Crisis in Neverland

From the college:

“Last night damage was done to the front quad, and as Garden Master I am writing to you to explain what happened and why it is so important. The College’s Garden Committee will have to take up the matter of the disciplinary consequences of this with the Dean, but this note is an explanation of the problem.

There was a heavy frost last night and in the morning there were footprints all over the lawn in the front quad; there was also evidence of people having climbed up the banks once again. Many of the footprints were heavy, with the grass under the heel of the shoes being crushed. The grass in the quad is NOT like the grass on the sports fields, which is designed to withstand heavy use. Instead it is grown for its fine appearance and it is therefore very fragile. The effect of last night’s intrusion is that the grass under the footprints will become blackened and look unsightly this will also cause the grass stress which in turn would make it susceptible to fungal disease. There is nothing that the gardeners can do now to prevent this; all they can do is deal with the adverse effects later. The places on which there are very heavy foot treads will also require attention so that they can be levelled out.

The garden is one of the most important historical gardens in the region; it has also won many prizes in recent years for the way it is maintained. Generations of students and Old Members have enjoyed it and have been proud of it. What has happened is the equivalent of rubbing oily fingers over a fine painting. Fragile items have to be protected; that is why “Please keep off the grass” notices are NOT petty-minded authoritarian utterances from old fogeys, but are designed to help something from which we all take pleasure being harmed. I would hope that this year’s outbreak of damage will stop fairly soon.”

With all due respect to the gardeners – and I DO love the gardeners – I am grateful for the fact that I live in a community where this is the most grievous transgression that has taken place in a while.

In my country, we'd shoot you for this.

To be Dambisa…

It’s not every day I have a chance to see one of Time’s “Most Influential People” (Mark Zuckerberg has not visited Oxford recently), so today I availed myself of an opportunity see Dambisa Moyo speak at the Rhodes House.  I’m fascinated by Dambisa Moyo because she has managed to take a topic no one cares about (international development), mix it with a rash and crazy idea (we should cut off all foreign aid to Africa within five years), back it up with some tired and discredited economic ideas (learned while working for Goldman Sachs) and turn it into a bestseller, Dead Aid.  In short, she’s an excellent model for any aspiring academic who wants to use an Oxford education and a love of obscure topics to advance substantive change: i.e. me.

Here’s the thing about Dead Aid, though: it’s a really bad book.  That is different from saying that it’s a really wrong book: my own ideas on foreign aid have evolved a lot since I last blogged about the book a year ago.  That said, this book is absolutely chocked full of nonsense.  Moyo writes—without a citation—that thanks to foreign aid poverty in Africa rose from 11% to 66% from 1970-1998.  Excuse me?  By whose measure was Africa’s poverty rate in 1970 equivalent to Germany’s in the present day?  At another point she writes that “Since the 1940s, approximately US $1 trillion of aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa…This is nearly US $1000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet today.”  This makes sense if the world population is about 1/6th of its actual size, or if 5.8 billion people do not fall into the categories of “men”, “women”, and “children.”  As one of my professors described it, Dead Aid is a “not-particularly-well-done review of the tertiary* literature on foreign aid.”

Okay, I’ll admit these two are cheap shots, but the rest of the book is not any more coherent.  Moyo’s main thesis is that African nations should eliminate their dependence on foreign aid as a means of financing development… and replace it with a dependence on foreign bond markets.  Leaving aside the rosy experiences of Greece and Ireland with respect to private bonds, I am incredibly skeptical that there are many private lenders who want to give money to small African countries.  Her proposed solution is that large African countries, like South Africa, guarantee the loans of smaller ones.  You know, in the same way that you put your house up as collateral so someone living in a nearby town who you have never met can buy a new car.  What…?

Clearly, Moyo’s ascension to public-intellectual superstar has to do with something other than the rigor of her ideas.  Nearly every magazine piece on her mentions that she is an African woman.  Not just any African woman, but a beautiful, Oxford-educated, black African woman.  I struggle with this.  It is incredibly important that African voices be heard in debates about Africa.  Nonetheless, I don’t think “being African” grants any special privilege to make up non-sensical “facts” just because they are about Africa.**  Could Moyo be getting away with shoddy scholarship just because she was born in Zambia?

