One dude threw on scuba gear and jumped into a tsunami. The other covered health reform

One Dude threw on scuba gear and jumped into a tsunami. The other covered health reform. Both deserve a look.

You’ve just got to read this story about the “badass of the week,” Hideaki Akaiwa. This guy somehow got hold of some scuba gear, jumped into the tsunami, and rescued his wife and mother stranded at the upper levels of decimated houses. Dave Roberts gets a little over the top about this one. You will see why. Unbelievable.

Another dude, Jon Cohn, has a really nice piece about health reform one year later. Unlike Akaiwa, Jon really doesn’t combine MacGuyver MacGyver skills with Jason Statham moves when everyone else is panicking during a disaster. Or does he? How else did he get all those health care scoops after Scott Brown’s election….

The day the music didn’t die

but it’s taken a hit: this is SO SAD especially as the sprinklers didn’t work and apparently have been out of service for two years.  Portela is one of three samba schools whose costumes and floats were destroyed in this fire, and only a month before Carnaval.

Here’s Paulinho da Viola, Portela alum and immortal sambista, singing one of his most famous songs (A river that ran through my life) about it. Here he is having a chope with his homeboys in happier times.  And while I’m at it, here’s nine minutes of heaven; Portela with Clara Nunes and then Vanessa da Mata.

Supply and demand

550 million eggs recalled for possible [sic] salmonella contamination will be destroyed.   150 [fixed 24/VII/10] million Pakistanis are sitting under tarpaulins in the mud with no food.  Eggs are halal. Irradiation, FDA approved since 2000, would make them perfectly safe to eat and storable without refrigeration.

Just sayin’…

A possible explanation

Obama thinks the spill will get much, much worse.

The conventional explanation for Obama’s disappointingly low-key speech is political prudence, aka cowardice: he doesn’t think a radical energy bill with cap and trade is winnable before the November election, or even worth waging a losing fight for to make a point. See this ridicule from Jon Stewart and an alternative rant from Rachel Maddows.

But ss Mark points out, Obama’s successful armtwisting of BP – immediately followed by the terrific own goal of Republican Rep. Joe Barton apologising to BP for the nasty man – does not suggest that the President has gone soft.

There is another explanation – and it should scare you. Obama may have been advised that the worst is yet to come. Via Julia Whitty at Mother Jones, we learn of industry insider “dougr” saying (not, I stress, uncontested by his peers):

All the actions and few tid bits of information all lead to one inescapable conclusion. The well pipes below the sea floor are broken and leaking …

[snip long section on the failure of kill attempts and the progressive breakdown of the well structure]
… the very least damaging outcome as bad as it is, is that we are stuck with a wide open gusher blowing out 150,000 barrels a day of raw oil or more. There isn’t any “cap dome” or any other suck fixer device on earth that exists or could be built that will stop it from gushing out and doing more and more damage to the gulf. While at the same time also doing more damage to the well, making the chance of halting it with a kill from the bottom up less and less likely to work, which as it stands now?….is the only real chance we have left to stop it all.
It’s a race now…a race to drill the relief wells and take our last chance at killing this monster before the whole weakened, wore out, blown out, leaking and failing system gives up it’s last gasp in a horrific crescendo.

Now you and I aren’t in a position to evaluate the likelihood of this nightmare scenario. But Obama and Hayward are. And their public actions are entirely consistent with it. Why did Hayward and Svanberg give in so easily to the demand for a $20bn escrow fund? It makes sense if they realize the disaster is unstoppable and their company is basically bust.

It also explains Obama’s speech. He likes to lead from behind: point a direction, wait for events, then step in with a solution.  If the well is going to be capped and the loose oil scooped up soon, the opportunity for a bold initiative was unique and he’s blown it. But if the situation is going to get much, much worse over the summer, then events are playing into his preferred method. As the coasts die, the pressure for action will build and build, and Obama can ride the wave to a new energy policy.

The price of saving the world’s climate may be the destruction of the Gulf of Mexico.  I’m not sure I want this or not.

Update 18 June

An afterthought. It’s a hole in my theory that Obama did not qualify his assurance that  “in the coming weeks and days, these efforts should capture up to 90 percent of the oil leaking out of the well.” He did warn the the American public in two places that there’s more damage to come – “The millions of gallons of oil that have spilled into the Gulf of Mexico are more like an epidemic, one that we will be fighting for months and even years … no matter how effective our response is, there will be more oil and more damage before this siege is done.”

