on transparency: annual reports for 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 are easily found online.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Ahhh, modern travel...

As we all know, the physical infrastructure of the U.S. is in pretty poor shape. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave it a D in its latest report card. Unfortunately, the policy dimension of that infrastructure is not doing much better. Exhibit B: reactions to real and perceived terrorist threats in aviation.

Wielding a little power is a dangerous thing, as I mentioned in an earlier post on the DMV. It should not be a surprise that the TSA is similarly vulnerable to the temptation to abuse its own power, as is shown in this striking video of TSA agents in Phoenix (mis-)handling a woman's request that her breastmilk not be X-rayed. Even when the TSA simply implements its own rules, ludicrous situations ensue, such as the random selection of toddlers for more detailed screening. James Fallows has several good posts on this here, here and here (with internal links to several others).

The bigger issue, of course, is whether any of these policies actually increase safety and, if they do (which remains unclear), whether the marginal increase in safety is worth the marginal cost of the safety measures. In other words: how much do the added safety measures cost, and how many lives do they save? (a related musing on this by Sam Savage here).

The TSA's annual budget is about $7 billion, but there are additional costs in terms of the time lost going through the ever more invasive process, which are much harder to estimate. (Interestingly, in a New York Times debate on the issue of body scanners a few days ago, only one contributor, Bruce Schneier, even hinted at the cost-benefit question.)

Over at Salon.com, Patrick Smith, on his "Ask the Pilot" blog, offers some valuable context, noting that "Deadly terrorism existed before 9/11," and that, moreover, we reacted to it in much saner ways in the 1980s and early 1990s.

Jeffrey Goldberg already argued 2 years ago in the Atlantic monthly that "Airport security in America is a sham — 'security theater' designed to make travelers feel better and catch stupid terrorists." Of course, there are plenty of stupid terrorists around, so security measures that catch only stupid terrorists are not worthless. But are they really worth as much as they cost? At this point, I suspect that the resources allocated to catching stupid would-be terrorists could be used more productively to try to catch smart and stupid terrorists alike.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Torture and transitional justice

How should governments handle criminal acts committed by their predecessors? Over the past two decades, the academic study of transitional justice has been a growth area.

In the early 1990s, post-Communist East European governments deliberated on whether old security archives ought to be opened, and what punishment ought to be meted out to functionaries in the old regimes. Only a few years later, South Africa created its Truth and Reconciliation Commission, inspired by Desmond Tutu's fervent belief in the possibility of finding out the truth and achieving reconciliation regarding the crimes of apartheid. Around the same time, the wars in the former Yugoslavia led to the rebirth of Nuremberg-style tribunals: first the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, then a tribunal for the genocide in Rwanda, and finally the International Criminal Court.

One of the intriguing features of transitional justice is the pervasiveness of "gut instincts" and assumptions with virtually no empirical verification (David Mendeloff published an excellent paper on this issue in 2004 [gated]). Just a few examples:
• Finding out the truth promotes (or is even a prerequisite for) reconciliation
(How do we know? What if it reopens old wounds and a desire for vengeance?)
• Prosecuting former high-ranking officials will lead to political instability
(Why? Maybe even their alleged political allies will be happy to see them removed from the scene)
• International tribunals are less likely to be biased than national tribunals
(Why? Bias probably depends more on how the tribunal is set up than on who pays the bills)

The literature has concentrated on countries subject to serious political instability, but of course the same issues arise in stable political systems as well. A striking example is Obama's handling of the Bush administration's torture of alleged terrorist suspects. Obama's position, announced most clearly in a television interview with George Stephanopoulos in January 2009 (transcript here), is that "we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards"

The result, as we know, is that Obama has quite systematically avoided holding anyone in the Bush administration accountable for the torture policies. This raises the obvious question: Based on what assumptions did Obama think this was the right approach to take?

The Stephanopoulos interview suggests three key assumptions:
1. "When it comes to national security," it is necessary to make a choice between "getting things right in the future" and "looking at what we got wrong in the past" — they cannot be pursued at the same time.
2. If CIA employees feel as though they need to look over their shoulders and look for legal protection in deciding how "to keep Americans safe", their effectiveness will be reduced.
3. Not pursuing past injustice has no bearing on (or implications for) the future pursuit of justice. In other words, impunity and lack of accountability at the highest level are not a problem.

To my knowledge, we have no empirical evidence that any of those 3 assumptions are justified, and in fact there is reason to doubt that any are. Perhaps in an unstable political context, with tenuous rule of law and not much state capacity, the first assumption might be reasonable. But in the United States? That does not suggest much faith in the capacity of the American government. Indeed, as David Cole points out in a recent New York Review of Books blog post, the United Kingdom and Canada seem to be able to pursue both goals at the same time just fine, without overtaxing their system.

On the second assumption, there is no evidence that the CIA has been able to do its job better since being allowed to torture, nor does it appear to have been difficult prior to the Bush administration to place legal limits on what the CIA was allowed to do with (and to) suspects.

On the third assumption, finally, Cole notes that "the fact that we tortured and did nothing about it will periodically raise its head—in a failed prosecution, a foreign court judgment, or a terrorist incident inspired by images from Abu Ghraib."

It is often noted that Obama is more inclined to reflect and weigh options prior to making policy decisions than was his predecessor. It is disappointing, therefore, that on this crucial issue his decision seems to have been based on the kind of unexamined "gut instincts" Bush has become notorious for (and, according to his memoirs, quite proud of).

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eric Holder

GQ this month offers a revealing and ultimately quite sad profile of Obama's Attorney General, Eric Holder, by Wil S. Hylton: "Hope. Change. Reality." Holder comes across as a single-issue principled person: the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division matters a lot to him, and one gets the impression he would be unwilling to compromise on civil rights principles; everything else, however, and especially national security, is apparently subject to political considerations.

Hylton points out, for example, that Holder has decided (or agreed) 1) not to prosecute those responsible for torture he earlier characterized as "inherently un-American", 2) to absolve those who authorized that torture (despite an official finding of professional misconduct), 3) not to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court, 4) to ban a number of key Guantanamo journalists from attending Omar Khadr's trial at Guantanamo, and 5) to justify the administration's right to assassinate a U.S. citizen — all for political, not legal, reasons.

A true test of the rule of law is whether authorities uphold it even when it is inconvenient, or its implications undesirable. On that count, both Holder and his boss — who, it bears recalling, taught courses on constitutional law at the University of Chicago — have been measured and found wanting.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Hating the EU?

