Category Archives: Serious

Interview: Detroit Would Rather You Not Take Pictures of Its Ruins

I did an interview with Drew Philp for The Billfold about what it’s like to live in Detroit.

I want to ask you about the ruin-porn thing, people coming to Detroit to take pictures of the abandoned buildings. Why do you think this is such an attraction for people?

So there’s this ruin-porn narrative where Detroit is just fucked up and crazy. And there’s also this narrative that white kids are saving the city. Neither one of them deal with the historical realities.

I live next to an abandoned house. Maybe it’s aesthetically beautiful. But the reality is that if that house burned down, it’s going to take mine with it. If I’m not home, it’s going to kill my dog. This is not an interesting thing to think about when you have to live here.

1 Comment

Filed under America, Journalism, Serious

My Parents Fled From Iran During the Revolution and All I Got Was This Stupid Slate Article

My folks!

I have an essay in Slate today about how my parents moved to Iran in 1978 to be Christian missionaries, then had to flee when the Revolution happened.

The bus to the airport took 30 minutes. As they passed a gas station, Dave saw a man being pulled from his car by soldiers and struck in the face with a rifle butt. The bus turned before he could see if it was a foreigner or an Iranian.

The airport terminal was closed, so they ran around the building, across the tarmac and onto the plane. They got on, sat down, looked at each other. Martin’s wife and four daughters were there, buckled in, but Martin had stayed behind. The flight would take them to Bahrain, drop them off, and then come back for another batch of employees.

The doors closed and the engines started up. The plane taxied, accelerated, took off. As soon as the wheels left the ground, the passengers erupted in cheers and applause. When the plane leveled off, the stewardesses opened champagne.

The date was January 3, 1979. Dave and Lynne had moved to Iran to be Christian missionaries, but it had become gradually, then suddenly, clear that they had chosen the wrong country, the wrong time, the wrong reason to be there. Soon, the country spiraling and shrinking below them would be an Islamic Republic, the Shah going into exile, the Ayatollah Khomeini coming out of it.

“Welcome on board.” Dave looked up to see a stewardess looking down. “So would you like to buy a ticket for this flight?”

Some stuff got cut from the story, so here’s some bonus anecdotes:

  • Lynne and Dave’s letters barely mention politics at all. They’re mostly focused on the cultural differences. Dave had never before had to ask a female patient to remove her chador to look at her teeth, and he was not used to having his patients’ male relatives observe their treatments. Lynne had never seen so much male-on-male hand-holding and cheek kissing (‘but there is apparently very little homosexuality’ she writes in one of her letters—ah, the ‘70s). They invited an Iranian couple over for dinner and the first thing they said was “What a nice apartment! … How much is your rent?”
  • Bit by bit, Lynne and Dave were cut off from the politics of the country where they lived. Letters from home went missing. The media, controlled by the government, was a reliable source of weather forecasts but little else. Even Lynne’s Farsi workbooks were mostly stories about the Shah, Iran’s bright future, the triumphs of 2,500-years of the Pahlavi dynasty.
  • Helen tells them about a German woman here, a housewife married to an Iranian. In November she was walking home from school with her children and found her house being ransacked by a mob. Somehow they had discovered that her landlords were Bahais. She drove to the compound, left her children with Helen and borrowed a chador. With the chador on, she went back to her own house to join the mob, to salvage whatever she could of her belongings. That night, she and her husband returned to the compound to stay a few nights until they found a new home. That was the last time Helen saw them.
  • One day last month Martin and Helen’s daughters left for school in the morning, got on the school bus the same as always. A few hours later, one of her daughters came home early and told Helen that the school was closed. Too many demonstrations, too much noise. Now the demonstrators were blocking the roads, and the school buses couldn’t get home. Helen had no way of getting ahold of her daughters, she could do nothing except wait. So she did, for hours, until they finally returned.

I want to thank my parents for spending so much time walking me through these episodes, and especially their friends Martin and Helen, who gave me a really vivid picture of their lives in Iran. It’s not always easy to have some random guy poking around in your past stripping it for anecdotes, and everyone I spoke to was patient with my questions and forgiving of my mistakes.

To get a better understanding of the political context and the experience of the Christian community in Iran before and during the Revolution, Martin and Helen recommended that I read Paul Hunt’s Inside Iran, and I did, and I recommend you do too!

