Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

What's that got to do with the price of wheat, rice, maize and ethanol?

As Raj Patel correctly notes on the Guardian blog, we are shaping up for a fairly substantial risk of a free market democide. . There was certainly no shortage of people pointing out at the time that removing fertiliser subsidies and dismantling strategic grain reserves was a hell of a risky thing to do, but the neoliberals pushed it anyway, under the assumption that deregulated food markets would encourage investment and improve productivity. Which, given a very long run of good weather indeed, might have worked, but that was hardly the way to bet, and it really does not appear to be the case that anyone did a huge amount of detailed research into how this green revolution might have been carried out and financed. Beware, always beware, of long term solutions to short term problems.

I think the underlying idea, in as much as there was one, was that international aid was a more efficient way of providing food security than domestic reserves and price controls. Which has a certain plausibility to it, as long as you only look at one country at a time and assume that food shortages will be caused by ecological famines, which are more or less uncorrelated between regions, rather than a global inflation in food prices which overwhelms the capacity of the food aid industry, and which arrives at a time of fiscal strain in donor nations. Of course, the general approach of assuming that one's risks are uncorrelated and manageable is one that has been causing all sorts of problems in the world economy of late. But I rather suspect that no such considered plan was ever drawn up and the real thinking behind the current disaster was the simpleminded and arrogant assertion typified by the dreadful Pollard's piece.

I wonder if, in fifty years' time, people will be writing nasty obituaries of recently dead neoliberals? I almost hope so. It really is hard to see what qualitative difference one might draw between the way in which the World Bank and IMF have fucked around with the food security systems of third world countries in the name of "free markets", and the way in which Stalin and Mao did more or less the same thing in the name of "collectivisation". Peter Griffiths' article and book refer. The great thing about the market mechanism, of course, is that when it kills a million people, it doesn't leave fingerprints.
29 comments this item posted by the management 4/23/2008 04:48:00 AM

Friday, April 18, 2008

Who's for a game of Moron Poker?

I have just decided that Friday recreational posts are not subject to the "Africa Only" constraint - this is not Dogme 95 or something. So, who's for a game of Moron Poker?

(For new readers to the blog, the rules of Moron Poker are simple. I start off by linking to this, by Alice Miles, for example. Anyone who fancies their chances now has to attempt to top me by posting, on their own blog or in comments here, a link to something stupider[1]. The only two conditions are that for each new link you have to follow suit and bid up. "Following suit" means that each new card must be linked to the previous one either by topic or author[2]. So the next player in this game has to find either something else by Alice Miles, or something else about house prices. "Bidding up" just means that every card has to be monotonically more stupid than the last (this rule encourages people to play their cards rather than sitting on them, as there is always a danger that someone will trump you by linking to, say, Melanie Phillips saying that Scotland is under the sway of the Muslim Brotherhood and your precious link will be wasted).

The game is open to all and is scored in "King of the Hill" style; at any point, the poster of the last valid card is "King of the Hill". The winner is the person who is king of the hill at the point when we all get bored and stop playing.

So anyway; Alice Miles says that "most people" would welcome a 30% fall in house prices

[1] Stupider than the Miles piece that is; if I were to include the comments on the Times website, then the game will never get off the ground, although I reserve the right to play the comments as a separate card at a later point in the game when the stakes are higher.

[2] For any website, "the Comments section" counts as a single author under the relaxed rules we are playing here (this rule helps to get the game moving as it lets you change topic more easily), although if you find a journalist or blogger commenting under his own name, you can use that comment as an individual card too.


43 comments this item posted by the management 4/18/2008 01:02:00 AM

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Imperialist Definite Article

We had a quite nice discussion of this linguistic phenomenon in the comments below; it's the extraneous "The" which creeps into the names of countries like Gambia (Update!!! "The Republic of The Gambia" actually kept its IDA on Independence; "Gambia" is colloquial!), Sudan, Ukraine, etc in the language of careless and/or ignorant speakers. I personally tend toward the view that use of the IDA is ignorant rather than merely careless, because 1) getting someone's name right is an important sign of respect, viz the BBC Pronunciation Theory Of Geopolitics, and 2) in general and with only a few exceptions, these countries are former colonies, which were referred to with the definite article when they were colonies and which gave up the IDA on declaring independence (I think Justin said that if the Gorbals were to declare independence they would almost certainly call themselves the Republic Of Gorbal).

