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Thursday
Apr052012

“Law and force cannot change a man's heart”

Well that’s what President Dwight Eisenhower supposedly said to Chief Justice Warren after the Supreme Court passed Brown vs. Board of Education which ruled that segregated schools were unconstitutional.

But Brown vs. Board of Education, together with landmark federal legislations such as the Civil Rights Acts of 1957 and 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, was supposed to be a death knell for the institutions of the US South and it was.

Why didn’t Eisenhower get it?

He didn’t because he had the wrong theory of why the South was the way it was. He thought that it was all due to southern culture, which was racist and which intrinsically thought of blacks and whites as being different. According to this cultural theory, the differences between the north and the south, for example in terms of race relations and institutions, were ancient and immutable and dated back to the creation of these societies in the 16th and 17th centuries. You can’t change people’s culture with a law. At least that’s what the theory says.

In economics this type of theory is most popular in the context of the difference between the north and south of Italy — though it has recently become more popular as an explanation for why some countries are prosperous and some are not. The south of Italy is much poorer and, so the argument goes, this is because southern Italians lack “social capital”, don’t trust each other, and do not have the type of culture and values necessary to have a modern economy.

What can you do about that? Not much unfortunately (though as we saw in the context of Haiti, some like the New York Times columnist David Brooks propose wholesale “cultural change”).

This literature, which dates back at least to Edward Banfield’s Moral Basis of a Backward Society, published in 1958, and has been popularized by Robert Putnam’s Making Democracy Work, sees the roots of this difference between the north and south of Italy in medieval history and the fact that the south of Italy was invaded by the Normans who created feudalism. Take a look at these pictures from Banfield’s book of suspicious looking southern Italians.

Would you trust them? Case closed.

But wait a minute, didn’t the Normans invade England and impose feudalism there as well? Do the English have the same “culture” as southern Italians?

Many things are rooted in history, but the “culture” of the US South was actually not one of them as the historian C. Vann Woodward showed in his brilliant book, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, published a year after Eisenhower’s remark.

Woodward showed that all of the supposed facets which distinguished southern society, particularly racial segregation and its institutionalization, did not date from deep history but were created de novo in the 1890s when southern states re-wrote their constitutions to control the black population which had been emancipated at the end of the Civil War (see also Suresh Naidu’s research on the impact of disenfranchising blacks).

 Just as laws had created what subsequently appeared to be immutable southern “culture,” laws could get rid of it. The South changed, black people recovered their dignity and freedom and, guess what, the South got a lot richer — largely because exploiting people and discriminating against them is not a good way of creating prosperity.

Tuesday
Apr032012

Why are the roads so bad in Pétionville?

In the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, the rich people live up on the hill of Pétionville, named after the early independence president Alexander Pétion. Up on the hill it is cooler, and there are fewer mosquitos. You’ll find such an arrangement in many tropical capitals, for example in Freetown in Sierra Leone where Hill Station is the most desirable location for a residence. With wealth you’d expect lots of good things to follow, nice restaurants, functioning hospitals and schools, good roads and infrastructure.

But things are a little different in Haiti. Check out this road in Pétionville.

As with most roads in this fancy part of town, it is in shocking condition.

So how come the roads are so bad in the richest part of the country? Can’t even the rich people get the government to do things for them in Haiti?

Actually they can and do, that’s not the problem here.

Here is a hypothesis that was independently proposed by three different people last summer to Jim when he was in Port-au-Prince: rich people like having roads so terrible outside their houses that you need a four wheel drive to drive on them. This has a number of advantages. First, it makes it less obvious that rich people are living there to potential criminals. Second and more important, it makes it difficult to make a get away after a robbery unless you yourself have a four wheel drive!

So the problem is not that the rich Haitians of Pétionville cannot get the government to build roads in their neighborhood (or for that matter, build them themselves if they wished). The problem, consistent with the lack of political centralization and even the most basic form of law and order in Haiti as we emphasized in our last blog post, is that it’s much harder — and more expensive —for them to ensure that the government would actually protect their property.

Tuesday
Apr032012

Why is Haiti so poor? 

