Tuesday, February 27, 2007

The Constitution of Nine Lives

The BBC reports what many of us already knew, that the vote against the European constitution by the electorates of Holland and France is seen as a snag, not a verdict:

The corpse of the European Constitution is coming back to life and staggering around the EU's corridors of power.

Buried by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005, it has been resurrected by the EU's German presidency and put on the table of a summit in June.

Germany aims to produce a "roadmap" pointing the way to ratification by 2009, and has the full support of another 17 of the EU's 27 member states, which have also completed or all but completed ratification.

Meanwhile, both leading candidates for the French presidency have been laying out their plans to turn France's No into a Yes, once they have been elected.

Economists often like to invoke the notion of "revealed preference," through which we reason backwards from choices to preferences. It is also sometimes useful to reason backwards from choices to philosophy. Two electorates of EU nations decisively rejected the constitution last year. The reasons why Europeans oppose it vary – some thing it portends a future that is too liberal, some worry about a Europe that is too socialist. In both cases the root cause is the same – an unwillingness to surrender to unaccountable Eurocrats the basic decisions over how distinct societies are to be governed.

That this verdict will in the short term be ignored, and the contemptuous language with which it is dismissed - Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, the lead drafter of it, dismissed the French population as not "rational" – suggests that the EU is simply not a project based on a belief in consensual government. If it were, the constitution would be dead. It is rather nothing more complicated than a power grab, an effort to put people who went to the right schools and climbed the right routes to power in charge of more and more of the lives of almost a half-billion people. Ultimately this effort, I predict, will be futile. The U.K. in particular will never consent to the kind of planner’s-dream contraption that the constitution promises. But the process by which it goes down to defeat, an optimist can hope, will be a useful lesson to Europeans in the dangers of leaving governing to the experts.


Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Big Government Programmed to Fail?

Theodore Dalrymple has a terrific essay at City Journal about the rising incompetence of British public services. Her Majesty's realm is drowning in a plague of miserable public services – schools characterized primarily by ignorance, law enforcement devoted more to tallying and taking credit for irrelevant crimes rather than solving meaningful ones, on and on and on. The United Kingdom is in his telling becoming a dystopian nightmare where every problem is the province of the state, which upon attempting to solve it makes every problem worse.

Toward the end he flirts with the charge that this is intentional, that bureaucrats taking over tasks best left to free men and then running them incompetently causes the public to cry out for yet more bureaucratic oversight:

How is this to be explained? I learned a very good lesson when, 20 years ago, I worked in Tanzania. This well-endowed and beautiful country was broken-down and economically destitute to a shocking degree. A shard of mirror was a treasured possession; a day’s wages bought a man one egg on the open market. It was quicker to go to Europe than to telephone it. Nothing, not even the most basic commodity such as soap or salt, was available to most of the population.

At first I considered that the president, Julius Nyerere, who was so revered in “progressive” circles as being halfway between Jesus Christ and Mao Tse Tung, was a total incompetent. How could he reconcile the state of the country with his rhetoric of economic development and prosperity for everyone? Had he no eyes to see, no ears to hear?

But then the thought dawned on me, admittedly with embarrassing slowness, that a man who had been in power virtually unopposed for nearly a quarter of a century could not be called incompetent, once one abandons the preposterous premise that he was trying to achieve what he said he was trying to achieve. As a means of remaining in power, what method could be better than to have an all-powerful single political party distribute economic favors in conditions of general shortage? That explained how, and why, in a country of the involuntarily slender, the party officials were fat. This was not incompetence; it was competence of a very high order.

Could the growth and failures of the Administrative State be due to something as simply duplicitous as that? Only a cynic would suppose so, and yet, as the I-cynic notes, a cynic is nothing more than "an idealist whose rose-colored glasses have been removed, snapped in two and stomped into the ground, immediately improving his vision."

