Davies’ “Extreme Economies” – Part 1: Survival

Late to the party, I relied on the quality-control of the masses before I plunged into Richard Davies’ much-hyped book Extreme Economies: Survival, Failure and Future – Lessons from the World’s Limits (see reviews by Diane Coyle and Philip Aldrick). I first heard about it on some Summer Reading List – or perhaps Financial Times’ shortlist for best books of 2019. What really prompted me to read it, however, was an unlikely source: The Guardian’s long-read in late-August. Davies adopted his Louisiana Prison chapter and described the intricate ways prisoners and guards in maximum-security prison Louisiana State Penitentiary (“Angola”) exchange value using the top-up debit card Green Dot and single-use MoneyPak cards. I was hooked.

Davies’ captivating and personal writing in that 4000-word piece made me want to read the full thing. Once I got around to it, I couldn’t put it down – which is the best compliment an author can get. At little over 400 pages of easy non-jargon prose, it doesn’t take too long to get through – and the nine case-study chapters can easily be read on their own. Further attesting to the brilliance of the book are the many questions it raised with me, insights to investigate further.

The book’s structure is simple to follow: three themes ‘Survival’ (“The Economics of Resilience”), ‘Failure’ (“The Economics of Lost Potential”) and ‘Future’ (“The Economics of Tomorrow”), each containing three fascinating places, wrapped between an introductory and a concluding chapter.

The motivation for the book is a mixture of John Maynard Keynes and a Scottish 19th century civil engineer named David Kirkaldy. The latter’s big idea was studying “why materials buckled and bent under pressure” (p. 31); to fully grasp the potential for something, we need to examine why they fall apart. From Keynes Davies took the idea that the future is already partly here:

“We can get a glimpse of the future today, if we know where to look. The trick was to identify a sustained trend – a path most people are following – and look at the lives of those experiencing the extremes of that trend. […] to zoom forward in time, he said, we need to find those whose lives are like this already.” (p. 31)

Davies ventures to nine places of the world, all extreme in some aspect, and investigates the everyday economic challenges that people face and the ingenious ways in which they do – or do not – solve them. By carefully looking at the present, he posits to gauge something about the future.

In this first part – ‘Survival’ – I look at Davies’ three selections (Aceh, Indonesia; Zaatari, Jordan; and Louisiana, U.S.). The next part contains the case studies of ‘Failure’ (Darien, Panama; Kinshasa, DRC; Glasgow, Scotland) and the concluding part looks at ‘Future’ (Akita, Japan; Tallinn, Estonia; and Santiago, Chile). As I have personal experience of living in two of these places while knowing virtually nothing about many of the others, I reserve some complementary reflections on Glasgow and Santiago when appropriate.

Aceh, Indonesia

On Dec 26, 2004, an Indian Ocean earthquake created a tsunami that devastated coastlines from Thailand to Madagascar. Two-thirds of the 230,000 human lives lost were in Indonesia, mostly in the Aceh province on the northern tip of Sumatra, closest to the earthquake’s epicentre. Pictures taken before and after show how complete the destruction was; except for a few sturdy mosques, nothing was left standing.

A few years later, the busy streets and crowded beaches were pretty much back to normal. How?

Davies’ story does not emphasise aid flows or new investment by outsiders, but “informal systems of trade, exchange and even currency” (p. 49), an aspect that generally “goes unmeasured an unassessed” (p. 65). Aceh’s catastrophe is a story of human resilience and of intangibles.

The people Davies interviewed told him how the ancient Aceh practice of keeping savings in wearable and portable gold – necklace, rings, bangles – provided survivors who had lost everything with a source of funds to draw on. Importantly, a gold dealer told him, as the market price of gold is set internationally, the massive sell orders coming in simultaneously did not affect prices very much. Additionally, the dealer’s knowledge of market prices and contacts in Jakarta allowed him to quickly set up his business again. Buying Acehnese’s gold during those crucial months, way before foreign aid or government could effectively respond, provided people with funds to rebuild their lives. Traditional practices “insulated Aceh and provided its entrepreneurs with rapid access to cash” (p. 49).