Interesting defense of the EU by David Bosco at Foreign Policy's website. In "Is it OK to hope the EU fails?" he characterizes anti-EU attitudes as "a real undercurrent in conservative foreign-policy thought, and maybe American political thought on a grumpy day." {Perhaps Douthat was just channeling this undercurrent in his column yesterday (see my previous post).}

The complaints against the EU expressed by John Hinderaker (to whom Bosco is responding) are: it undermines national democracies, it is more left-wing than its citizens would prefer, and most euro-zone citizens don't want the euro. Since the first two points are highly debatable, and the third is empirically false, a response is hardly necessary, but Bosco's general defense of European integration — and public support for it — is straightforward and well-taken.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How to lie with fake arguments

In his latest NYT column, Ross Douthat weighs in on Ireland's problems, suggesting that Ireland's rapid rise and even more rapid crash, culminating in Sunday's acceptance of a European Union bailout, can be ascribed to three contributing factors: free-market capitalism, secularism, and European integration.

Free-market capitalism, Douthat argues, means that "debt and ruin always shadow prosperity and growth." Secularism breeds "decadence as well as liberation." One might think that debt, decadence and ruin represent a sufficient characterization of Ireland's current troubles. But no, "utopians of European integration... should learn the hardest lessons from the Irish story."

What are those lessons? First, "that the E.U. was expanded too hastily." Really? Which expansion are we talking about here? Certainly not Ireland's, a member since 1973. But what recent members have been so badly affected by Ireland's crisis that they would have been better off not joining? Douthat doesn't say.

The second lesson is that "a single currency couldn't accommodate such a wide diversity of nations." This is a plausible claim, and has been made by many others. (Actually, Douthat mis-specifies it: it is not the diversity of nations, but the diversity of economies that matters.) Still, I fail to see how this is a lesson that follows from Ireland's economic crisis. One might argue that crisis recovery in Ireland has been hampered by the absence of devaluation as a policy option. But the constraints imposed by eurozone membership did not cause the crisis; it is pretty clear, and Douthat acknowledges, that a massive construction boom was a key culprit instead.

It appears Douthat doesn't like the EU. That's fine, but it would help if his arguments against the organization were a little less contrived and disingenuous.

A solemn commitment to what, exactly?

The G20 summit in Seoul, which ended 10 days ago, featured the requisite closing communiqué, in which participant nations pledged, among others, "to continue our coordinated efforts and act together to generate strong, sustainable and balanced growth." In language simultaneously aspirational, anodyne, and arcane, the 22-page document managed to duck most of the key issues, pushing difficult decisions into the future.

On development, as William Easterly notes, the "summit set the lowest possible expectations on development, and then heroically failed to meet them." The official declaration does promise the G20 "will take concrete actions to increase our financial and technical support, including fulfilling the Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitments by advanced countries," but remains silent, of course, on what precisely those concrete actions might entail.

A more cynical but also more honest (and amusing) communiqué was offered by Derek DeCloet in Toronto's Globe and Mail. If only official communiqués could be written a little more along these lines!

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Who loves ya, baby?

Charlemagne's notebook, the Economist blog on Europe, presents some interesting results from a recent Gallup poll of voters in different European nations. The charts reproduced in the blog are a little small, but they convey the basic findings well enough.

First, the data confirm that Europeans' approval of U.S. leadership jumped dramatically upon the election of Barack Obama, especially in Western Europe; the pattern is more attenuated in Eastern Europe.

Second, and more interestingly, it turns out that in almost all EU member states — the exceptions are the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany — people over 55 are less likely to approve of U.S. leadership than are those between 15 and 30. This is surprising, as one might expect that older Europeans would view the U.S. more positively, since they "are more likely to remember America’s role in defeating Nazism in the second world war, its generosity in establishing the Marshall Plan and its role in confronting the Soviet Union during the cold war."

The Gallup finding thus raises 2 questions:
1) If the above explanation is true (positive memories among those who are older), why is it that the Dutch, the Danes, and the Germans remember these things much more strongly than their neighbours?
2) Assuming that the explanation is at least partially true, what positive things associated with the United States drive younger people, on average, to be even more supportive, given that they do not have any personal memory of these things (with the possible exception of the end of the Cold War)?

Charlemagne suggests that those 55 and over may disproportionately belong to the "radical generation of 1968," which might counteract positive impressions built on Marshall Plan aid or Cold War alliances. This seems somewhat ad hoc. Moreover, I seriously doubt that the generation of 1968 was less radical in the Netherlands, Denmark, and Germany, which ought to be the case if 1968 radicalism is the primary driver of the observed old vs. young differences.

Given the contiguity and overall similarity of these 3 countries, I suspect that a single shared factor accounts for the Denmark-Germany-Netherlands pattern. What that factor might be, however, I don't know.

One further intriguing poll result reported by Charlemagne: Americans are far more likely to answer affirmatively the following question: "Do you have a cause in your life that you believe in so strongly that you would leave yoru friends and family or go to jail for?"

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Ploughing in history and culture

Another intriguing post by William Easterly and Laura Freschi, this one on their own Aid Watch blog: "The plough and the veil." They discuss a new paper by Alberto Alesina, Paola Giuliano, and Nathan Nunn on "The Origins of Gender Roles."

The paper's abstract explains: "societies with a tradition of plough agriculture tend to have the belief that the natural place for women is inside the home and the natural place for men is outside the home. Looking across countries, subnational districts, ethnic groups and individuals, we identify a link between historic plough-use and a number of outcomes today, including female labor force participation, female participation in politics, female ownership of firms, the sex ratio and self-expressed attitudes about the role of women in society."

This idea goes back to Ester Boserup's Woman's Role in Economic Development (first published in 1970; republished in 2007 with an extensive introduction reflecting on Boserup's career). Easterly and Freschi point out these cultural biases do, of course, change over time; wars, in particular, can give rise to dramatic changes.

Although the overall finding is striking, the pattern Alesina et al. identify includes a fair amount of individual variation. For example, among Nordic countries, historic plough use is not found in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland, whereas it is found in Denmark. Yet female labour force participation in Denmark is very high, and comparable to that in the other Nordics. Nor is it my impression that attitudes about the role of women in society are different in Denmark.