Read the whole essay. As with most of what Mr. Dalrymple writes, it is terrific.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Amazing Grace and Unfinished Business

Today marks the release of a movie about an extraordinary event and an extraordinary man. The movie is called "Amazing Grace." It tells the story of how the British parliament, moved by the force of will of one man, William Wilberforce, rose above narrow financial interest and achieved one of the greatest moral victories in the history of democratic governance – the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. In the wake of the passage of Wilberforce's bill, not only were British companies and seamen prohibited from participating in the trade, but soon the British Navy went out on a truly moral mission that arguably cut against Britain's economic self-interest to try to stop the Atlantic slave trade. (The US abolished the slave trade at roughly the same time, but unlike in the U.K. slavery continued in the country for almost 60 years.) The 200th anniversary of Wilberforce's triumph will be upon us on March 25. I do not really sense that it is getting the attention it deserves, and if ultimately it does not, lost amid all the coverage of the diaper-clad, lovesick astronaut and the sordid struggles over the dead Playmate, it will be an immense shame.

Wilberforce was an intensely religious man, motivated purely by religious faith to end what he thought was a Christian disgrace. Indeed the song after which the movie is named tells the story of a former slave-ship captain who "once was lost, but now am found" and ended his participation in that wretched business. John Wesley a Methodist leader after whom colleges are named all over the U.S., wrote Wilberforce and called slavery "that execrable villainy which is the scandal of religion, of England, and of human nature." It is thus a little bit lamentable, if this story and this one are to be believed, that Michael Apted, the movie's director, intentionally downplayed the religious aspect of the battle in favor of emphasizing how politics can achieve great things. From the International Herald Tribune:

Apted, whose recent credits include "Enigma," in turn saw an opportunity to emphasize the importance of politics, then and now. "I wanted to do a story about the corridors of power," he explained. "I am trying to shine a light on the value of politics."

As it happens, Bristol Bay Productions initially wanted a biopic focused on Wilberforce's faith, "which is why I and a lot of other people didn't want to make it," Apted recalled. "I wanted to center the whole film on the anti- slave trade debate, and they agreed. To me, it is about people who have a moral or religious sense of purpose and yet manage to operate in the world."

The victory, the result of a 20-your struggle (the first anti-slavery Bill was filed in 1787, and another version lost in 1796 by only four votes), was clearly partly about politics. But it is manifest revisionism to ignore the role of religious principles in achieving this great victory. Had Britain not been the Mother of Parliaments, the traffic would not have been abolished; nor would it have been if Britain were only a democratic nation and not a Christian one. But it is certainly better that the movie be made this way than that it not be made at all.

What makes the movie and the anniversary so bittersweet is that the global slave traffic is still a gigantic phenomenon. In absolute numbers (although not as a percentage of the world population), there may be more people in bondage now than then. Estimates range from 4 million to 27 million people. Unquestionably the same lower transport costs that have brought so much prosperity to so many places has also made the slave trade easier. The U.S. State Department issues an annual report (go here for the most recent one) that tries to document the extent of the global slave trade. The most common kinds are trafficking in women for prostitution (which typically involves women from poorer countries being deceptively lured to wealthy ones in Europe, Japan and North America and being held captive thereafter), bonded labor in Africa and South Asia (extremely poor people incur debts and must work the rest of their days paying it off by making bricks or working plantations, with the debt sometimes even being passed on to their children), and workaday house slavery in several countries in northern Africa, especially Mauritania and Libya. This is far from an exhaustive list.

The global slave trade is the single greatest outrage in the world today, drawing tens of millions of people into its fatal whirlpool. The organization Antislavery International has numerous harrowing individual stories on the section of its website marked "Slavery Today," as does the introduction of the State Department report. Sadly, the traffic is not nearly as widely knows it should be. The Google toolbar on my computer fills out the most common searches that finish an incomplete typing of the search I plan to do. When I type out "slavery," most of the common searches based on that term are about slavery in centuries past. Several years ago, in an address to the United Nations, President Bush made an explicit reference to modern slavery and called on the world to fight it. I was never prouder of an American president (I am 42 years old) than at that moment, and hoped that there would be aggressive follow-up. Since then, the State Department's annual report has become more prominent, and European nations in particular are working much harder to combat it within their borders, but I was disappointed that he did not continue to give the issue the prominence that only the president of the United States can lend. But the more rapidly word spreads, the more rapidly Wilberforce's mission will be completed.


