Tag Archives: politics

Thoughts About the Politics of Zimbabwe Over Pictures of Its Scenery

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I just got back from a week in Zimbabwe.

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I took these pictures last year, when I visited Victoria Falls for a few days.

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Going on a safari is a shitty way to get to know a country.

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But so is visiting its capital.

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I’ve never met a country with such a suicidal set of national policies.

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Zimbabwe has an acute liquidity shortage. There is not enough money to go around. The unemployment rate is 80 percent. Its per capita GDP is among the lowest in the world.

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Yet instead of bending over backwards to attract investment, its politicians are stepping forward to repel it.

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The country has a policy called ‘indigenization’—All foreign companies must be 51% owned by Zimbabweans.

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In other words, to invest here, you have to give away the majority of your company. You don’t get to pick who you give it to or what they do with it. You are asked to simply simply fork it over, and trust what the government does with it.

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Not to sound all Tea Party about it, but that’s fucking insane.

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The only companies willing to invest here are Chinese and Russian ones. And only under conditions of total secrecy. None of the investment contracts have been made public.

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There was a scandal last month when it was revealed that some of the government officials who were cut in on these contracts were earning $500,000 a month.

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I remember talking to a private equity guy last year just after my first trip here. I asked him if he would ever consider investing in Zimbabwe.

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He told me he hasn’t looked at the country in years. ‘You can’t even read the fucking Wikipedia entry without losing money’ he said.

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You can hardly blame him. The most important thing for investors is certainty. And that’s in even shorter supply than currency here.

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And yet somehow, people tell me that Zimbabwe is doing better now than it was last year.

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I ask my Zimbabwean colleagues about this and they tell me it’s because of the election.

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‘For the last four years we had a coalition government’, they tell me. ‘Mugabe’s party and the opposition sharing power.’

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‘It was chaos. Each minister would tell you a different set of government priorities, depending on which party he was from. Right, left, legal, illegal, you never got a clear answer.’

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‘Since Mugabe won the last election, at least we know what to expect.’

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‘What, for everything to keep getting worse?’ I ask. ‘At least’, they tell me, ‘we can plan for that.’

 

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Paula Deen, Race and A Defense of Thoughtcrime

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Every American knows about the epic third-railness of racism in public life. Nappy-headed hos, you people, articulate and bright, macaca, let’s stop there. All public figures in America are one N-word away from utter and total ruin. No other word or opinion has anything like the toxicity of a racial slur. A white politician or actor (or, apparently, TV chef) can be on record saying just about anything (‘sugar tits‘, ‘takers not makers‘) and keep their job, their chance at a second chance. But say something racist and, well, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here.

This is correct. Racism in America is a uniquely ugly thing, something whose effects are still present in our policies, our economy, our workplaces, our schools. You’re not allowed to defend something whose impacts are still being lived by a significant percentage of your countrymen, especially if you are on the benefits end of those impacts. This doesn’t mean you can’t talk about race, just that you have to be a little more careful when you do. If you can’t keep your eyes open underwater, don’t jump in the pool.

This sensitivity, this hesitation, is  unique in American history. You could get away with saying some bonkers-racist shit in public just a few decades ago. But racism is also unique relative to other social issues. If Paula Deen had said that the death penalty should be expanded, that poor people just don’t work hard enough, that public schools should be abolished, that Medicare should be defunded, that inequality in America isn’t wide enough, yeah the internet would have shitted on her, and maybe she would have lost an endorsement or two, but we would move on. She would have nothing like the systematic ostracism she’s getting now.

Again, this is not a bad thing. Discrimination was the great battle of the 20th century, and winning it is one of the progressive left’s greatest victories. I’m fine with a world where you have to be careful talking about race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, where certain opinions (‘women shouldn’t be voting!’ ‘Slavery was adorable‘) will get you kicked off the TV and the ballot.

I am a great big homosexual. Every day I root for homophobia to reach this magical status, to get to the point where a politician says a mean, stupid thing about My People and is instantly shoved off the platform of public life. In fact, I hope when homophobia gets there, it brings some of its friends with it. Poverty, inequality, free health care, free(er) immigration, worker’s rights—I want all these topics to achieve the level of consensus we’ve worked so hard to reach on racism. I hope progressive activists are looking at the way we police each other on race and going ‘yeah, looks about right.’