Another insightful observation is the role played by intangibles – the knowledge of how and where and when that most of our economies depend on. Sanusi, 52-year-old coffee trader, lost everything: his shop, his equipment, his family. Amid his devastation he realized that one thing that the tsunami had not destroyed was his knowledge of the coffee business – where to source the best beans, how to make it, where and when to sell the coffee. He patched together some spare planks, used his business contacts to provide him with trade credit and had his rudimentary coffee business set-up in time for the arrival of coffee-drinking construction and aid-agency workers.

Davies also gives us a very balanced GDP discussion here, as the years after the December 2004 disaster saw huge GDP growth. Most economists would reflexively object and invoke Bastiat’s Broken Window Fallacy. Yes, Davies is well aware, but he’s getting at something more subtle:

“GDP aims to capture what a country’s residents are doing now, rather than what they have done previously. [It is] all about current human activities – spending, wages, income, producing goods – rather than the value embodied in physical assets such as building and factories. Far from being a mean or cold measure, economists’ favourite yardstick is a fundamentally human one.” (p. 53, 65)

To GDP, what you produced in the past is of no consequence. Clearly, when the tsunami devastated the coastline of Aceh, killing hundreds of thousands of people in the process and wiping away houses, factories and equipment, that made everyone poorer – their assets and savings and capital were literally washed away. Considering the massive construction boom that followed, only partly financed by outside aid and government money, it is not incorrect to say that GDP boomed; it is only incorrect to believe that people were made better off because of the disaster. Bastiat teaches us that they were not.

I think of this as the difference between your total savings (in cash, stocks, bank accounts, houses, jewelry) and your monthly income, a difference between “stock” and “flow”. If, like many Acehnese that Davies interviewed, your earnings-potential depend on your knowledge of your industry, your most valuable assets remain untouched even after a complete disaster. Your savings – your capital, your stuff – are completely eradicated, but the basis for your future income remains intact. With some minor equipment – a trade credit, some furniture, a shop patched together with flotsam – you can quickly approach the production and income you had before. GDP attempts to measure that income – not the current value of total assets.

“The people here,” Davies concludes, “lost every physical asset but the tsunami survivors retained skills and knowledge from before the disaster, and rebuilt quickly as a result.” (p. 66).

Zaatari, Jordan

Following the Syrian civil war and its exodus of refugees, camps were set up in many neighbouring countries. Often run by the UN, these camps ensure minimum survivability and life-support for refugees and are rather centrally-planned; the UNHCR hands out blankets, assigns tents and provides in-kind goods and services (food, medicine etc).

In April 2013, the Zaatari camp in the northern Jordan desert had grown to over 200,000 inhabitants, with daily inflows of up to 4,000 refugees. It was too much – and the UNHCR “ran out of manpower” (p. 70). They rationalised operations, focused on their core tasks – and left individuals alone to trade, construct and flourish on their own. It became a lesson in anarchic cooperation and of the essentiality of markets – and, like the Louisiana prison economy below, an ingenious monetary system.  It “did not happen by design, but by accident”, Davies writes, and constitutes “an economic puzzle worth unpicking” (p. 72) only if you doubt the beneficial consequences of markets and free people. If you don’t, the result is predictable.

Every month, the Zaatari camp administrators load up payment cards for the refugees with 20 dinars (£23) per person, spendable only in the two camp supermarkets. Designed to be a cashless economy, the money flowed directly from donors to the supermarkets: “refugees cannot transfer cash between wallets, so aid money designated for food cannot be spent on clothes, and the winter clothing allowance cannot be spent on food” (p. 79).