I have now seen the movie. Any charge that the movie downplays Wilberforce's Christianity is misplaced, as it is obvious that that's what drives him. As for the film itself, some of the dialogue is wooden, and a fair amount of historical knowledge is taken for granted. But the issues it raises - evolution vs. revolution, the border between dissent and sedition, etc. - are interesting to this day.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Multiculturalism as Prison

The French novelist and public intellectual Pascal Bruckner has written an essay criticizing multiculturalism. He calls it "Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism," and I confess I had never thought about it that way. The French government has for decades assumed that tous les citoyens are French – not black French, white French, Arab French, etc. The French refuse to think of individuals in groups at least ethnically, even refusing to track ethnicity in their censuses, although they do have formal legal structures for dealing with particular religious communities. Despite their excessive hostility to religion, on obvious display in Mr. Bruckner's piece, there is much to admire in the way they approach diversity issues.

The article is deficient with respect to readability, although that may be due to cumbersome translation. But it makes very firmly what I think is the most damning indictment of multiculturalism, the reduction of every individual to nothing more than a member of a group – Muslim, white, whatever – drawn from a predefined list.

This is the paradox of multiculturalism: it accords the same treatment to all communities, but not to the people who form them, denying them the freedom to liberate themselves from their own traditions. Instead: recognition of the group, oppression of the individual. The past is valued over the wills of those who wish to leave custom and the family behind and - for example - love in the manner they see fit.

Instead of celebrating freedom as the power to escape determinism, the repetition of the past is being encouraged, reinforcing the power of collective coercion over private individuals. Marginal groups now form a sort of ethos-police, a flag-waving micro-nationalism which certain countries of Europe unfortunately see fit to publicly support. Under the guise of celebrating diversity, veritable ethnic or confessional prisons are established, where one group of citizens is denied the advantages accorded to others.

Anglo-Saxon multiculturalism is perhaps nothing other than a legal apartheid, accompanied - as is so often the case - by the saccarine cajolery of the rich who explain to the poor that money doesn't guarantee happiness. We bear the burdens of liberty, of self-invention, of sexual equality; you have the joys of archaism, of abuse as ancestral custom, of sacred prescriptions, forced marriage, the headscarf and polygamy. The members of these minorities are put under a preservation order, protected from the fanaticism of the Enlightenment and the "calamities" of progress. Those termed "Muslims" (North Africans, Pakistanis, Africans) are prohibited from not believing, or from believing periodically, from not giving a damn about God, from creating a life for themselves far away from the Koran and the rites of the tribe.

Multiculturalism must, if not slain before it matures, end in tragedy because it deprives us of our ability to dream, to plan, to experiment and to embrace or reject as free people. In it we are not noble individuals charged with constructing our own life but prisoners of our circumstances of birth. It is a recipe for despotism, and ultimately for group-based conflict to the death. A sound society can be based on the freedom of the individual to chart his own destiny through the guarantee of his rights. It cannot be based on investing rights in groups, particularly the "right" of a group to be free from any questioning of its cultural practices by the larger society.


Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Is the Civil Rights Industry Obsolete?

Are NASCAR fans racist? Michael Yaki, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (USCCR), thinks so (membership required). He argues that the entry of Toyota into NASCAR has brought to the surface all manner of suppressed racism among NASCAR fans, even invoking (contradictorily) the organization's Southern roots as permissible evidence in bolstering the argument. Most chillingly, he reminds us of a murder almost a quarter-century ago that centered on hate and cars:

More than 20 years ago, this country feared that Japan would take over American industry. It didn’t happen. But today the Big Three are still on the ropes and, combined with Chrysler’s recent layoffs, a Toyota victory in one of Nascar’s events could reawaken latent fears of Japanese domination. We cannot forget that in 1982 a young Chinese-American, Vincent Chin, was killed in Detroit because two autoworkers assumed he was Japanese. Apparently there remain embers just hot enough to re-ignite the flame of racism.