This sounds like I’m arguing for a new kind of thoughtcrime, for an America where politicians and actors and other public figures feel prohibited from expressing opinions I disagree with. But what I’m saying is that I want them  to feel prohibited from expressing the first thing that pops into their head. Race in America is something that, when you talk about it, you have to think a little harder, talk a little slower, squeeze a little empathy out of your words and your heart to be taken seriously.

This, that little pause before you speak, is what progress looks like, and there are a lot more issues in America that deserve it. Next time a TV chef sits down for an interview, I’ll bet they will take it. 

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Anthony Weiner Wants You To Know He’s Not a Dick

I find it a bit difficult to judge the Anthony Weiner story in the NYTimes on its merits. It’s clearly a professionally produced feature, well-written, easy to read, captivating subjects, check check check. But it’s also clearly a marketing vehicle for Weiner. The story even says

By agreeing to be interviewed, Weiner and Abedin [his wife] would seem to be trying to give voters what they want — and gauge public reaction. […]

Weiner and Abedin have realized, it seems, that the only way out is through. So they have agreed to talk — and talk and talk — for the first time about what happened and why and what it looks like from the inside when your world comes crashing down because of, as Weiner puts it, “one fateful Tweet.”

Weiner is planning a comeback to public life, and ‘get a feature in the NYTimes’ is obviously a bullet point on his to do list. He and his wife must have carefully planned what they were going to say, the story they wanted to tell. The fact that the journalist was aware of this doesn’t change the story’s fundamental purpose.

But what’s even more interesting is the tone of sombre bewilderment everyone in the story uses when discussing what Anthony Weiner actually did.

On Friday night, May 27, a photograph of a man’s torso wearing gray boxer briefs and an obvious erection appeared on Weiner’s official Twitter account. […]

It was a sex scandal without any actual sex — more creepy than anything else. But it was hard for people to get their heads around: an affair is one thing, but sending crotch pictures to a virtual stranger? Mike Capuano, a congressman from Massachusetts and Weiner’s roommate in Washington for many years, spoke for a lot of people when he told me, “He obviously did something incredibly stupid that, honestly, I still don’t understand.” […]

Weiner fielded a lot of calls from friends and colleagues, many of them offering advice. One prominent state politician called to confess that he was a sex addict and urged Weiner to join his support group. […]

Is what he did really so extreme? We live in a world where 16 year olds get tips on sexting from talk show hosts, where ‘manage a trois’ is familiar to more Americans than ‘café au lait’, where ‘cyber’ is a verb. Is it really so hard to believe that sending strangers naked pictures of yourself is a turn-on?

But despite the occasional flash of anger or lingering disbelief, [his wife] told me that she had forgiven him. When I asked how long it took for her to think she might be able to get over what her husband did, she said, “That’s a really good question,” and then took a minute. “At the time, we were very early in our marriage, but it was an old friendship. He was my best friend. In addition to that, I loved him. There was a deep love there, but it was coupled with a tremendous feeling of betrayal.”

It took a lot of work, both mentally and in the way we engage with each other, for me to get to a place where I said: ‘O.K., I’m in. I’m staying in this marriage.’ Here was a man I respected, I loved, was the father of this child inside of me, and he was asking me for a second chance. And I’m not going to say that was an easy or fast decision that I made. It’s been almost two years now. I did spend a lot of time saying and thinking: ‘I. Don’t. Understand.’ And it took a long time to be able to sit on a couch next to Anthony and say, ‘O.K., I understand and I forgive.’ It was the right choice for me. I didn’t make it lightly.”

Committing to someone who’s embarrassed you in public is one thing. But I hope people aren’t throwing away otherwise good marriages over a few text messages and a fetish that is, at most, one standard deviation away from vanilla.

Ultimately, though, the most interesting thing about this story is that it exists at all. It’s 8,300 words of a politician talking not about his policies, his experience, his goals, but his marriage. This is what redemption looks like in America in 2013. Don’t convince me to vote for you, convince me you’re a good husband. Convince me you’re in therapy.

By that criteria, the story works. It takes two faroff people, public figures, and puts them into a familiar story of love tested and renewed. It takes something strange and makes it relatable. That’s what all the best commercials do.