6 Comments

Filed under Essays, Personal, Serious

Doing Development in Dhaka

IMG_4417
There’s this Bjork song, ‘Pluto’,
IMG_4406
Where she sings ‘I’ll be brand new. Brand new tomorrow’.
IMG_4396
I listened to this song a lot last week, jogging through Dhaka in the early mornings.
IMG_4395
Six am, before the horns and the smells and the stares.
IMG_4387
I always go jogging when I travel for work.
IMG_4382
Headphones on, faster than the walkers, slower than the drivers, I feel invisible, apart, a non-participant.
IMG_4331
There’s this book on systems theory, ‘At Home in the Universe’.
IMG_4327
Where it says that any complex structure—an ecosystem, an economy, all the cells in a living body—are more than the sum of their parts.
IMG_4312
No matter how much you know about the laws governing each component, you can never predict how they’ll react if one of them changes.
IMG_4194
Like, we all know how the post office works.
IMG_4171
And that if all the post offices in the country closed forever, we wouldn’t get our mail.
IMG_4163
But, says systems theory, a million other unforseeable things would happen too. Maybe Amazon.com would start collecting our letters when they bring us books. Maybe we would get rid of paper altogether.
IMG_4160
What would happen to all the post office workers, the factories that make those little carts they carry around, all the stamp collectors?
IMG_4145
Like the proverbial butterfly flapping its wings, maybe we would look back 10 years later from the carbonized remains of our downtowns and say ‘it all started the day those fucking post offices closed.’
IMG_4136
Or maybe something great would happen. Or maybe nothing.
IMG_4131
The point is, no matter how well you understand any one of the parts, the relationships between them are too complex to predict. When you hold something up to the light, you dim everything else.
IMG_4125
I’m in Bangladesh to do a project on the garment factories.
IMG_4098
Everyone I meet here tells me they are sick of foreigners coming and asking them about Rana Plaza. We are more than our disasters, they say.
IMG_4094
I agree and then I apologize and then I ask them about Rana Plaza.
IMG_4082
This is what I am here to do. This is my place in the system.
IMG_4351
Just days after the accident, they say, the delegations started coming.
IMG_4349
Senators, MPs, CEOs. They tour factories, they express into microphones their melancholy and their concern..
IMG_4325
I am part of the second wave. I am here to fix it. I am here to pull this part of the economy away from all the others and make it better and then put it back.
IMG_4191
One of my colleagues does factory audits here and everywhere and I ask him about what he sees, whether things have gotten better.
IMG_4101
Whenever you raise standards, he says, some companies will become sophisticated to reach them and others will become sophisticated to avoid them.
IMG_4100
That is how it works, he says, we are here to stack rocks in the riverbed. Where the water goes after that…
 IMG_4099
And I think about this as I am jogging and I do not feel invisible.
IMG_4153
Maybe he’s right. Maybe calling something complex is just an excuse to ignore it.
IMG_4418
Maybe people who do good, real good, know the limits of their powers and apply them anyway.
IMG_4392
Maybe they look  at Bangladesh, a country trying to hard to make itself a nicer place to live.
IMG_4370
And they learn to listen to the part of it that tells them, I’ll be brand new.
IMG_4478
Brand new tomorrow.

3 Comments

Filed under Personal, Pictures, Serious, Travel, Work

An Interview With a Therapist Who Was Once Insane

tumblr_m1k14lOLMp1qz6f9yo1_500

I’ve got another interview up at Longreads. Here’s a little leftover I couldn’t figure out how to work in:

What kind of issues do you work with in your practice?

Anxiety, depression, a lot of work with addiction—drugs, alcohol, love, sex.

So sexual addiction is a real thing?

Yes it is. People die because of compulsive sexuality. They contract AIDS, they go insane, they destroy their marriages, they spend all their money at strip clubs or on hookers. The definition of addiction is an individual decision about whether you think you’re an addict or not. It just means stuff you’re doing that you don’t want to do and that’s ruining your life. That can be playing online scrabble. Your brain can become addicted to online scrabble. And you’re up all night and losing your job because the chemicals in your brain are dependent on the excitement you get from playing online scrabble. So it’s not about what the behavior is specifically that makes it an addiction or not. It’s the experience of the person with the behavior.

 

2 Comments

Filed under Journalism, Personal, Serious

How to Write About Tax Havens

Cold Morning in a suburb of Torino, 1955 by Riccardo Moncalvo

I interviewed my buddy Nic Shaxson for Longreads. Here’s a clip:

Last year Shaxson published a Vanity Fair article, ‘A Tale of Two Londons,’ that described the residents of one of London’s most exclusive addresses—One Hyde Park—and the accounting acrobatics they had performed to get there. 

Here’s how it works: If you’re a Russian oil billionaire or a Nigerian bureaucro-baron and you want to hide some of your money from national taxes and local scrutiny, London real estate is a great place to stash it. All you need to do is establish a holding company, park it offshore and get a-buying. Here’s Shaxson:

These buyers use offshore companies for three big and related reasons: tax, secrecy, and “asset protection.” A property owned outright becomes subject to various British taxes, particularly capital-gains and taxes on transfers of ownership. But properties held through offshore companies can often avoid these taxes. According to London lawyers, the big reason for using these structures has been to avoid inheritance taxes. [...]

But secrecy, for many, is at least as important: once a foreign investor has avoided British taxes, then offshore secrecy gives him the opportunity to avoid scrutiny from his own country’s tax—or criminal—authorities too. Others use offshore structures for “asset protection”—frequently, to avoid angry creditors. That seems to be the case with a company called Postlake Ltd.—registered on the Isle of Man—which owns a $5.6 million apartment on the fourth floor [of One Hyde Park].