So when someone talks about "the Sudan", he always sounds a bit like he's impersonating Kitchener; there's always the ghost of "Belgian" there when someone says "the Congo". I think that the reason is that, in imperial days it was understood that "the [geographical feature]" was shorthand for "the collection of administrative districts around [geographical feature]". At independence, the new country didn't want to think of itself as a collection of imperial administrative units grouped on a geographical feature, for the fairly obvious reason that you can't build a nation on that basis[1]. Of course, the tragedy[2] is that in a number of cases these putative nation states actually were little more than a collection of administrative districts grouped on a geographical feature[Updatesee [4] below], so all they could really do for a name was drop the imperialist definite article.

Interestingly (and if anyone wants to drop this into their literary theory PhD thesis, be my guest), Conrad's story first appeared as "The Heart of Darkness" in Blackwood's magazine, but when the book was published, the title was "Heart of Darkness".

[1] Other than the United States of America, obviously[3]. But there is a genuine exceptionalism here; the USA basically invented federalism and the geographical feature in question was more or less an entire continent that they were laying claim to. And in any case, I think it has to be recognised that "The United States of America" is a crap name; I forget which American comedian it was that noted that GREAT BRITAIN!! would never have got anywhere in the world if they'd called themselves "The Combined Parishes On An Island".

[2] As I've mentioned before on the blog, I am not a fan of the kind of beard-stroking pop-anthropology approach to treating any African political problem as "tribal", or to the kind of poor man's postimperialism that analyses all such problems as stemming from the original sin of the "artificiality" of African states; particularly I really don't rate these pipe dreams of a patchwork of "monoethnic" states that various bum-talkers occasionally draw up. But one does have to recognise that plenty of problems do have an ethnic dimension, and that obviously the political expression of that problem is going to depend on how the nation-state boundaries were drawn, just as the difference between the boundaries of Germany and the distribution of the German-speaking peoples caused no end of trouble in Europe last century.

[3] Or the Netherlands, but I'm not sure this is equivalent; lots of place names in Dutch have definite articles (muddying the waters further, "la France" has a definite article in French, but not in English).

[4] A worrying counterexample to this pet theory is Sudan, because Sudan isn't a geographical feature - "Bilad-al-Sudan" is Arabic for "Lands where the black people live". Sudan's a historical entity, though, and it was being called Sudan for a long time before the colonialists arrived.
56 comments this item posted by the management 4/15/2008 02:18:00 AM

Monday, April 14, 2008

... And now he wears his sister's

Goodness gracious. Cometh the hour, cometh Levy "The Cabbage" Mwanawasa. The President of Zambia, a man who I had marked down years ago as a real halfwit, is playing a diplomatic blinder. As far as I can see, in the face of Thabo Mbeki's complete failure to play his allotted role, Mwanawasa has stepped up to the task of organising the orderly disembarkation of Southern African political leaders from the sinking vessel MS Robert Mugabe. Meanwhile, Mbeki seems determined to emulate the boy who stood on the burning deck of this one.

Excellent article in the Observer this week, by the way[1] (a phrase you do not often hear around these parts). I've written about the role of broken land reform promises in the past, but I hadn't appreciated the role that Clare Short had played (I had, however, independently arrived at the view that she had been a disaster as Development Secretary, and a piece of high-handed patronisation combined with a whining argument from personal ancestral oppression would be entirely of a piece with the way she screwed the Montserratians).

The message I take away from the McGreal article is that it's all about land. From the outside, we assume that Mugabe must be wildly unpopular because he's so evil and incompetent, but actually he isn't; even the MDC figures have him with a solid core of about 40% support, which is pretty much dependent on the fact that he has successfully portrayed himself as the party of land reform and MDC as the party of farmer interests.