It would be interesting to examine whether perhaps Denmark was more of an outlier (among Nordics) prior to World War II, in which case the shock of war may account for the change to a more Nordic pattern in Denmark. I suspect, however, that this is a case where shared culture trumps non-shared agricultural history.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Whither Ireland?

Much news in recent days about Ireland's crisis and the ongoing slow-motion run on the Irish financial system. In the NYT, Man Booker Prize winner John Banville eloquently sighs about Ireland's having become "The Debtor of the Western World." The paper also has a brief "debate" on "The Costs of Rescuing Ireland," in which Jeff Frieden highlights the striking statistic that British and German banks lent Irish borrowers the equivalent of "$100,000 for every man, woman and child in Ireland." Frieden very reasonably argues that, accordingly, those banks, and perhaps their regulatory agencies need to take some blame for severity of the current crisis.

European Union member states (both eurozone members and the United Kingdom) are less reluctant about bailing out Ireland than they were about Greece, for the very good reason that Ireland's government finances were, until the crisis, transparent and under control. The obvious downside of a bailout is that Ireland will have to accept certain conditions and will not be able to fully control its own actions. This appears to be why the Irish government has — at considerable cost — tried to hold off on asking for any international assistance.

In contrast, the EU (and especially the eurozone members) have almost been pushing Ireland to accept a bailout, due to fears of a financial crisis domino effect, with Portugal, Spain, or even Italy feared to be next. Given the scale and severity of the crisis, it now appears likely that some kind of bailout agreement will be reached. It would be nice if some of the "taking blame" on the part of creditors that Frieden calls for meant that the conditions associated with the bailout will be comparatively generous.

Be that as it may, Banville's lament makes clear that plenty of blame lies with the Irish themselves. Indeed, the folly that lead to the crisis is engagingly recounted in Fintan O'Toole's Ship of Fools: How Stupidity and Corruption Sank the Celtic Tiger. (It was reviewed in the New York Review of Books earlier this month; full article gated. O'Toole's writing about Ireland is always interesting; his The Lie of the Land: Irish Identities is also quite good.) One clear strength of Ireland so far is that its willingness to face up to the crisis and to take painful political and economic steps to address it have been far more sane than some of the folly that continues to be on display in that regard on the continent and in the United States.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Crowdsourcing and aid

Ushahidi ("testimony" in Swahili) is a website that maps reports about particular events submitted online or by cellphone. It was first developed in 2008 to map violent incidents in Kenya after disputed elections. Since then it's been used to monitor a wide variety of issues: elections in Togo and Mozambique, but also bicycling risks in Los Angeles and the cleanup of "Snowmageddon" in Washington, DC last year.

Looking through these various examples illustrates both the promise and the challenges of this approach. The two election applications got too few hits to be particularly useful, whereas plenty of people contributed information to the LA and DC set-ups. To work well, Ushahidi requires a well-connected (by internet or mobile phone) target population, with the will and desire to provide useful information, and a receiving organization that can filter the incoming information to weed out false or misleading inputs.

This suggests that, while Ushahidi can play an invaluable role in bringing together information providers and information recipients more cheaply and efficiently, the key challenge to making Ushahidi work is not the platform itself, but rather the people on either end. And that, of course, is not new. Still, Ushahidi has been hailed as portending a revolution in the management of humanitarian and development assistance by several observers.

For example, the intriguing new book Macrowikinomics, by Tapscott and Williams, opens with a story about Ushahidi's value in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The authors argue that "the wiki world revolutionizes the work of humanitarians, journalists, and soldiers who provide aid and assistance in some of the most unforgiving circumstances available." (quotation from an online source; I have not yet seen the book.) It is, however, perhaps better to say that it "could revolutionize the work," if only people can be found who are willing to dedicate large amounts of time to it. And there's the rub.

Tom Slee has a thoughtful and much longer blog post on the issue here, with some valuable quotations from a range of experts in IT and development. His conclusion: "the closer you look at examples of Internet-based collaboration, the more they look like a new medium for realizing old (and often admirable) commitments. There is no paradigmatic shift separating Oxfam and Ushahidi."

India's microfinance crisis

Microcredit institutions are popping up everywhere around the world, and have achieved some great results as well as some great press. Now a fascinating article in the New York Times by Lydia Polgreen and Vikas Bajaj illustrates some of the downsides of microcredit. "India microcredit faces collapse from defaults" reports that "almost all borrowers in one of India’s largest states [Andhra Pradesh] have stopped repaying their loans, egged on by politicians who accuse the industry of earning outsize profits on the backs of the poor."

Supporters of microcredit operations often don't realize that most microcredit loans carry interest rates that by Western standards seem quite high. One Indian bank representative notes in the NYT article that "his company had reduced its interest rate by six percentage points, to 24 percent, in the past several years as volume had brought down expenses." The article suggests that such a rate is actually quite low, compared to rates charged by microfinance companies in other countries.

(In fact, Kiva, the excellent microcredit organization that accepts micro-donations from donors everywhere and channels them through existing microfinance organizations in the developing world, has faced some complaints in the past because many donors, who see their contribution as a form of charity, are under the impression that loans are either interest-free or very low-interest.)

Comparatively high interest rates are probably unavoidable, in that microcredit loans almost inevitably involve more overhead per dollar lent than do large loans. It is also worth noting that India's inflation rate is fairly high (currently around 10%, but as high as 16% earlier this year), so the real interest rate is much lower. Nevertheless, the accumulating interest can cause trouble for borrowers, as the NYT article illustrates.

Given how successful microfinance has been, it is hardly surprising that less scrupulous financial institutions have entered the field. Nor is it surprising that some borrowers borrow irresponsibly, if given the chance to do so. The real danger, highlighted in the NYT article, is that the resulting problems will undermine the entire microfinance industry.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Aid as an instrument of repression

A new blog post by William Easterly and Laura Freschi at the New York Review of Books calls attention to a recent Human Rights Watch report on the Ethiopian government's use of aid as an instrument of repression. The blog post does a nice job of tying together some of the concerns raised by Peter Gill's book Famine and Foreigners (see earlier post here) and by Easterly's NYR article on foreign aid for dictators (see earlier post here).

As Easterly and Freschi note, the HRW report convincingly establishes that (officials in) Ethiopia's government, headed by Meles Zenawi, frequently uses aid as a political weapon against dissent. Given that Ethiopia's foreign aid receipts are higher than those of almost all other developing countries, this is a serious problem. Moreover, a key challenge in addressing it is that the standard tactic — bypassing the government and delivering aid at the village level — is unavailable, since the ruling political party controls village-level authorities as well.