This extreme and artificial economy teaches us something universal about markets; imposed orders, out of touch with market participants’ demands, malfunctions and create huge wastes. Complete monetary control by outsiders, Davies writes, “fails the basic test of any well-functioning market – to be a place where demand meets supply” (pp. 80-81). Supermarkets lacked the things refugees wanted, and they stocked up on things that reflected kickbacks to donor countries (Italian spaghetti or Brazilian coffee), entirely out of sync with Syrian cuisine and preferences. And the unorganic, artificially-set prices were entirely detached from the outside world.

Yet, the refugee city of Zaatari is a flourishing economy where people build, make and trade all kinds of things. How did this happen? Innovative Syrians found a way around their monetary restrictions: the economy of Zaatari “rests on the conversion of homes to business and flipping aid credit, via smuggling, into hard cash” (p. 88). Informal and free markets, at their best.

Along most of the camp’s boundaries, there are no fences, only roads – and the huge number of children playing ball games on the concrete roads or running in and out of the camp, makes identifying who’s a refugee and who’s a teenage smuggler next to impossible. What the refugees did was:

  • buy some item in the supermarket using the e-card credits provided by UNHCR
  • sell it to smugglers for less than their outside market value and obtain hard cash in return
  • smugglers slip out of the camp and sell the goods to Jordanians and other driving past, taking a cut for themselves.

Bottom line: refugees turned 20 dinars of illiquid and restricted e-credit into hard cash, spendable on anything anywhere in the camp. The productive powers of 200,000 refugees was unleashed. In Zaatari, the presence of smugglers allowed large-scale interactions with the outside world – and so the artificially-created closed-loop payment system did not remain closed. Instead, it was connected to the outside Jordanian economy through smuggling!

The take-away point is to cherish market activities, even informal ones, since they “matter to everyone and are fundamentally human” (p. 102). Governments plan and creates problems; markets solve them.

Louisiana State Prison

Analogous to the Zaatari refugees, prisoners in Louisiana’s maximum-security prison (“Angola”) find themselves in a similar economic squeeze: unsatisfied demand and large shortage of goods, artificial constraints on what prisoners can and cannot own. Prisons are places where official prices don’t work: paltry “incomes” through mandatory work stand in no relation to the officially-mandated prices of goods that prisoners can buy at commissary. Accusations of modern slavery comes to mind. The “official price system,” Davies writes, “has been intentionally broken” (p. 119).

To escape their formal and restricted economy, prisoners have long relied on smuggling. Radford’s famous article about cigarettes becoming money in a WWII Prisoners-of-War camp applied – until Angola officials decided to ban tobacco from the premises. Cash too risky to hold; age-old money banned. What now? Fintech to the rescue!

Louisiana prisons “have a remarkable new currency innovation, something far better than tobacco or cans of mackerel”. Physical dollar bills are not handled, bank accounts that leave digital traces are not linked to individuals: “people pay each other with dots”, says an ex-convict that Davies interviewed (p. 132).

Contrary to the belief that smuggling into prisons happen through corrupt prison guards only, prisoners have some power; they can stage riots or make guards’ everyday-life very hard by misbehaving in every imaginable way. That power gives prisoners and guards alike incentives to trade with another – but prisoners don’t have anything to offer, apart from occasional or indivisible services like car repairs or (like Andy Dufresne in the movie Shawshank Redemption) accounting services. And paying guards in commissary products is not gonna cut it.

Here’s how Angola prisoners solved their monetary constraints, obtaining means of payment to smuggle in items their economy’s participants demanded:

  • set up an account with Green Dot, providing a pre-paid debit card without requirements of ID or proof of address.
  • buy a second card, a single-use scratch card called MoneyPak, used to load the first card with anywhere between $20 and $500. These cards are usable anywhere that accepts VISA and Mastercards, and easily bought/cashed out at Walmarts or pharmacies.
  • Scratch away MoneyPak’s 14-digit number (“the dots”), and transfer those digits to somebody else, be it another prisoner or guard.
  • that person goes online, logs into their Green Dot account, enters the combination and credit is added to their debit card.