How about this coda to save the appearances. He’s left BP in charge, and officially has to accept their assurances about capture of the “leaking” – spewing! – oil, documented in the paper trail. But they are lying, in the higher interests of their stockholders. He is a skilled politician and good at detecting when people are lying to him. Perhaps also Chu’s brains trust of top non-oil scientists are telling him that they don’t believe BP either.  Qualifying the assurance with “probably” would open up this dispute, create a media storm focused on the White House, not BP, distract the efforts in the field, and possibly create panic in coastal communities.  So Obama was forced to lie himself in the higher national interest. He doesn’t like lying for reasons of state, which helps explain his low key.

Update 22 June

A BP internal document from May just released by Rep. Markey concedes that in a counterfactual worst-case scenario, if  the “blowout preventer and wellhead are removed and if we have incorrectly modeled the restrictions, the rate [of oil flow] could be as high as 100,000 barrels a day.” This is the highest number yet from an official source. So BP thinks the reservoir is trying to push out that much, though insisting that their well will not collapse to allow it.

Update 23 June

Admiral Allen announces that the blowout preventer is leaning by 10-12 degrees. The president of Shell Oil says the “integrity of the well casing is a major concern.” Score two for dougr.

Cultural poverty traps and Indiana Jones

I’m not sure what Andy is disagreeing with me about; while the good news from Chiaromonte is nice to hear, it isn’t overwhelming (60% of families with cars and telephones, in the early 90s?).  But the important thing is that the crushing poverty, stasis, and fatalism that bound the community until so recently was only dispersed by breaking its isolation from a world with more constructive norms and conventions (TV, roads, travel, emigration and return), just as Calabrian/Sicilian medievalism broke apart when Italian immigrants moved into enclaves surrounded by New York and Boston, rather than more villages like theirs as far as the eye could see.

Haiti has emigration going for it (see below for some caveats even on this score), as Andy points out, and “doomed” was hyperbolic on my part. But it doesn’t have much else, and there will be plenty of sabotage to overcome.  Rich elites in places like Haiti tend to despise their peasantry and proletariat (why all his friends thought Tolstoy was nuts).  I was in Iran before the revolution hanging out with very comfortable profs at the University of Tehran, working on a curriculum development project for a sort of Tehran State (if you think of U of T as the Stanford of the place and time).  These guys had lunch at the Hilton, ordered pork chops and BLT’s from the English menu, lived up on the hill (Tehran is sort of a great tilted plane), and had dogs as pets. More than one of them informed me, helpfully trying to knock the corners off my naïveté, that “it doesn’t matter what you teach these people; they’re ignorant peasants and will learn nothing.”  It felt a little like being in the court of Catherine the Great, with everyone speaking French and being as un-Russian as possible.

More important, I think, is that these guys have it very good now, and have no reason to believe that in a more competitive meritocratic society, even if its average income increased greatly, they could be as comfortable as they are now.  They certainly couldn’t be as relatively advantaged, and Bob Frank has explained and explained that relative status trumps absolute amount of stuff every time.And of course, they have the guns.

What worries me most about Haiti’s future is the unintended lesson of cargo comfort (delivering stuff, no matter how essential and useful water, food and shelter obviously are now) and remittances both: when people get stuff they didn’t make (or buy with what they make) it’s terribly easy to subconsciously  infer that they can’t do for themselves, and easier when stuff is delivered by white people to blacks in a world with precious little evidence of blacks delivering to whites from prosperity rather than extortion.  This (not the race part)  is the curse of a resource-extraction-based economy (one Haiti doesn’t have to worry about, having nothing to dig up and sell).  Remittances from emigrants are a little different, but villages like the ones in Mexico with no men and everyone living on money from people working in the US are at the least in a very fragile sociological state, and I’m not aware that their local economies are creating much value where the kids can see it happen.

“White man’s burden” movies like the Indiana Jones series play this message out: the cookie-cutter plot is that a bunch of brown people are having a terrible time and can’t do anything about it until a white guy comes into town and saves them (I haven’t seen it, but have the impression Avatar follows this template).  Not too different from the parfait gentil knight saving the helpless peasants from the dragon up the valley; since David and Jeanne d’Arc, I don’t remember a lot of stories about the farm boy (or the Puerto Rican on the loading dock) saving a roomful of bankers and generals from something; it was Robert Gould Shaw who made it possible for the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts to get their licks in. Toussaint L’Ouverture is a glorious Haitian exception to this meme, but it was a long time ago and the docs running the rural medical centers, and the guys handing out the water and biscuits at the airport, seem to be all white now.

