Calls for harsh criticism: my first (of four) graduate school statement of purpose

Note: this is my statement of purpose (SOP) for a graduate program in anthropology at Emory University. I am also going to apply to Stanford, New Mexico, and Chicago. This is only a rough draft. I have given myself plenty of time to make these perfect, so I am posting this here in order to get harsh feedback and also in case anybody ever finds himself in my position (looking online for examples). The application process consists of five parts: grades, GRE score, Letters of Recommendation, SOP, and resume. My big weaknesses are the SOP and Letters of Recommendation. Any help I could get on my SOP would be great! UPDATE (4/14): Dr Khawaja has kindly provided a forum for my other weakness, the Letters of Recommendation, over at Policy of Truth and I have been learning a lot.

I am interested in land contestations, property rights in stateless regimes, and state formation. There are two main reasons for this. First, I spent three months in the Ghanaian village of Wiamoase, a remote outpost in the Ashanti region, with a medical anthropologist who was then doing graduate work on placebo effects and shamanism at Boston University. Ghana was on the threshold of a third consecutive, coup-free presidential and parliamentary election cycle and I was able to observe how these elections were interpreted by rural Ghanaians. Two major factions figured prominently in the electoral calculations of Ghanaians: the aid-lending Global North and rival, ethnic-based domestic factions. These calculations reminded of the work done by the historian Charles Tilly on the slow rise of democracy in France and the role played in this contestation by the landowning aristocracy. I then decided to conduct an informal survey where I asked villagers whether they had more trust in the politicians of Accra or in the land-holding chiefs who leased out farmland. The unanimous response to my unscientific survey was that the trust of the villagers was in the land-holding chiefs.

Second, at Cabrillo College – a community college in central California – I did Honors research on Javanese political strategies and the Dutch colonial practices that those strategies induced. I was particularly intrigued by the narrative of condescension that dominated Western scholarship up until the 1960s, when the Javanese finally began to be depicted by (some) historians as active, willing participants in the new relationships that were formed by the arrival of European settlers. I presented the results of this research at Stanford University in 2011 as part of a Bay Area Honors consortium, where challenging feedback from professors and participants allowed me to show how this research is relevant to understanding today’s examples of both large-scale organized violence and economic development (or lack thereof).

This research was also featured, in modified form, at RealClearHistory in February of 2014. RealClearHistory is part of the RealClear online series that features work from academics, policymakers, and journalists from around the world on issues ranging from science to history to international relations. RCH also featured my articles on the limits of Japanese imperial ambitions during the Shōwa era and on the European Union’s potential for avoiding the nationalisms of the 20th century by providing inclusive outlets for separatist aspirations. The research done for these features, coupled with my electoral experience in Ghana, produced two notions of democracy in my mind: democracy as a colonial project, and democracy as a power-sharing institution; both of these notions feature prominently in Somalia, my main area of interest, today.

Building upon the work of Peter Little, states are generally taken to be a necessity because of the benefits they provide in regards to public goods. In the postcolonial context, however, states are often wielded as a bludgeon and used as an ATM machine by those who attain its levers of power. When a faction – usually ethnic- or geography-based – wins out in a postcolonial state, the other factions lose power (this is in contrast to long-established, more-or-less democratic states, where “losers” still have institutional representation in a number of ways).

Given this situation, I am interested in both the process of state formation in the postcolonial context, and in the idea of taking seriously notions of informal sovereignty – as exemplified by non-state (indigenous) cooperation at the regional and local levels of borderlands – within current internationally-sanctioned boundaries. In the course of writing my article on nationalisms and the EU, for example, I discovered that three distinct cultural cores of the world – South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka), the Horn of Africa (Somalia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Yemen, Sudan, Djibouti), and the European Union – have similar geographic spaces, ranging in size from 4.31 million km² to 4.482 million km². Yet within these similar geographies, the comparative number of states is stark: both the Horn of Africa and South Asia are comprised of six states each, while the European Union has nearly five times as many (twenty-eight since 2013). The GDP (PPP) per capita – a leading measurement tool used to gauge the economic health of a country – of these regions (based on 2012 IMF estimates) provides another stark insight: the EU’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at $31,018, whereas South Asia’s stands at $3,805 and the Horn of Africa’s is $1,679. These are simple but profound economic and geographic quantitative rifts that have yet to be fully explained, especially in the context of the contestation over defining democracy. Can these macro-level data, in turn, be complemented by looking at informal, cross-border market cooperation, comparative interethnic & intraethnic trading strategies, and power-sharing political institutions? More theoretically: Do these informal economies form the basis of viable states?

The pastoralists in southern Somalia offer an avenue of exploration into these questions, especially the cross-border trade between pastoralists and cattle traders in Somalia and Kenya. I am unaware of research being done on how property rights are agreed upon by the parties involved in this sector of the economy, but the quasi-corporate organizational structure of the actors in the cattle supply chain identified by Dr. Little have ample potential. While much work has been done on the destination of Somali cattle products, and on the traders who act as intermediaries between herders, sellers, and producers, the perspective of Somali herders on the regional informal economy has not been studied in depth. How does both land – as an economic factor of production – and conceptions of property rights affect pastoralists’ economic decisions and political acumen? Ethnographic accounts of herder perspectives on informal economies in general and on the supply chain of their cattle in particular can also build upon the foundations necessary for understanding larger-scale social phenomena such as state formation and neocolonial institutions.