Shaxson argues that this phenomenon has taken over the U.K. real estate market—extortionate penthouses for the ultrarich sitting empty while the rest of us outbid each other for the froth below.

Now go read the whole thing!

2 Comments

Filed under Journalism, London, Personal, Serious, United Kingdom, Work

Nate Silver, Malcolm Gladwell and the Future of Journalism

Originally published on The Huffington Post 

 

I didn’t realize that Nate Silver’s The Signal and the Noise was one of the best books I read last year until about three weeks after I finished it. Why am I still thinking about this book? I would think, riding the bus, going over one of his examples in my head for the twelfth time.

It’s not that I’m so into baseball, or politics, or stock prices, or that I want to get better at predicting them. It’s that Silver’s book is an argument, and a challenge, for how I read stories in the future — and how I write them.

Silver’s core point is this:

Our predictions may be more prone to failure in the era of Big Data. As there is an exponential amount of available information, there is likewise an exponential increase in the number of hypotheses to investigate. For instance, the U.S. government now publishes data on about 45,000 economic statistics. If you want to test for a relationship between all combinations of two pairs of these statistics — is there a causal relationship between the bank prime loan rate and the unemployment rate in Alabama? — that gives you literally one billion hypotheses to test.

But the number of meaningful relationships in the data — those that speak to causality rather than correlation and testify to how the world really works — is orders of magnitude smaller. Nor is it likely to be increasing at nearly so fast a rate as the information itself; there isn’t any more truth in the world that there was before the Internet or the printing press. Most of the data is just noise, as most of the universe is filled with empty space.

This is not just a problem for Big Data. We’re not just surrounded by more quantitative information, more numbers, than ever before. We’re also surrounded by qualitative data too. From Longreads to UpWorthy, we’re have access to more stories, more characters, more anecdotes, more illustrations and examples than ever before. But just as more numbers don’t inherently produce more truth, more stories don’t inherently provide more lessons necessitating them.

Silver’s book reminded me of one of the worst books I read last year, Malcolm Gladwell’s David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants.

In his most talked-about chapter, Gladwell profiles superlawyer David Boies, the dude who represented Gore against Bush at the Supreme Court, gay marriage against the Mormons in California.

Boies is dyslexic. It takes him hours to read a legal brief, and he foundered in odd jobs until his mid-20s, when he went to NYU Law School, then worked his way up through government and law firms to become a legal goliath.

Boies’s dyslexia, as Gladwell tells it, is a ‘desirable difficulty’. Being bad at reading volumes of case law made Boies focus on being good at listening and arguing, skills other lawyers neglected. Hollywood producer Brian Grazer, also at the top of his field, also dyslexic, became a great negotiator to compensate for his difficulty reading. Goldman Sachs CEO Gary Cohn grew up dyslexic and found that it made him an outsider, gave him the skill of presenting a persona. He used that skill to blag his way into his first job in finance.

“You wouldn’t wish dyslexia on your child,” Gladwell ominously concludes, “Or would you?” You can almost hear the music cue: Bum bum BUMMMM.

If all this sounds a bit too easy, that’s because it is. When Gladwell’s book came out, critics (most prominently Christopher F. Chablis in the Wall Street Journal) pointed out that dyslexia is, rather obviously, not a magic formula for success, decidedly not something you would give to your child if you had the choice.

Gladwell says “an extraordinarily high percentage of entrepreneurs are dyslexic.” A dyslexia researcher points out that this claim is based on a survey of 102 entrepreneurs and 37 corporate managers (out of 2,000 people contacted) and that it wasn’t even designed to detect dyslexia, only dyslexia-like traits such as difficulty with spelling.

Gladwell admits that dyslexics are over-represented in the prison population; Chablis, like a high school English teacher, says ‘develop this further’: It’s kinda sorta a major counterpoint to your argument. Gladwell points to a study where people did better on an intelligence test when it was in hard-to-read font (Lesson: difficulty makes you concentrate harder). Chablis says this test was on just 40 people, all Princeton students, and hasn’t been replicated on a larger scale.

The perennial critique of Gladwell is that his conclusions do not offer any new insights, only reformulations of what we already know. This seems unfair. As Silver says, there is only so much truth in the world, only so many insights to be pointed out and illustrated. Most people go their whole lives without coming up with a profound insight into anything. Gladwell can hardly be faulted for pointing out and reformulating the insights we already know.

The more generous critique of David and Goliath is, why didn’t Gladwell tell us all this himself? Why is his chapter, his book, written with this false certitude, these capitalized lessons? Boies’s story would be no less interesting, no less well-told, if it was juxtaposed with the story of one of those dyslexic prisoners. I might have actually enjoyed that chapter more if it was fortified with the contradictions and arguments in the academic literature, with bright orange caveats highlighting the places where Boies’s story is not typical, not indicative of something larger. Lay it on me, Gladwell, I can handle it.

Gladwell is a talented writer, a diligent researcher and interviewer, a monster intellect. If anyone could present the contradictions and paradoxes of the idea of ‘desirable difficulty,’ it’s him. Gladwell is too smart, too curious, too skeptical, to genuinely believe that parents should be giving their kids dyslexia because it is a surefire way to end up a Hollywood produces or a finance CEO.

