Category: Political Science

Is Haiti Governable Right Now? (at all)

More generally, might there be some countries that simply are not viable nation-states any more, no matter what we do?  That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

In other words, at the moment there doesn’t seem to be any way to govern Haiti. One problem is that foreign flows of money, whether from the drug trade or from Venezuelan foreign aid, have overwhelmed the domestic incentives to play by the rules. Haiti’s political institutions are mostly consumed by bribes and rents, with no stable center. The news, so to speak, is that such problems do not always have solutions. At all.

It is fine to suggest that Haiti invest in building up its political institutions — but those institutions have been unraveling for decades. I was a frequent visitor to the country in the 1990s, and although the poverty was severe, it was possible to travel with only a modest risk of encountering trouble. Government was largely ineffective, but it did exist.

These days the risk of kidnapping is so high that a visit is unthinkable.


The buildup and rise of nation-states has become so ordinary that the opposite possibility is now neglected: their enduring collapse. It’s not history running in reverse. It’s that modernity has created new forces and incentives — drug money, kidnapping ransoms, payments from foreign powers, and so on — that can be stronger and more alluring than the usual reasons for supporting an internal national political order. If the rest of the world gets rich more quickly than you do, it might have the resources to effectively neutralize your incentives for peace and good government.

So where else might the political order soon unravel? In parts of Afghanistan, external forces (Pakistan, China, Russia, the U.S.) have so much at stake that the conditions there may never settle down. Other risks might be found in small, not yet fully orderly nations such as Guyana, Equatorial Guinea, and Eswatini (formerly Swaziland). El Salvador and Nicaragua seem to be consolidating their political orders, but at the cost of losing fair democratic political competition. The nation-state as we know it might not survive in every part of Nigeria, where the recent surge in kidnappings is striking.

In the Baltics and Taiwan, dangers from larger, aggressive neighbors lurk. In spite of generally good governance in these places, the pressures from outside powers might be too much to bear, reflecting broadly similar destabilizing mechanisms — namely, that the internal rewards for coordinating support for a status quo might not be high enough.


In which ways are Democratic economists Democrats? (or not)

In a series of tweets (try this one), Matt Yglesias has been arguing that academic economists are far more Democratic than the U.S. population as a whole, though less left-wing than most other academics.  I agree with his claims, which are backed by plenty of data, but I wish to add some further thoughts.

Very often political views follow our socioeconomic class and the peer groups we are trying to impress or join.  Thus those claims from Matt are true for American policies only.  If you took a leftish (but not Marxist radical) Democratic U.S. economist, and asked that person what Mexico should do to improve, I think the answers would include the following:

1. Build state capacity to win the drug war, legalize or decriminalize some drugs too.

2. Make it easier for firms in the informal sector to enter the formal, taxed sector, and thus make it easier for them to grow.

3. Invest more in education for underprivileged Mexican youth.

4. End the state monopolies in industrial products.

5. Do something about corruption (but what?).

6. Diversify the economy away from Pemex and fossil fuels.

7. Maintain NAFTA and try to maintain and indeed rebuild the health of the earlier democratization.

Now, that is pretty much the same as my list!  To be sure, the rhetoric on some of these proposals, such as #2 and #3, would be different coming from this imaginary leftish Democratic economist.  (Lots more talk about “inequality” on #2 and more about the benefits of regulation on #3, for instance, whereas I would stress the benefits of firm growth.)  But I don’t think the substance of the proposals would be all that different.

Whether you wish to say the leftish economist has a right-wing perspective on Mexico, or vice versa, is a moot point.  Or are we all centrists on Mexico?  There is in any case a reasonable coincidence of policy recommendations once you remove people from their immediate socioeconomic environment.  And surely that makes the Democratic economists just a little suspicious to the non-economist intellectual Democrats, as you can see from the Twitter fury directed at Matt Y. for what were purely factual claims.

There is a reason why they call it “the Washington Consensus.”  I can assure you that the World Bank and IMF economists are not a bunch of Republican wanna-bees.  But the Washington Consensus works, at least on average.

If you asked a non-economist Democratic voter what Mexico should do, I am not sure what answers you would get.  But it is hardly obvious you would get the above list (I’d love to see this done as a study and compared to the Republican answers).  Maybe the non-economist would talk about foreign aid more?  Immigration more?  I really don’t know.  But they probably are not very aware of the dismal productivity performance of Mexican SMEs and what a problem that is, and probably not very aware of the various state monopolies.  They probably would mention corruption, however, and also public safety and winning the fight against the drug gangs.