I spent most of my time at UCLA living in an outdoor track-and-field stadium and hauling around a cardboard box with all of my belongings in it, which taught me to be determined and I only mention this because it’s good evidence that I have the perseverance necessary to pursue a doctoral degree from your program. My experience in homelessness is not limited to my time at UCLA. I was born in the cultural center of the Mormon world and, when I left that world at a relatively young age, was exposed to the sometimes harsh realities of poverty in the United States. I mention this experience because it has taught me who to pay attention to depending on what I need and what I want. The work of Peter Little on the formal and informal economies of pastoralists in the Horn of Africa has, in particular, attracted my attention, and I hope to be able to learn directly from him. David Nugent’s work on comparative state formation methods is also an area of research I would learn much from, as is the work of Michael Peletz on Islamic law and its relationship with state formation in Southeast Asia.

Facts vs Narrative: American Peronismo

Anyone who has written anything other than an accident report, maybe even only three letters to his mother, knows or guesses the following: facts often interfere with the quality of a narrative. Only very great writers manage to incorporate all the relevant facts without damaging the beauty of their narratives. Or, they make up facts that will fit without damage into their narrative. I am thinking of Mark Twain among a few others. But that’s in mostly fiction writing, intended as fiction and perceived as such by the reader. The other option is to leave out all the hard facts to the benefit of narrative beauty and then, you have poetry!

Writers in genres other than fiction – old-school journalists, for example – face the same issue, the same dilemma. While they wish to communicate facts, they understand that an attractive narrative helps them in their task. If nothing else, an enthralling story, does keep the reader, and the listener awake; even merely a pleasantly told story Only the un-gifted who face what they think is a captive audience (no such thing, I think) abandon narrative altogether. They insist on bullet points of facts, a method that seldom achieves much of anything, or anything lasting, I believe.

There is thus another, more subtle reason to craft one’s narrative when transmitting facts, a reason to which I just alluded: Facts embedded in a good narrative are retained longer than facts thrown out at random.

Form really matters when you tell others things you believe they ought to know. But facts are often undisciplined, they often refuse to be choreographed into the opera you wish to stage.

Every writer of other than fiction faces the same issue although more or less frequently. The issue is this: what to do with facts that injure an attractive feature, or the whole integrity of the narrative to which it belongs, like this:

“Dear Mom and Dad: I really, really enjoy Camp Iroquois. In the morning, with have this huge breakfast outside with huge omelets and as much bacon as we can eat plus pancakes with syrup and jam. Then, we wash a little and sometimes the counselors make us brush our teeth and we throw wet towels at each other. After that we, play baseball or touch football until noon. (Don’t worry, Mom, I am wearing my cap and lots of sunscreen.) After games, we all have barbecued lunch with hot dogs and lots of relish and cold coke. And then, we rest under a big tree and a counselor reads us adventure stories. After the story, we go and bathe naked in the pond that’s very close. Just the other day, I went to the pond early by myself and I slipped into water that reached above my head. You couldn’t see anything underwater and there was lots of mud at the bottom. So, I forgot that I could swim a little and I swallowed some pond water. Fortunately, Counselor John, the tall one I told you about was just walking by the other side of the pond. He ran and he pulled me out just in time. I coughed a lot of brown water but I guess I am fine, now, so, don’t worry. And, Mom, don’t worry about the laundry either because we hardly wear any clothes most of the time. Plus, I have found a way to make my underwear last for more than one day by just turning it inside out. Oh, I almost forgot to tell you that right after diner, every night, the counselors make a big bonfire and we sing songs until we feel tired and we have to walk to our tents to sleep.

So, Mom, and Dad, you see, I am having a great time at camp so, don’t fret about me.

Your son, Peter.”

You see the problem? The narrative of a happy kid whose parents need not worry about a thing would be improved by the removal of the near-drowning episode. If the child were wise beyond his years, he would leave it out, right?

The same problem arises with every political narrative, including the long-flowing narratives that serve as action guides by default for political parties and for political currents:

Do you tell a good story on an ongoing basis or do you include the relevant facts even if they interfere with its flow?

It seems to me that there is a major difference between political left and right in their willingness to worsen the narrative with facts. I may be wrong. I will listen to criticism and to contradictions. If my perception is correct however this preference for the narrative explains a great deal. It explains the fact that the left everywhere is inured to its own failures and to the success of its adversaries. Curiously, it explains why there is such a preponderance of leftists in practically all the arts, from Hollywood to French singers.

This preference for form over fact even explains the continuing puzzle that is the country of Argentina. I explain: There is no reason why Argentina is not Canada, as prosperous as Canada or nearly so. In fact, three times in one hundred years, the Argentinean standard of living nearly equaled that of Canada. Each time, it was after an important conflict elsewhere. Each time, Argentinians squandered their wealth; each time, they allowed themselves to fall back into poverty instead of taking off and out of underdevelopment for good.

The current government in Buenos Aires is the third iteration of a populist movement called “Peronismo.” The movement is based on a good story: a benevolent, and originally elected dictator, distributes the unjustly acquired wealth of the insolent rich to the poor to the “descamisados,” to those who don’t even have a shirt on their back. Sure the process, is sometimes a little messy but it does not matter; it’s the intention and the goal that matter. And if you stop the clock at any time during the re-distribution process, you will easily find poor families that are better off this year than they were last year.