The dots, Davies describes, “are a currency close to cash: an instant, simple and safe transfer of value over long distance” (p. 134). Even prison economies, argues Davies, “show that the human urge to trade and exchange information is impossible to repress” (p. 136).

The Economics of Resilience

The power of informal economies are great – and essential to people cut off from regular economic processes. Through natural disasters, in refugee camps or in prisons, innovative people find ways around their imposed-upon constraints and “establish a trading system if theirs is damaged, destroyed or limited in some way”. (p. 135)

Aceh, Zaatari and the Angola prison show “three places where markets, currencies, trade and exchange exist despite all odds.” (p. 139).

Tariffs and Immigration

Pres. Trump announced yesterday (6/7/19), on returning from Europe, that the threatened tariffs against Mexican imports were suspended “indefinitely.” It looks like Mexico agrees to do several things to stop or slow immigration from Central America aiming at the United States.

Well, I am the kind of guy who, on learning that he has earned the Publishers’ Clearing House Giant Jackpot immediately worries about accountants, and about where to stash the dough. So, here it goes.

Mr Trump never did specify how much Mexico would have to do to keep the threat away durably. Two problems. First, if I were the Mexican government, I would worry about his moving the goalposts at any time.

Second, – and those who hate him won’t miss it – absent specific goals, Mr Trump put himself in a position to claim a (considerable) political victory no matter what happens next. To take an absurd example, if the number of migrants from Central America decreases, by 1% in July and August, he will be able to say, “ I told you so, my tariff pressures work.” As the French say, “ Why cut yourself the switches that will be used to whip you with?”

Part of the agreement reportedly, incredibly, includes a provision that those migrants who are waiting for their American formal court appearance will be allowed to so in Mexico, and be allowed to work there while they wait. This sounds amazingly unfair to Mexico. (I sure hope some significant money changed hands in the background on the account of his provision.) Mexican public opinion is not going to respond well to this feature if it understands it.

Another feature of the agreement is that Mexico will allow itself to be designated as a third and “safe” country. This has to do with ordinary international asylum and refugee agreements language which generally specify that an asylee or refugee may not chose his country of destination but must seek legal status in the first safe country he reaches. So, for Syrians, that would be Greece, or Turkey, rather than say, Germany, or Sweden. You know how well this provision worked out in Europe! Even more seriously, Mexico is not safe by any measure: The Mexican homicide rate is more than five times higher than that of the US – which is itself not low. (Wall Street Journal, 8-9 2019, p. A6). Imagine what it will be against an alien, vulnerable population.

As I write, Mexico is already deploying its National Guard on its southern border to impeach passage. This is a brand new force; it has no experience; expect accidents or worse. When this happens, it won’t play well with the Mexican public. The southern border of Mexico is short, only about 150 miles but still, the Mexican National Guard has only 6,000 members, total.

American conservative opinion remains badly confused about the facts of immigration in general. This, in spite of my own valiant efforts. ( See my “Legal Immigration Into the US” – in 37 short parts, both in Notes on Liberty and on my blog. Ask me for the blog’s name via jdelacroixliberty@gmail.com.) On Friday evening (6/7/19), in less than 30 minutes, I heard two different Fox News commentators refer to the migrants arriving in caravans from Central America and that are overwhelming our national processing capacity as “illegal immigrants.” That’s wrong. People who run after the Border Patrol to turn themselves in as a prelude to their claiming asylum are not illegal immigrants. There is nothing illegal about such acts, however you deplore them. And, in our constitutional tradition, nothing can be deemed retroactively as against the law. If we don’t like what the law currently produces, we must change the law. Period.

I used to hope for a wholesale, inclusive change in our immigration laws. I now think this is not going to happen in a bi-partisan manner because there are still many Dems who deny the obvious: We are currently facing an immigration crisis. If the plight of would-be immigrants held in overcrowded facilities or let loose in strange cities without resources, does not move their hearts, nothing will. I now think the administration should opportunistically seek piecemeal reform as may be facilitated by temporary situations. Big change will not happen until the GOP gains control of both houses of Congress, in addition to the Presidency. I believe that equivalent Dem control would not make immigration reform possible because there are too many liberal ideologues and too many Dem politicians who want open borders, for different reasons.

