Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Political Correctness kills (formerly "In defense of Brooks")

I've rewritten this post because the topic is serious, and deserves more than the rant I initially composed.

David Brooks posts a rather bland set of observations in NYT, as usual, and for a change, not only does the world take notice, but a good share of it has an apoplectic fit.

In an op-ed on Haiti, Brooks observes that the reason Haiti suffered such destruction from the recent earthquake is that it's not a developed country. He's certainly correct about this. Earthquakes of similar magnitude in the U.S. or Japan are far less lethal. Wealth, technological sophistication, and competent organization reduce the destructiveness and vastly improve the response to disaster. Or consider China, still a developing country with substantial poverty. In the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, inferior construction led to considerable loss of life, but China also had sufficient development to respond. The loss of life between China and Haiti appears to be roughly equivalent, even though the Sichuan quake was ten times more powerful than the Haiti quake. (Don't make too much of these numbers, though...the population densities of Sichuan epicenter Wenchuan County and Ouest Departement where Port-au-Prince lies are quite different.) It's clear that development increases our ability to withstand natural disasters.

Brooks then asks why Haiti has failed to develop. One of the things he dares to suggest is that among explanations we should include "progress-resistant cultural influences."

Multiculturalists, diversity worshippers, and thought police are up in arms over this. How dare anyone suggest that ideas, behaviors, and the other informal institutions that make up culture could have anything to do with how a society functions! Matt Taibbi posted a particularly vicious and foul attack on Brooks, accusing him of racism, while in fact Taibbi wallowed in racial and religious bigotry himself. His slur-filled attack was reposted on Huffington Post. The attack entirely sidestepped Brooks' points, and accused Brooks of arguing that no one should donate to Haitian relief, that Haitians are racially inferior, and the like. (Taibbi also postured as some sort of international expert, which he's not.)

In fact, Brooks suggests that we need to help Haiti develop, and correctly points out that foreign aid spending does not help countries develop. OK, let's say that again: foreign aid spending does not help countries develop.


If there's anything we've learned from the past 50 years of foreign aid interventionism, it's this. I can't think of an empirical proposition in economics better established than this.

So why don't countries develop? It's not education, but that's a long story for later. It's certainly not resources -- natural resources tend to hinder development, not further it. The single most important factor is institutions: formal ones (constitutions, laws, etc.) and the foundation that supports them, informal institutions. And, sorry to say for the PC diversity crowd, not all informal institutions, i.e. cultures, are equivalent.

I suspect Brooks has no particular knowledge of Haiti, but he's quite correct in general that there are mentalities that hamper development. One would have to be utterly ignorant of the world -- or utterly blinded by PC ideology -- to not get this. And Brooks does provide citations for claims. Taibbi didn't even bother to address them.

I was outraged by something else in Brooks piece. His fourth point suggests that development must ultimately be undertaken by locals. But in making this otherwise perfectly sensible point he could not restrain his neoconservative ideology, and identified better schools as "paternalism." A standard kneejerk reaction for Brooks is to declare that libertarian, laissez faire, and free market principles don't work. For him, solutions to problems always require participation by a wise, paternalistic government. (He once argued in NYT that the failure of American public schools shows that free markets can't solve problems of education, and that we need the federal government to oversee national education!) To label stricter, more rigorous schools as "paternalist," well, it's just Brooks' usual kneejerk neocon opposition to individual liberty and responsibility. (Defending Brooks certainly doesn't come naturally to me)

But the more important point: if such bland words as Brooks' are demonized by leftists (who falsely call themselves "liberals" and "progressives"), how are we going to make progress in development? Brooks words are not bigoted, nor hateful (unlike Taibbi's). If a calm discussion of the very real problems of "progress-resistant cultural influences" cannot even occur, we'll simply be locked into our old destructive patterns of giving foreign aid to wealthy elites, elites who then block real reform, so as to keep the aid coming.

In such case, every time another child in an LDC unnecessarily dies, and every time a poor country suffers needless destruction and death, a share of the blood will be on the hands of Matt Taibbi and his PC friends.

Postscript: I've had many very informative discussions with Africans, South Asians, East Asians, and Eastern Europeans from a wide variety of cultures on how cultural attitudes restrict development. In every case these were discussions initiated by my friends, and in every case they pointed to elements of their own cultures that they believed dysfunctional. The Political Correctness that requires we blind ourselves to these issues is intellectually less respectable than Creationism, which at least is willing to address the science of Evolution.

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Now, would you consider that the Marshall Plan was a big failure, too?
Great question!

No. But it wasn't foreign aid spending in the sense to which I'm referring. The Marshall Plan was for rebuilding developed countries after the destruction of war.

Undeveloped countries are different. It isn't simply lack of resources that blocks development.

I will qualify my statement a little. If you give money to poor people (e.g. micro loans) and let them do as they see fit, then funds indeed can help development.

When The U.S. and W. Europe pour billions into LDCs, they give it to 1) governments, 2) NGOs, 3) private development contractors.

The first group of recipients have little incentive to develop, since that would reduce future aid. I can provide multiple citations on this if desired.

The second and third groups sometimes do good, but mostly are on a gravy train as well.

The fundamental blockage to development is bad institutions, and aid spending tends to lock them in.

BTW, I think Brooks overstates the importance of cultural problems.

Again, great question...thanks.
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