Still, the HRW report focuses on government-run programs. So one alternative would be to funnel aid through local non-governmental organizations. It is not possible to tell from the HRW report how feasible this is, but a look at the AidData database suggests that it would be difficult: a lot of aid would need to be re-oriented.

Searching the database for aid projects in Ethiopia in the past few years, and then sorting by declining project size shows — not surprisingly — that all of the largest projects take place in conjunction with the official authorities:

HRW focuses on two programs that each appear among the top 10 largest projects: the Protection of Basic Services program ($180mn from the World Bank's IDA in 2007, $150mn from the EU in 2007, and $140mn from the African Development Fund in 2008), and the Productive Safety Nets Program ($145mn from the World Bank's IDA). The other top projects, including road transport, food security, and industrial developments, all involve government authorities as well.

The prominence of the World Bank in this list underscores Easterly and Freschi's criticism of the World Bank's "hollow" resolution to channel aid past the national government in order to prevent "political capture". They are right to conclude that the current situation is unacceptable.

As one might expect, some donor agencies take issue with HRW's findings. The multilateral Development Assistance Group Ethiopia, which includes most of the largest donors to Ethiopia, issued a rebuttal, claiming that they have not found "evidence of systematic or widespread distortion." Note how carefully this is phrased: the implication is that there was quite a bit of "distortion," only it was not extensive enough to qualify as systematic or widespread. Perhaps so, but that is still pretty problematic.

DAG Ethiopia suggests that "a greater focus on... transparency and independent monitoring" can solve the problem. Easterly and Freschi seem inclined to be skeptical. Given the lack of donor reaction to similar past reports or to the fraudulent election in May 2010, I think they are probably right.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Gold standard update

Quick update on the gold standard issue (see earlier post here). A few days ago, the New York Times featured an op-ed by James Grant, a fairly prominent financial pundit, supporting the reintroduction of the gold standard. In "How to Make the Dollar Sound Again," Grant claims that "In its utility, economy and elegance, there has never been a monetary system like [the classical gold standard."

What is funny about this claim is that Grant seems to think that monetary systems are to be judged for how they treat money ("[money] went where it was treated well"), rather than how they treat the people who use that money. And the key problem with the gold standard is that it is not so great for the average citizen.

The gold standard forces the money supply to expand at the same rate as the gold supply in a country, which is a rate determined both by the total world supply of gold and by the demand for gold in other countries (either for their own gold standard, or for other uses such as jewelry).
Meanwhile, economic production expands at a rate that is largely independent of the changing gold supply.

This means, almost inevitably, that there will be periods of deflation. Now deflation is not a big problem for the owners of capital (i.e. the wealthy, such as James Grant), but it is rather unpleasant for those who have any form of debt (i.e. most Americans). Indeed, the deflation induced by adherence to a gold standard was the single most salient political issue in the 1896 U.S. presidential elections, and produced what has been called "the most famous speech in American political history": William Jennings Bryan's "Cross of Gold" Speech (link includes audio recording of Bryan reading the speech).

Grant disingenuously cobbles together some random anecdotes and factoids to suggest that a reintroduction of the gold standard would be a good idea today. I do not know why the NYT deigned to publish his piece, but I think the concluding paragraph of Bryan's speech is a fitting rejoinder:

"If they dare to come out in the open field and defend the gold standard as a good thing, we shall fight them to the uttermost, having behind us the producing masses of the nation and the world. Having behind us the commercial interests and the laboring interests and all the toiling masses, we shall answer their demands for a gold standard by saying to them, you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold."

Netherlands gender gap

Interesting article in Slate by Jessica Olien: "Going Dutch", which describes how "Women in the Netherlands work less, have lesser titles and a big gender pay gap, and they love it." Much of it rings true, and I particularly like the emphasis on the fact that a gender gap need not be evidence of discrimination (which is not to say that it is not; simply that discrimination cannot be assumed, as it too often is).

One amusing part of the article is a reference to the United Nations' take on the Dutch situation:
"In the spring, the United Nations, suspicious that there was something keeping women from full-time jobs, launched an inquiry to see whether the Netherlands was in compliance with the women's rights treaty."

This sentence is funny for two reasons. First, the notion that Dutch women are insufficiently organized and influential politically to undertake such an inquiry themselves, should they deem it necessary, strikes me as laughable; the UN's funds are limited enough — this is not where it should spend them. But second, Olien completely misrepresents how the UN process works.

Countries that have ratified the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), must submit progress reports once very four years to a UN Committee that monitors compliance. (This process is very similar to the one that brought the UN review of the human rights policies of the United States earlier this month, as described in a post 10 days ago). Past progress reports are available at the UN's CEDAW website (through 2007) and at the website of the UN's Human Rights office (from 2008 forward).

As a party to CEDAW, the Netherlands submitted such a report (its fifth since joining CEDAWin 1991) in February 2010. Reviewed along with the Netherlands were seven other countries, including Egypt, Panama, and Uzbekistan. The Committee's "Concluding Observations" can be found at the UN's excellent documents website, under identifier CEDAW/C/NLD/CO/5. Most of these observations are standard boilerplate, apart from some justified (and, to me, entertaining) criticism of the political party SGP. The discussion of employment and economic empowerment comes in paragraphs 36-39, with the concerns that Olien refers appearing at the end of paragraph 36: "the Committee expresses concern that the Government of the Netherlands overestimates the degree to which part-time employment is the result of women's choice." They offer no evidence for this alleged overestimation, however.

Somehow, all of this does not strike me as adding up to the UN launching an inquiry, as Olien claims it did. [By the way, the Dutch government offers some additional information in a May 2010 memo to the United Nations, noting, among others, that "in 2007 only 45 per cent of the female population aged 15 to 64 earned enough to support themselves, compared to 70 per
cent of the male population" (p. 8). Olien erroneously reports a figure of 25 percent.]

Perhaps the most interesting question raised by Olien's article (and by the Booth & van Ours paper that Olien cites) is the following: Is a gender gap that is largely a result of choice, as seems to be the case in the Netherlands, nevertheless a problem? In other words, should the Dutch government work to convince Dutch women that they should want both more full-time work and a less gendered household set-up? Yes, definitely, according to the UN Committee. But why? The Committee gives no real reason that I can see.