NASCAR's silence on this matter, he further pronounces, is "unacceptable." And so the structure of the conversation he wants to impose on us – American institution plagued by racism in need of guidance by a duly appointed governmental authority – is in place. That the evidence for his proposition that NASCAR has a big hate problem is derived mostly from Internet chat rooms, hardly the Oxford Union as a forum for reason or moderation, makes the case to begin with already dubious, but I don't think that is the most important issue raised by Mr. Yaki's piece.

Rather, it is worth asking whether the entire civil-rights establishment has outlived its usefulness. Established in 1957, after Brown v. Board of Education, at the time of Little Rock and before Selma, the USCCR's mission reads as follows:

To investigate complaints alleging that citizens are being deprived of their right to vote by reason of their race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or by reason of fraudulent practices.

To study and collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.

To appraise federal laws and policies with respect to discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.

To serve as a national clearinghouse for information in respect to discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin.

To submit reports, findings, and recommendations to the President and Congress.

To issue public service announcements to discourage discrimination or denial of equal protection of the laws.

It is, in other words, an agency with no regulatory powers, merely a talking shop designed to seek out discrimination in American society. It is built on the premise that racism is out there, and the task at hand is to go find it. This is a task also carried out by public intellectuals, law schools and all too many university departments, people in the media and others who undoubtedly really believe that the U.S. is a profoundly racist society but who would have to find something else to do if it turned out not to be. Lo and behold, if you are charged with finding evidence on "discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws," you are likely to see it everywhere.

The time for this way of thinking about prejudice - government and activists identify it, the rest of us comply - is long since past. The civil-rights/multiculturalism industry is fond of evaluating American racial shortfalls relative to an ideal world where prejudice does not exist. Up to a point, there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking; we are an idealistic country, and measuring ourselves against perfection is what we do. But everyone who sees racism as a primary characteristic of America needs to get out a little more. The world is full of countries with authentic tribal strife, not the manufactured differences that so preoccupy us here even as we comfortably accept handing out citizenship to anybody on the planet, whatever his tribal origins.

On this issue we are long past the point of diminishing returns. If you accept that people everywhere are prone to prejudice, but that these tendencies can be overcome and that some people do not like to be publicly and selectively hectored, a good argument can be made that organizations like the USCCR, by crying wolf all the time, do more harm than good. They make people falsely accused of racism angry, they have little effect on those who are truly racist, and they cause people to discount actual consequential prejudice when it occurs.

The task at hand for any multitribal society, as with any society where people are different for any reason, is to make everyone more likely to cooperate for mutual gain, less likely to fight zero-sum style. Managing tribal relations through politics (already philosophically troubling because it requires us to think not of individuals but groups) is troubling in practical terms too because it weakens the incentive to work together across tribal lines. The Nobelist economist Amartya Sen’s latest book is called Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny. Despite my disagreement with much of his economic philosophy, it is an extremely provocative read. Indeed, he emphasizes a theme I have talked about for awhile – that identity is not preformed, but is formed by the individual himself in response to external stimuli. I would add that it responds to incentives in particular. To put it into terms I like to use, in their relations with others people may choose to emphasize their occupation, their moral beliefs, their nationality, their passions, or anything else that defines them. Identity is like a financial portfolio, with each of its aspects like a financial asset. People will emphasize different identity assets based on their expected return. But tribal identity is much more difficult to alter – if you and your wife define yourselves primarily as "white" or "Hispanic,” your children too are likely to so define themselves.

And the civil-rights industry, like all government entanglement with tribe (whether mandated segregation or mandated affirmative action) encourages us to emphasize sources of identity that are more difficult to dislodge, and more easy to exploit by demagogues. The more Mr. Yaki talks about racist NASCAR fans, the more likely NASCAR fans are to imitate him in seeing the world as "us" versus "them." Far better to live in a society where people have the incentives to cooperate (e.g., through free commerce), and not the artificial incentives to separate.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Today was a good day for students"

Or so the breathless newsreader on my car radio said when he recently reported that the new House Democratic majority had fulfilled one of its campaign promises by passing legislation designed to lower the interest rate that students pay on their federally subsidized college loans. But it is such good news?