Haiti, located on the western part of the island of Hispaniola, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Its GDP per capita (at purchasing power parity) stands at about $1,241, merely 2.5 percent of US GDP per capita. Its neighbor on the island of Hispaniola, the Dominican Republic, is significantly richer, with GDP per capita of $9,289. 

There has not been a shortage of explanations for the sorry state of Haiti’s economy. But most of them are fairly unsatisfactory. In his book Collapse, Jared Diamond attempted to explain Haiti’s poverty, in particular relative to the Dominican Republic, with geographic factors. He pointed out that the winds coming mostly from the east were blocked by high mountains, reducing rainfall for the Haitian part of the island. This combined with the lower soil quality and greater population density led to deforestation in Haiti, while the Dominican Republic maintained its forest cover and high-quality soil. (Diamond recognizes that this higher population density was the result of the plantation agriculture in Haiti based on the import of slaves, and also mentions other social and historical factors).

Even more popular than Diamond’s geographic explanation are cultural ones. Many commentators end up arguing that Haiti is poor because of its people. A recent book by Laurent Dubois, Haiti: the Aftershocks of History, is a useful corrective to these arguments. Dubois starts by recapping many of these arguments which go back centuries. For example, Victor Cochinat, a 19th-century visitor from Martinique, stated (p. 1)

Haitians were lazy and ‘ashamed’ to work,…, which was why they were so poor. They spent too much money on rum.

Lest you think that these are the ramblings of an eccentric 19th-century explorer, Dubois shows how the same arguments are what gets traction today, writing (p. 3)

The day after the earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson famously opined that Haitians were suffering because they had sold themselves to the devil. A more polite version of the same argument came from New York Times columnist David Brooks, who accused Haiti of having “progress-resistant cultural influences,” including “the influence of voodoo religion.”… Many called openly for Haiti to be made a protectorate. Brooks advocated “intrusive paternalism” that would change the local culture by promoting “No Excuses countercultures.”

The book makes a lively read, dispelling these notions, and firmly locating the roots of Haiti’s poverty in its history. Haiti was one of the most extractive colonies Europeans set up, with the majority of its population working as slaves in plantations for their French masters. (An estimate from 1789 puts the number of free people at 55,000 vs. 450,000 slaves; the free people included a significant number of “free people of color”). Haiti was a dystopic colony, based on terror and repression. Brutal punishments and institutions were common for the most minor of offenses, and slaves died at staggering rates, with perhaps 10% of the slave population dying of disease, overwork and other causes.

Haitians shocked the world with a formidable slave revolt in 1791, ultimately leading to independence from France. But this revolt did not lead to the development of inclusive institutions. To start with, the fight against the French, who attempted to retake their prize colony several times, was protracted and costly. Dubois, for example, argues that the fiscal needs imposed by this continued war made the abolition of slavery essentially impossible. It probably also stunted the subsequent political development of this new independent state by excessively militarizing its politics. But perhaps more important was the vicious circle of extractive institutions. There were insufficient constraints on the power of post-independence leaders such as Dessalines, Christoph, or Petion, who set themselves up as the elite exploiting Haiti’s people through very much the same means as the French had done earlier (and this does not receive sufficient emphasis from Dubois who is somewhat more lenient towards the misdeeds by Haiti’s early leaders than those of its colonial masters and later politicians).

Dubois shows how the early post-independence history of Haiti shaped its later politics, in particular, opening the way to Duvaliers’ extractive rule and to the subsequent chaos.

He is equally critical of the international aid community. He cites the argument of Ricardo Seitenfus, the Brazilian head of Organization of American States mission in the country during the 2010 earthquake, that the UN presence in Haiti was “wasteful and even harmful”. Seitenfus went further, arguing:

There is a malicious and perverse relationship between the force of NGOs and the weakness of the Haitian state.

Though Dubois’s book is informative and provocative, the big puzzle remains: Why Haiti, not Barbados or Jamaica or the Dominican Republic? The Dominican Republic is a natural comparison, being on the same island and sharing, like Barbados and Jamaica, its history of slavery (even if its intensity was less than that Haiti). But the most puzzling aspect of the whole thing is shown in the next figure. 