Torture recap

Last week Slate published a useful, albeit depressing, article by Dahlia Lithwick, reviewing "The baby steps that have taken the United Sates from decrying torture to celebrating it." Prompted by the publication of former president George W. Bush's partially plagiarized "memoirs", in which Bush happily admits to approving water-boarding, among other forms of "enhanced interrogation, Lithwick's "Interrogation Nation" offers a comprehensively linked account of changing American reactions to the knowledge that the government has engaged in torture.

Prior to 9/11, of course, the United States strongly opposed torture, supporting the prosecution of Americans and foreigners alike who committed or ordered torture. Since 2004, the world has known that the U.S. government authorized torture, and U.S. soldiers engaged in it, but the Bush government was sufficiently ashamed to attempt to redefine torture out of existence, and then to deny that the U.S. engaged in torture. And now, it is not only common knowledge, but Bush feels (apparently correctly) that he can boast about it in print and on television. Impunity wins the day, sadly.

Monday, November 15, 2010

How to lie with fake research

As Kevin Sieff reported in the Washington Post last month, it appears that a new Virginia history textbook aimed at fourth graders, Our Virginia: Past and Present, makes the claim that "Thousands of Southern blacks fought in the Confederate ranks, including two black battalions under the command of Stonewall Jackson." Needless to say, this news comes as a surprise to most Civil War historians.

In the follow-up to the initial story, it has become clear that no historians reviewed the textbook before it was distributed. According to Sieff, the problem was first discovered by William & Mary's own Carol Sheriff, a professor history. The textbook's author, meanwhile, has admitted to relying primarily on the internet in doing her "research." Apparently, she has much to learn about the reliability of internet sources .

The Virginia Gazette has an informative interview with prof. Sheriff, discussing the error of the textbook claim. Next, for reasons that are not entirely clear, George Mason professor of economics Walter Williams decided to wade into the fray, and in the process demonstrated why one should be wary not only of internet sources, but also of the "evidence" put forward by people with an axe to grind.

In a syndicated column titled "Virginia's Black Confederates," Williams first cannily reduces the textbook claim to "blacks fought on the side of the Confederacy," which is of course not controversial at all. The controversy is over the "thousands" and over those two Stonewall Jackson battalions.

Be that as it may, Williams next claims to examine accepted scholarship on this "controversial" fact. Here is Williams's "accepted scholarship":

In April 1861, a Petersburg, Va., newspaper proposed "three cheers for the patriotic free Negroes of Lynchburg" after 70 blacks offered "to act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them" in defense of Virginia. Ex-slave Frederick Douglass observed, "There are at the present moment, many colored men in the Confederate Army doing duty not only as cooks, servants and laborers, but as real soldiers, having muskets on their shoulders and bullets in their pockets, ready to shoot down ... and do all that soldiers may do to destroy the Federal government."

Charles H. Wesley, a distinguished black historian who lived from 1891 to 1987, wrote "The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," in the Journal of Negro History (1919). He says, "Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia."

Wesley cites Horace Greeley's "American Conflict" (1866) saying, "For more than two years, Negroes had been extensively employed in belligerent operations by the Confederacy. They had been embodied and drilled as rebel soldiers and had paraded with white troops at a time when this would not have been tolerated in the armies of the Union."

Wesley goes on to say, "An observer in Charleston at the outbreak of the war noted the preparation for war, and called particular attention to the thousand Negroes who, so far from inclining to insurrections, were grinning from ear to ear at the prospect of shooting the Yankees."

This discussion appears to be drawing on 4 sources, representing "accepted scholarship": Frederick Douglass, the Petersburg, VA newspaper, the Wesley article, and Horace Greeley. As we shall see, however, the last 3 "sources" really turn out to be just a single source: Charles Wesley's "The Employment of Negroes as Soldiers in the Confederate Army," published in the Journal of Negro History in 1919. Let's take each piece of "evidence", briefly, in turn.

The statement by Douglass was made in the service of calling upon the Union to draft African American soldiers. It is from "Fighting Rebels with Only One Hand", published in September 1861. The goal of the piece was not to establish evidence, but rather to convince a recalcitrant Union to broaden its recruitment. Moreover, Williams' quote is disingenuous. Douglass' statement does not begin "there are at the present moment...", but rather "It is now pretty well established, that there are at the present moment..." which gives a better sense of the indirect and second-hand nature of Douglass' claim.

Next, the apparently primary source material: the Petersburg, VA newspaper. In fact, it seems unlikely that Williams saw the paper himself. His information appears to be drawn from Wesley, who in turn draws from Greeley, so Williams' information is tertiary at best. Greeley mentions the article immediately after describing the Confederate Congress passing a bill limiting the ability of individual towns to pass laws drafting local free blacks. Here's Greeley's description: "The Lynchburg Republican (Va). had, so early as April, chronicled the volunteered enrollment of 70 of the free negroes of that place, to fight in defense of their State." (Greeley, vol. 2, p. 522).

First, note that these men were volunteered, which is very much different from volunteering. Second, neither Greeley nor Wesley says these volunteered men said they would "act in whatever capacity may be assigned to them." It is possible Williams draws this from the original source, but I highly doubt it. In fact, Wesley describes a desperation act passed in March 1865 by the Confederate Congress drafting slaves "to perform military service in whatever capacity he [the President] may direct" (p. 251), and it appears likely this is where Williams got his language.

On to the next claim. Williams says that Wesley writes: "Seventy free blacks enlisted in the Confederate Army in Lynchburg, Virginia. Sixteen companies (1,600) of free men of color marched through Augusta, Georgia on their way to fight in Virginia." This is a manufactured quotation. In fact, Wesley writes only that a paper in Lynchburg, VA (i.e. the "source" already mentioned by Williams) commented "on the enlistment of 70 free Negroes to fight for the defense of the State." Here too, note that Wesley, in contrast to Williams, does not argue that these men enlisted on their own; he notes simply that the enlistment took place, voluntary or not.

The second sentence is also made up by Williams, although his creative rewrite does not diverge much from Wesley's description (p.245). However, Wesley claims to be drawing this information from Greeley, even though Greeley offers no such information. In fact, Wesley appears to have derived his data from Christian Fleetwood's "The Negro as Soldier" (1895) which states: "the 'Charleston Mercury' records the passing through Augusta of sixteen well-drilled companies and one Negro company from Nashville, Tenn." Note that there is nothing here about these 16 companies being colored. So Wesley's footnote is wrong and his interpretation of Fleetwood's sentence is wrong; on top of this Williams manufactures a quotation out of Wesley's somewhat longer description. Not exactly quality "research" on anyone's part.