Hedging against the challenge of ‘more information, same amount of truth,’ says Silver, requires giving predictions and conclusions with confidence intervals. We’re not certain that this hurricane will make landfall in Tampa, but there’s a 60 percent chance. Obama is not a surefire bet to beat Romney, but he has more plausible paths to victory. These statements don’t remove certainty, but they reduce it.

Gladwell’s cardinal sin, to me, is not crediting his readers with enough intelligence to disclose his confidence intervals. Does he really think that the ‘desirable difficulty’ of dyslexia explains 100 percent of Boies’s success? Probably not. If Gladwell is making the argument that dyslexia explains 5 percent of his success, or 20 percent, why not just tell us? It’s as if Gladwell is trying to avoid the unfair criticism of his work — these insights are profound, I swear! — and in doing so steps right into the more compelling criticism. There’s nothing highbrow hates more than middlebrow, and nothing says middlebrow like massaging complicated phenomena into chicken soups for the soul.

In 2012, when Jonah Lehrer was caught fabricating quotes and misrepresenting scientific findings in his book Imagine: How Creativity Works, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (one of the best working practitioners of journalistic uncertainty — I mean that in a good way) wrote:

Great long-form journalism comes from the author’s irrepressible need to answer a question. Fictional long-form journalism comes from the writer’s irrepressible need to be hailed as an oracle. In the former fabulism isn’t just wrong because it cheats the reader, it’s wrong because it cheats the writer. Manufactured evidence tends not to satiate an aching curiosity. But it does wonders for those most interested in oraculism.

I’m not implying that Gladwell fabricated anything. His sense of curiosity is palpable in everything he writes, and a major component of what makes his best work so interesting.

But Silver’s book is a justified, albeit indirect, criticism of Gladwell’s approach. Silver is arguing for more curiosity and less certitude, not just for people who predict events, but for those who explain them afterwards.

Ultimately, the fault may be ours. Gladwell is under pressure from publishers, from readers, to write books of big ideas, to deliver conclusions, to expand stories into insights that make us feel like we are reaching them ourselves. Book buyers and magazine readers may not tolerate an investigation into adversity, or creativity, or decision-making that finds them too complicated for capitalized lessons, one that concludes there is nothing to conclude.

But maybe that is changing. In the same way Silver has changed what we expect from political forecasts, maybe next generation’s Malcolm Gladwell will be someone who dips into subjects, guides us through contradictory evidence and leaves us with no certitude, with more questions than when we arrived. I’m ready to read that kind of journalism. I hope someone out there is ready to write it.

4 Comments

Filed under Books, Journalism, Serious

Zimbabwe Dollarized. How Does the U.S. Feel About That?

IMG_1870
The rainbow of 20s you get from the ATM in Harare

Here’s a section that got cut from my New Republic story about the use of the US dollar in Zimbabwe

Wait, so a country can just adopt the United States’s currency without our permission?

“The U.S. government has never taken any overt position on dollarization, formal or informal.” This is Benjamin Cohen, a political economy processor at the University of California Santa Barbara, former Fed employee and the author of some articles I’ve been reading to try to understand how one country just gets up one morning and starts using another country’s money.

Ninety percent of the world’s $100 bills, Dr. Cohen says, are in circulation outside of the United States. Dozens of countries are considered  to be “highly dollarized,” meaning more than 30 percent of their money supply is in dollars.

Unlike Zimbabwe, which has formally adopted the dollar, most countries use the U.S. dollar informally, in parallel with the local currency. A few years ago I was in Cambodia for work, and found that the local currency, the riel, was only used for small stuff like meals, transport and entertainment. Anything major—a TV, a plane ticket, an iPhone—prices were quoted and paid in U.S. dollars.

It’s not just Cambodia. These sorts of arrangements are commonplace throughout the Middle East, Latin America and Southeast Asia. People use the local currency, but keep U.S. dollars as a hedge against inflation, like Tea Partiers hoarding gold.

According to Cohen, the United States has no reason to prevent these arrangements. Not only does the U.S. dollar provide a quarry of monetary calm for citizens of inflating nations, the U.S. actually makes money every time our money leaves our borders. “Seniorage,” as the economists call it, is the profit the U.S. earns every time a foreigner ‘buys’ a dollar for a dollar (It costs 6 cents to print a $1 bill. If you print one, then use it to buy something that costs a dollar, you’ve just earned 94 cents profit. That’s seniorage.).

This sounds like it shouldn’t be a real thing, but the US earns $20 billion per year from all those $100 bills held internationally. Not a huge proportion of GDP, but hey, free money, right?

The other upsides are obvious. Every time another country uses our currency, it reinforces the U.S. dollar as world’s preferred international currency, just like every time someone drinks a Coke or eats a Big Mac it reinforces the status of those brands.

