Month: January 2010

Construction in Haiti

It has even more problems than you think:

Mr. Sinclair said that design and construction were far worse than in other developing countries he had visited. “In Haiti, most if not all of the buildings have major engineering flaws,” he said.

Most houses and other structures are built of poured concrete or block, there being very little lumber available due to mass deforestation, said Alan Dooley, a Nashville architect who designed a medical clinic, built of reinforced concrete, in Petite Rivière de Nippes, a fishing village 50 miles west of Port-au-Prince.

Concrete is very expensive – much of the cement for it comes from the United States, Mr. Dooley said – so some contractors cut corners by adding more sand to the mix. The result is a structurally weaker material that deteriorates rapidly, he said. Steel reinforcing bar is also expensive, he said, so there is a tendency to use less of it with the concrete.

Building codes are limited or nonexistent, so columns and other elements made from concrete are often relatively thin, designed without proper margins of safety. “We would double the design strength, just to give it a factor of safety,” Mr. Dooley said, referring to practices in the United States. “There they’d design it to what it would hold.”

Concrete blocks are often substandard too, said Peter Haas, executive director of Appropriate Infrastructure Development Group, a nonprofit organization that is working on several projects in Haiti. Many of them are made in small batches at people’s homes, and the quality can vary. “When you’re buying blocks at the store you really have no idea of where they’re from,” Mr. Haas said. “And all it takes is for the block that was made at home to collapse.”

Why is Haiti so poor?

I'm not interested in talking about Greg Clark or making comparisons to the West; if need be compare it to other black Caribbean nations, such as Jamaica or Barbados.  It's much worse and in terms of social indicators it is also worse than many places in Africa.  Why?  Here a few hypotheses (NB: I don't endorse all of them):

1. Haiti cut its colonial ties too early, rebelling against the French in the early 19th century and achieving complete independence.  Guadaloupe and Martinique are still riding the gravy train and French aid is a huge chunk of their gdps.

2. Haiti was a French colony in the first place and French colonies do less well.

3. Sugar cane gave Haiti some early characteristics of "the resource curse," dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.

4. Haiti was doing OK until the Duvaliers destroyed civil society, thus putting the country on a path toward destruction.  It is a more or less random one-time event which wrecked the place.

5. Hegel was correct that the "voodoo religion," with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well.  (Isn't that a startling insight for a guy who didn't travel the broader world much?)

6. For reasons peculiar to the history of the slave trade, Haitian slaves came from many different parts of Africa and thus Haitian internal culture has long had lower levels of cohesion and cooperation.  (The former point about the mix is true, but the cultural point is speculation.)

7. Haiti has higher than average levels of polygamy (but is this cause or effect?)

8. In the early to mid twentieth century, Haiti was poorly situated to attract Chinese and other immigrants, unlike say Jamaica or Trinidad.  It is interesting that many of the wealthiest families in Haiti are Lebanese, such as the Naders.

Overall I don't find this set of possible factors very satisfactory.  Is it asking too much to wish for an economics profession that is obsessed with such a question?

If you are looking for some cross-sectional variation to ponder, consider the fate of Haitians in Suriname (they make up a big chunk of the population there), Haiti vs. Santiago, Cuba, pre-Castro of course, or why early Haitian migrants to Montreal have done better than later migrants to Miami and Brooklyn.

Assorted links

The AP critique of the stimulus

There is apparently a new study, from the AP, suggesting that the transportation spending of the stimulus has not succeeded in creating jobs.  The study now seems to have "legs," as here is lengthy NYT coverage.  Through some email forwarded to me, I have the impression (my apologies if I am wrong) that they are not circulating copies of the study for perusal.  Instead, the study has been reviewed by some economists, who seem to approve of it.  No one else is allowed to judge.  Does anyone have a copy of the original study?  Will the AP send me a copy?  The NYT piece — which seems to be written by the AP by the way — does not link to the study.  The AP won't link to their own study, or so at least it seems.