When it comes to U.S. disputes, the Democratic economist probably would be more “off the rails” than the typical Democratic voter (sorry, you’ll have to find your own links here, there are plenty), if only because that person is more aware of the socioeconomic conflicts and more aware of what one is supposed to believe.  The more symbolic the dispute, the further from the median voter the Democratic economist is likely to be.  But that is the education doing the work, not the economics background.

If you want to get a Democratic economist making sense, just get that person talking about some other country, follow most of the policy advice, and remove the word “inequality” and a few other catch phrases.

Interestingly, there is a subset of Republican economists who don’t talk sense no matter what the country under consideration.  For instance, they might think that “income tax cuts for Mexico” would do a lot of good.  In this sense they are the more consistent “cosmopolitan ideologues,” taking that phrase as a truly joint concept.  Since most economists are Democrats, perhaps examining “the remnant Republicans” is selecting for excessively consistent ideology.  The remnant Republicans are less likely to insist that “every country is different,” a’ la Dani Rodrik.  If they were so flexible, they probably wouldn’t still be Republicans.

As a final note, I fear we are entering a world so “well-informed” about affective polarization, and with Woke concepts so globalized, that at some point the majority of the Democratic economists won’t talk sense on Mexico any more either.  But we are not yet there — maybe in five to ten years?  Maybe never?  And where will the Republican remnant end up?

Let’s all have a revisionist Fourth of July

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Revisionist history serves many useful purposes, and for the most part it should be encouraged — even though many particular revisionist claims turn out to be wrong. The natural human state of affairs is a kind of complacency and acceptance of the status quo. If historians sometimes write a bit too sharply or speculatively to capture the audience’s attention, it is a price worth paying. At any rate, the audience tends not to take them literally or to pay close attention to their more detailed claims.


The problem is that the revisionism isn’t diverse enough. A few issues — most of all those raised by Critical Race Theory — get caught up in the culture wars and are debated above all others. I agree that we should devote more time and attention to America’s disgraceful history of slavery and race relations, and I have incorporated that into my own teaching.

Still, other matters are being neglected. The longer trajectory of U.S. foreign policy is hardly debated, or what that history should mean for current decisions. There is plenty of carping about “the deep state,” but actual history has fallen down a memory hole, including the history of U.S. intelligence agencies.

It gets worse yet. According to one recent survey, 63% of the American public is not aware that six million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Ten percent had not heard of the Holocaust at all. Or consider the treatment of Native Americans, which was terrible and produced few heroes. Yet American soul-searching on this history seems to be minimal.

America needs revisionism, more of it please, and on timely and controversial topics. But it also needs less politicized and more intellectually diverse interpretations of its history. On this Fourth of July, what America needs is not the promotion of some particular claim of historical hypocrisy, but the elevation of the historical itself.

Recommended, and have a happy Fourth!

U.S. Citizenship exam from 1944

Here is one sample question:

Which of the following states seceded during the Civil War?

The choices are Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware, Florida.

Or try this one:

What evidence is required for a citizen to be convicted of treason?

The options are:

— It varies by state

— Nothing beyond what is needed to convict an ordinary crime

— The testimony of two eyewitnesses or a open confession in court

— The testimony of two eyewitnesses and an open confession in court

Here is the full Bloomberg piece by David Shipley.  There are many more questions — how many would you get?

Haiti fact of the day

Democratic governance is eroding in Haiti, but through an unusual mechanism — an ongoing diminution [The Economist] in the number of federally elected officials:

Today there are only 11 nationally-elected officials, including him [Jovenel Moïse].

A parliamentary election had been scheduled for October 2019, but it was never held.  The current president refers to himself as “Après Dieu” [second only to God], and also “Banana Man,” as he is a former plantation manager.  Solve for the equilibrium.

The origins of Wokeism

My latest Bloomberg column considers one factor (of many), here is an excerpt:

The male-female imbalance in academic life should be treated as a kind of emergency. But the institutions that address it are slow and bureaucratic.

Now enter the philosophy of wokeism. One way to think of the woke is as a bunch of people who scream about various injustices. But sometimes they don’t have a good plan to address a particular imbalance — and along the way they can inflict a good deal of unjustified damage, for instance by canceling people who make the wrong remarks about gender imbalance or other issues.

These and other criticisms of the woke may well be correct. Still, at the end of the day it has to be recognized that an unresponsive society will generate a lot of unproductive (and unresponsive) screamers. So simply dissecting the weaknesses of woke tactics and arguments misses the point. When practical solutions do not seem to exist, many people will resort to screaming.