Peronismo promises to create social justice and a decent life without the rigors and the discipline of communism, for example. The first two times, Peronist regimes ended in economic disaster, the second time, also in a brutal, murderous military dictatorship that lasted for seven years. The current Peronist regime recently had to assassinate a prosecutor in his home because he was about to splash the presidency bloody with a precise, well documented tale of murder and corruption in high places. (Argentina is not a stereotypical Latin American dictatorship however; the current president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner was properly elected .)

The thing, when you talk to Argentinians of the middle class is how civilized they are, how courteous, how well educated, how well informed, (much better informed that middle class Americans in general, if you ask me). And they speak a beautiful Spanish that bears lightly the faint echo of the millions of Italians that form the bulk of Argentina’s population. And their songsters and their singers are second to none. I am listening to Mercedes Sosa as I write, whose “Gracias a la vida” would make me shed tears if I could shed tears. Before her there was Atahualpa Yupánqui, a singer and poet of the poor much better than any country music singer I know (and I know many). Even Buenos Aires pimps invented the tango which is more than you can say about pimps anywhere else. And then, there is that gaucho sitting on his skinny horse sipping hierba mate from a silver tube in a gourd. He always looked to me like a more authentic version of Western movie cowboys because he is not that well groomed, if truth be told; he is just more manly.

In brief, Argentina, the nation, has an excellent narrative. It’s all the better because it is not spoiled, it does not contain disturbing facts: Destiny and history favored Argentinians from the beginning but they are poor most of the time. (Currently, the country has a GDP (PPP) per capita of $19,000, against Korea’s $33,000, a country that had nothing in 1955, and $53,000 for the US – CIA Fact Book) Argentines always dive into poverty for the same reason: They insist that dividing into twenty a pie intended for six will be just fine. They give no attention to the requisites for baking a bigger pie. They are quick to endorse concrete injustices committed in the name of abstract justice. (After all, the expressed wish of the sovereign people must take precedence over constitutional formalities.) If all these obvious historical facts were woven into it, the narrative would not be nearly as attractive; it would be disfigured. It might be disturbing enough to force them to pay attention and begin fixing what’s wrong with their society at last.

It seems to me that a preference for the flow, the coherence of a narrative over the inclusion of relevant facts is commonplace but I think it’s routine among the tribes of the left.* Communism killed at least 100 million people. Yes but it fought injustice. Cubans lead miserable lives in Cuba; those who fled with the shirts on their back are twice richer than those who stayed, after only a couple of years parking cars in Miami. Yes, but the Cuban revolution was deserving of a great movie and it ended by providing free medical care for everyone. That is justice.

Even worse, the US is an international bully variously attacking other, weaker countries for their oil or to force them to adopt institutions they don’t like. A sense of decency requires that Americans stop the bullying.

In the US, the Democratic Party, propelled by its energetic left wing, often garners the extra votes it needs to win – beyond the obligatory black votes, union votes and teachers’ votes – by telling a good story: It’s the party holding the fort against the “war on women,” it’s the party of the little guy; it’s the party of the perpetually racially oppressed, of those oppressed merely because of their sexual preference, even of the newly oppressed “middle class.” Its narrative tugs at your heart strings unless you are very critical and very well informed. It’s a narrative that is squarely opposed to facts. Here are some facts that would change the liberal American story’s face, if they were allowed into that story:

  • The War on Poverty may have been a good idea originally. Fifty years later later, we are allowed to take stock. There is no reason to believe it was a success. There are reasons to think it was a failure.
  • The death rate of young black Americans is stupendous. Few die at the hands of police however. Mostly, they kill one another and they succumb to drug overdoses.
  • At any one time, at least half of American adults are opposed to abortion on demand. A high proportion of these think it’s murder plain and simple.
  • There is no evidence that, on the average, women earn less money than comparably situated men. There is a law forbidding this and there is no evidence that it’s often violated.
  • Out-of-wedlock birth is highly correlated with poverty for all social and racial groups.
  • The thesis that human activities (industrial, cars) are causing a rapid rise in global temperature that will cause catastrophes for the environment and, eventually for humans, that thesis is not well established, if it is established at all. Evidence against as a well as evidence in support is amassing quickly.
  • When the US does not act as a world policeman, unspeakable horrors multiply.

I could go on and on, obviously. Liberals don’t want to include these basic facts in their narrative of injustice and of oppression, domestic and international because it would simply destroy it. Absent the narrative, they would lose almost all elections. That’s why it matters to contradict tirelessly with facts the fairy tale in reverse tirelessly propagated by the left and by media now mostly at its beck and call.

Under the guidance of the Democratic Party (today’s Democratic Party), America would become another Argentina. The Democratic Party is not “socialist” as old Republicans are fond to grumble. (“Socialism” is a word that has lost any fixed meaning. It may never have had one. Perhaps, it was always only an incantation.) The Democratic Party is Peronist. Peronism is a form of soft, self-indulgent fascism that drags everyone except the dictator’s buddies into poverty. (See my short essay on fascism on this blog: “Fascism Explained.”)

* Here is an example of a conservative narrative that would be spoiled by relevant facts. Conservative media heads keep repeating that the first thing to do to solve the problem of illegal immigration, is to “secure the border.” Let’s not kid ourselves, they mean the southern border of the US, the border with Mexico. Missing from this concise and manly, energetic-sounding narrative:

The fact that most illegal immigrants today do not come from Mexico, or from elsewhere in Latin America.