Loyal MR readers will know that I have been critical of most of the stimulus program.  Still, phantom studies should not be receiving serious media attention.  It's time for the AP to put up or shut up.

Comments are open, as is my email, I would like to see a copy of the study.

Addendum: from Matt Apuzzo, at the AP:


If either of you would like to chat about the AP's analysis, I'm happy
to provide you the sources of our data and walk you through the
statistical tests we conducted. Nothing we did is a secret, but there's
no actual "study" to provide you, like there is in academia. The
professors reviewed some spreadsheets and statistical tests, talked
methodology, made suggestions on other tests to run, and overall made
sure we weren't reading things incorrectly. All of this feedback
ultimately contributed to our final conclusion, but there's no executive

Give a call, I'm happy to help.


What do you all think?

Luck and disasters

Just two days ago I was trying to convince a group of my colleagues to come to Haiti with me for a three-day weekend outing.  Had we gone, we would have stayed in what is now the epicenter of the earthquake.  The hotel I had in mind…I believe it does not exist any more but has fallen down the hills into oblivion.  It is difficult for me to fathom what must be going on there and how it will continue to play out.  In addition to thousands of lives, much of the Haitian cultural heritage has been destroyed.  Here is an image of Simbi, god of healing. 

Here is one reputable place to donate.  Here is another.

If only we had the will do this

If Democrats want to avoid this headache, they could follow the recommendation of my American Prospect colleague Paul Starr. Instead of fining those who go without insurance, Starr has proposed that "For five years they would become ineligible for federal subsidies for health insurance and, if they did buy coverage, no insurer would have to cover a pre-existing condition of theirs." They would not be fined for avoiding the new system, but neither could they benefit from or exploit it. This period of ineligibility, Starr adds, "deters opportunistic switches in and out of the public funds, and it helps to prevent the private insurers from cherry-picking healthy people and driving up insurance costs in the public sector."

Of course you can generalize that idea just a bit further.

I hadn't known the Senate version of the bill has a fine of only $95 for the first year; somehow I had thought it was $200 or so.  (As Jeff Ely indicated, who said there's no public option?)  How, politically, will the fine be amended?  Will the Democrats call for change, the Republicans will cynically oppse it, and what?  What if the Republicans run at least one house of Congress?  Will they be willing to improve the operation of the program?  Why should anyone sign up?

Excellent post by Paul Krugman

Here is one bit:

This is actually a very broad problem with all accounts of the crisis that try to exonerate the private sector and place the blame on the government and/or the Fed: none of the proposed evil deeds of policy makers were remotely large enough to cause problems of this magnitude unless markets vastly overreacted. That is, you have to start by assuming wildly dysfunctional financial markets before you can blame the government for the crisis; and if markets are that dysfunctional, who needs the government to create a mess?

Here is another:

*I find myself thinking of the old comedy routine in which a doctor tells his patient, “You’re a very sick man; the least shock could kill you” – whereupon the patient lets out a strangled cry and drops dead.

Renaissance postponed (earthquake in Haiti)

…there were growing reports of mass destruction — a hospital is believed to have collapsed, along with a sections of the National Palace. Haitian President René Préval is said to be seeking safe haven on the island…

Part of the road to Canape Vert has collapsed, as have houses in the mountains of Petionville, where the quake was centered. Petionville is a suburb some 10 miles from Port-au-Prince, the capital.

Several aftershocks have followed, according to The Associated Press.

The article is here; Twitter updates are here.  There are reports that the major government buildings, among many other structures, have collapsed.  Most buildings of more than one story are down; Richard Morse reports: "people in large numbers are singing prayers downtown"  The UN mission building has collapsed as well.

Very good sentences

"A Shanghai hospital cultivated and reintroduced human brain tissue in 2002 after taking a sample from the end of a chopstick implanted in a patient's frontal lobe following a disagreement at a restaurant."