On, then, to Greeley as a source, as cited by Wesley, as cited by Williams (who shows no evidence of having bothered to look up Greeley's work himself, even though it is readily available online). The first quotation ("For more than two years, Negroes had been extensively employed...") is correct, but does not of course imply that the "employment" was at all voluntary. The second quotation correctly quotes Wesley, who incorrectly quotes Greeley. Moreover, Greeley here is reporting about an item in the The Evening Post of New York, sent by a Washington correspondent, who heard from "A gentleman from Charleston," who did not call particular attention to (instead, he just mentioned) "the thousand negroes," who in any case were busy building batteries, not being trained as soldiers.

In sum, Williams' definition of "accepted scholarship" appears to be "an article from 1919 that I happened to find online and which I will creatively quote from without doing any further investigation". The irony of all this is that it is not actually controversial that there were some black Confederate soldiers, which appears to be the thing Williams is so desperate to "prove." Moreover, given the reams of research on the Civil War that have been produced since 1919, it is odd that he is not apparently aware of any. One hopes that his teaching of economics (his academic home department) does not present "accepted scholarship" from 1919 as cutting edge!

Sorry for the long rant. Lesson for the day: the internet puts many research resources at your fingertips. Use them wisely and use them well: don't trust just any information you find, and do double-check the sources used by those whose information appears reliable. There is a depressing amount of intellectually dishonest "information", even from sources that may appear reliable (Williams is "John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics" at George Mason University). Other information is simply wrong due to sloppy research (as in Wesley's interpretation of Fleetwood's report).

Second, lesson, for my students only: I will check some of your sources, and even your sources' sources. And if I find errors, whether deliberate (dishonesty) or sloppy (laziness), I will get grumpy. Doing good research is important; learning to do it well will stand you in good stead throughout your careers.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Democracy: letter vs. spirit

In the study of democratization, one common issue is the tendency among government leaders to try to manipulate the system to their advantage by pretending to follow the letter of the law while quite blatantly violating the spirit. Most recently, the Burmese government held "multiparty elections", which nobody expected to be even remotely fair. Still, as the New York Times pointed out beforehand, "The appearance of electoral legitimacy and civilian institutions may make it easier for Myanmar’s neighbors to embrace what has been a pariah." One might hope this would not work, but in the NYT's post-election report, Seth Mydans notes that "China praised the election" and Burma's neighbours also welcomed it. The U.S. and many European nations, in contrast, have condemned the election for the sham that it obviously was.

Sadly, the same desire to ignore the spirit of democracy is now on display in Alaska, where Joe Miller is fighting Lisa Murkowski's write-in bid. As William Yardley reports on the NYT's "The Caucus" blog, lawyers working on behalf of the Republican Senate candidate were challenging any write-in vote that was even slightly mis-spelled. Indeed, they were initially challenging even people who had written "Murkowski, Lisa" rather than "Lisa Murkowski".

The Republican Party lawyers base their appeals on Alaska's election statutes, which state (in paragraph 11) that "A vote for a write-in candidate... shall be counted if the oval is filled in for that candidate and if the name, as it appears on the write-in declaration of candidacy, of the candidate or the last name of the candidate is written in the space provided."

(In fact, paragraphs 9-11 all deal with write-in candidates, and each of them is written quite poorly. One would think that some clarity would be helpful in voting laws. In any case, it is worth noting that the last clause of paragraph 11 does not state that a correctly spelled first name must accompany the last name, nor does it contain the "as it appears in the write-in declaration" of the preceding clause. Paragraph 10 does not contain that clause either, for that matter.)

I am sure more quibbling by lawyers is to follow, but the deeper question is this: does Joe Miller really want to win the Senate position based on the "appearance of electoral legitimacy" that might be achieved by systematically challenging every write-in vote that does not spell Lisa Murkowski's first and last name correctly, and in that order? Would that not suggest that he, and the Republican Party hacks who are doing the challenging for him, do not, in fact believe in the spirit of democracy (or, perhaps, believe in it only for non-allied foreign countries)?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

To live and die in Detroit

The current Mother Jones cover story — What Killed Aiyana Stanley-Jones? —is a sad account of the myriad ways in which Detroit is falling apart (has fallen apart?) not just physically, but also in terms of its public sector: judiciary, education system, police, fire department, etc.

Of course money alone will not fix these problems, nor will simply hiring more public employees. Still, stories like this cast a disturbing light on the current debate about allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire for the richest x% of the U.S. population. Why is empathy in such short supply?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Google causes war?

As Mark Monmonier* points out in his charming How to Lie with Maps, maps have often been used by governments to further their political goals in the international arena. Now, however, it seems governments no longer need to rely on their own maps to support dodgy political claims.

Last month, Nicaraguan troops "invaded" Costa Rica, blaming the "error" on a mistake in Google maps, which misplaced a section of the border by about 1.5 miles. Of course, this is highly unlikely to cause an actual war (note how the newspaper article is filed under "Notas Secundarias" :-). Still, Google is embarrassed, especially since it appears Microsoft's Bing mapped the border correctly. Google offers some defense of its error here, blaming the U.S. Department of State.

More detail about the 19th-century border dispute that lies at the source of the "misunderstanding" is offered by Stefan Geens on Ogle Earth. As Geens points out, Nicaragua's government was already trying to assert its claim to the small area under dispute when it appears to have noticed that, fortuitously, Google maps awarded them the area. This was deemed sufficient justification to go ahead and occupy it.

It is unclear whether the Nicaraguans actually believed that the appeal to Google maps would convince anyone of the legality of their actions. Nevertheless, these events make clear not only how important maps are, but also how much governments have to come rely on private organizations who have no legal responsibility under national or international law to supply correct information. It's surprising that hackers haven't jumped on this earlier — imagine the uproar if Google maps suddenly started showing Texas as an independent country, for example :-)

* Mark Monmonier is speaking at William & Mary at 4pm this Friday, Nov. 12. His talk's title will be “Fear and Loathing in Geopolitics: Cartographies of Pretension and Persuasion.” He may well have more to say on this same issue.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Bretton Woods III?