The price of attending college has soared in recent years – for small colleges and large, for liberal arts colleges and great universities, for good schools and bad. Why? To learn why you could do a lot worse than to consult the work of the Ohio University economist Richard Vedder. (See here for an entire 2004 book on the subject.) His argument is that these loans, and other outright grants from the government, amount to heavy subsidy of college tuition. College, like most heavily subsidized goods, becomes a good for which consumers are relatively indifferent to price. Why pay much attention to what the tuition is when taxpayers are picking up a significant amount of the tab? Colleges thus differentiate themselves not on price but on such frills as the football stadium, the state-of-the art-gymnasium and other features of the so-called “student centers” (which in my day were just called student unions and were none too flashy). Research is also separately subsidized through various public and private grants-making organizations, and so much of it is of little lasting impact even as it consumes a great amount of faculty time, which is taken away from, among other things, improving one’s teaching. It is striking how much rising college costs resemble rising health-care costs, health care also be a good whose consumption is heavily subsidized by taxpayers.

Colleges have several other problems that are not related to the Vedder thesis. They are, for example, institutions that can engage in nearly perfect price discrimination – what happens when a producer charges a different price for consumers with different willingness to pay, thus extracting more of their surplus and making more money. When a would-be student applies for financial aid, he must reveal incredibly detailed information about his parents’ finances. This allows the college (particularly his private) to set different tuition rates in the form of different levels of financial aid for students of various means. So not everyone pays the sticker price; the fact that George Washington University apparently has the highest tuition of any major school in the country at approximately $39,000 does not mean that everybody writes a check in that amount. But they do write a check that comes close to the maximum they are willing to write. And so colleges are in a better position to extract income for their consumers than most producers are. But the problem of rising costs overall (as opposed to the maximum price) is one that is almost certainly substantially attributable to the separation of the decisions of consumers – students – from the consequences of those decisions, i.e. the full social cost of providing a college education. In that sense, anything that increases the subsidy will make the problem worse.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Pencil-Pushers' Revolution

The Financial Times has an article discussing a 2005 ruling by the European Court of Justice, the high court of the European Union, that opens the door for further transfers of power from the national to the transnational level in the EU. The decision gives the EU the power to regulate "environmental crimes" when remedies assessed at the national level are judged by the EU to be inadequate. The article expresses the concern that the European Commission and Parliament will interpret this decision as expansively as possible, opening the door for European-level steamrolling of local laws.

As No Pasaran notes, the danger is that a decision like this is a vehicle to give unaccountable civil servants even more power to regulate the lives of once-free people, a way of “compelling states to dispose of a millennium of common law or centuries of Civil Code.”

Several principles that seem based on historical experience painfully true to me are useful here:

1. Government, while sometimes indispensable, is dangerous. Government uniquely possesses the power to legitimately raise armies and employ police forces to enforce its will. That power, needless to say, must be applied with restraint.

2. Local government is less dangerous than central government. Citizens whose freedoms are limited by local government can more easily leave for a freer jurisdiction; a local government possesses less power than a national one. Thus, power should be devolved to the lowest feasible level.

3. Local traditions deserve respect. As thinkers from Burke to Hayek have famously noted, traditions contain encoded wisdom within them, even if that wisdom is not immediately apparent. Trying to redesign society in defiance of those traditions means that knowledge is wasted, and horrendous errors can be expected. When things don't go as planned, the planners blame society rather than their own limited knowledge. Unless great care is taken, what starts on the tennis court can end in the Terror.