The fact that those who do come from south of the Rio Grande don’t actually swim across that river or trudge in the desert at night but that they drive in and fly in and then, overstay their visa.

The fact that arrests of illegal aliens where they are easy to catch, at places of work that concentrate them such as slaughter houses, the fact the number of such arrests is tiny, year after year. (I mean that this requires an explanation.)

The fact that illegal immigrants who are arrested and who, under the law, are supposed to be deported by priority, criminals, often get to stay, mysteriously.

All these facts who detract from the “secure the border” narrative for the simple reason that none of facts above would be altered if the National Guard stood right on the border with Mexico elbow to elbow, fingers on the trigger of their machine guns.

Eye Candy: the GDP (PPP) per capita of OECD Administrative Units (UPDATED)

Here is what I was able to patch together in my free time.

The countries I’ve filled in were about half of the OECD. The data is hard to get on administrative units elsewhere in the world (I got my data from the OECD website), but it was also hard to get for OECD states. The reason it was hard is because OECD data collectors divide up administrative units into two separate categories (TL2 and TL3) that sometimes correlate to traditional administrative units (such as California or New South Wales) and are sometimes arbitrary creations of EU or OECD bureaucrats designed specifically for data collection (rather than for understanding the historical trajectory of regions within a state).

Does this make sense?

To make matters worse, sometimes the TL2 category correlated with an actual administrative unit with political representation in a capital, and sometimes the TL3 category was the actual administrative unit with political representation. So I had to thumb through the nitty-gritty details of how OECD states send representatives to central parliaments and then match those real-life details to the data collectors TL2 and TL3 categories.

Does this make sense?

The map above highlights the US, Canada, Australia, Germany, France, the UK, Spain, Poland, Austria, Italy, Czech Republic, Chile, Denmark, and Mexico. These countries are all TL2 states.* I have no idea what that is supposed to mean for data collectors, but it means to dorks like me that their TL2 categories send political representatives to capital cities, whereas their TL3 categories likely send political representatives to regional capitals.

Does this make sense?

I have continued entering the data that the OECD has provided for the GDP (PPP) per capita of TL3 units (which send political representatives to capital cities), but the map I downloaded does not outline TL3 units (it only outlines TL2 units). So unless I want to spend time carving out TL3 units onto a TL2 map I am going to have to stop filling out the map. I’m all for collaboration on this, of course.

Here is the table I have (very slowly) been working on, but when I colored in the map above (the TL2 states), I divided them up into six groups based on highest GDP (PPP) per capita to lowest. The richest administrative units were purple, followed by blue, followed by green, followed by yellow, followed by orange, followed by red. So: purple is rich, red is poor. Got it? Because I started adding the TL3 states to the table, and because the map doesn’t allow for me to add the TL3 states to it, I forgot the range of the colored TL2 units. Dividing them up into six groups is a pretty easy task, though, so you should just trust my coloring scheme.

The map I created doesn’t have a very good zoom-in function, but what I found interesting is that Europe has a lot more economic inequality than the US, Canada, and Australia. Look at France. It’s mostly yellow, and the only purple (rich) administrative unit is Paris metro. This suggests, of course, that wealth in France is concentrated in the capital. The UK looks just like France (as does Spain). Germany is divided in half (as is Italy), and Austria and Denmark are cool, rich colors. Canada and Australia only have one yellow province each, and the US has none. Mexico looks just as Michelangelo described it, and Chile looks like Spain.

This is the OECD page I’ve been using. Here’s how I find regional GDP (PPP) per capita:

  • select “Regions and Cities”
  • select “Large (TL2) and Small (TL3) regions” – remember it’s either/or here: either TL2 or TL3 but not both
  • select “regional GDP per capita”
  • Then for measures (top of table) select “per head, current prices, current PPP”

I’ve been using 2011.

This pdf lists the “territorial grids” (TL2 and TL3 regions) of the OECD. The pdf didn’t help me figure out which regions send political representatives to capital cities and which are arbitrary, bureaucratic creations (I got to do that on my own!), but lists can definitely be helpful. In many cases I was able to figure out which units are politically viable and which are arbitrary for data collecting purposes just by looking at the list.

Finally, here is a map – courtesy of kelsocartography.com – of the world’s administrative units, at the TL2 level. Lots of work to do.

A good map of the world's administrative units
Here is a map of the world’s administrative units (courtesy of kelsocartography.com), but not necessarily the units that data collectors use to calculate GDP (PPP) per capita.

I like using the GDP (PPP) per capita of administrative units because I think it gives a much more stark picture of life around the world. I have pointed out before that the UK is now poorer than Mississippi, but breaking down the UK in the same manner as we do the US reveals that not only is the UK poorer than the poorest US state, the purchasing power parity of British citizens within the UK looks a lot more unequal than what we see in the United States. What is going on in the UK? The NHS can’t be that bad.