In the lead-up to the G-20 meeting, Robert Zoellick, president of the World Bank, posted an op-ed in the Financial Times this weekend in which he called for stronger international monetary cooperation, of a kind that was attempted in the 1970s and 1980s (most famously in the Plaza Accords). It is perhaps not surprising that his example of how the U.S. ought to promote such cooperation is the second Reagan administration, when policy was led by James Baker, for whom Zoellick worked at the time.

What is quite puzzling, however, as others have noted, is that Zoellick calls for "employing gold as an international reference point of market expectations about inflation, deflation and future currency values" i.e. some form of modified gold standard. Brad DeLong, calling Zoellick a candidate for the "Stupidest Man Alive Crown" points out that he is quite mistaken about the current role of gold (Zoellick argues that in some vague way it already serves as a currency).

Equally odd, however, is Zoellick description of the current "monetary system". He calls the current situation "Bretton Woods II", and says that it was "launched in 1971." Somehow, I doubt most people would consider the unilateral, last-resort policy option of suspending the dollar's gold convertibility by Richard Nixon equivalent to the "launch" of an "international monetary system".

Not only that, it is not a puzzle why the original Bretton Woods system, which really was a system, fell apart: the successful operation of a monetary system requires a monetary base whose supply increases apace with economic growth, and in which people have confidence. Gold by itself cannot meet those conditions. The Bretton Woods combination of gold plus dollars did so only temporarily. I don't see how anyone could expect more success for a combination of gold plus multiple currencies (which would have to maintain fixed parities relative to one another and to gold, if gold is to have any function in the system other than the speculative hedge function it has today).

The final oddity about Zoellick's op-ed is that Martin Wolf, in his blog at the very same newspaper, the Financial Times, had given a quite thorough run-down of the issues that make a return to the gold standard today utterly infeasible. Even if Zoellick does not read the FT's blogs himself, you'd think that someone either on his staff or at the FT would have warned him that not only was he being foolish, but Wolf had pre-emptively pointed out just how foolish.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Elections and recognition

Burma (Myanmar) held its first elections in 20 years this weekend. Reuters reports that the vote was "marred by fraud charges and apathy" — not surprising given that the military has carefully ensured that it will win, and that last time around, in 1990, they simply ignored the election results. These famously gave a clear victory to the opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi. Also not surprising is Suu Kyi's appeal to boycott the current election. Still, it will be interesting to see what the election results are. Even fraudulent election results tell a story, after all.

Meanwhile, Myanmar's brutal and illegitimate regime still enjoys unanimous international recognition, of course. In contrast, Somaliland, which is not officially recognized by any nation, held elections this past summer that were considered relatively fair, in which the opposition leader won, and which resulted in a peaceful transition in July. The international community continues to hope that some day Somalia will once again become a unified and peaceful nation. But in the meantime Somaliland has been de facto independent for nearly 20 years. At some point one has to wonder what purpose is served by refusing to officially recognize such a state. Numerous countries provide development assistance to the Somaliland government, but so far there is little evidence that they are considering recognizing it.

Modern piracy on the free seas

Reuters reports that Somali pirates killed a hostage who had refused to disembark from a yacht they had hijacked. The relative impunity with which piracy continues to thrive in Somalia is quite striking. The New York Review of Books had a good article by Jeffrey Gettleman a few weeks ago reviewing two recent books about Somalia and piracy: "The Pirates Are Winning!"

Gettleman recounted a visit to Somalia last Spring in which it became clear that a local pirate leader had no need to hide his occupation — in fact, he was a celebrity. As Gettleman noted, "There's no doubt that in Somalia, crime pays — it's about the only industry that does." It is even possible to invest in piracy ventures, just as in Europe several centuries ago, where successful pirates were often underwritten by early 'venture capitalists' who preferred to stay on land.

Gettleman also points out that this form of marine lawlessness may be particularly visible, but that for years before the pirates took to their coastal seas, foreign trawlers had been using "dirty fishing tactics, like dynamiting reefs or employing giant, waterborne vacuums... decimating not just that year's catch but future generations as well." At times these ships used to shoot at local fishermen. Today, some ships dump toxic waste in the local seas, safe in the knowledge that no Somali government will track them down and punish them.

All of this points to the difficulty of establishing the rule of law on the open seas, an issue that also goes back centuries. Grotius famously wrote De Mare Liberum, while on the payroll of the Dutch East India Company, to argue that no authority could deny anyone the right to freely use the seas. The current interpretation of "mare liberum" is that any nation can assert jurisdiction over issues of piracy, under the doctrine of universal jurisdiction.

So far, no national government appears to be sufficiently concerned to do much about Somali piracy (or about other widespread forms of law-breaking such as illegal fishing techniques or dumping waste). One clue as to the reason why is that Gettleman estimates that pirates have taken in "at least $100 million" in the past few years. That is less than some annual incomes on Wall Street!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Reviewing human rights in the United States

For the first time ever, the human rights record of the United States has been reviewed by the United Nations' Human Rights Council. This took place as part of the new "Universal Periodic Review" instituted by the UN General Assembly in 2006, which reviews all UN member states once every 4 years.

As the Washington Post reports, the delegations of several other states camped out overnight to be first in line to criticize U.S. policies. Among these were representatives of Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. The hearing today was based on a report submitted by the Obama administration back in August.

As one might expect, a good deal of the criticism focused on detention policies and torture allegations in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. As one might expect, too, much of the criticism was also rather self-serving and disingenuous. As Germany's envoy, Konrad Scharinger archly noted (quoted in the Washington Post article): "We have noted with interest that some of states which are on the first places of today's speakers list had spared no effort to be the first to speak on the U.S. We would hope that those states will show the same level of commitment when it comes to improving their human rights record at home."

Inevitable politicking aside, the UN's universal review is a valuable initiative, in that it forces all states, including Cuba, Iran, and North Korea, to give an official account of their policies. And however much they will deny, dissemble, and distort their own policies, they will nevertheless produce a public document to which they can be held accountable. As Daniel Thomas shows in the wonderful The Helsinki Effect, such small beginnings may pay unexpectedly large dividends down the line for oppressed groups in such countries.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Governance and foreign aid allocation

In the current New York Review of Books, William Easterly discusses the continuing reluctance among aid donors to reduce aid to autocratic governments, even though all donors, at a minimum, pay lip service to the notion that good governance in general, and democracy in particular, are key to long-term, sustainable development: "Foreign Aid for Scoundrels."

