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.