* – Oops, except for Denmark (it’s TL3)

UPDATED (3/11/2015): Continue reading

From the Footnotes: Ignorance of Islam and of the Decentralization of Power

There are widespread calls for an Islamic reformation such as Christianity experienced in the sixteenth century, but the Reformation cleaved Christianity into two major traditions and many splintered sects; each grew independently of the others, eroding any hope of a Christian center that could rein in extremes. After its early division into Sunni and Shi’a, Islam has come to suffer enough from this segmentation without a modern reformation. Indeed, Islam is a democratic religion, so thoroughly decentralized that even muftis are elected. Many Muslims are interested not in further schisms but rather in reconciliation among the competing doctrines and their extremist messengers, ultimately reducing the violence carried out against each other and other civilizations. As Gilles Kepel argues, though the rise of militant Islamism has been spectacular, its hyperviolence has proved to be a liability rather than an asset. (243)

This is from Parag Khanna’s 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order. This footnote is in most respects a microcosm of the book as a whole: it’s on the cusp of providing theoretical insight into how the world works but just can’t seem to shake a certain type of dogma associated with the technocratic Left (I think he has done a better job of shaking this dogma post-2008).

This footnote is also in most respects why I’ll never be a Leftist again, even as a sleek, trade-friendly technocrat.

This footnote says to me that Khanna is arguing for a hands-off approach to Islam on the part of the West. Khanna is saying that Islam does not need a Christianity-style reformation. So far, so good. Khanna and I are in agreement. Then he goes off his rocker, though, by arguing that Christianity (and by implication European society) became a net loser because there was no Christian center to temper extremists.

What?

Correct me if I am wrong, but doesn’t Christian Europe have higher standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values today than anywhere else in the Old World? And isn’t Christian Europe the one place in the Old World where it is awfully hard to find Christian religious extremists? Wouldn’t you have a better argument if you stated that is was the lack of a Christian center which has been responsible for the dramatic increase in standards of living/tolerance/pluralist values in the West?

Maybe Khanna is thinking of medieval Europe, with its devastating series of religiously-inspired wars, but somehow I don’t think this is the case.

The Muslim world is decentralized culturally (like Europe) and is trying to decentralize politically (again, like Europe). The political decentralization is being hastened by trade liberalization and global economic integration. This same decentralization is being resisted by the international order (including, especially, Russia and China) due to nefarious but understandable interests of state but also to the severe lack of understanding that Western intellectuals like Khanna have of social organization. A center of cultural or political or economic power does not guarantee a waning of extremes. In fact, in some cases (in most?) such a center of power actually contributes to extremes.

Khanna was so blinded (and, again, I think he’s changed his tune post-2008) by technocratic Left-wing theory that he could not see what he was arguing: that a decentralized Christianity gave rise to Europe as we know it, therefore the West should step back so that the Muslim religion can build a monolithic consensus in order to combat “extremes.” Am I mischaracterizing Khanna’s footnote? Am I knocking down a straw man?

Khanna’s latest stuff has been much better than what I found in his 2008 book. He still doesn’t go far enough, though. He needs to undertake Brandon-style libertarianism in order to really be a bad ass: let the process of decentralization happen, but (but) recognize new states where it is smart and safe to do so (Kurdistan? The Islamic State? Baluchistan?) and then integrate them into the imperfect but important international order that the West has slowly been building for the last hundred years or so.

Khanna’s incoherence on geopolitical matters is not limited to interesting footnotes. Check out what he wrote in the introduction (again, this is from 2008):

Many believe that the emerging world order is polycentric: China will remain primarily a regional power, Japan will assert itself more nationalistically, the EU will lack influence beyond its immediate region, India will rise to rival China, Russia will resurge, and an Islamic Caliphate will congeal as a geopolitical force. (xviii)

This is basically what has happened so far, and it largely falls in line of where I would bet my money (but not place my dreams) on future events (the Muslim world excepted; see above). Khanna has none of it though:

All these views ignore a much deeper reality: The United States, the European Union, and China already possess most of the total power in the world. (xviii)

I think this argument, if anything, reveals Khanna’s (and, by implication, the technocratic Left’s) authoritarian impulses and desires. The United States is the world’s sole hegemon, and it will be for a long, long time. The EU is a basketcase and China’s GDP (PPP) per capita stands at Intl$ 11,907 in 2013, just below the Dominican Republic, Serbia, the world average, and Iraq. Khanna’s inclusion of the EU – with the social democratic values that technocratic Leftists mistakenly believe Europe harbors – and China – an ode to both the condescending identity politics of the same technocratic Left and its fixation with centrally-planned but privately-run enterprises (“corporatism”) – in the troika of world powers illustrates nicely the weaknesses of the Left.

Khanna’s dogma gets him in more trouble (still on the same introductory page):

Russia, Japan, and India cannot assert themselves globally, militarily or otherwise […] In fact, they are being gradually outmaneuvered by the United States, the EU, and China in their own regions. (xviii)

Don’t cry for Khanna. Last time I checked, he was on the board of several prominent think tanks.

Khanna’s best chapter is on the Middle East (it starts with a useful map on p. 168 and ends on p. 253). His treatment of post-Soviet Europe is laughable (“Ukraine: From Border to Bridge”) and his treatment of China (“Asia”) is overly laudable. India gets just three dismissive pages.

Would I recommend reading it?

Yeah, sure. I like the concept of “second world” that Khanna tries (but fails) to convey. I like the way he thinks and his post-2008 work is especially good. There are a lot of facts that aren’t really facts in the book though, and he applies those facts to theories that I think are weak at explaining how the world works. Then again, when has reading a book ever hurt you?