Fortunately, though, by going to her talk, I feel like I no longer have to answer that question.  If I had to offer one explanation for her success, I would now guess that it’s because she is an objectively incredible presenter and public speaker.  It had nothing to do with her identity and everything to do with the fact that she was the most articulate advocate for a controversial position that I’ve heard speak in a long time.  And, I realized, people pay attention to Moyo because she has organized both her books and talks around a single compelling and seductive narrative.

To Moyo, everything is about incentives.  There are no “bad guys” in the story of African development; just misguided Western donors providing mountains of aid, African leaders responding rationally to the incentives for corruption that aid creates, and the unintended consequences for poverty that entails.  All we have to do is change the carrots and sticks of the development game and, viola, problems solved!  Here narrative is all the more compelling because it suggests that, for this to happen, all we as Westerners need to do is stop giving aid.  In short, we can do good by doing nothing!  This textbook economist view of the world is so powerful that it applies everywhere: Moyo’s most recent book, How The West Was Lost, tells us about how we Northerners have screwed up our own societies by not obeying the golden rule of the all-rational free market.

Now that I have decided to pursue an academic career, I’ve been putting a lot of thought into how to make an impact—and why economists are inevitably called up by the New York Times to comment on popular issues, and not sociologists.  I am reminded that it’s because a view of the world that reduces messy things like history, values, and politics to rational economic stimulus-response is convenient for policy-makers and straightforward enough for public consumption.  We pay for our own accuracy by sacrificing our own relevance.  I can’t help but wonder if that’s actually a good trade-off, if the terrain of relevant social science should really be so easily conceded to people like Moyo just so we can be a bit more airtight and confident about the articles we publish and no one reads.

At least, this is what I will be debating when, at 65, I open up Time’s “Most Influential Persons” issue and realize that I haven’t made the list.  Again.

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* Historian friends: what the hell is a tertiary source?

** Being the lead singer of U2, though, does give you the right to say whatever you want about international development and have it be accepted as true.

The Anti-Politics Machine

One year ago, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake in Haiti killed hundreds of thousands of people.  A month later, a much larger quake in Chile killed only a fraction of that number.  As far as I can tell, what made the difference between the two was not geography or geology.  Instead, it was Haiti’s particularly harsh history of foreign intervention, dysfunctional government, and persistent poverty reinforced by unfair international economic policies.  In short, the difference was politics.

I’m fairly sure that every country in the world has some number of paranoid, violent schizophrenics.  Like earthquakes, crazy people are probably unavoidable.  But not every country’s paranoid, violent schizophrenics manage to shoot elected officials in the head and kill six others.  The difference rests, in large part, on whether their state and national legislators think that everyone—regardless of race, creed, or mental competence—have a constitutional right to buy a semi-automatic military-style weapon at their local sporting goods store.  The difference, once again, is politics.

This seems incredibly obvious to me, and yet as I have watched the debate on the Tucson shooting morph, I feel increasingly isolated in this position.  Friends and acquantainces have tweeted and messaged and posted all sorts of things about how important it is not to “politicize” the tragedy.  “Don’t try to use this to advance a political agenda!  Don’t change policy just because of one madman!”  Suddenly, I find myself on the defensive because I think that acts like this demand some sort of a response other than prayer, a few sad speeches, and a one-week pause in the House calendar.  That is to say, someone should legislate something related to this.  The speed with which our collective consciousness has moved on—and accepted that such things are sad, but inevitable—suggests that I am relatively lonely in this belief.

C. Wright Mills—familiar to anyone who has ever taken Sociology 101—clasically distinguished between private “troubles” and public “issues.”  Private troubles are idiosyncratic, unpredictable, and not something society can control.  Labeling something a personal trouble, then, is a powerful tool, because it simply takes it off the table as an object of public action and control.  This is what has happened with Jared Loughner; he has become sui generis, as if he has nothing in common with Seung-Hui Cho or Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold or god-knows-how-many future assassins.