Foreign countries using our currency even gives us diplomatic power. Panama, one of the first countries to formally adopt the U.S. dollar, froze in its tracks when the U.S. cut off access to hard currency in the late 1980s to put pressure on Noriega.

The only real downside of foreign countries dollarizing, for the U.S. at least, is that it creates a headache for the Fed. The more countries dollarize, the more the Fed has to take them into account when making monetary policy. A million calculations go into the decision to raise or lower interest rates, and the last thing the Fed needs is to add the interests of Cambodian iPod salesmen into the mix.

One of the more significant downsides is if a dollarized country suddenly reintroduced their domestic currency, it might flood the market with millions of now-unneeded U.S. dollars, reducing the value of all of them. It doesn’t even have to be a whole country. If the dollar was used widely enough, huge purchases of dollars by foreigners could significantly affect its value.

This is why, Cohen says, the U.S. takes a policy of “benign neglect” toward foreign countries that want to formally or informally dollarize. You want to buy a bunch of dollars and give them to your citizens in exchange for your old currency? Fine. You want to encourage your banks to offer accounts denominated in U.S. dollars? Have a blast. The U.S. isn’t going to be particularly helpful in helping you set this up, but they’re not going to stop you either.

Ten countries (East Timor, Ecuador, El Salvador, Panama and a bunch of small island nations) are formally dollarized, meaning the U.S. dollar is their official currency (most of them have their own coins though).

Zimbabwe is formally dollarized in that all government spending is in U.S. dollars, but it also recognizes the euro, the British pound, the Botswanan pula and the South African rand (why the Mozambican metical got left out, I have no idea). Stores accept payment in whatever currency you have handy, and sometimes give you change in a different currency than you paid.

One of the things that always surprised me about Zimbabwe was how it just switched to U.S. dollars one day, without any relationship to the U.S. Federal Reserve. It was even under sanctions at the time. Can it just do that?

“It’s totally normal to switch to the U.S. dollar without any relationship to the Fed,” Cohen says. “It doesn’t require an application. Anyone can buy paper money, and anyone can get a dollar bank account. Their own country may restrict those things, but the U.S. doesn’t.”

When Ecuador officially adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, it carried out a mass currency conversion. The central bank sold their U.S. treasury bonds to the U.S. for cash, brought the cash back to Ecuador and gave Ecuadoreans a window in which to exchange their sucres for U.S. dollars. The U.S. didn’t orchestrate, nor condemn, this process.

Like an introduced species, the U.S. dollar tends to take over an increasingly large percentage of the economy. The only country Cohen knows of that has de-dollarized is Israel, which introduced the U.S. dollar in the late 1970s as a parallel currency, and only managed to get rid of it after a series of economic reforms reinstated confidence in the shekel. Lots of informally dollarized countries, like Argentina, go through waves of increasing, then decreasing dollarization in line with citizens’ confidence in the local currency.

I have no idea what any of this means for Zimbabwe. As I say in the New Republic story, bringing back the Zimbabwe dollar is seen by economists (including the head of the Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe) as a bad idea, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

Dr. Cohen’s written a bunch of interesting, easy to read articles on dollarization from the US perspective

 Thanks for the interview!

10 Comments

Filed under Random, Serious, Travel, Work

Zimbabwe: The Director’s Cut

I have an essay in The New Republic about my trip to Zimbabwe last year, and my weird obsession with how expensive everything was there.

One of the things they tell nonfiction writers is ‘employ holy shit details’, and in Zimbabwe there is almost no other kind. A lot of insane statistics ended up in the piece, but even more ended up on the cutting room floor. Here are some of them:

  • In 2003, Zimbabwe was out of foreign reserves to import paper and ink to print more money, and had to switch to ‘bearer checks’, thin pieces of paper in increasingly outlandish denominations. Banks limited withdrawals, and anti-riot police had to be dispatched to prevent bank run.
  • Fleeing the cratering economy, Zimbabweans almost singlehandedly raised retail sales in South Africa by 10 percent between 2006 and 2007. Emigrants in South Africa paid bus drivers 20 percent commission  to take envelopes of cash, sacks of groceries, back home.
  • In 2007 a government order required shops to reduce the prices on basic goods by 50 percent. Instead of stabilizing the economy, it simply reversed the direction of the arbitrage. People bought milk in Mutare for 33,000 Zimbabwe dollars, drove it across the border to Mozambique and sold it for the equivalent of 350,000 Zimbabwe dollars.
  • All this time, the government maintained an ‘official’ exchange rate that was orders of magnitude lower than the black market rate. If you wanted to do anything legally—import goods, change money at the banks—you had to use the government rates. ‘I know a guy who worked at a luxury car dealership,’ my friend Colin told me. ‘These generals would come in and say “I’ll buy this car” and he would have to give it to them for the official exchange rate. He was selling cars for $8, $9.’
  • Between 2006 and 2009, the government slashed 25  zeroes off the currency. I ask Zimbabweans the prices they last remember at the supermarket and they tell me that a loaf of bread was 22 billion dollars. Which doesn’t actually matter, because you had to be connected to secure one anyway.
  • Bank teller wages rose with inflation, and they were partly paid in fuel coupons.  They could also ‘burn money’—buy US dollars at the official exchange rate, then sell them at the black market rates. Bank employees were flying to Dubai, buying electronics and coming back to Zimbabwe to sell them on.
  • These days, Zimbabwean banks are the opposite of too big to fail, they’re too small to succeed. As of January 2013, the entire banking sector held just $3.8 billion  in assets, more than half of which were short-term deposits. While the banks are lending out more than they used to, the loans are riskier, since no one has quite figured out how to run a business profitably here. In March 2010, 2 percent of bank loans didn’t get paid back. By December 2012, it was 14 percent .
  •  A 2013 survey of 150 store owners in a suburb of Harare found that 47 percent of them were using their own savings to raise capital and 13 percent were using their relatives and friends. Only 3 percent were using the banking system.
  • What Zimbabwe has gone through in the last 14 years is maybe the greatest loss of productive capacity and personal wealth in modern history. Per capita GDP fell from $644 in 1990 to $376 in 2011. South Africa’s GDP was 17 times larger than Zimbabwe’s in 1996. It was 58 times larger in 2012.
  • Almost 70 percent of Zimbabwe’s government budget goes to government salaries alone.
  • In 2009 Zimbabwe still had the highest 15-24-year-old literacy rates in Africa, but the aftershocks of the crisis are set to drag that down. As of 2012, only 67 percent of kids finished school, and only 50 percent made it from primary to secondary school.
  • The Zimbabwe stock exchange fell 20 percent after Mugabe’s victory was announced , and some estimates say $800 million in investment has left the country since then.

If you want to get a more full view of what Zimbabwe went through during hyperinflation and the challenges it faces now, here’s some publications that give a fuller picture than I was able to, written by people who know more about economics, about Zimbabwe, than me.

  • Here’s the Consultancy Africa Intelligence report, written by Tapiwa Mhute, who I spoke to a few times, on the causes and consequences of Zimbabwe’s dollarization.
  • Here’s a terrific overview of the path to hyperinflation written, rather randomly, by a graduate student in Japan.
  • Here’s a pretty devastating World Bank report on the problems with Zimbabwe’s infrastructure.
  • Here’s the report on remittance strategies by families in one neighborhood in Harare.
  • Here’s an anthology of articles about the hyperinflation. ‘Negotiating the Zimbabwe–Mozambique Border’ is a complete fucking stunner
  • The debate about what ‘really’ saved the Zimbabwean economy is ongoing and, like everything else in Zimbabwe, is totally politicised. Here’s an overview of some of the arguments.
  • Here’s an African Development Bank report from 2009, telling Zimbabwe how to fix the crisis. Most of it’s boring technocratic stuff but, like most of these reports, the ‘context’ section gives a great overview of the challenges.
  • Here’s the same sort of thing from the IMF and from the World Bank four years later, in 2013. They’re basically giving the same overview I am, only with less Grindr.
  • Here’s a Cato Institute (I know, I know) report from 2013: Why Is One of the World’s Least-Free Economies Growing So Fast?
  • Here’s Tapiwa Chagonda’s fascinating survey of bank tellers and teachers during hyperinflation.
  • Here’s Beyond the Enclave, Godfrey Kanyenze’s searing account of the political factors behind hyperinflation and dollarization.
  • And here’s Vince Musewe’s angry, moving columns for The Zimbabwean, giving a more up to date picture of the conditions in Zimbabwe

I mostly worked on the piece in August and September, and I’m sure more reports and statistics have come out since then, so apologies if anything in the story is outdated.

I’m not a journalist, I’m a human rights guy. One thing I’ve realized over the last 18 months, as I’ve spent more and more of my weekday mornings and Sunday nights working on these little longforms, is how dependent journalists are on the generosity and patience of their sources. For this story, I basically cold-called a dozen or so Zimbabwean economists, told them I didn’t know anything about their country or their field and asked if they could, slowly and monosyllabically, walk me through everything they knew.

Amazingly, all of them obliged, and they were super patient with all of my follow ups and hang-on-explain-that-agains. Colin and Lovemore took a risk telling a foreigner about their economic tribulations the last five years, and trusted that I would represent them honestly and wouldn’t publish any details that identified them. Everyone I interviewed, I have nothing to offer them for their time and their trust except my sincere gratitude—and my crushing anxiety that I may have misunderstood or misrepresented them.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be good at this whole journalism thing, or feel like I have the right to be doing it. I tried really hard to fact-check this story, to avoid giving the impression that my experience was definitive. I arrived in Zimbabwe as an outsider, a tourist. No matter how many people I met, no matter how many reports I read or statistics I double-checked, I departed as one. There is a lot of complicated information out there about Zimbabwe, a lot of conflicting narratives. Mine is just one of them.