Mexican Underdevelopment: Pop-Sociology

It’s six a.m., I am sipping my first cup of coffee on the small balcony near the tall coconut tree. It’s still dark but I can see a short stocky woman sweeping the ground of the open space in front of the hotel next door. Right away, I detect that something is wrong in the picture although I am not fully awake. The broom the woman is using is too short, its straw end is frayed. She is bending over more than should be necessary; some of her energy is being misspent because she pushes harder than she would have to with a newer broom. No big deal! Except…

Mexico is the kind of country where the dentist kisses you when you leave. (This particular dentist is a pretty willowy blonde.) Perhaps, Mexico is the only country of its kind. I don’t know; I have not been everywhere. No American dentist has ever attempted this maneuver on me, or on my attractive wife either. I have avoided French dentists since 1960. A dentist in Morocco once gave me a root canal with no anesthesia whatsoever. I forgave him long ago but I wouldn’t let him kiss me if you paid me. The universal amiability of Mexicans might color everything I say below. You are warned.

I just spent three weeks in Mexico, in the pleasant resort city of Puerto Vallarta. With a population of 250,000, it does not feel much larger than Santa Cruz, California with its population 4/5 smaller. Still it’s large enough to be considered a real place, not a boutique resort. I was staying in a small hotel on the beach, of course, which limits observation. But my wife and I did most of our own cooking and therefore, we had to shop often in an ordinary supermarket located in an ordinary commercial center. This is important as a kind of regular and forced immersion into normal local life. We did not have a car so, we took taxis several times a day. This is important too because cab drivers everywhere are a rich fount of information if you manage to steer them from small talk. Yes, I know Spanish, and not only in my imagination as described in my masterful “Foreign Languages and Self-Delusion in America” (if I say so myself) but for real. I understand everything that is said to me in that language; I am able to eavesdrop on conversations between strangers; I can read the newspaper; I listen to television news without effort.* In brief, I was in a reasonable good position to observe, interpret and ask questions.

This stay in Mexico was like a refresher course on a topic that occupied me professionally for about twenty-five years: Why some countries are poorer than others. (When you begin thinking seriously about this simple question, you quickly discover that the plausible answers are numerous and complex.) I used to do it in a rigorous, quantitatively based manner, estimating statistical models and the like. This time, I am indulging myself frankly in pop-sociology. It does not imply any rejection of my past endeavors.

Comparisons between the way things are done in Mexico and in the US come naturally because the surface similarities between there and here are obvious. Mexicans want what we want and they work openly for it and, in time, they get it. Material progress usually takes a familiar American form, from shopping malls to cineplexes, to the Discovery Channel…, you name it.

Mexico’s GDP per capita is less than one third of the American equivalent (about USD 16,500 vs 52,000, Purchasing Power Parity, a formulation which makes the two figures comparable) Mexico is a poor country but not one of the poorest by a long shot. Why would it be poor?

Mexicans are not a short on entrepreneurial spirit. Every nook and cranny shelters a business of sorts. I enter a tiny corner shop in a non-touristy part of town selling I don’t know what. A toddler sleeps on a blanket on the cold floor. (It’s hot.) Against one wall, three cramped stalls offer Internet access. The owner, the toddler’s father, tells me he is opened from 7 am to 10 pm. He charges me forty cents to recharge my cellphone battery, not an especially low price considering his cost and the little labor involved. There are restaurants everywhere, also far from the tourist tracks. Some have only four tables. Most are still empty at 8 pm. Two social mechanisms seem at work. One is simple mimicry: The guy across the street has one. What does he know about birria that I don’t know? The other is a version of the Chinese eating place economic rationale: If people don’t come to dine here, my family can always eat the food; I have many children anyway. Nothing is going to go to waste. The economic risk is small. It can’t hurt. Perhaps, rents are low because there is not much  alternative use for the relevant spaces.

Food is everywhere anyway. If someone goes hungry in Mexico, it’s somewhere else. Yet, food prices are low but not very low. Rice is cheap, avocados are cheap; apples are the same price as in California perhaps because they come from afar. This is an undeveloped capitalism, with poor infrastructures; moving foodstuff is still expensive. A cup of reasonable good coffee costs USD 1,40; that’s probably more than in an Arkansas diner. That’s what it means to be poor: Your money does not reach very far.

Three facts of possible economic relevance strike you quickly; two are concrete and easy to verify; the third is intangible, or kind of unsubstantial, but that does not make it irrelevant. First, nearly every shop is overstaffed by a significant factor. That’s easy to see when people perform identical jobs with identical technologies as in the US. There are twice or more salesladies in the clothing area of a department store as there would be in KMart, the perennially failing chain. In the butcher section of the supermarket, employees are waiting for you. That’s nice but it’s probably superfluous. I could wait two minutes instead, so could Mexican housewives. In the restaurants that actually have some business, the waitpersons (waiters and waitresses ) seem to be spending most of their time standing still.

The second observation concerns low individual productivity. It’s not that Mexicans don’t work hard. In Mexico as in the US, Mexicans are remarkable for working hard for long hours. They seem to know no coffee breaks and little even by way of lunch breaks. The problem is that you see everywhere people doing work for which they have received little or no training. I watched with increasing fascination, several times a day, a laborer failing to finish a simple brick path. He did not manage to complete in three days what I am ready to bet an American bricklayer would have done in less than a day. (Yes, I know something about bricklaying too.) That’s a big productivity differential. Even the pharmacists filling my prescriptions seemed hesitant. They did not exude the authority of American pharmacists with an advanced education. Since Mexicans in general rarely lack in personal authority and, by elimination, I am forced to hypothesize that my pharmacists where just sort of learning their job as they went along.