At the end of World War II, Haiti and the Dominican Republic had essentially identical levels of income per capita. Thereafter, they diverged. Situations like this are common in world history. In 1800 the US was not much richer than Latin America in terms of measured incomes, but its underlying institutions were different and so was its potential. This only started to matter when the British Industrial Revolution completely changed what was economically possible. The US could and did take advantage, Latin America did not.

One hypothesis about the divergence between Haiti and the Dominican Republic is that a similar situation arose with Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Though the latter shared a history of slavery, dictatorship and US invasion, it did not suffer as much as Haiti. After 1930 Rafael Trujillo, head of the US created national guard, set himself up as dictator. He controlled the army and embarked on a path of extractive economic growth. As the world economy boomed after 1945, divergence set in. The Dominican Republic exported sugarcane and cigars; afterwards they developed a successful export processing zone. After Trujillo was assassinated in 1961, they managed an imperfect transition to more inclusive political institutions, sustaining the economic growth. Haiti was different, without such a strong state or political control of the army, the period after 1930 saw political instability not extractive growth and when François Duvalier (“Papa Doc”) came to power in 1957 he privatized violence using the ton ton macoutes to control the country, not the army. There was no extractive growth in Haiti, just anarchy.

All the same, this is just one hypothesis that fits the facts, the divergence between the two halves of the island of Hispaniola remains a major puzzle.

Friday
Mar302012

Democracy and its discontents

We live in a much more democratic world than our great-grandparents. But democracy has always had its trenchant critics, often people of high educational attainment and income arguing that important social and political decisions cannot be left to the uneducated, manipulable masses, who could not be trusted to make decisions for the social good let alone for their own good. Ortega y Gasset, though a liberal and supporter of republican ideals, raised the alarm bells at the beginning of the 20th century, warning of the dangers of mass participation in politics in his The Revolt of the Masses. The American intellectual, Walter Lippmann, articulated this idea by writing in Public Opinion:

the common interests very largely elude public opinion entirely, and can be managed only by a specialized class whose personal interests reach beyond the locality.

These voices have become even louder recently by those who contrast the speed with which authoritarian China has been able to deal with the global recession to the raucous wrangling in the US. So has democracy run its course?

We don’t think so. In fact, inclusive political institutions must be truly democratic, giving voice to every segment of society, regardless of education and income. Though democracies are sometimes captured by elites or special interests and often disorderly, non-democratic systems are much more likely to be captured and serve as the foundation of extractive political and economic institutions.

Of course, the decisions that democratic systems take will sometimes be misguided. But then again, so will the decisions taken by any other political system, any group, or any individual. Democratic politics will also lead to decisions and procedures that elites of all types dislike. Yet this is often not because the electorate’s ignorance or shortsightedness, but because their interests diverge from those of elites, and also because the educated elite doesn’t like giving up its monopoly on preaching what society should do.

The available evidence doesn’t indicate that the uneducated masses are ignorant and irrational. Recent research by Thomas Fujiwara provides one example from Brazil. Fujiwara exploits the effective enfranchisement of the less educated whose ballots were often spoiled because of an antiquated and difficult voting system. Simplifying and automating the voting system led to a massive reduction in spoiled ballots, mostly by the less educated and poor voters. Fujiwara shows that this did lead to the election of state legislatures advocating more widespread redistribution. But before you can lament just another instance of Latin American populism fueled by the ignorance of the uneducated masses, look at what this redistribution did. It led to the implementation of policies favoring the newly enfranchised, such as better health care delivery which led to significant improvements in infant health (as measured by body mass index at birth).

A new book on the American Revolutionary Ethan Allen by Willard Sterne Randall, Ethan Allen: His Life and Times, and its review in the New York Review of Books by T. H. Breen provide another example of how the masses could make balanced political decisions when given the right, even under fairly adverse circumstances. Ethan Allen rose to prominence as a defender of the rights of the people of Vermont against powerful businessmen from New York encroaching on their lands. Many settlers had purchased and set up farm in Vermont. But the colonial elite of New York claimed the right to all of this land because the crown had granted it to them during the late 17th century. King George III reaffirmed New York’s ownership of these lands, and the New York elite duly moved to claim it. It fell to Ethan Allen to defend the ordinary farmers of Vermont.