This ties in with a pet theory of mine; that it's a real asset in commenting on third world politics if at some point in your life you've been involved, however tangentially, in a dispute over land. If you've never had an argument with someone about a patch of the planet that the two of you both want, you have no idea of how intense it gets[2]. When I was a kid my parents wasted large amounts of time for over a year in a dispute over the location of a fencepost and the precise status of a right of way round the back of a cottage with some go iawn joskyns y gwerin down on the Lleyn peninsula. My God, people get pretty bloody worked up over land. Consider the emotional relationship that the UK has with house prices. It's another fact about human nature like the mobile phones and satellite telly point above; us upright-walking monkeys, we like our communications technology and we like our land.

Given this, I worry rather a lot about what the World Bank and IMF have planned in their structural adjustment packages under the rubric of "property rights", "rule of law" etc. There's a distinct danger that (particularly given the undeniable facts about the relative productivity of large-scale agribusiness versus smallholdings) some out-of-town economists are going to impose a land distribution on Zimbabwe which contains within it the seeds of a civil war.

[1](here's an opposing view on what the UK did or didn't promise, from a civil servant present at Lancaster House; disastrous negotiations always tend to have this Rashomon quality)

[2] See also the occupied territories and other global conflicts which are an awful lot easier to solve in game theoretic models where people take a rational perspective view about the value of their land.
8 comments this item posted by the management 4/14/2008 02:48:00 AM

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Diamonds are forever

(note that the project of getting well- or even acceptably well-informed about African politics is going slowly - last week's warning that the blog was likely to be the same old crap with a thin Afrocentric veneer on it (did someone say De La Soul?) is still in force).

Might as well drag this up from the numerous comments sections where I have ranted on the subject - fuck an awful lot of Kanye West. A number of chin-stroking white music critics actually lauded the man for his "political awareness" based on "Diamonds from Sierra Leone", despite the fact that:

1) the lyrics of the song do not in fact mention Sierra Leone, they are all about Kanye West. He apparently later did a remix of "Diamonds from Sierra Leone" where this ommission was rectified but

2) even in that remix, he neglected to mention that the Sierra Leonean and Liberian civil wars had been over for five years by the time his record came out, and that Charles Taylor was actually being put on trial in the Hague for crimes committed during that period.

So what Kanye West was actually encouraging his fans to do was to boycott the main foreign-currency earning export of a desperately poor nascent democracy. The jewellers were pissed off.

On the other hand, don't feel sorry for the jewellers, because the whole concept of a "blood diamond" is a chiz. As with Oxfam and food subsidies, this looks very like a case of a well-meaning charity (in this case Amnesty, unfortunately) being roped in to providing a thin greenwash to a producer interest.

There are, in fact, very few producers of "conflict diamonds" in the world today. It's quite likely that the Forces Nouvelles of Cote d'Ivoire are buying the odd gun or two with the proceeds of diamonds smuggled out of their bit of Cd'I, but at present that ceasefire is holding and progress toward disarmament has been pretty good. And Cote d'Ivoire was really the last poster child for "blood diamonds" that anyone could take seriously; ex them, it's dribs and drabs out of eastern DR Congo. Hurray for Africa and all that.

Of course, this does not mean that the diamond industry has dialled down the noise on the "Kimberley Process", far from it. There's something about oligopoly producers of commodities that makes them just looooove their complicated and bureaucratic licensing processes. Wonder what it could be ... what, could this be some sort of anti-competitive margin enhancement strategy? Who do you think you are, Brink Lindsey or someone?

Yep, it's a racket, as far as I can see. The Kimberley process institutionalises a system which ensures that a) all diamonds go through a relatively small number of state-owned export monopolies b) second-hand or recycled diamonds are less marketable because they're not certified. Probably doesn't hurt the Africans all that much (except of course that the state diamond monopolies almost certainly rip the producers off to a fare-thee-well) but it is a racket withall. The proof of it is, in my opinion, that despite the fact that rubies and sapphires are produced in a lot of the worst countries on earth, nobody has so much as suggested a certification scheme for gemstones in general, which in my opinion is because other kinds of gemstone don't need a certification scheme to prop up their value.