5 Comments

Filed under Essays, Journalism, Personal, Serious, Work

Britain Discovers Food Banks, Can’t Decide If It Likes Them

Originally posted at The Billfold

Meet Joanna. She’s a 31-year-old British single mom who earns just above the minimum wage managing a thrift store. She can’t afford to buy enough food for herself and her teenage daughter, so most mornings she watches her daughter eat from the kitchen doorway, drinking a cup of tea with three sugars. She drinks 20 cups of tea, and eats one meal, per day. She’s lost 49 pounds in the last three months.

Britain is in the middle of a food crisis. For the first time since World War II, a significant number of Britons don’t have enough to eat, and an even more significant number can only afford processed junk food, the biscuits and TV dinners that are always cheaper, always more available, than fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.

Joanna is one of the people profiled on Great British Budget Menu, a BBC show where celebrity chefs live, cook and shop with families getting by on poverty-level wages and shrinking welfare benefits. The show also profiles a pensioner who eats a boiled egg and half a can of minestrone soup for dinner every night because that’s all his £1.04 (about $1.60) daily food budget will allow.

You know the food crisis is a Thing when there’s a reality show about it. The Great British Budget Menu crescendos with a banquet where the chefs compete to make the best meal for just £1 per person. Joanna is invited to come down and help chop onions.

“Budget Menu” is indicative not only of the kind of country Britain is, but the debate over what kind of country it wants to be.

In the U.S., we take it for granted that government help is not enough to live on, that private charities and philanthropic donations fill the holes in income, housing and health care our welfare system leaves gaping. Disaster relief, meals on wheels, homeless shelters—for us they’re just part of the economic landscape, the extra stitches in our safety net.

But in Britain, the idea of a significant portion of the population being fed, clothed and housed by private charities is genuinely new, at least in the post-war era, and the British haven’t decided how they feel about it. Are privately run social services a scandal of government neglect, or simply a country taking responsibility for its runaway spending?

The debate over Britain’s food crisis has been going on since last year, but has exploded since May, when Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty released a report showing that in 2012, an estimated 500,000 Britons relied on food banks to feed themselves and their families, an increase from just 70,000 three years ago.

Not only that, but food bank use has reportedly tripled just since April of this year, when welfare payments were cut nationwide. The food banks themselves say most of their customers are there because their benefits were cut (“sanctioned” is how the Coalition would like us to put it) or simply delayed due to mistakes in administration.

“Food banks should not replace the ‘normal’ safety net provided by the state in the form of welfare support,” was the quote from Church Action on Poverty’s chief executive in the press release announcing the report, and most of the initial press coverage was basically, “what he said.”

The Guardian printed a news story followed by a handful of commentaries expressing the kind of shock and “aw hell naw” you would expect from Britain’s leading left-wing paper. The IndependentThe Guardian’s slightly less Keith Olbermanny fraternal twin—also covered the story extensively, and published its own case studies of food bank users.

Even The Sun—the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid—ran a sympathetic article and sent a reporter (they have reporters?) to some London food banks to see how they work.

What’s interesting about these—to an American anyway—is how utterly foreign and scandalous the very idea of a food bank is. Every article goes out of its way to describe how food banks work, where the food comes from, how they are funded. Comparisons to WWII breadlines are near-mandatory.

“This is what it looks like when someone else picks the food your family is going to eat,” the BBC ominously intoned in a report last year over B-roll of food bank workers taking cans off shelves. “This is a food bank.”

Even the right-wing papers seemed offended. The Daily Telegraph published an editorial that said, “It is obviously a tragedy–and a scandal–that in an age of unimagined riches, there are still those who go hungry.” But it also made sure to lament that the report “politicized” the issue of hunger by blaming it on the political party that was cutting the welfare.

The inevitable #slatepitches response came from The Spectator—basically a right-wingAtlantic—in a series of articles that investigated Britain’s newly thriving feeding-poor-people sector and concluded, “food banks are not soup kitchens, nor a sign of a society gone bad. In fact, their emergence ought to be seen as a sign of how strong Britain’s social fabric is. The real scandal, according to those who run food banks, is that that they haven’t been around for longer.”

But this point—food banks are not a failure of government welfare, they’re a triumph of private generosity—is undermined by how food banks actually work. Food banks in the U.K. don’t simply provide boxes of food to random people who come in off the street. If you want food aid, you have to get referred to the food bank by charity case workers, “Job Centres” or social services agencies—the same people issuing (or cutting) your welfare benefits. Furthermore, you can’t use food banks indefinitely. You get vouchers to last you a specific amount of time, then you go back to relying on your welfare benefits again.

This nuance, however, did not stop British right-wing politicians from taking up the argument.

“Food banks are not part of the welfare system.” That’s Lord Freud, the work and pensions minister, discussing the issue in the House of Lords. “Local provision that reflects the requirements of local areas is absolutely right. Charitable provision is to be admired and supported.”

Two days later, the welfare reform minister, the Bishop of Truro (these names!), responded in an interview with The Independent: “It is a scandal we have any food banks at all in the 21st century,” thus taking us right back to where we started.

Reading these dueling quotes is like sitting in on a debate between Brits over how American they want their country to be. The left and the right don’t disagree about whether food banks are the government admitting that it can’t provide everything its citizens need. They disagree on whether that’s a bad thing.