One implication of emigration and remittances for Haiti is that Haitians can do it (and indeed, Haitians as a group have been very successful in the US), but the other is that they can’t do it in Haiti. I don’t know which lesson is the more salient in fact.  Of course cultures can change, and do.  But my impression is that they change by interchange with other cultures, very rarely by some sort of bootstrap autonomous evolution, and Haiti has very little of this kind of interchange, especially until (if) the emigrants start to repatriate.  No, Canadians sunning on the beach don’t count.  Dürer had to go to Italy to learn to draw; Bach had to study Vivaldi to make the best possible German music (yes, and the Italians learned art from the Greeks and pasta from China). After all, social capital formation is a market failure, just like a prisoners’ dilemma.  A village full of smart, competent individuals  are hard put to start cooperating and trusting each other without something besides money and technology falling out of the sky on them, especially with local plutocrats sowing fear and suspicion.

Why the Haitians aren’t doomed: choice trumps culture.

Haiti is not doomed. To the extent that Haitian culture inhibits prosperity, Haitians will do as people in that condition always have: they will work around their culture—or leave it, and benefit their home countries no less by doing that.

I’m afraid I have to disagree, pretty strongly, with Mike on this one.

Let’s accept for argument* that Banfield’s Moral Basis of a Backward Society is not only classic but something rarer: right.  The question is what it means.

The Italian town that Banfield called “Montegrano” was actually Chiaromonte.  What happened to it after Banfield proclaimed its culture hopelessly backward?  One researcher (academic paywall: it’s N. S. Peabody, III, “Toward an Understanding of Backwardness and Change,” Journal of Developing Areas 4, No. 3 [April 1970]:375-386) examined its record about twelve years after Banfield did—after Italy’s general 1960s boom—and found its agriculture transformed by the substitution of rational crops for fascist-promoted wheat, its cultural repertoire transformed by TV and movies, and everything transformed by emigration.  Those who experienced the wider world brought back modern ideas, sent money that gave their relatives some independence, and often returned to buy or rent land in ways that challenged the ancestral landlord structure.  Returning emigrants were the new, and previously missing, middle class.  Those who didn’t return were both a profitable export and a crucial mechanism through which the local culture did what all cultures do eventually: change beyond recognition.

More than twenty years after that, in the early 90s, L.E. Harrison in Who Prospers? made a personal trip and put it more vividly:

What I found in that brief visit was dramatic change.  Almost everyone was literate.  Half were high school graduates.  All families had television.  Sixty percent had telephones.  Sixty percent had automobiles.  Several agricultural cooperatives had been formed.  Families are now much smaller, averaging two children.  A highway was built in the 1970s that cut travel time to Naples in half (from six hours to three).  People now travel much more, and many attend school elsewhere.  Many Chiaromontese have migrated to Northern Italy and other European countries to work, and a fair number of them have returned.

Chiaromonte is no longer Montegrano, although I have no doubt that a residue of traditional values can be found there.  Chiaromonte has been opened up, by education, by road, by television,by newspapers and magazines, to the progressive values and institutions of modern Italy and Western Europe.  Left to its own devices, the town woudl no doubt today be essentially what it was when the Banfields lived there.  But its isolation has been broken down. …

In Haiti, the story isn’t so different.  To the extent that the prevailing culture and society have made mobility within the country difficult, Haitians have responded by emigrating in droves. (Perhaps 4.5 million live abroad.).  Their remittances, almost $2 billion a year, may be the single greatest contributor to national income.  When many of them return, as we can count on them someday doing, they will instantly swell the middle class.  I’m sure that Haiti’s aristocracy has no great desire to help the poor in their country.  But progress never depended on converting the barons.  The point, and the likely future, is to render them irrelevant.

Even those who stay are likely to prosper slowly (more slowly than in other countries, but faster than “doomed”—as in Naples, as in Chiaromonte).  We notice societies that “stagnate” for a time because it’s so unusual: growth is normal.  Everyone remembers the part of Adam Smith where he rails against bad government policies.  Fewer remember the part where he says that England has steadily grown more prosperous in the face of miserable policies and useless wars.

In the midst of all the exactions of government,…capital has been silently and gradually accumulated by the private frugality and good conduct of individuals, by their universal, continual, and uninterrupted effort to better their own condition.

Of course “culture matters.”  That’s why people who inhabit a culture that thwarts their dreams will either rely on their own hard work and that of their families—a second best to a supportive culture but not therefore useless—or else  leave their culture for one that better supports prosperity, and send home the fruits of their choice to be both consumed and planted.  The relevant unit is not Haiti but Haitians.