One more thing: Mainstream conservatives and some spoiled libertarians have been clamoring on the social media that tariffs are wrong, always wrong, wrong, no matter what. They point out rightly that tariffs are first and foremost taxes on the consumers of countries that impose them. I am myself completely persuaded of the merits of free trade as a means to maximize production. This does not prevent me from seeing that trade pressures, including the imposition of tariffs, can be used to extract advantages from other countries. In fact, I suspect such maneuvers may often be the best alternative to military pressure. In this case, and temporarily, I understand, Mr Trump’s tariff mano-a-mano with the tough leftist Mexican president, seems to have borne fruit. So, I would like the never-never–never tariffs people on my side to provide a rough estimate of how much this particular tariff action – against Mexico – may have cost American consumers, total.

Nightcap

  1. The need for class politics Chris Dillow, Stumbling & Mumbling
  2. “Do not dig a grave for someone else!”
  3. Has the Tervuren Central African museum been decolonized? Tyler Cowen, MR
  4. The nativists have won in Europe Krishnadev Calamur, the Atlantic

Nightcap

  1. The nonconformist in society Gerald Russello, Modern Age
  2. Francis Fukuyama’s master concept Patrick Lee Miller, Quillette
  3. Are we all big-government conservatives now? William Voegeli, Claremont Review of Books
  4. America is deporting Cambodian refugees convicted of crimes Charles Dunst, the Atlantic

Nightcap

  1. The children of the Revolution James Banker, Quillette
  2. The establishment will never say ‘no’ to a war Andrew Sullivan, Interesting Times
  3. The warning Jim Mattis delivered David French, National Review
  4. Muslim refugees in perspective Jacques Delacroix, NOL

Legal Immigration Into the United States (Part 18): Reforms I Would Favor

Now, here is what I, personally, a US citizen and an appreciative immigrant, as well as a small government conservative, would like to see happen: As I pointed out before, most liberals and quite a few conservatives perceive allowing all immigration as a sort of altruistic gesture. That includes those who do not overtly call for open borders but whose concrete proposals (“Abolish ICE.”) would result in a soft state that would provide the equivalent of open borders. As far as I can tell – with the major exception of Tabarrok, discussed above – many pure libertarians whisper that they are all for open borders, but they only whisper it. I speculate that they are forced to take this principled but unreasonable position to avoid having to defend the nation-state as a necessary institutional arrangement to control immigration.  Frankly, I wish they would come out of the closet and I hope this essay will shame some into doing so.

The most urgent thing to my mind is to separate conceptually and bureaucratically with the utmost vigor, immigration intended to benefit us, American citizens and lawfully admitted immigrants, and beyond us, to promote a version of the American polity close to the Founders’ vision, on the one hand, from immigration intended to help someone else, or something else, on the other. The US can afford both but the amalgam of the two leads to bad policies. (See, for example the story “The Refugee Detectives: Inside Germany’s High-Stake Operation to Sort People Fleeing Death…” by Graeme Wood in The Atlantic, April 2018.)

Next, I think conservatives should favor, for now, an upper numerical limit to immigration, one pegged perhaps to the growth of our domestic population. Though my heart is not in it, it seems to me that this is a prudent recommendation in view of the threatening prospect of a Democratic one-party governance.

The first category of immigrants would be admitted on some sort of merit basis, as I said, perhaps a version of the system I discuss above. The second category would include all refugees and asylum seekers, and, to a limited extent, their relatives. Given a strictly altruistic intent in accepting such people, Congress and the President jointly would be in a better position than they are today to apply any strictures at all, including philosophical and even religious tests of compatibility with central features of American legal and philosophical tradition – if any. (Of course, in spite of the courts’ interventions in the matter, I have not found the part of the Constitution that forbids the Federal Government from barring anyone it wants, including on religious grounds. Rational arguments can be made against such decisions but they are not anchored in the Constitution, I believe. (See constitutional lawyers David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey’s analysis: “The Judicial ‘Resistance’ is Futile” in the Wall Street Journal of 2/7/18.)