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‘What It Takes’ and the Weirdness of Politicians

Last weekend Richard Ben Cramer died. Here’s an excerpt from his seminal 1992 book, What It Takes, describing a ‘light’ weekend in the life of Senator Bob Dole:

The Senate was winding up its tem for the fall, and Dole wouldn’t get away till Saturday morning—just in time for a flight to Akron, a press conference and a fund-raising breakfast for two Congressional candidates, then a speech to a rally in the airport; then a quick flight to Sandusky, O., for a press conference and another speech at a luncheon rally; then a flight to Cleveland for a rally speech and a joint press conference on behalf of four GOP hopefuls; then a flight to Findlay, O., for another press conference and a mix-and-mingle for Congressman Oxley; then a flight to Cincinnati for a press conference with gubernatorial candidate James Rhodes at the home of former Senator Taft; then an hour-and-a-half flight east to Monmouth, New Jersey, followed by a twenty-minute drive to a Hilton, where Dole was scheduled to get in about midnight for his Saturday night’s sleep.

Sunday he’d start with a twenty-five-minute ride to a country club in Manalatan Township to do a press conference and a speech at a buffet breakfast; then another drive, another flight, this time to Jamestown, New York, near Buffalo, for a joint news conference with a House candidate; and a drive to another country club for the candidate’s funder-brunch, where Dole would make a few more brief remarks; then another drive to another speech, this to a Chautauqua County veterans’ group, a photo op with members of the Country Veterans Council and the dedication of a bridge in honor of the nation’s veterans; than another flight to State College, Pennsylvania, for a speech to five hundred Penn State students, and another press conference with a Congressman, Bill Clinger, and another drive to another hotel for another speech at a fundraiser, and then another drive and a wheels-up for Washington, National Airport, where the Lincoln Town Car would be waiting in the dark to take him back to the Watergate—unless he decided to stop at the office to get ready for the Senate Monday.

Cramer’s book is totally great (as in large, but also as in awesome), and confirmed my lifelong impression that being a successful politician basically requires you to be a sociopath-caliber extrovert.

Bob Dole was sixty-five when he was living this schedule. The only way to do this, to keep this up, is if you genuinely get energized by constant handshakes, nonstop chit-chat, giving the same old smile to different new people every waking moment. Cramer writes with a deep admiration of these guys, how they keep a million names in their heads, how they can recite legislation by rote, how they can tell the perfect back-slapping joke with the perfect handshake timing. But I read it with a kind of dread. Is this who we’ve outsourced the running of our country to?

But that’s probably just me failing to relate to people who are different than me. Cramer’s book is a powerful reminder of the greatness, the weakness, the weirdness of the people who run our country. And by writing it, he might have achieved greatness himself.

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Three Things I Didn’t Know About The Tuskegee Experiment

In the middle of Snowden’s course on epidemics is this phenomenal one-off about the Tuskegee experiment. Here’s three things I didn’t know:

1. The study was designed to prove a racist hypothesis

Clark [the designer of the Tuskegee experiment] started with a profoundly racist hypothesis that he wished to demonstrate, and that is the simple one that the African-American male was racially distinct from the white male, and was so in ways that could be demonstrated by studying the natural history of syphilis in their bodies. [...]

In the body of white males, the damage was overwhelmingly to their more highly evolved — and therefore more vulnerable — neurologic systems. He expected that the result in African-American males would be very different, being less neurologically sophisticated, their bodies would experience damage instead primarily to their cardiovascular systems, and proof was to be gained by studying the natural course of the disease in a group of males — African-American males — who were systematically untreated.

Let’s remember that this is a study that was based not on any therapeutic objective. On the contrary, the main interest of the syphilis study conducted at Tuskegee was to examine syphilitic black male bodies postmortem.

2. The study went way beyond the researchers and test subjects

This study continues from ’32 to ’72. By later in the 1940s, penicillin, a highly efficacious remedy for syphilis, was developed, and it was determined that the members of the study would be systematically denied the antibiotic.

Local doctors in Macon County were all provided with the names of the members of the study, and they were instructed by the Public Health Service that those men were not to be given penicillin. So the study continued for twenty-five more years, when a therapy actually existed. [...]