I would even tentatively advance a further case - that boycotting conflict diamonds probably had no effect even back in the days when there were civil wars going on. It is certainly true that Charles Taylor did make a lot of money out of diamond smuggling, and that he spent at least some of it on buying weapons for his troops to carry out atrocities with. But he just simply stole a lot more; the Liberian guerillas were not awash with cash and they had plenty of other sources of funds besides diamonds. In any case, I have literally never heard of any war anywhere that stopped because one side ran out of money for bullets. Bullets are a bit like cigarettes or satellite television[1], in that they are things which people who want them will always find a way of affording.

So is the blood diamonds thing counterproductive? Probably not all that much; it facilitates a transfer of wealth from gullible Westerners to De Beers which falls into the category "who cares?". If I was the kind of person who got very worked up about "Orientalism" I think I would get worked up about the implicit assumption that all Africa is at least potentially having a horrible civil war and that we need a quarantine and certification system to prevent any contamination from the Hearts of Darkness getting onto our pristine white diamonds. But I'm not. It seems to me basically to be a way for well-meaning American kids to work out their idealism while at college in a manner which is unthreatening to the profits or foreign policy of anyone who matters, and there is clearly a social role for that sort of thing. (I rather freely "adapted" that analysis from Louis Proyect; I heartily recommend Louis' blog for any of my mainstream liberal readers who are suffering from constipation - it'll make you shit yourself).

[1] This is not a joke; there are plenty of African villages that don't have functioning wells but do have satellite television. This is a fact worth bearing in mind when Tessa Jowell or someone starts giving it this and that about poor families on council estates with Sky Sports who "can't afford" - one of the interesting things about human beings as a species is that we really really like communications and media and often buy them in preference to the necessities of life.


21 comments this item posted by the management 4/09/2008 06:13:00 AM

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Hundreds of thousands die in Hypothetistan

I suppose it was inevitable that "Project Africa" would start off with a post about Zimbabwe; I am uncomfortably aware that this is an exercise in dilettantism and in many ways pretty patronising. And here I am, a Brit writing about Zimbabwe and seeing it as a mirror in which are reflected my general political views. Sorry, Zimbabwegians[1]. The only real defence I have is that a) I've been planning to do this for a long time and b) it's better than US election horserace coverage. Did I ever tell you I was born in Zambia? No, you're right, that doesn't really have much to do with anything. Anyway in any case, it's important to emphasise that this isn't meant to be a project of me learning a lot about Africa or becoming a source of news and comment for that continent; it's the same mix of personal hobbyhorses and oddball economics, but hung on a hopefully less overfamiliar set of news pegs. Heho, moment of self-awareness over, back to standing on your heads lads.

Over at B'n'T, discussion of whether we can that if (as currently looks likely), Zimbabwe ends up transitioning to a post-Mugabe world by election, it will compare somewhat favourably with the outcome in Iraq. Dan H makes the reasonable point that nobody can really tell how Zimbabwe will end up - whoever's in charge, it will still be a hyperinflationary basket case economy with bad food security[2], lots of unemployed people with weapons and quite a few old ethnic/political scores to settle. Which is true, but on the other hand we can never tell what the results would have been from an armed intervention in Rwanda[3] and that does not stop people making it the backbone of their argument for humanitarian interventionism. So I think it is actually quite fair to count Zimbabwe as a success story for noninterventionism, and even to try and come up with a few estimates of the number of lives saved[4].

Zimbabwe had three consecutive years of crop failure between 2003 and 2005, leaving approximately 7.5m Zimbabweans dependent on food aid during that period. There was a lot of talk about Zanu-PF officials denying food aid to opposition supporters, but since there wasn't mass starvation during those years, my assumption is that the food aid was largely effective. Bishop Pious Ncube was quoted in media reports at the time as saying that 200,000 Zimbabweans were at risk of death in 2004, and this looks like a more credible estimate than some of the numbers around 500,000 that were being floated around at various points during that year; this was the stakes we were talking about, although an exceptional effort by the aid agencies meant that mass starvation didn't happen.