The article offers a nice overview of the considerable sums that even the worst autocrats continue to receive, and of what Easterly nicely calls the "Gerund Defense": the argument that autocrats are "democratizing" and hence deserve continued aid.

It's a good article overall, and well worth reading. Still, it won't come as a surprise to those who've read Easterly's other work that he is a little too facile in his criticism of donor aid agencies. Specifically, he overlooks two key points:

1. Most aid does not flow to developing country governments in the form of a blank check. Easterly is, of course, correct in noting that aid often "increases the slush funds available to the government." After all, money is fungible. But this conclusion applies only if aid is given to pay for things the government would otherwise have spent its own money on. Aid that is given to strengthen political opposition parties, for example, quite clearly does not increase the slush funds available to the government.

2. Easterly writes as though he believes that countries governed by autocrats should not receive any aid. But really that is only a defensible argument if one thinks either that a) countries have the government they deserve, so it is all right to punish people for the autocrat they have ended up with, or b) it is utterly impossible to do any good for development, and for people at the grass-roots level in countries that are governed by bad autocrats.

Consider, for example, Zaire under Mobutu. Clearly, Mobutu did not care a whit about his own people. As a result, he was not going to spend any money on, say, mosquito nets. We know, however that widely distributing mosquito nets can dramatically reduce the incidence of malaria, which is surely a good thing both in an immediate human rights sense and in terms of the longer-term development of the country.

It is quite plausible that Mobutu would have been perfectly willing to allow an NGO to come in and distribute mosquito nets to all of his citizens. Almost certainly, he would have found a way to extract money from the NGO, so the mosquito nets would have been needlessly expensive to distribute, and Mobutu would have enriched himself further. Nevertheless, I would support a national donor agency's decision to fund such an NGO. Easterly not only implies that he would not, but also that such an aid project would be a bad, paternalistic idea.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Technocrats and development

A little bit lost in The New Republic's election coverage is some new grumpiness from David Rieff: "The Gates Foundation's Delusional Techno-Messianism." Rieff's basic complaint appears to be that many aid organizations either see or portray development as a technocratic challenge: find the right tool, and poverty and underdevelopment will be history.

Certainly development was often seen as a technocratic challenge during the early decades of development assistance. Indeed, much early development assistance came in the form of so-called technical assistance: sending experts from rich countries to show the poor countries how it is done. This, not surprisingly, turned out to be futile or even counterproductive.

I don't know of many (if any) development agencies that take a similar approach today. Certainly Rieff offers no evidence that the Gates Foundation does. My impression is that the Gates foundation focuses on empirically assessing, on a small scale, which strategies work and which do not, and then trying to scale up those that work. This is technocratic, yes, but it does not pretend that such limited, context-specific strategies will 'solve' the problem of development.

Gates strikes me as the epitome of someone who is both optimistic and clear-eyed, which are the very qualities Rieff claims to admire (see my Oct. 23 post). In fact, Rieff's only piece of evidence about Gates in the piece actually has nothing to do with what the Gates Foundation does or promises to do, but rather with how Gates, in 2009 (why publish a complaint about it now?), described the Green Revolution.

Gates noted that it “averted famine, saved hundreds of millions of lives, and fueled widespread economic development.” As Rieff correctly counters, many of the techniques promoted by the Green Revolution turned out to be unsustainable and to do long-term ecological and economic damage. But hindsight is 20/20. More importantly, if we are to avoid such problems and yet not become utter luddites, the best approach seems to be exactly what the Gates Foundation is doing: experiment on a limited scale with a particular initiative before putting it in wider circulation.

Moreover, Rieff is unfair to Gates in that the latter, in the same speech from which Rieff draws the above quotation, also "warned that as scientists, governments, and others strive to repeat the successes of the original Green Revolution, they should be careful not to repeat its mistakes, such as the overuse of fertilizer and irrigation." So Rieff, in criticizing Gates' statement, is essentially just parroting what Gates himself said immediately after.

The other aspect of Rieff's central complaint is that many aid organizations portray development as a simple, solvable problem in search of the right instrument (or money), as this helps them raise much-needed funds from people who might otherwise be less generous. Here Rieff is correct, but surely there is no worse agency to pick on than the Gates Foundation, which does not need to advertise what it is doing to raise money — indeed, that is one of its great strengths.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

It's election day, so vote (if you are legally allowed to do so :-)!

On election day, some notes on what political science has contributed to our understanding of election outcomes (turnout, votes, etc.). The New York Times magazine this past weekend included an interesting article called "Nudge the Vote" covering insights derived from political science research into elections over the past decade. As the article notes, experimental studies have shed considerable insight into tactics political campaigns can use to increase turnout. Moreover, those insights are increasingly specific: for example, multiple-voter households are targeted in different ways from single-voter households. In recent years, political consultants are drawing more and more on such findings, as well as conducting experiments of their own.

Also of interest: an op-ed in the New York Times last week, by political scientists Barry Burden and Kenneth Mayer, pointing out that early voting may, somewhat counter-intuitively, reduce turnout, because it reduces the hype around election day. On the other hand, voting-day registration — whether this be for early voting or on election day — unambiguously increases turnout. Given how little verification takes place to give people their voting registration (see my post last week about the DMV routinely suggesting that I, a non-citizen, register to vote), it is surprising how few states allow same-day registration.

Finally, the Berkeley Electronic Press' Forum currently has an entire issue dedicated to the connection between political science and practical politics. Among many interesting contributions, Hans Noel offers a handy overview of "Ten Things Political Scientists Know That You Don't"

Monday, November 1, 2010

Preventing another Greece

At the end of last week, the EU decided to embark on another treaty change. The organization hopes to create a "permanent crisis mechanism" to avoid recurrences of last summer's crisis in Greece. The Economist's Charlemagne blog has a good overview of the diplomacy required to get all the EU countries on board with this idea.

The idea is that profligate countries will be subject to more automatic and harsher sanctions; it will be a new and improved version of the much-maligned stability and growth pact. That agreement foundered in part because key EU member states (including Germany and France, who are now pushing this new mechanism) violated it more or less with impunity.

Given that France's Sarkozy insisted that the sanctions associated with the new mechanism not be fully automatic, there are good reasons to think that it, too, will function only so long as no major EU states run afoul of it. Also of interest: the head of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet is not at all a fan of the new idea.