This leads to the conclusion that wokeness won’t be defeated as an ideology until there is a more convincing and practical vision of how to undo institutional sclerosis. When that vision comes, it may not be so closely allied with wokeness, which is not excessively concerned with effective administration and incentive compatibility.

And this:

Sometimes it even seems that woke forces are effective. Recently some major museums have announced that they are sending back their highly valuable West African bronze sculptures to their countries of origin. Many of those sculptures were stolen by British colonial occupiers, and their restoration would reunite those countries with a significant part of their cultural heritage. This justified change would probably not have occurred without pressure from wokeism.

One underlying theme of the column is that the defects of the Woke — such as excess rigidity — are closely allied to the defects of the society they are protesting against.

What should I ask Ruth Scurr?

Dr Ruth Scurr FRSL (born 1971, London) is a British writer, historian and literary critic. She is a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge.

Her first book, Fatal Purity: Robespierre and the French Revolution (Chatto & Windus, 2006; Metropolitan Books, 2006) won the Franco-British Society Literary Prize (2006), was shortlisted for the Duff Cooper Prize (2006), long-listed for the Samuel Johnson Prize (2007) and was listed among the 100 Best Books of the Decade in The Times in 2009. It has been translated into five languages.

Her second book, John Aubrey: My own Life (Chatto & Windus, 2015; New York Review of Books, 2016) was shortlisted for the 2015 Costa Biography Award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. It was chosen as a 2015 Book of the Year in fifteen newspapers and magazines, including: the Daily Telegraph, the Financial Times, the Times, the Sunday Times, the Times Literary Supplement, the Sunday Express, the Guardian, the Spectator and the New Statesman. It was chosen as a 2016 Book of the Year by Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus Review and the Washington Post.

Scurr began reviewing regularly for The Times and The Times Literary Supplement in 1997. Since then she has also written for The Daily TelegraphThe ObserverNew Statesman, The London Review of BooksThe New York Review of BooksThe NationThe New York ObserverThe Guardian  and The Wall Street Journal.

That is from her Wikipedia page.  She is an expert in the philosophy of biography and her new biography of Napoleon, which views his life through the medium of his involvement with gardens, has been receiving rave reviews.  And here is her home page, and her article on her Cambridge house.

So what should I ask her?

The UAPs [UFOs] report

You can read it here.  I don’t think it clarifies much, other than to stress the multiple sources of sensor data for the observations and the inexplicability of some number of the sightings, well into triple digits.  So you can put aside Mick West, PewdiePie, and the like.  It is “real stuff” being measured, no matter how you might account for the observations, not just shaky camera movements and flocks of birds.

The report also makes clear how poorly funded and chaotic the investigation has been to date.  That is hardly a surprise, but isn’t it about time we did something properly right off the bat?

I’ll fall back on my “sincerity is the most underrated political motive” view.  I think our own government is genuinely puzzled, as I am, and as you should be.  I would stress my earlier points that we don’t have many reliable intuitions to fall back upon for thinking through this problem.

I believe the governmental message will be: “We are not sure, so for reasons of national security we have to move forward assuming some of these devices are from foreign powers.”  That will rather rapidly meld into “foreign powers.”  In any case that will keep the issue alive.  Furthermore, if it is our earthbound adversaries, at some point we will know this for sure, for reasons of intelligence or eventual public use of the devices, or our ability to construct the same.  By the way, if you are convinced by the “adversaries” take, you should update lots of your views on foreign policy!  (Will you?  Will anyone?)  America would have a lot more to be afraid of.

It is important to resist jumping to conclusions here, if only because doing so will dull your critical faculties on this issue.  In any case I will continue to follow developments in this area.

How and why is Conquest’s Second Law true?

“Any organization not explicitly and constitutionally right-wing will sooner or later become left-wing.”

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Additional forces strengthen Conquest’s Second Law. Educational polarization increasingly characterizes U.S. politics, with more educated Americans more likely to vote Democratic. Those same Americans are also likely to run nonprofits or major corporations, which would partially explain the ideological migration of those institutions.

There are, of course, numerous U.S. institutions that have maintained or even extended a largely right-wing slant, including many police forces, significant parts of the military, and many Protestant Evangelical churches. Those institutions tend to have lower educational requirements, and so they are not always so influential in the media, compared to many left-wing institutions.

Furthermore, the military and police are supposed to keep out of politics, and so their slant to the right is less noticeable, although no less real. The left is simply more prominent in mass media, so Conquest’s Second Law appears to be truer than it really is. (Note that by definition the law excludes explicitly right-wing media.)


The common thread to these explanations is that left-wing views find it easier to win in spheres of reporting, talk and rhetoric — and that those tendencies strengthen over time.