The argument is always that we have no way of knowing if stricter gun laws, or better mental health services, or more sane political rhetoric would have stopped this.  They very may well not have.  But the point of politics is not to make guesses about how to put an end to individual troubles; it’s to manage public issues.  Public action means playing the odds and managing risks.  I don’t know if what happened in Tucson would have been any better had the assault weapons ban still been in place; I would still like to know that from now on shooters will be limited to 10-bullet clips.  Some deranged people in England still manage to get their hands on guns and shoot people; given that they have around 1/700th the gun deaths we do, though, I’d still take my chances with their approach to gun control.

The anti-politics machine, though, seems to have won again.  Somehow women’s bodies and sexual orientation are public issues, but guns—that’s between the schizophrenics and their local Sporting Goods dealer.

Fill in the Blanks

“I am so ___ about the mass killing in Tucson this Saturday that I think ____ ought to be _____.”

The first blank is easy: I am mad.  I am mad, in part, because it seems almost impossible not to be.  And yet I’m also mad because, for all the talk of ‘taking it down a notch’, I think that only by being furious about what has happened are we likely to do anything to prevent similar things from happening in the future.  “Sincere condolences” and “heartfelt prayers”, however genuine, are cheap.  They ask nothing of us.  I’m mad because this tragedy was preventable, and so will be the tragedies of tomorrow and the day after that (let’s not forget that, to get to 12,000+ gun murders per year, you have to gun violence on par with that in Tucson every day).  Mostly, I’m mad because, in the end, I am sure that complacent sorrow will win out over righteous anger, and this shooting in a Tucson Safeway will teach us about as much as those that happened in a Colorado High School and a Virginian University–which is to say, absolutely nothing.

The second blank is no more difficult for me to fill in.  Obviously, Jared Loughner, the deranged gunman, deserves to face the lion’s share of our anger and the brunt of the law.  But, as a sociologist, I believe that none of us ever truly acts alone; we are always constrained by the options society offers us and motivated by the ideas society feeds us.  One of the country’s major parties has spent decades dismantling gun laws and the most recent election glorifying armed revolution against the government.  Is it really surprising that someone took this rhetoric seriously, and availed themselves of the violent options we have opened to them? And so, I have no problem inserting Sarah Palin—who “targeted” Giffords in the last election—or Tea Partyers like Sharon Angle—who suggested that “second amendment solutions” were necessary to deal with Democratic lawmakers—as individuals who also should share in the accountability for this event.  Along with them in co-responsibility should be lawmakers who eviscerated mental health services in the name of tax cuts in Arizona.

The last blank, though, is hard.  I’m mad as hell, and a great deal of my anger is directed at that ever-so-nebulous entity, “the government” and a few people associated with it, like Jan Brewer, Arizona’s “Guns-in-Bars-and-Campuses” Governor.  In fact, I’m so angry that I really think these people ought to be…

Ought to be what?

Shot?  Maimed?  Threatened?  Intimidated?

My great frustration now is the realization that there seems like practically no productive way to act on my anger.  I live in Arizona—even Gabrielle Giffords supports gun rights, so I am skeptical of voting as a mechanism for change.  I doubt the big donation I am sending to the Brady Campaign today will be any match for the thousands of NRA supporters who are no doubt marshalling to protect their Glocs and Tec-9s.  And so, I am left with no option but to take options into my own hands and…

And do nothing, I suppose.

Strangely, I think this inertia is why I am proud to be on the left.  The counterattacks of the Republicans against those who have blamed vitriolic political rhetoric for the violence are, in a sense, correct: nasty rhetoric and anger at the government are things shared by both sides.  The issue is how we fill in that last blank—how we act on it.  I’ve spent two years researching radical anarchists, many of whom are on FBI lists as part of “Number One Domestic Terror Threat”, and yet never heard even one offhand remark about harming an elected official.  Can we really imagine that the massive 1999 protests in Seattle—with their incumbent police violence and property destruction—would have passed without a single death, if leftists shared conservatives proclivity for firearm ownership?

I’m mad as hell… and, to gramatically pervert the phrase, I AM going to take it anymore, because that’s what makes us not like them.