Wednesday, August 16, 2006

White Man's Burden

I just finished that rare book, which has something in it to poke the pretensions of people of all political stripes. It’s called the White Man’s Burden, by William Easterly. He is an economics professor at NYU after a long career with the World Bank, and his book deals with the efforts of the West, through foreign financial aid, military aid, military intervention, imperial conquest and colonization, and decolonization, to aid the “Rest.” All these efforts have generally failed to raise third world countries out of poverty, and indeed have in many cases arguably contributed to their ongoing poverty. The book does not have flattering things to say about the prospects for long-term Democracy and peace in Iraq, if history serves as any guide.

The book got me thinking about an old debate I had with Professor Vic, wherein he argued that if we concentrated more on direct foreign aid, we’d need less in military protection. Essentially we could buy our way out of other countries regarding us as the Great Satan. (It’s been a long time since we had this conversation, and so my apologies if I am remembering it incorrectly, but nevertheless the argument I recall him making, if not accurate, is still made by many, including Senator Murray from Washington shortly after 9/11). Easterly’s arguments in the book certainly do not support that view – in fact, there is some evidence that support from the West actually leads to worse governance in the recipient countries, which leads to political unrest that, perhaps predictably (and this is Hatcher’s theory now, not Easterly’s), is offset by shrewd politicians channeling that unrest into hatred of us. But the book also makes it clear that past military interventions haven’t exactly taken countries off the Road to Serfdom and onto the Road to Prosperity; although one could argue that such was never their primary intent.

There is, for example, evidence that countries rich in oil reserves tend to be far less Democratic, with comparatively large inequality of wealth stemming from the fact that a small elite typically own and control the oil. The theory is that because democracy would spread the oil wealth around a bit through redistribution, it is fiercely resisted by those currently in possession of the wealth. They spend most of their time making sure government protects their haul. The leadership in these nations, when confronted with political unrest due to the poverty of the have-nots, channel that unrest rather successfully into hatred of the Jews or the U.S., or most often both, which are somehow conspiratorially responsible for countries rich with black gold being unable to generate any economic prospects for themselves.

After presenting this evidence, he shows that foreign aid, which has historically almost always been channeled through the local government, has similar affects. Like oil, getting it is like getting mana from heaven – it is wealth that needs no establishment of entrepreneurial talent or drive to get it (in fact, you probably won’t get it as a country unless the country lacks these more traditional factors of wealth production).

Another interesting snippet from the book – negotiated peace settlements between warring factions tend to be less successful in preventing follow-on wars when they are negotiated early, at a time when there is no clear winner yet. In short, you get more long-lasting stability if one country gets to kick the other’s ass quite thoroughly for some time. The Israel-Hezbollah war clearly fits this bill in many ways, and much of what I’ve read about the cease fire agreement is of the opinion that confrontation is likely to resume at some point in the near future. Arguably the US-Iraq experience fits into this bucket in a way – maybe we switched from kicking ass to demonstrating a light touch too soon – and that has only fostered more aggression from the terrorists. I see it this way – the intent of the light touch is to win the hearts and minds of the larger population, but that attempt is at the cost of hammering terrorists who hide behind women and children (or at the cost of hammering terrorists who are women and children). The problem is this – those inclined to hate the US will do so independent of what they see – and will be especially susceptible to any and all anti-US propaganda. They might see the light touch, but who are they going to believe – their own eyes or Al Jazeera?

Finally, one thousand points to the Bayou Barrister, who answered the trivia question about the most deadly conflict since WWII – the Congo Conflict. Nearly three million killed in the conflict, and the timing? The late 1990s. I should have predicted the Bayou Barrister would get this one – his TV only gets the Military Channel. If this is news to any liberal out there, you have a lot of heart bleeding to catch up on.


Anonymous Jim O said...

A conflict in Africa? That pastoral paradise, seat of all homo sapien diaspora, and all-around wonderland of zoo animals? Ridiculous! The native people would never endanger their vast natural resources to squabble amongst themselves.

10:11 AM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

I haven't read Easterly's new book, but I assign his old book, "The Elusive Quest for Growth" in my macroeconomics classes. Easterly clearly points out that there are lots of ways to do things wrong in the foreign aid department, and simply pouring money on a problem doesn't necessarily solve things.

So, I will be the first to say that "foreign aid national defense" is no easy task. However, I will stand by my assertion that it may be still be easier than "invade or bomb the crap out of countries, and hope we kill more terrorists than we create" national defense that the U.S. (and recently, Israel) have been practicing.

Still, does anyone truly believe that the $300 billion or so we have spent invading Iraq couldn't have bought us more national defense if it had been spent more wisely? I will definitely agree with Easterly that the Bush administration could just as easily have wasted $300 billion in badly conceived foreign aid projects, but my gut feeling is that we would have fewer America-hating terrorists if we had spent the money on building schools and hospitals (or better systems of government) in the Islamic world rather than killing Iraqis.

11:45 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

I think we spent very little of that $300 billion on invading and bombing the crap out of Iraq. The lionshare of it has arguably been for trying to preserve order until such time that a new government can do that on its own; and certainly the new government has more promise than the old to be good. So arguably most of our spending is related to improving governance in the Middle East. And I'm guessing we've put a lot of that money into infrastructure, inlcuding schools and hospitals.

12:02 PM  
Blogger Professor Vic said...

Fair enough. We probably only spent a portion of the money on the initial invasion. The rest of the money has been spent on trying to contain the aftermath.

Of course, that's a bit like saying that hitting a hornet's nest is easy because it takes so little effort to knock the nest down. It would be absurd, however, to not count the time cleaning up the angry hornets as part of the cost of hitting the nest.

Finally, rather than "guessing we've put a lot of that money into infrastructure, including schools and hospitals," I actually looked up a few numbers. While data is a bit hard to find, most mainstream media news sources report that of the roughly $300 billion that the U.S. has spent on the war, only about $21 billion has gone to reconstruction and much of that has been lost to corruption (validating Easterly's point) or security requirements for contractors.

I'm not arguing that the Iraq war is necessarily a bad thing. I am simply pointing out that only a crazy person would not at least acknowledge the fact that invading Iraq might not have been the best way to spend $300 billion (and counting) towards the goal of improving governance in the Middle East.

And in all fairness, perhaps a $300 billion "bomb them with butter" war on poverty in the Middle East would have failed as spectacularly as the "bomb them with bombs" war has so far. But I don't think so.

11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I lived in Honduras, USAID had an unbelievable amount of funds entering the country. The problem isn't anything short of greed. People high up in the government realize that money can get funneled off to their own businesses or those of their friends and very little or a small percentage actually gets to where it was originally intended.
Where as military aid ends up in the hands of those same beauracrats who obviously have interests in controlling the people that they govern. Pouring in foreign aid in places such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua after infusing billions of dollars in military aid is like putting a band aid on a broken leg.

11:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If the US really wanted to end world conflict, the Air Force would load up all its B-52s with cases of Chartreuse and parachute drop them into conflict zones. I ask you, how can you hate the guy that makes your Chartruese bender possible?

4:53 AM  

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