It follows that, if Conquest’s Second Law is true, societies are more right-wing than they appear. Furthermore, it is the intelligentsia itself that is most likely to deluded about this, living as it does in the world of statements and proclamations. It is destined to be repeatedly surprised at how “barbarian” American society is.

There is also a significant strand of right-wing thought, most notably in opposition to Marxism, that stresses the immutable realities of human nature, and that people change only so much in response to their environments. So all that left-wing talk doesn’t have to result in an entirely left-wing society.

Conservatives thus should be able to take some comfort in Conquest’s Second Law. They may find the discourse suffocating at times. But there is more to life than just talk — and that, for liberals as well as conservatives, should be counted as one of life’s saving graces.

North vs. South India?

The data set used by Paul and Sridhar starts with the year 1960, when per capita income in Tamil Nadu was 51 per cent higher than UP’s. In the early 1980s, this difference had narrowed to 39 per cent. However, over the following decades the gap began to rapidly grow, and in 2005 an average resident of Tamil Nadu earned 128 per cent more than an average resident of Uttar Pradesh. (Statistics available online suggest that by 2021 the gap has increased to almost 300 per cent.)

Taking the South as a whole and the North as a whole, the book found that while the two regions differed only by 39 per cent in terms of per capita income in 1960-61, forty years later the gap had widened to 101 per cent. Now, in 2021, the gap has widened much further. Currently, the average annual per capita income of the four northern states profiled by Paul and Sridhar is about US $4,000, and of the four southern states, in excess of US $10,000, or roughly 250 per cent higher.

The data analysed by Paul and Sridhar show that there are two areas in which the South has done much better than the North. First, with regard to human development indicators such as female literacy rate, infant mortality and life expectancy. Second, in areas critical to economic development such as technical education, electricity generation, and quality and extent of roads. The first set of factors prepares healthier and better educated citizens to participate in the modern economy, while the second set enables much higher rates of productivity and efficiency in manufacturing and services.

Paul and Sridhar also found that the South fares substantially better than the North on governance indicators.

Here is the full piece by Ramachandra Guha, interesting throughout, with a pointer to Alice Evans, via Paul Novosad.

John Stuart Mill on the English

From causes which might be traced in the history and development of English society and government, the general habit and practice of the English mind is compromise.  No idea is carried out to more than a small portion of its legitimate consequences.  Neither by the generality of our speculative thinkers, nor in the practice of the nation, are the principles which are professed ever thoroughly acted upon; something always stops the application half way.  This national habit has consequences of very various character, of which the following is one.  It is natural to minds governed by habit (which is the character of the English more than of any other civilized people) that their tastes and inclinations become accommodated to their habitual practice; and as in England no principle is ever fully carried out, discordance between principles and practice has come to be regarded, not only as the natural, but as the desirable state.  This is no an epigram, or a paradox, but a sober description of the tone of sentiment commonly found in Englishman.  They never feel themselves safe unless they are living under the shadow of some convention fiction — some agreement to say one thing and mean another.

That is from Mill’s Vindication of the French Revolution of February 1848.

The political economy of green energy

That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

Japan seems to be approaching its energy infrastructure with politics at the forefront. It is making a big bet on hydrogen power, which is technologically iffy and expensive, currently about eight times more so than natural gas. Yet Japanese leaders are aware that Japan does not have its own solar power industry at scale, making the country dependent on China for solar panels. Hydrogen can also be used by existing (though modified) power plants, which both reduces cost and eliminates the need for new infrastructure. And if this all works, Japan could become known as the world leader in hydrogen power.

Greenpeace has criticized the Japanese approach, saying that its ammonia-reliant formula for hydrogen power is costly and will itself create greenhouse-gas emissions. That critique may well be right, but it’s also possible that Japan is thinking through the political questions at a deeper level.

The most relevant question about green energy isn’t necessarily about technology or cost. It may be about politics: “How many special-interest groups support this idea?” If there isn’t a decent answer, then maybe the idea doesn’t stand a decent chance.

There is much more at the link, including a consideration of other alternative energy sources.

Nach dem Gleichgewicht auflösen

Swiss-based multinationals such as commodities trader Glencore will receive subsidies and other incentives under plans Switzerland is drawing up to maintain its competitive tax rates, even as the country prepares to sign-up to the G7’s new plan for a global minimum tax on big businesses.

Bern is consulting its cantonal governments — which set their own corporate tax rates — to examine how measures such as research grants, social security deductions and tax credits could create a “toolkit” to offset any changes to headline tax rates, officials told the Financial Times.

Here is the full FT story by Sam Jones.