The article, on scientific, medical, and regenerative research in China, is interesting throughout.  For the pointer, I thank MR commentator JamieNYC.

The Haitian Renaissance of 2010

A spokesman for the Maryland-based company said a Comfort Inn will open in the Caribbean coastal city of Jacmel this May.

The 32-room motel will be owned by a New York-based group of Haitian-American investors. The partners also plan a 120-room upscale hotel at the nearby Belle Rive tourism development this fall.

The full story is here.  Over the last year Haitian exports rose 23 percent and the country is expected to grow at a rate of 2.4 percent, only one of two countries in the Caribbean expected to have positive growth, Guyana being the other.  Here are the recent economic growth rates of Haiti.  Here is a photo of Jacmel.

TNR has a new web site on new books.

A brilliant paper on the financial crisis

There haven't been many, but I hail Ricardo Caballero.  Here is the abstract:

One of the main economic villains before the crisis was the presence of large “global imbalances.” The concern was that the U.S. would experience a sudden stop of capital flows, which would unavoidably drag the world economy into a deep recession. However, when the crisis finally did come, the mechanism did not at all resemble the feared sudden stop. Quite the opposite, during the crisis net capital inflows to the U.S. were a stabilizing rather than a destabilizing source. I argue instead that the root imbalance was of a different kind: The entire world had an insatiable demand for safe debt instruments that put an enormous pressure on the U.S. financial system and its incentives (and this was facilitated by regulatory mistakes). The crisis itself was the result of the negative feedback loop between the initial tremors in the financial industry created to bridge the safe-assets gap and the panic associated with the chaotic unraveling of this complex industry. Essentially, the financial sector was able to create “safe” assets from the securitization of lower quality ones, but at the cost of exposing the economy to a systemic panic. This structural problem can be alleviated if governments around the world explicitly absorb a larger share of the systemic risk. The options for doing this range from surplus countries rebalancing their portfolios toward riskier assets, to private-public solutions where asset-producer countries preserve the good parts of the securitization industry while removing the systemic risk from the banks’ balance sheets. Such public-private solutions could be designed with fee structures that could incorporate all kind of too-big- or too-interconnected-to-fail considerations.

The paper is here and a non-gated version is here.

Response on the Chait-Manzi debate

My original post is here.  In the comments, "some guy" offered this perceptive comment/quotation:

1. For this debate, "levels" are more important than growth rates.
8. Countries have to start from where they're at.
Anybody else see a problem?

I'll add this:

1. Canada is big on the map but most of it is empty and the population is clustered on the border of you-know-where.  Canada also has no legacy of slavery and requires stronger educational and professional credentials from its immigrants.

2. Matt asks me to come right out and say that Manzi was wrong.  TC: "Manzi was wrong."  That said, many of the other debate contributors made false or misleading statements as well.  I deliberately tried to write my post to avoid remarks directed at raising or lowering the relative status of the commentators, a good overall habit (which I don't always follow and which hardly any commentators on other blogs seem to follow).  

3. I would genuinely like to know whether the U.S. or Europe has supported more beneficial immigration over the last twenty years.  The answer is not obvious to me, when you consider the Italians who move to Switzerland, the Greeks who move to Germany, and so on, not to mention the Algerians who move to France and the Turks who move to Germany. 

4. For this debate, "levels" are more important than growth rates.  I'm still not seeing that admission in the secondary commentary and note that "levels" provide an initial advantage to the United States, though Europe might fight back with security and leisure time.  If growth rates mattered more, that would mean China is the place to copy and it isn't.  By the way, in a lot of simple models, the poorer Europe should be enjoying "catch-up" growth and growing at rates higher than that of the United States, as many other countries are doing.

Levels, levels, levels.  Here is the Ducktales moon level song played backwards.

Addendum: If you do wish to look at growth rates, adjusted for the relevant variables, here is one place to start.  Overall it's consistent with my point about levels.