Haiti: what’s at stake

by on January 19, 2010 at 7:23 am in Current Affairs | Permalink

Maybe you thought Obama was the "health care President" or perhaps the "Afghanistan President", but to my eyes right now he looks like the "Haiti President."  I predict we'll have over a million Haitians living in refugee camps for the foreseeable future.  (It depends how many of the homeless of those can be absorbed by northern Haiti.)  If people don't make it into camps they will be sleeping on the street with little or no means of food or water or employment.

It's a mistake to think there's any brick-by-brick way out of that predicament.  It's not like the earthquake in Armenia or for that matter eighteenth century Lisbon.  Haiti has no functioning government, no working legal system, and very little remaining infrastructure.  There's no formal means to make decisions about reconstruction and no capital to clear away the mess.  As I've written, the country as we know simply doesn't exist any more (view the second video or try these photos).  Port-Au-Prince is destroyed and the city was the heart of the country, economically, politically, and otherwise.  Léogâne, Jacmel, and other significant locales are mostly destroyed as well and they're not receiving much assistance.

Obama will (and should) do something about this situation.  First, I believe he sincerely wants to help but also he cannot ignore his African-American constituency, especially after former President Clinton devoted so much attention to Haiti and especially if health care reform doesn't go through as planned.  Yet he will have a festering situation on his hands for the rest of his term.  If "looting" (a bad word in this context) increases or continues, how quickly will the American people lose sympathy with the Haitians?  How can the "reconstruction" possibly go well?  Ugly gang rule isn't even the worst case scenario.

Obama now stands a higher chance of being a one-term President.  Foreign aid programs are especially unpopular, especially relative to their small fiscal cost.  Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual?  It will be a test of the American populace; at what point will people start whispering that he is "favoring the other blacks"?

Just as it's not easy to pull out of Iraq or Afghanistan, it won't be easy to pull out of Haiti.

Maybe you thought health care was a hard problem.  Maybe you thought that cap and trade would make health care look easy.  This may be the hardest problem yet and it wasn't on anybody's planning ledger.  Obama won't have many allies in this fight either.  A lot of Democratic interest groups might, silently, wish he would forget about the whole thing.

Mass starvation wouldn't look good on the evening news either.  What does it mean to preside over the collapse of a country of more than nine million people?  It's Obama who's about to find out, not the increasingly irrelevant Rene Preval.  Everyone in Haiti is looking to President Obama.

E. Barandiaran January 19, 2010 at 8:01 am

Tyler, you’re right about the importance of the situation in Haiti for US domestic politics. Unfortunately, you need a leader to overcome the challenges that you list, but you don’t have one. Obama has already given up by appointing Bill Clinton (forget about Bush) to deal with Haiti. The good news is that he didn’t appoint Jimmy.

k January 19, 2010 at 8:16 am

Scary ideas. Making fun of Robrtson, thism is a real wacko.

See this:
http://www.abc.es/20100119/internacional-/chavez-acusa-provocar-seismo-201001191332.html

Bob Murphy January 19, 2010 at 8:45 am

It’s a mistake to think there’s any brick-by-brick way out of that predicament….Haiti has no functioning government, no working legal system, and very little remaining infrastructure. There’s no formal means to make decisions about reconstruction and no capital to clear away the mess. As I’ve written, the country as we know simply doesn’t exist any more (view the second video or try these photos). Port-Au-Prince is destroyed and the city was the heart of the country, economically, politically, and otherwise. Léogâne, Jacmel, and other significant locales are mostly destroyed as well and they’re not receiving much assistance.

Obama will (and should) do something about this situation.

Doesn’t this ignore the entire tradition of free market economics? Tyler it sounds like you’re saying that when it comes to nation building, only the US presidency can get the job done. Do you really think that’s a good idea? Can you imagine any possible downsides, and no I’m not talking about downsides to Obama’s re-election chances?

Buzzcut January 19, 2010 at 9:16 am

Nobody is going to give Obama a hard time because he’s “catering to blacks” in Haiti. Maybe I’m naive, but I just don’t think that that’s going to happen.