Ethan Allen himself was a flawed character, given to self-aggrandizement and not without his own financial interests in stopping New York’s claims on Vermont. His local militias, the Green Mountain Boys, not only defended ordinary Vermonters against eviction by sheriffs and surveyors from New York, but also delivered rough justice on anybody suspected of siding with New York.

He also fought for Vermont’s right to become the fourteenth state, something that became reality only after his death. The mobilization and uprising of Vermonters, during an age in which the rule of law was at best tenuous, might have led to lawlessness, or to continued conflicts with neighboring states. Ethan Allen’s brand of populism may have easily taken a turn towards a different type of authoritarianism. In the event, none of this happened, and the people of Vermont proved to be very adept at self-government. The Vermont Constitution went further than almost any other enshrining their liberty against elite control, declaring:

No male person born in this country, or brought from over sea, ought to be holden by law, to serve any person, as servant, slave or apprentice, after he arrives at the age of twenty-one years, nor female in like manner, after she arrives at the age of eighteen years, unless they are bound by their consent after they arrive at such age.

The social movements that created Arab Spring are mobilized by the belief that, as in Brazil and Vermont, democracy can work, while the alternative, the rule of elites, has been disastrous for the countries of the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly for the masses that it kept disenfranchised. Even if the road to creating democracy is a treacherous one, as even the most optimistic supporters of the arts bring have been finding out, the ultimate prize — both  for the men and women who have so far risked their lives to change the political systems in the region and for society  — is well worth fighting for.

Thursday
Mar292012

How Walter Ochoa Guisao became “El Gurre”

For decades Colombia has been plagued by violence with the countryside littered with different types of guerillas, militias, and paramilitary forces. There is also the national army and police but often they behave little differently from these other groups. At the moment in Bogotá you can visit the audiencia, where the leaders of the paramilitary group the Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena Media (ADMM) are being confronted with their crimes. Under the terms of the Justice and Peace Law, passed in 2005, most paramilitary groups agreed to demobilize and confess in exchange for reduced sentences (a maximum of 8 years). El Gurre (the Armadillo) was a commander of the Omar Isaza Front, one of the five fronts of the ADMM, along with McGuiver whom you met in our last post (here). The photo below shows the organization of the ADMM with El Gurre’s front second from the left and McGuiver’s on the right.

The organizational chart of the Autodefensas Campesinas del Magdalena Media (ADMM).

But Walter wasn’t always called El Gurre. Here is his story about how he became a paramilitary.

When he was young he was living with his mother in a farm in Ciénaga Barbacoas in the eastern part of the department of Antioquia, close to the Magdalena River. At that time he would not know how to differentiate guerrilla from the army but he does remember that lots of armed guys would show up in the farm and he would overheard the administrator of the farm saying: “here come the guerrilleros again asking about the owner of the farm”. He would hear that the administrator would not be friendly with the guerrillas and he would not inform the guerrillas when the owner of the farm was around. The owner no doubt feared having to pay la vacuna, “the vaccination”, which is what you have to pay in rural Colombia to avoid being kidnapped or killed. One day, El Gurre recalled:

The administrator went to do some shopping; he went to get meat. Three days later the shopping showed up including a pile of meat but the administrator never arrived. My mum would complain because the meat would shrink once she fried it and was not good quality. One week later an armed guy showed up and he asked all the workers to meet with him including my mum. He asked: “What did you think about the meat?” and my mum in a very innocent way replied that: “it was not a good quality meat since it would shrink”. The guy then told her: “Human meat is like pig’s meat, it shrinks when you fry it and that was the meat of the administrator the one you ate all week. So the message for the owner of this farm is that he better pay or report himself.” That night my mum decided to leave that farm, even though it was late and did not have anywhere to go we left the farm with my youngest brother. We walked starting at 10pm until 5am when we reached the river. She said she was not going to wait to be killed there.

We tell this story not to defend the actions of El Gurre and the Omar Isaza Front, which are not defensible. But it goes to show how the stateless anarchy in rural Colombia forces everyone to take one side or the other.

A fictional but very realistic depiction of this life in rural Colombia is in Carlos César Arbeláez’s film Los Colores de la Montaña (the Colors of the Mountain): see the trailer here.