David Cameron’s Tories got elected on a platform promising to deliver “The Big Society,” a country where people don’t rely on the government to solve their problems, where private charities and “social entrepreneurs” are the ones responsible for improving social conditions. Anyone impressed by that idea would look at the proliferating food banks and go, “Great! What shall we improve next?”

The British left is afraid of a country in which the things the government can’t do become things the government won’t do, a country where hunger and poverty and homelessness become not the government’s problem, but yours and mine. A country, in other words, a lot like America.

As an American watching this from northern Europe (the two cities I’ve lived in, Copenhagen and Berlin, have just one food bank each), I don’t know which side I’m rooting for. Part of me is proud of the philanthropy culture of the U.S., and I sometimes find myself bragging about how Americans volunteer, how we wear bracelets to cure cancer and run marathons to house the homeless.

But then I wonder if all this generosity is just a reaction to the stinginess of our government, a way of coping with complicity in watching our fellow citizens freeze and starve. If FEMA had its shit together, I wouldn’t have to give money to The Red Cross. Is the fickleness, the fragility of charity really something we want to export?

I don’t know when America had this debate, if we did at all. If Britain really wants to trade in welfare rolls for Rockefellers, they can’t say they didn’t know what it would look like on the other side.

At the end of The Great British Budget Menu, Joanna’s celebrity chef gives her a box full of food and a recipe for chicken and coleslaw that cost nearly double her daily food budget. Just before the competition begins, Joanna triumphantly announces that she’s already started resolving her own personal food crisis: She’s reduced the amount of sugar in her tea to just one spoonful.

4 Comments

Filed under America, Food, Serious, United Kingdom

The Changing Nature of Conflict

Buried  in a stack of boring institutional documents, I came across some paragraphs that could have been printed in The Economist:

The nature of conflicts has changed markedly in the late part of the twentieth century. The state-against-state model is becoming the exception: of the 56 major armed conflicts registered in the decade 1990-20005, only three were of an interstate nature; all others were internal conflicts, even though in 14 of them foreign troops were engaged on one or the other side. Moreover, while the first half of the century was dominated by warfare between rich states, most contemporary conflicts take place overwhelmingly in the world’s poorer countries, with Africa and Asia accounting for the greatest number of internal conflicts in the past decade.

Civil wars and conflicts are indeed a major cause of development failure in the developing world, a point that is increasingly being emphasised by aid donors and international agencies. Easily tradable natural resources -particularly minerals- can be used to finance warring parties, instead of nurturing development, and “development efforts are not only halted or damaged, but actively targeted and undermined”.

Technology has always been used to renovate and diversify the array of weapons and other means of violence used in conflicts. Arms-rich conflict areas and state disruption fuel the dissemination of weapons of all kinds, and the deadly violence of conflicts appears to have escalated with technology. However, the spread of small arms is also having devastating effects in disputes over land and pastoral issues, even within countries that are not considered to be in conflict.

[...]

Internal conflicts, be they of an ethnic or revolutionary nature, or associated with a failure of the state or disruptive changes in regime, emerge where politically organized groups, national, ethnic or other minorities, or warlords and other violent elements in society, rebel against governments, often also fighting among themselves. This pattern of conflict makes it increasingly difficult to identify who are the protagonists, and which are the lines of authority through which to seek to mediate and put an end to the conflict.

In this new environment it becomes difficult to distinguish combatants from civilians. Combatants are no longer uniformed soldiers under state control. Nor are the combatants the main victims of conflicts: peaceful citizens -women, children, and the elderly- become the major target (possibly 90% of the victims) of the warring parties.

In addition to those killed or wounded, up-rooted populations run to millions – about 22 million in 150 countries by the end of 2001, including refugees and asylum seekers outside their home country, as well as returnees and others.

The international mechanisms that had been developed to control, prevent and resolve conflicts were created to deal with the conventional state-state model of conflict: they have great difficulties in adjusting to the new patterns of collective violence, which mostly takes place within a sovereign territory, with the responsibility of the government being sometimes unclear. At the same time, however, many of the current conflicts have significant regional and international dimensions and implications. Even though the’zone of turmoil’ is largely located in developing countries, the industrialized ones are not entirely insulated.

The distinction between intra-state and inter-state wars is therefore no longer straightforward. Most wars occurring within a single state tend to transcend its boundaries – affecting neighbouring countries, or with some external or transnational parties located far away from the site of the struggle. Negative spillovers to neighbouring nations result from collateral damage from nearby battles, severance of input supply lines, disruptions to trade, heightened risk perceptions by would-be investors, and resources spent to assist refugees.

In most cases, people flee across immediate borders, sometimes destabilizing entire regions, leading to further conflict and more refugees. Accelerated flows of refugees and asylum seekers, escalating costs of international or regional peace-restoration and maintenance efforts, international terrorism and destabilisation of the global economy affect all nations, rich or poor, close to or far away from the war scene. 

As Tyler Cowen would say, ‘interesting throughout!’

1 Comment

Filed under Serious, Work