Incidentally, I have reasons to believe that this shortage of training does not extend to superior occupations: Mexican doctors and Mexican engineers are not inferior to their American counterparts, I am guessing. (The fast development of medical tourism into Mexico from both the US and Canada testifies to the quality of the former, I think.)

The third observation, which I called intangible is difficult to render, of course. It’s almost only an impression but one that is redundantly encountered. The information dispensed by the conventional Mexican media seems very thin. The nightly news program on major channel serves poor fare as compared to the Spanish language but American Univision. If there are new or substantive programs on radio, I have not discovered them. (I may very well have missed such.) I mean that I almost missed National Public Radio there ( a difficult admission for me, obviously). Whether you read the daily newspaper or not does not make much difference in your level of information. Here is a test case.

On a weekend day, there is a massive protest march in Mexico City. The demonstration is to protest the disappearance of 43 young people from the same teachers school. Everyone except their parents knows they have been murdered. The demonstration is both very large and quite orderly as compared to anything of the same kind in the US. The police uses tear gas but only sixty people are arrested. There is no mention of anyone seriously hurt.

I buy the Sunday version of what has been designated to me as the best national daily newspaper in the country (“El Excelsior“). A description of the demonstrations and photographs cover the front page, as you would expect. The two innermost pages are devoted to the same events. In addition to eyewitness accounts are included serious interviews of government officials, of protest march organizers and of several pundits. I make myself read every word. At the end, I have learned close to nothing and I have no new perspective on the crime, sociologically, politically or otherwise. I just get confirmation of the fact that the mayor of the town where the young men disappeared and his wife have been arrested. I turn to the “global” page and get a reading of events in Iraq and Syria that I would probably not understand absent my previous familiarity based on American media. In three weeks, I see and hear not a single reference to President Obama’s executive order concerning illegal immigrants about half of whom are of Mexican origin.

I think that Mexicans, including well-educated Mexicans, are not well informed unless the Internet makes up for the obvious deficiencies of the conventional press, which is hard to believe. I would be hard put to explain how this affects Mexican economic development except that it may result in a blindness to new economic opportunities. Mexican entrepreneurs dedicate themselves to old pursuits or they imitate the gringo model late and imperfectly, perhaps (perhaps). Even where a Mexican industry has experienced notable global success such as the brewery industry, it did not innovate much, if at all. No innovation, no temporary super-profits, no generous wages (as we see in Silicon Valley, for example). This is all speculation. Others may have written on the relationship between the general level of information of a population and its overall productivity and it may have escaped my attention or, I may have forgotten it. Maybe readers will come to my rescue on this.

So, here you have it: skimpy training of ordinary workers, inferior tools, a poor physical infrastructure, an under-informed populace, together make for much lower gross productivity than what we are used to in the US. But, overall, in a sort of rough way, wages follow productivity. Mexican workers produce little and they get paid accordingly little. Note that the same factors of poverty interact with one another: Low pay encourages the hiring of a surfeit of workers; modestly paid workers may not be perceived as deserving good tools; an underdeveloped infrastructure buffers business decision-makers from all kinds of competition, including competition for workers, thereby keeping wages lower than they need be. Workers may not be well informed enough to struggle for higher wages. And, of course, workers with low pay make poor consumers. Among other things, they fail to fill the restaurants their entrepreneurially inclined neighbors open for them.

By now, you may wonder why something is missing from this story. I mean corruption, small corruption and especially, big corruption. Two reasons for this absence. The first is that, naturally, corrupt behavior is not readily amenable to casual observation. The second reason is that I am not convinced that corruption of any kind goes much way toward explaining Mexican underdevelopment.

Low level corruption first. In Mexico, it’s common to deal with an ordinary traffic transgression by asking the policeman who stopped you to pay the fine on your behalf because “I am too busy, sorry.” I am told that any amount of cash close to half of the amount of the official fine will do the trick. This sort of practice pervades Mexican life, I am still told. (I have not had a personal experience of it for twenty years myself.) It’s not clear to me that it has any relation to underdevelopment. In the above example, what is basically a tax gets diverted from the government to private pockets. Likewise, when building permits are sold by building inspectors rather than earned and deserved, a relaxation of anti-growth regulations takes place, doesn’t it ?

I don’t know, incidentally, that there is much private corruption in Mexico. I must have taken more than sixty taxis while I was in Puerto Vallarta. They have no meters but rates are fixed by zone. Only one tried to take me, for about USD 3. That’s an extremely low hit rate as compared to say, New York City.

Now, on to big-time corruption. By its nature, it’s hard to observe except if you read the paper carefully and with great, diligent constancy. (See above.) Here is one possible case that came to my attention while I was in Mexico. A big house on a golf course comes up for sale for USD 1.5 million. The seller is a police official described to me as not very high on the totem pole. Someone I know makes an offer. The asking price shrinks to USD 750,000 if he will pay cash. How did a police official get his hands on that house? Did he inherit a pile of money from his father, from a rich aunt? By insisting on cash, is he simply trying to avoid taxes or does he have a more sinister reason? I don’t know and here again, I am not sure it matters. Perhaps, it does in relation to the accumulation of capital; I wouldn’t know which way though.