I don’t think that Limbaugh’s comments are off the mark. Some were jokes, obviously, but his larger point is that Haiti shows the failure of foreign aid, so why would we think that more foreign aid is going to work?

There are only 9 million people in Haiti. That’s a mere 9 years of immigration at current US immigration rates. If the Haitians were allowed to come to the US, and settle in Detroit, Gary, Cleveland, Buffalo, and other cities with excess housing stock, would that really be so bad?

David R. Henderson January 19, 2010 at 9:19 am

Tyler,
Picky point: they’re import quotas on sugar, not tariffs.
More important point: You seem to put a lot of stock into the Haitians’ lack of a functioning government. And you’re saying this is a bad thing, right? I can see ways in which it’s bad and ways in which it’s good. Why are you so certain that it’s on net bad. Also, I’m curious about your answer to Bob Murphy’s question.
Best,
David

Chris January 19, 2010 at 9:44 am

Limbaugh has to speak off-the-cuff for 3 hours every single day.
It’s disappointing to see you jump at Media Matters’ cherry-picked out of context quotes and astro-outrage.

anon January 19, 2010 at 10:01 am

I prefer Max Boot’s recommendation: let Brazil take the lead.

http://www.commentarymagazine.com/blogs/index.php/boot/218606

Bob Murphy January 19, 2010 at 10:11 am

BTW, one of my guilty pleasures is listening to Rush Limbaugh when I eat take-out for lunch, and I just want to clarify one thing: In the most “shocking” of the excerpts he says something like, “This is just what Obama needs to bolster his approval rating in both the light- and dark-skinned black community here.”

If you had no context, you would imagine Rush talks about lynchings before going to commercial break. But this was amidst all the brouhaha over Harry Reid’s alleged comments about then-Senator Obama having a good chance because he was light-skinned and didn’t use a Negro dialect unless he wanted to.

So that’s why Rush mentioned the light- and dark-skinned thing, when talking about Haiti.

Note that I’m not denying Rush is a jerk, I’m just clarifying that that particular sound bite sounds more awful than it was, if you didn’t know the context.

====

And yes, to follow up on David R. Henderson’s point, my problem here with Tyler is that a lot of the work coming out of GMU shows that you can have order without the state. E.g. the work of Pete Leeson and earlier grads Ed Stringham and Ben Powell show numerous historical examples of how the “free market” works not just when the US or British government rolls back a tariff rate, but also when there is “no government” enforcement at all and someone unfamiliar with this area of thought would have predicted chaos.

So for Haiti, the point is that maybe having the US military go in and establish “law and order” will be detrimental in the long run, compared to what otherwise might have occurred. For sure I would think the Haitian people would be better off if the US military did nothing, rather than sending them off to a kinder, gentler Guantanamo Bay.

Edward Gaffney January 19, 2010 at 10:40 am

No government is nice in theory but it’s only ever been Somalia in practice. Our local Austrian School fundamentalists seem not to have read The Wealth of Nations about the role of government; is Adam Smith not in the “tradition of free market economics”? Did all there is to know about economics really begin in the late 1800s and end in the 1920s?

Ken January 19, 2010 at 10:57 am

“If “looting” (a bad word in this context)”

I am reminded of an incident from the Katrina coverage, where a network showed two video clips a few hours apart one day. The clips were almost identical – a group of people wading through chest-deep water, towing some bags filled with food out of a flooded store. There were only two differences:

1) The chyron on one was something like “flood victims salvage food” and the other was “looters steal from stores”.

2) The skin colors of the two groups were not the same.

No bonus points for guessing which way the labels were applied.

Ed January 19, 2010 at 11:24 am

It sounds callous, but I don’t think this is as important to Obama politically as Tyler makes out.

Clinton had three international humanitarian disasters on his watch, Somalia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, and took three different approaches to each one, and probably not coincidentally got three different results. Plus he had a smaller Haiti crisis too. I don’t think any of them had much impact on his overall presidency, at the worst his popularlity took a hit when elite US troops got into a firefight in Somalia that they appeared to lose. OK, if that happens in Haiti, Obama will have problems.