I think thus both that we could admit many more people seeking shelter from war and other catastrophes than we do, and that we should vet them extensively and deeply. We could also rehabilitate the notion of provisional admission. Many of the large number of current Syrian refugees would not doubt like to go home if it were possible. Such refugees could be given, say, a five-year renewable visa. As I pointed out above, some beliefs system are but little compatible with peaceful assimilation into American society. This can be said aloud without proffering superfluous insults toward any group.  National hypocrisy does not make sense because it rarely fools anyone. In general, I think all American society has been too shy in this connection, too submissive to political correctness. So, think of this example: French constitutions, most of the fifteen of them anyway, proclaim the primacy of something called “the general interest,” a wide open door to authoritarian collectivism if there ever was one. There is no reason to not query French would-be immigrants on this account. I would gladly take points off for answers expressing a submissiveness to this viewpoint. (Yes, I am one of those who suspect that the French Revolution is one of the mothers of democracy but also, of Communism and of Fascism.)

Similarly Muslim religious authorities as well as would-be Muslim immigrants could be challenged like this: Just tell us publicly if Islamic dogma welcomes separation of religion and government. State, also in public, loudly and clearly that apostasy does not deserve death, that it deserves no punishment at all. Admission decisions would be a function of the answers given. Sure, people would be coached and many would cheat but, they would be on record. The most sincere would not accept going on record against their doctrine. Sorry to be so cynical but I don’t fear the least sincere!

The underlying reasoning for such policies of exclusion is this: First, I repeat that there is no ethical system that obligates American society to commit suicide, fast or slowly; second, probabilistic calculations of danger and of usefulness both are the only practicable ones in the matter of admitting different groups and categories. (I don’t avoid jumping from planes with a parachute because those who do die every time they try but because they die more often than those who don’t.) Based on recent experience (twenty years+), Muslims are more likely to commit terrorist acts than Lutherans. (It’s also true that there is a very low probability for both groups.) Based on common sense and the news, most Mexicans must have acquired a high tolerance for political corruption. Based on longer experience, many Western Europeans have extensive and expensive expectations regarding the availability of tax supported welfare benefits. Based – perhaps- on one thousand years of observation, the Chinese tend to favor collective discipline over individual rights more than Americans do. (See my: “Muslim Refugees in perspective.”)

Pronouncing aloud these probabilistic statements does not shut off the possibility of ignoring them because immigrants from the same groups bring with them many improvements to American society, of course. I could easily allow a handful of well chosen French chefs to come in despite of their deep belief in the existence of a common public interest. I even have a list ready. Admitting facts is not the same as making decisions. I can also imagine a permanent invitation to anyone to challenge publicly such generalizations. It would have at least the merit of clearing the air.

Last and very importantly: Invalidating the generalizations I make above, to an unknown extent, is the likelihood that immigrants are not a true sample of their population of origin: Chinese immigrants may tend to have an anarchist streak; that may be the very reason they want to live in the US. Mexicans may seek to move to the US precisely to flee corruption for which they have a low tolerance, etc. The French individuals wishing to come to the US may be trying to escape the shadow of authoritarianism they perceive in French political thought, etc.

[Editor’s note: in case you missed it, here is Part 17]

BC’s weekend reads

  1. […] many Chinese people believe it should be the United States, European states, or at least Arab states that resettle Middle Eastern refugees, based on the logic of ‘punishing’ those who caused the problem in the first place.
  2. ‘It was the biggest explosion I have ever experienced.’
  3. Why Saudi Arabia hates Al-Jazeera
  4. The money spent on Aboriginal language television programming could have been spent on something else, and that something else would also have created jobs. What is special about Aboriginal language television programming?
  5. Cool map, bro