M y rambling return to The Daily Demarche.
Let me start by offering my condolences to all those who lost so much to Hurricane Katrina, all who have suffered so much are in our thoughts and prayers. I have only visited New Orleans once, but was charmed by her unique style. May her recovery be swift and certain. As an aside, the next time Hugo Chavez offers aid to the U.S. we should take it- he is playing a political game to be sure, but we have poured a lot of money into his country, let him pay some of it back in crude oil, and let the world see that we can graciously accept assistance, no matter what the motive. That goes for the rest of the world too- many countries have offered aid, some even for altruistic reasons. It may make people feel good to help us out, as often as we have helped them, and let us not forget that many countries are represented by the citizens of the Big Easy. We should strive to be humble when we can give aid as well as when we need succor.
Now, back to today’s theme. The journey here has been an adventure in and of itself- only one flight in a day on an American carrier (the Fly America Act requires us to use an American flag carrier if available, cost and convenience be damned), but it actually feels pretty good to be back in the Third World. I know that many of you were great fans of the Diplomad, and that his Turd World piece will long stand as one of his most memorable bits, but I actually prefer this over the “more advanced” posts out there. Of course after spending a few years in North-western Europe the culture shock is pretty amazing- for one thing my dollars are actually worth something here, and for another the beer is pretty lousy. Luckily the indigenous tipple isn’t too bad!
Don’t get me wrong- in no way do I want to trade my middle-class American existence to become a denizen of one of the slums of Rio, Mexico City, Mogadishu or any other hell hole. I am referring here to the nascent middle-classes of some of the third world capitals. For one thing, almost everyone I have met in one of these cities has something good to say about the U.S.; in most cases because they have a brother or uncle there who is sending money home. For another, they still see America as the land of opportunity, as a shining beacon on a hill. I think a lot of this has to do with the aforementioned money- I doubt the uncles of the third world are telling the folks at home about the back breaking jobs they have or the disdain with which they are treated by most Americans. Nope- they send them money and tell them about the 27 inch color TV and the indoor plumbing and electricity that always works. The rest of the image that most of these folks get about America comes from the movies, or exported TV, and for those who want to believe in a better life, entertainment provides the key (of course for those who want to believe we are a decadent country that flaunts all of God’s laws, the entertainment industry proves that too). In these cities capitalism is truly alive and well- whatever you want or need someone will figure out how to get it or make it. Of course this sometimes involves illegal processes, but less often than you might think. In poor countries where there is no social welfare system everyone does what he or she can to make life better- or at least almost everyone.
I have always been impressed by the people of these struggling places, and almost never impressed by their governments. Herein lies the problem. We, that is the government of the United States, deal with governments, most of which the world over (the Third World, anyway) are dysfunctional. We pour billions of dollars into these countries, and much of it ends up in the hands and pockets of the petty tyrants that rule them. The mission statement of the State Department is a pretty good one- it is concise and direct: “Create a more secure, democratic, and prosperous world for the benefit of the American people and the international community.” Unfortunately I think we lose sight of the second and third pieces in a good chunk of the world.
I have stated many, many times on this blog that I do not believe that terrorism comes from poverty- but I do believe that some crime does. Illegal immigration comes to mind for starters. Reduce the poverty at home and fewer people will flee. What you might ask, is the simplest of methods to achieve this goal? I am glad you asked. Here is my very simplified answer: free trade and the reduction or elimination of subsidies at home. This is where the Libertarian in me comes out- even more so when I travel in the Third World. I understand that we can not simply fling open our markets any more so than we can simply fling open our borders- but we can and indeed should, spend our aid dollars in such a way that will allow us over time to reduce barriers and tariffs as well as lower or end subsidies at home.
Let us use the fictional country of Upper Ickystan as an example. This impoverished country has in the last decade undergone five unscheduled changes of administration, all more or less democratically (i.e. there have been legitimate elections, but for lack of resources and will each government has been unsuccessful in accomplishing anything meaningful, with civil unrest common and the resignation of each administration soon thereafter). Now, let us also assume that we have pumped a few billion dollars into the region over the last 40 years or so, and that there is very little that this country produces that we need or want. Except for hand made rugs. A good deal of micro-credit has gone into Upper Ickystan to help families buy or repair traditional looms to make these rugs, since is the major skill in the country- most of the loans have been less than $500.00, and a good many of these small businesses are cranking out rugs. So far so good. The only problem is that there is no way to get these rugs to market. There are no decent roads, no one in the country has the skills to negotiate international purchase orders and almost everyone is too poor to qualify for a visa to the U.S. to look for potential customers- even if these rugs could get past the trade barriers (note- I don’t know if there are trade barriers on rugs- you can substitute any item you want here for this example, say, sugar). USAID workers and Embassy staff from a few countries are buying these rugs like mad, but that is about it. The few producers who have foreign clients are labeled a success, their stories are told on 20/20 and everyone else goes back to growing poppies for heroin.
So what are we to do? For starters let’s get over the idea that aid money has to be spent with American firms- that is more or less welfare, and Halliburton really does not need more of that. Let’s assume that Lower Ickystan has the resources and facilities to produce cement and macadam, and that Western Stanistan, which borders both, has excellent natural harbors with under-developed ports. Using the same amount of aid dollars that we are spending in the region now we could “encourage” Upper Ickystan to buy materials from Lower Ickystan to build roads that will lead to the ports in Western Stanistan. Our aid dollars will help to rebuild the ports there, allowing the rugs and cement of the Ickystans to get to market, while generating revenues for Stanistan. These revenues can then be used to purchase the wheat and rice we are currently paying American farmers o not grow. As these economies stabilize and tax revenues are generated the governments of these regions can gradually be assisted in providing basic services- clean water and immunizations for children, basic medical care and improved infrastructure. Simplistic, I know, but let’s not forget that the United States of America was built on cotton and tobacco- not Palm Pilots or flat screen televisions.
Okay, enough rambling for now, I just had to get that out of my system. It is good to be back, and now that I have most of my things and more or less reliable internet service (major outage yesterday) I expect to post much more frequently. Thanks for waiting for us, and fort all of the encouraging e-mails and comments.