If, on the other hand, there had been an invasion, it would have been much more difficult for the aid agencies to do their job. It is true that mass famine deaths were predicted in Afghanistan as a result of the 2001 invasion and didn't happen - this was partly due to a massive effort by the World Food Programme, operating alongside the coalition army, and partly due to the fact that the drought which had been in place in Afghanistan since 1997 ended late in 2001, meaning that more livestock survived than was expected.

In principle, an Afghanistan-style operation could have been carried out alongside any invasion of Zimbabwe; Zimbabwe has about half the population of Afghanistan, it would have been if anything easier to transport the food, and there were stores of wheat readily available. However, I think that would be optimistic. The US operation in Afghanistan had the support of neighbouring countries to act as bases, so there was no issue with the fact that allowing aid convoys to move through your country implied allowing US troops to move with them. No such support could necessarily have been assumed in the case of Zimbabwe. Also, the Afghanistan invasion was a massively important goal of the USA. No other power on earth could have organised that sort of operation. This is straying into the territory of assuming that the politics of the world are as they are, rather than as someone wants them to be[5], but I really don't believe that the USA, no matter who was in charge, could have been persuaded that an operation on that scale for Zimbabwe was justified, particularly since it wasn't even an imminent humanitarian catastrophe - after, Mugabe was a bastard right enough, but you only have to think about Sudan, Uganda, DR Congo and Somalia to realise that there's a quantitative difference here that makes a qualitative difference. And that's without getting into the obvious point that the fact of Afghanistan and Iraq made it impossible to launch another operation on that scale.

So I actually think that an invasion of Zimbabwe could quite easily have led to at least 200,000 avoidable deaths from famine, plus whatever lives were lost in the actual fighting. This is a pretty conservative estimate, since of course Pious Ncube's estimate was not made in the context of a massive IDP problem. Things could of course have got even worse if the "veterans' groups" metastatized into the kind of small militias/large crime gangs that have characterised the aftermath of other African civil wars.

In other words, I would chalk up to the Zimbabwe non-intervention something like 200,000 lives saved. Or alternatively, attribute to the interventionist tendency 200,000 dead in Zimbabwe, in the way in which the entire death toll in Rwanda is attributed to non-interventionism. It is important to note these things, because otherwise the benefits of non-intervention get wildly understated; one needs to show the kind of people who are prepared to claim that the anti-war camp has the blood of Rwanda on its hands that we can do counterfactuals too.

[1] I am never going to get tired of that joke.
[2] Hopefully a few notes on the general subject of hyperinflations and how they have been halted in the past (the paradigm cases are Israel in 1985 and Argentina in 2000; I also have one extremely heterodox alternative suggestion) forthcoming in the pretty near future.
[3] Other than the results from the one actual armed intervention which took place in Rwanda, Operation Turquoise. Which were disastrous, but for some reason this is just bracketed out of the interventionist narrative; all of the consequences of Turquoise are ascribed to French perfidy and incompetence and it is assumed that the hypothetical UN/Nato/whoever operation which did not take place would have been perfectly competent and had no ulterior political motives.
[4] I am not, frankly, a fan of the school of analysis which only counts lives versus lives and ignores the considerable financial cost of carrying out a war as being a vulgar and squalid consideration suitable only to morally disgusting human calculating machines. But for the time being I will reluctantly go along with it.
[5] It is clear that "engage with our ideas" is Decent slang for "spot us a load of very serious logistical and military problems which we regard ourselves as entitled to assume will be solved by people like General Petraeus". I don't regard this as a valid argument at all, but I can see how the other aspect of "engage with our ideas" as slang for "assume that we could persuade everyone to agree with us" is sort of legitimate.
27 comments this item posted by the management 4/03/2008 07:31:00 AM

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