The European Union is a highly centralized organization, increasingly being erected not just with no mandate from but actually in spite of popular will. Its high-and-mighties famously bemoaned the ignorance of the European proles over whom they rule when France and the Netherlands rejected the centrally planned European constitution. It is a quiet revolution of pencil-pushers, not the sweeping transformation of demagogues; it is hard to imagine Jose Manuel Barroso firing up the masses from the balcony. But it is dangerous, just the same. (Mr. Barroso himself backed approving the constitution by referendum when he was prime minister, but now opposes it when he is in charge of the EU bureaucracy and those inconvenient elections keep snarling his plans.) Sweeping power can certainly be acquired one obscure resolution or court decision at a time. The European Commission has itself over the years somehow found the authority to decide whether Danish farmers are free to grow wine grapes, and that English merchants are forbidden from selling merchandise in English units. If you think these are trivial matters, recall that the freedom to buy and sell is a way to control your own life; once it is gone, yielded to economic planners, loss of most individual autonomy easily follows.

As the recent turmoil over the constitution demonstrates, Europe is still sufficiently democratically vital to forestall overreaching by the distant czars who run the EU. But the battle is not won, and as free people, cognizant of history know, never truly is. An anonymous European official assures Europeans that they needn’t worry, because "[W]e don't see this as the beginning of a European criminal law or as a mandate to start writing a European criminal code."

Sorry, not good enough.


Monday, February 05, 2007

"Show Mercy to the Slender Grass"

The Beijing Olympics are about a year and a half away, and the people who run China want the city to look good. One sort of pollution that has to be cleaned up, apparently, is linguistic. Like Japan and other countries in that part of the world, China is filled with signs with wacky translations into English of the perfectly sensible Chinese expressions above them. (The title of this post, which presumably means "Keep off the Grass," is an example; go here for some more compelling examples.)

Alas, the Wall Street Journal has an article (subscribers only; free preview here) indicating that the humorless authorities are not going to let it stand. The English in Beijing is going to be scrubbed clean. The reason is pride, a big motivating factor in much Chinese thinking these days. A “marketing manager for a major sportswear company” named Olivia Wang is quoted as sniffing that "We cannot leave [these signs] up just for the amusement of foreigners."

I think Ms Wang and her fellow citizens should lighten up. This effort raises several interesting questions. First, which spellings will they use, American or British? Second, I think the nonstandard English pouring out of countries all over the world where it is becoming, as it were, the global lingua franca is better understood as cultural experimentation rather than cultural error. English flourishes in part because there is no counterpart of the French cultural overlords trying to make the language conform (e.g., purging Anglicisms such as "le weekend") in a world of dynamism and cultural exchange. I confess to laughing at many of the signs I have seen in Asia, but I also confess to admiring the willingness of people to take such risks in a language not their own. Ultimately this kind of experimentation will on balance improve English from the point of view of its primary function, to communicate information. This is so in spite of the fact that it contributes to dissolution of standard English; it also allows us to access the ideas and motives of people in other countries without having to learn their language. Finally, the very nature of cultural experimentation – e.g., businesses keen to use English to advertise their sophistication or attract foreign customers – makes it impossible to police. Like graffiti, no sooner will one mistake be erased then ten more arise to replace it. Let 100 flowers of linguistic atrocity bloom.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Is Pakistan Taking Off?

Pakistan may be catching the (beneficial) virus of rapid, transformational economic growth. From 2001-2005 the country has had five consecutive years in which the real GDP growth rate has exceeded the growth rate the year before, with growth in 2005 of approximately 8% on top of 6% growth year before that. Anecdotally, there are reports in the Pakistani press of construction booms in cities like Karachi (a city known thus far mostly for the relentless gang warfare between militant Sunnis and Shiites there); indeed, from 2003 to 2006 production of cement doubled. Before growing a modest 5% last year the Karachi stock market had also been booming for several years. The country is an increasing destination for foreign investment, although inbound flows are still dwarfed by those into India.

Based on recent history, Pakistan would have to be judged to be an unlikely candidate for the kind of growth that China and increasingly India take for granted. It is a society crippled by religious extremism and where significant chunks of the country such as Waziristan and Baluchistan are almost untouched by the central government. The existence of social norms far removed from those demand by globalization is also a problem, as evidenced by my previous post, is also problematic. And for all its recent growth Pakistan is still an extremely poor country, with per capita income of less than $1000.