The difference between slow growth, against the odds, and inevitable stagnation is not theoretical but terribly practical.  It will be all too easy to misinterpret a statement like “It is not possible to write a check to ‘Haiti‘, nor to ‘the poor in Haiti.'”  UNICEF is currently shipping to Haiti large quantities of water purification tablets, oral rehydration kits, tarps for shelter, and water storage units.  If the rich need such things and want to steal some, they will no doubt succeed to some degree.  Unless one thinks that they’ll take all of it, a small donation can still save a staggering number of lives.  Will development programs succeed in the longer term?  As usual, some will, many won’t, and the removal of tariff barriers would help much more than most of them.  (Update: let’s cancel some debt too.)  But that is, emphatically, an argument for a much later date.

*Accept this only for argument.  Many have claimed that there was lots of interaction in small-town Southern Italy–just not the kinds of interaction he was familiar with and therefore looking for; for some citations, look here.  And Jackman and Miller’s “Social Capital and Politics” article from 1998 (academic subscription wall) asks excellent questions about the wider use often made of Banfield’s theses: Putnam, and others who follow him, often seem to argue simultaneously that culture is immutable and that it’s a great thing when institutions can change it quickly.  That said, few of the critics doubt that the culture of Northern Italy, all things considered, make growth more robust, and government better, there than in the South.

Why Haiti is Doomed

I’ve been waiting for this story ever since the earthquake.  It turns out the rich folks up on the hill are pretty much OK, and they are being protected from looters as always by the police who have been invisible to date down among the poor.  Haiti is a society operating under rules called amoral familialism, so defined in the little classic Ed Banfield wrote when he spent a summer visiting his wife’s ancestral village in Italy and asked himself (thinking back to his community development work in the US in the thirties), “why are these people so poor?!”.  It is the moral system typical of communities that established their habits and norms under cruel foreign oppression, the French and later the US in Haiti, the French and Spaniards in southern Italy, and are sufficiently isolated from workable, healthy, just societies that the pessimism, selfishness, greed, and fear  they depend on can’t be diluted or adapted.  It is the philosophy of Sonny Corleone, pithily summarized as “…they’re [enlistees in WW II] chumps because they risk their lives for strangers!” But the wall around the Italians in America was punctured in a generation as they learned English, went to public school and CCNY, and read newspapers; the wall around Haiti is an ocean they can’t afford boats to cross and an armed frontier with a (much less vicious and less desperate) police state where they speak a different language.

It is not possible to write a check to “Haiti”, nor to “the poor in Haiti”.  It is possible to implant dozens and even hundreds of community projects for health care, education, rebuilding homes, and the like, and to operate them up to the point that they seriously threaten the people who vacation in Gstaad and St. Tropez.  But any important assistance to Haiti will be met at the airport by the people living up on the hill, who will take it in the name of something that looks enough like a ‘government of the Haitians’ to satisfy foreign donors, and use it to pay the cops outside that genteel market, and to restore the only society they know, which is a society in which they loot a large population of desperate, uneducated, citizens to prop up whatever big man gets to be in charge for the next cycle of misery and theft.  Interesting about the proprietor of the lottery; is there a better way to separate the poor from any little money they may accumulate without having to provide anything in return?

In Naples, the Camorra decides when and if the garbage will be picked up, and who gets a building permit, and what piece of farmland or shoreline gets trashed. Government development programs “respect local needs” and are picked clean before brick is laid on brick.  In the southern Philippines, your local mafiosi have a comfortable arrangement with a distant national government and deliver the votes needed to be left to loot (until they are stupid enough to massacre a convoy of reporters and troublemakers). In the Nigerian delta, someone with connections picks up the oil royalties and leaves just enough to pay thugs to keep the locals quiet in their hovels, looking at the pipeline (and occasionally punching a hole in it in desperation). In Haiti, the same.  I don’t know anywhere in the world where a society like this has climbed out of ignorance, poverty, and violence: culture matters.  The culture of clawing your way out of misery on the backs of your neighbors, if you can get your hands on an AK47 and rent yourself out to someone on that hill, is all the culture there is down in the slums, and the culture of wealth taken from despised wretches, and enjoyed over nice wine with a pleasant view of the harbor, in a house that has some rebar in its masonry,  is very important to the folks who pay the cops. [UPDATE 19/I/10: more discussion of this in two later posts from Andy and me].