Bush was hurt by Katrina because it happened in the US, and it was the first time in memory that a federal emergency response to a hurricane in the US was screwed up. Which itself was worrying since we get hurricanes every year.

Plus, this is really a straightforward issue. There was an earthquake. Enough infrastructure might have been destroyed so the government might not be able to function. Haiti had bad government and a bad economy, but they didn’t cause the earthquake (which was severe enough that there would have been problems even with the most up to date and enforced building codes and strong emergency services).

And its not like there is going to be earthquakes every week. You could fix things just by flying in teams to provide medical services, identify and bury the bodies, repair buildings, and provide basic government services until the government gets back on its feet. Both the US and international organizations -who were already involved in Haiti- has tons of experience with this sort of disaster response. Its one thing the world has gotten good at. Just like modern medicine is great at trauma surgery but iffy on diagnosis and prevention.

All the long and medium term problems with Haiti are the exact same problems as before the earthquake. Ignoring them wasn’t good for Haitians but didn’t seem to affect the US.

I don’t see how this poses any more problems than the Indian Ocean tsuanmi. Again, emergency response to disasters plays to the strengths of institutions in developed countries.

Bernard Yomtov January 19, 2010 at 11:59 am

Limbaugh has to speak off-the-cuff for 3 hours every single day.

Has to? Does he go to prison or something if he doesn’t?

rhhardin January 19, 2010 at 12:07 pm

I think Limbaugh appears on the biggest charitable donators list.

What he said was don’t donate via Obama’s site.

Did you know his main aide “Bo Snerdly” is black? Dark skinned too, as a recent hour-long riff mocking Harry Reid’s fine distinctions pointed out.

John Thacker January 19, 2010 at 1:42 pm

Have you noticed how Rush Limbaugh and others are already making their rhetoric uglier than usual?

I’ve noticed that people are making their rhetoric about Rush Limbaugh and others uglier than usual, regardless of whether it fits facts or only their own assumptions.

mulp January 19, 2010 at 3:06 pm

Haiti has no functioning government, no working legal system, and very little remaining infrastructure. There’s no formal means to make decisions about reconstruction and no capital to clear away the mess.

Isn’t this the kind of state the “tea party” activists along with the Friedman anarcho-capitalists are seeking?

How about a swap arrangement where Americans wanting much less or no government go to Haiti and in exchange Haitians who want the oppressive US government take their place? Make it a one-for-one exchange, with each American giving up US citizenship in exchange for Haitian citizenship getting exemption from US taxes, while Haitians giving up their citizenship would incur full US tax liability. I’d even say the US should honor Social Security payments to the former Americans, a form of reminiscence along with the US tax free investment earnings; these would be used to offset US aid to Haiti.

Jacqueline January 19, 2010 at 7:02 pm

“It would be cool if we invested in our hungry & homeless here in the USA.”

It would be cool if the hungry & homeless here in the USA would take advantage of the opportunities all around them.

I’ve known too many immigrants who’ve come here with literally nothing — including no English language skills or secure legal right to stay here — and made something of themselves despite that. So I don’t have a lot of sympathy for people who were born here yet still managed to fuck their lives up.

Most Haitians would give almost anything to be “poor” here.

Ricardo January 19, 2010 at 10:03 pm

I remember a clip of Tyler telling Peter Singer that the most effect form of aid is probably just giving money directly to a citizen of that country; I guess that belief was not very strongly held

I saw that clip, too. The example he used was India which has a functioning government with basic rule-of-law protections. It’s also a place where people already have access to water — something that Haiti lacks at the moment.

Tom Dougherty January 20, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Tyler, Did you bump your head before writing that crap?

Ben Johnson August 21, 2010 at 2:54 am

I agree with the fact, No government is good in theory, but only once in practice Somalia. Our local fundamentalist Austrian school does not seem to have read The Wealth of the United Nations on the role of government, not Adam Smith in the tradition "of free market economy? Get everything you need to know about the economy really began in late late 1800 and 1920!!!

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