In fact, there was a time when there was a great threat to this Tuskegee study, and that was when America entered the Second World War, because at that time there was the danger that the members of the study group risked being drafted into the Army, and that would entail blood tests. Their syphilis would be discovered, and the Army would provide treatment, ending the experiment. So, the assistant surgeon general of the United States intervened on behalf of the study and provided the Selective Service Board of Macon County with the list of all those men included in the study, and they were exempted from the military draft. [...]

Well, by 1972, at the conclusion, 28 of the men in the study died directly from syphilis. A hundred others died of complications related to syphilis. Forty wives of members of the study were infected with syphilis, and 19 children fathered by members of the study were born with congenital syphilis.

3. This study was not a secret

There was, however, no intention in the Public Health Service to terminate the study, and this was not, strictly speaking, a secret study. There were published reports on a regular basis. This is really one of the more disconcerting parts of this study. What does it say about our society at the time?

In other words, this is a study that was published, that was written about publicly in scholarly articles, and people thought this was okay. The first published report was in 1936, and papers were later written every four to six years or so, until 1970. And strikingly, there was never a protest within the medical community about reports on this type of study that appeared in medical journals for forty years.

In 1969, a committee of the Centers for Disease Control determined that the study should continue, and this conclusion was backed by local chapters of the American Medical Association.

I think I grew up thinking of racism as something one person did to someone else. Racist described an individual, some redneck in a pickup truck, a cop car or, worst-case scenario, judge’s robes. It’s only in my 20s that I realized that the history of racism in America isn’t a bunch of bad apples, it’s the whole tree.

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Yesterday in central Berlin, crying on a bicycle

I happened to be listening to this lecture yesterday on my way to a friend’s house, and I was all quiver-lip  from Tiergarten to Kaiserdamm.

It wasn’t just the speech. Yesterday voters in my home country and my home state decided that gay marriage threatens traditional marriage like milk threatens cereal. We shouldn’t have to vote on this shit, but we did, and we won.

It was also the same day Alex Ross published this lovely essay in the New Yorker:

I am forty-four years old, and I have lived through a startling transformation in the status of gay men and women in the United States. Around the time I was born, homosexual acts were illegal in every state but Illinois. Lesbians and gays were barred from serving in the federal government. There were no openly gay politicians. A few closeted homosexuals occupied positions of power, but they tended to make things more miserable for their kind.

There will always be small-minded politicians, vicious diseases, bigoted thugs. Until recently, it felt like the world was rooting for them. Yesterday, it felt like it wasn’t.

‘Why are your eyes all wet?’ my friend asked when I arrived.
‘It’s cold outside,’ I said.
‘Well come inside, it’s warmer,’ he said, and it was.

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How To Reduce Corruption — And Lose an Election

Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.

Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.

This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.

Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.

Tbilisi, the capital, from above.

Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.

As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:

First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.

First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.

‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’

It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.

One of Georgia’s new police stations.

Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.

He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.

Tbilisi’s Public Service Hall

And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.

The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.

For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.

Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.

Georgian receipt with ‘lottery barcode’

Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal:  You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.

The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.

At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.

These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.

There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.

Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.

Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.

Georgia’s remaining challenges include updating its infrastructure

Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.

Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.

Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.

There’s also the prison rape video.

Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.

I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.

I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.

Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.

Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.

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Why I’m Glad I Don’t Live in a Community

Last year I was listening to a podcast about Middle Ages England, and the teacher said the most insightful thing I’ve ever downloaded for free:

The very word “community” carries a great deal of warmth. [...] Community always seems to be just out of reach, something that belongs to a generation or two ago; just over the hill; in decline or under threat. It’s sort of the before of which we are the after; tantalizing, warm, the attractive feature of a world we have lost.

We don’t notice it, but this false nostalgia, this utopian elsewhere, is baked into the very word ‘community’. Even now, ‘community’ is always something we talk about in the past tense, something that exists in other countries and cities. Like the old Oscar Levant quote, it’s not something we experience, it’s something we remember.

I remembered this excerpt because this week I’m reading Sudhir Venkatesh’s ‘Off the Books: The Underground Economy of the Urban Poor‘.

Venkatesh spent more than five years living in South Chicago studying the income and expenditure of the people who live there. He interviews business owners, prostitutes, bums, gang members, hairstylists, cops, drug dealers, everyone who’s trying to earn a buck–or cheat, steal or scam one.

