Certainly Effervescent

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Haiti: Some Thoughts

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Reihan Salam’s thoughts on Haiti jibe very well with my own.


I don’t have much to say about the disaster that has struck Haiti. But it does serve as a vivid reminder that Haitians have been suffering through a far deeper and more profound slow-motion disaster for decades (emphasis added). Every earthquake or tsunami or flood in the developing world yields tragic images…

Yet the number of people who die in these calamities pales in significance to the number who die because of broken institutions and the resulting absence of the kind of dynamic capitalist economy that we take for granted. In 2008, economists Michael Clemens and Lant Pritchett published “Income per Natural: Measuring Development as if People Mattered More Than Places,” a brilliant illustration of the damage broken institutions can do.

It is easy to learn the average income of a resident of El Salvador or Albania. But there is no systematic source of information on the average income of a Salvadoran or Albanian. In this new working paper, research fellow Michael Clemens and non-resident fellow Lant Pritchett create a new statistic: income per natural — the mean annual income of persons born in a given country, regardless of where that person now resides. If income per capita has any interpretation as a welfare measure, exclusive focus on the nationally resident population can lead to substantial errors of the income of the natural population for countries where emigration is an important path to greater welfare. The estimates differ substantially from traditional measures of GDP or GNI per resident, and not just for a handful of tiny countries. Almost 43 million people live in a group of countries whose income per natural collectively is 50 percent higher than GDP per resident. For 1.1 billion people the difference exceeds 10 percent. The authors also show that poverty estimates are different for national residents and naturals; for example, 26 percent of Haitian naturals who are not poor by the two-dollar-a-day standard live in the United States (emphasis added).

The desperation on the part of would-be Haitain refugees is easy to understand. One approach, which Clemens and Pritchett strongly endorse, is to liberalize international migration flows. Communities in affluent countries resist this idea, for obvious and understandable reasons. But blanket opposition to mutually beneficial offshoring strikes me as really tough to justify, particularly when it helps strengthen market

My experience isn’t in Haiti, but Rwanda. I taught in a rural school in Rwamagana and lived in Kacyiru, a neighborhood of Kigali. And what Clemens and Pritchett have found meshes with my experience: the gap between income-per-national and GDP/capita shows the chasm between Third Worlders who stay and those who emigrate. Things are often economically worse in poor countries than some of the data suggests.

Something Salam doesn’t point out, but is worth mentioning, is that many people in the Black American community have been talking about the plight of Haiti for many, many, years. And, in my limited history and knowledge, I seem to remember that many on the Right pushed it aside as a bit of Black nationalism/identity groaning. Also, the last public figure I remember talking about Haiti, pre-earthquake was, wait for it, Dr. Jeremiah Wright. Gasp! I’m not certain that Reihan has been negligent on Haiti or disregarded former discussions about it, but I know co-workers of his at National Review have ignored Haiti’s failed institutions in the past.

A bit off topic, but worth saying about that last paragraph quoted above: I do not have an answer to all of this (anyone who does is an idiot or a liar) poverty and failed institutions. But I do think that restrictions on migration, whether of people or products, are either xenophobic, selfish, or ignorant (or a mix of all 3). I challenge anyone to go to Africa, see the poverty amidst very fertile lands capable supplying the First World with plenty of food, and say with a straight face that “the American farmer is under attack”. So for the billionth time: Lou Dobbs is a jerk.


Written by C.S. Stieber

January 13, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

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