People of libertarian inclination have to choose: If government is inimical to happiness in general and to economic prosperity in particular then, the suspension of government efficacy, as with corrupt government practices, must be for the better. Or, another, more benign theory of government must be developed.

* If you wonder at my linguistic prowess, don’t. First, Spanish is a dialect of Latin, like French, my native language. Second, I have been studying Spanish for a straight sixty years. It stands to reason that I have made some progress.

What Would A Political Union of the EU, the NAFTA States and Japan-South Korea Look Like?

I’ve known about the relative poverty of Western Europe compared to the United States for quite some time now, but it’s always nice to see this little tidbit get some love in the national and international press. Fraser Nelson, a journalist at the Spectator (in the UK) gives us the run-down on the numbers. According to Nelson, the UK is poorer than any US state save for Mississippi. Over at Forbes, Tim Worstall points out that the UK is actually poorer than Mississippi, too. Poor Mississippi!

Both men are calculating wealth with GDP (PPP) per capita, which is what I use as well. GDP (PPP) per capita means Gross Domestic Product (Purchasing Power Parity) per capita. Worstall explains how and why social scientists like using GDP (PPP) per capita to gauge a society’s standard of living:

Just to explain PPP for you. Prices vary across places. In the US food is generally cheaper than it is in Europe, medical care generally more expensive. So what we try to do with PPP is work out what exchange rates would need to be in order to make prices of all of these different things the same in the different places. It’s not an exact science, more of an art. But if what you’re trying to measure is living standards then it’s somewhere between useful and essential as a part of your workings.

It isn’t just the UK that is poorer than the poorest US state, either. Economist Mark Perry did these same calculations using 2010 data back in 2011 and pointed out that only Luxembourg and Norway would be in the Top 30 states were Western Europe and the United States to meld into one federal republic. The rest of Western Europe is on par with the living standards of the American South (which is considered to be the poor, culturally backwards region of the US). Be sure to check out Perry’s 2010 data and compare it to Worstall’s and Nelson’s 2013 data, too.

Careful readers will notice extremely small differences in the calculated purchasing power parity of all three authors (the IMF’s is also a little different), but each data gives us a similar approximation for standards of living in each country and each US state. Suffice it to say here a political union between the United States and the wealthy countries of Western Europe would significantly diminish the GDP (PPP) per capita of the US overall. A political merger with Japan, South Korea, and Mexico would also diminish the overall purchasing power parity of the average US citizen. Canada might (might) make the Top 40 for US states (somewhere between Michigan and Ohio – states of the Rust Belt).

Now, if I had my way, the calculation standards for non-US countries would be the same as they are for US states. That is to say, I think a better way of measuring standards of living would be to break up the countries I’ve mentioned and measure the GDP (PPP) per capita of the administrative units that operate just below the national governments of these states. So, for example, instead of measuring the GDP (PPP) per capita of the Netherlands, I’d measure the GDP (PPP) per capita of the 12 provinces that make up the Netherlands.

Then, in my libertarian utopia, the 50 US states would join together politically with the various administrative units of Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and South Korea. Instead of 50 administrative units (the US states) there would be hundreds, maybe even thousands, of them. Talk about decentralization!

Given that a political (and therefore economic and social) merger between Western Europe, the NAFTA states, and Japan-South Korea would diminish my PPP, why should I support such a proposal?

Update 8/30: Some commentators on Facebook have been clamoring for a map, and I found a great website that has devoted lots of time to creating maps based solely on administrative units. The name of the site is Kelso’s Corner and they have a great blog post on the “Natural Earth Vector,” which is the project that maps out administrative units.

It doesn’t have detailed maps of the Anglo-Saxon world or Mexico (presumably because these are so well known), but I found a couple of great maps of Western Europe and Southeast Asia.

This is what the European Union would look like, politically, if it were to be more libertarian in nature.
This is a map of South and East Asia’s administrative units.

Imagine if all of these units were to send representatives and senators to Washington (or a new geographic equivalent): Decentralized political power and integrated markets and cultures would be the new norm for much of the world in a political system based on Madison’s federal republic. I reckon that, in a libertarian utopia, the world would look like this map and be united under Madison’s minarchist federal government:

All thanks goes to kelsocartography.com

I understand that my utopia is not much of a utopia (people will still die and there will be plenty of conflict), but I think this is actually a strength rather than a weakness.

Power and Happiness (President Obama in India)

There is widespread confusion around between two ideas that should be easy to separate from each other. I keep bumping into it. I had several lengthy discussions of it with strangers on Facebook. Some were of the left, some of the right. I found it in my morning paper under the pen of no less than columnist David Brooks of the New York Times (“Midwest at Dusk”11/7/1)).

I refer to the confusion between the happiness of a country’s citizens and the country’s standing in the world. David Brooks wrote:

“If America can figure out how to build a decent future for the working-class people in this (mid-Atlantic) region, then the US will remain a predominant power. If it can’t, it won’t.”

Like this.

President Obama’s post- “shellacking” visit to India is a good time to clear the confusion.

It may be that there is some sort of connection between the happiness of a country’s citizens (or some) and being a “predominant power.” It may be but it’s far from obvious. You would have to demonstrate it. It would be hard; casual evidence does not support the idea. Deeper research does not either. Continue reading