Here’s three moms he met:

Bird earns her living as a prostitute, plying her trade along Maquis Park’s main thoroughfare as well as on busy downtown streets. Eunice works in the formal economy, cleaning offices at minimum wage, and supplements her income by selling homemade soul food to the local lunchtime crowd. Marlene has various off-the-books jobs in the service sector; she earns most of her underground money as a $9 per hour nanny for a white family in the neighboring upper-class university district.

Each of these women works 50-70 hours a week. Their formal or semi-formal employment is supplemented by using their cars as ad hoc taxicabs, renting space in their homes to family and friends, helping out at church or school functions, whatever they can find. Like most residents Venkatesh profiles, they straddle the formal and informal sectors, and rely almost exclusively on personal ties (the local pastor, cousins, neighbors) to find work.

This is obviously fascinating for like 200 reasons, but one of the main ones is how much the ghetto economy of early-2000s urban America resembles that of small-town medieval England. Hear me out.

First, it’s profoundly informal. No one is reporting their income, and even people who are formally employed have major and minor off-the-books supplements. The local store owners, for example, rent out their shops after hours to gambling parties, and pay local homeless people a few bucks to stand watch for robberies or clean up at closing time.

Second, the government and public services are a no-show. Just like the centuries before state consolidation, Ventakesh’s residents can’t rely on transportation, law enforcement, garbage collection or, in some cases, clean drinking water and reliable electricity. Into this vacuum rush drug dealers, neighborhood associations and entrepreneurs, selling services that modern middle-class people get for free.

Third, everyone is all up in each other’s business. Like a small town, the every resident of this South Chicago neighborhood knows all others by name, including how they’re getting paid (fixing cars, cleaning houses, robbing drug dealers), what resources they have (house, car, skills), and how they are connected to other residents (sleeping with, working for, shooting at).

Fourth, problems get solved through personal relations, not impartial laws or outside mediation. Here’s a remarkable section about how residents negotiated with a drug dealer over access to the local park:

Marlene and her neighbors would no longer publicly chastise the prostitutes and scare away their customers, and they ended their phone calls to the police. For the summer, Big Cat [the drug dealer] agreed to limit his drug trafficking to late-night hours, and the pimp would move his sex workers into the abandoned buildings farthest away from the park. Big Cat also agreed to residents in Marlene’s block selling their own underground goods in the park; they would have priority over any other trader, and they would receive protection from the gang for the same price that others paid.

What I can’t help noticing is that the characteristics above are what people talk about when they lament the ‘communities’ we’ve lost: Everyone knows their neighbors! They work together to solve common problems! They engage in local issues!

To which I say: Communities fucking suck. I’m glad I don’t live in one. If I hear my neighbors playing music through the walls, I report it to the landlord (or, if they’re playing Conor Oberst, the European Court of Human Rights) and the problem is addressed without affecting my income, my safety or any of my personal relationships. If I want a job, I apply for one. I don’t have to do a favor for a family member, or give a cut to the preacher down the street.

The ‘communities’ we’ve lost were only close-knit and personal because there was no other option. You couldn’t rely on impartial administrators to purify your water or drive your buses or punish your mugger, so you did it all informally. This is understandable, and admirable, and maybe even worth missing. But it’s not an effective way to run a country. Just because you know your neighbors doesn’t mean you like them.

In ‘The Origins of Political Order’, Francis Fukuyama argues that the most successful societies are those that reject cronyism and apply objective standards to leaders and civil servants. One of the reasons China rose so quickly 1,000 years ago was that it systematized its bureaucracy. One of the reasons India stagnated was that it didn’t.

It’s hard not to romanticize small towns and close-knit communities. People working, living and relating to each other so closely is rare in modern life, and perhaps we’ve lost something for it. But on a society-wide scale, progress doesn’t happen because of communities, but in spite of them.

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Why I’m Not Following the 2012 Election

So far I’ve been following this year’s presidential election like a toddler in church.

I don’t know if it’s because I think the result is already preordained, or that I’ve just had my fill of manufactured partisan outrage at meaningless gaffes, but I’m increasingly starting to think that participating in American mass politics is like living next to the freeway.

