22 February, 2008

Blogging has been pathetic lately...

However, I salute the Amigos de Obama. Now that Obama pretty much has this race wrapped up, in my view, I'm going to try to get back to non-political blogging. I'm sure there will be plenty of politics come this summer.

Check out this video of Sudhir Venkatesh talking about his experiences as a sociologist studying Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes, some of the most violent projects in our nation's unfortunate public housing experiment. You may remember him from Freakonomics as the hapless grad student assigned to ask project residents "How do you feel about being black and poor?" His work seems more like anthropology to me--but that is beside the point. He argues that the social experience of living in the projects was a much richer experience than you might expect.

In this vein, he says that the projects were "a magical place, for those that lived there." Really? Magical? I understand that the residents may have formed complex communities and social relations. I understand that for them, the projects were "home." But everything else he reports--protection and basic services provided by gangs because not even ambulances would go there, unresponsive and corrupt housing officials who paid residents very low wages to do their jobs, rampant squatting controlled by aforementioned gangs, general squalor--does not really say "magical". I'm happy to agree that the desperately poor residents of these buildings formed strong communal bonds--the poor usually do because they do not have the risk-spreading devices of the rich--but that doesn't mean that their situation wasn't seriously dysfunctional. Or that we shouldn't argue for alternative policies.

It would also be a shame if our buddy Fidel's political passing was not noted on this blog. He certainly has his boosters in the blogosphere, but I'm much closer to Brad Delong's opinion expressed here and here:

Bloix: Let's do a thought experiment: Imagine that the year is 1960 and that you are a soul about to be inspirited into a foetus about to be born. God gives you a choice: you may become the son or daughter of a poor rural woman in either Cuba, Guatemala, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic. What would you choose?

Reply #1: That is the wrong comparison: Cuba in 1960 is like Costa Rica, northern Mexico, Puerto Rico, or Portugal. The fact that you today think of Cuba as to be plaed in the same basket as Guatemala, Haiti, or the Dominican Republic is Castro's doing, and is worth thinking about. The normal course of development should have given Cuba today the wealth, freedom, and health that Costa Rica, northern Mexico, Puerto Rico, and Portugal possess. It has only the health--and perhaps not even that. The only excuse for breaking eggs is if you manage to make a tasty omelette.


Elliot said...

I find that opinion about Cuba extremely uninformed. Was that DeLong?

I have been meaning to blog about Cuba...so busy...

spencer said...

Yes that was Delong--I'd like to hear what a more informed opinion sounds like.

Elliot said...

Yeah, I was drunk last night, and I shouldn't have said uninformed. DeLong is clearly smarter than I. But I do find those comparisons bizarre.

Does he mean that Cuba in 1960 was like Costa Rica et al in 1960, and thus, should be like them today? The first part may be true, though I'm skeptical that Cuba had much of the development that Northern Mexico had under the PRI (especially since its economy is fundamentally different; it would make more sense to compare Cuba with Southern Mexico, which has struggled). I'm also skeptical that Puerto Rico can be considered since it is a territory of the United States, or that Portugal can be seriously compared as it has a very different place in the European orbit and now in the Union.

But even if we assume the first statement, I don't see how the second would follow. It was the phrase "normal course of development" that inspired my uninformed comment - I just don't think that such a course exists in the Latin American context. Every country's path is singular, mostly because their economies are very different and, more importantly, the political happenings play such an exaggerated role in economic development.

So - yes, Costa Rica is doing well, but it is also an outlier in terms of political stability. What if it had fallen into civil war like every other Central American nation in the 70s and 80s? And before Castro, Cuba showed no signs of turning into any sort of stable regime, so why would it end up like Costa Rica? It seems that DeLong just asserts that it would.

Regarding Mexico, I would simply remind that it did most of its economic development without freedom, either. People seem to forget that the PRI, especially after 1968, was a dictatorship just as controlling - though more savvy - as Castro's. But again, I just don't see how it makes sense to compare Cuba, a small island almost completely dependent on one or two export crops, with Mexico, an economic powerhouse possessing a diversified basket of minerals, oil, coffee, etc, as well as millions more people.

The bottom line is, I would argue that it is perfectly appropriate to compare Cuba with the DR. Both small caribbean islands, and in 1960, both more or less dependent on sugarcane, both more or less unstable, and both extremely unequal, with a light skinned minority overseeing a dark skinned majority that was basically unemployed when there was no sugar to be harvested. And on balance, yes, it seems the DR has come out slightly ahead in terms of healthy development - but its not the homerun that DeLong assumes. Its not like Cuba would be Florida by now if only Castro had never come along.

A final note is that the analogy could run the other way, as well: you could argue that Guatemala in, say, 1950, was better positioned than its neighbors to become democratic, developing economy a la Costa Rica. But after intensive US intervention which led to a collapse of the democratic system, Guatemala fell into ethnic civil war from which it has barely escaped. Devils advocate position is, maybe Guatemala would be better off today if it had had a dictator that could have kept the US out and defused civil war at home?