And yet, taken as a whole recent events seem to me to have that feel of embryonic modernization about them. I cannot point to anything concrete, and a skeptic could certainly be forgiven for pointing to Pakistan’s past history, which was also marked by occasional spurts of growth followed by years of stagnation. But it feels different this time. The country certainly has immense problems of social norms that must be transformed to be modernization-friendly, but then again, so too did China round about 1978 or India shortly before the 1991 reforms. That this growth spurt has followed a series of economic reforms involving taxation, telecommunications liberalization, and other controls is also suggestive. In no sense has Pakistan undergone shock therapy, but for all his many faults the Pakistani president, General Pervez Musharraf, seems to get globalization and what it takes to accommodate a country to it.

In terms of the rigidity of the social structure, the seeming enormity of the task of reform in a country with so many bad economic policies, Pakistan now is indistinguishable, I think, from India in the early stages of its reform. There are of course political differences – India is a solid liberal democracy – and differences in the extent of religious extremism – Pakistan has more. And there are still gigantic policy problems to solve – Pakistan is still in the lowest quartile of most of the World Bank’s measures of governance quality, including corruption control. And of course there is always geopolitical risk (much larger in Pakistan than in most places). But there are also numerous precedents for takeoff growth starting in one country and spreading quickly to nearby countries, as they catch the virus and economically engage with the first country to boom. One could think of the growth boom spreading from Japan in the 1950s to Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore in the 1960s, and from there to Thailand and Malaysia in the 1970s. Pakistan may be benefiting somewhat, either because of direct economic ties or perceptions of similarities among global investors, from the Indian boom. It is still a bit of a crapshoot, but if you are a person with a lot of tolerance for risk you could do worse than to bet that Pakistan has turned some sort of corner.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

The Bravest Person on Earth

That title belongs, I think, to Mukhtar Mai. A resident of an unknown corner of rural Pakistan, she was gang-raped by a member of a higher-status clan in retaliation (judicially authorized by the village council, in accordance with the prevailing customs of the area) for disrespect her brother is said to have shown to one of their women. (Her family says that in fact the boy himself was also sexually assaulted by the clan.) Rather than committing suicide as she was supposed to do, she bravely (and so far unsuccessfully) pursued criminal charges against her attackers. Despite being banned from leaving the country and seeing her attackers' conviction overturned, and despite the fact that the president of Pakistan accused her of exploiting the rape as a "money-making concern," she has continued to pursue them and used the money she has received to start a girls' school in her village. She became a symbol of the plight of women in that part of the world, and has now dictated (she is illiterate) her memoir, In the Name of Honor. Below is an excerpt:

On the night of June 22, 2002, our family reaches a decision.

I, Mukhtaran Bibi, a woman of the peasant Gujar caste, living in the village of Meerwala, will be the one to confront an influential and aggressive local clan, farmers of the powerful Mastoi caste, on behalf of my family.

My little brother Shakur is accused by the Mastois of having "spoken" to Salma, a young woman of their clan. Shakur is only twelve years old, while Salma is over twenty. We know my brother has done nothing wrong, but if the Mastois have decided otherwise, we Gujars must bow to their demands. This is the way it has always been.

My father and uncle have explained the situation to me.

"Our mullah, Abdul Razzaq, is in despair. The Mastois have the majority in the village council, and they refuse all reconciliation. They are armed. Your maternal uncle and Ramzan Pachar, a friend of the Mastois, have tried everything to calm the members of the council. We have but one last chance: a Gujar woman must appear before their clan. Among all the women of our house, we have chosen you."

She has not allowed what was done to her to destroy her life. She has instead taken the vilest that humanity has to offer and turned it into testimony to the pursuit of what is just. The rest of the excerpt is here. The most recent English translation of her dictated Urdu blog on the BBC is here, and is also compelling reading. The entire book is available from Amazon here. We are all in her debt in ways too numerous to count.