I’m not one of those people who thinks that all the candidates are the same, and that our choice doesn’t matter. I’m still voting (for Obama, obviously. Viva socialism!), and I’m reasonably familiar with each candidate’s narrative of the problems facing the US and their proposed solution.

I just don’t know what more genuine information I can gather at this point. American political campaigns are basically pantomimes, where we zoom in on the minutae of each candidate’s prescriptions and podium utterances, overlooking the fact that anything that will actually happen in the next four years will be a combination of compromise, serendipity and expediency. Even if Obama is a socialist Muslim, even if Romney hates poor people, their ability to meaningfully implement these agendas is severely constrained by our political system.

Again, I’m not saying their policies don’t matter. They do. I just think American political campaigns are not a particularly good way to assess what will actually happen if either becomes president.

I’m reading Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes right now, and I loved his description of the 1930s rise of the far right:

The past to which they appealed was an artefact. Their traditions were invented.

There’s a little bit of 2012 in that phrasing, isn’t there? Only now it’s not only the past that’s invented, but the future too.

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Government to Welfare Recipients: Get Lost

One of my favorite activities when I’m traveling is to go for a long jog through a foreign city. It’s a safe, pleasant way to cover a lot of ground and still maintain spectator status.

Every time I’m in a new city, I plan a 10k route on the hotel map, marking lefts and rights and trying to see as many parks as possible in 45 minutes.

And every time I implement my route, I get hopelessly lost.

I’ve unintentionally jogged between domino highrises in Prague and through a strangely silent bazaar in South Beirut. I once accidentally ran a half marathon in London because I ran west for 45 minutes thinking it was north.

These accidental detours usually end with me giving up on my sweaty map and just asking a pedestrian for directions. I know the name of a train station or some other landmark near my hotel, and I ask people which way I need to go to get there. Every time I have this conversation, it goes pretty much like this:

Me: Excuse me, I’m trying to get to [landmark]
Resident: Oh, you’re miles away.
Me: I know, it’s pretty far. Can you tell me what direction it is, so I can start heading back?
Resident: It’s terribly far away. It’s not smart to be jogging without knowing where you are.
Me: I agree. Can you tell me what direction it is?
Resident: It’s really very far. You should have brought a map with you.

I invariably have to go through three or four cycles of ‘you shouldn’t be here’ before I get to ‘here’s how you get where you need to go.’

I’ve been thinking about this as a metaphor for the way we think about social policy. Every person in need of welfare payments, unemployment benefits, old-age pension, disability, etc, are basically people in places they shouldn’t be. Every unemployed autoworker should have seen the hollowing-out of their profession coming, and begun developing other skills. Retiring workers should have spent their productive years saving money. Single moms should have known about birth control, had an abortion, whatever.

It’s easy to look at people receiving social welfare and think ‘they should have considered the consequences before they got pregnant, dropped out of high school, didn’t get a vocational degree,’ etc. It’s easy to be the person saying ‘why are you here in the first place?’

This is understandable on an individual level, but at the scale of a population, governments need to be utterly unconcerned with why people are in the situation they’re in. You’re 21 years old and pregnant with your third child? … How can we help?

Obviously government has a legitimate interest in reducing the number of unemployed autoworkers, teen moms, poor pensioners and so on. But those are systemic interventions, not individual ones.

Governments make systemic efforts to reduce rates of smoking, for example, through taxes, education and age limits. Governments don’t withhold treatment of lung cancer, however, on the grounds that patients knew the risks, and should have acted differently when they could. Yet that’s the guiding principle behind much of our social policy.

I’m not saying this to be ideological, or bleeding heart about reducing suffering. I think there’s an economic case to be made for this. Retributive social policy (you shouldn’t be pregnant again, therefore you’re not entitled to child benefits) just perpetuates the systemic problems that end up costing taxpayers more in the end.

It’s inarguably a bad economic decision for that 21 year old to go through with her third pregnancy. She shouldn’t be here. But wouldn’t the economically intelligent policy be to support her children to the extent possible, so they don’t make the same mistake? Doing otherwise places the principle of retribution above the practical benefits of trying to get the most societal gain from her children possible.

It’s the same thing with the unemployed autoworker. Yes, they should have developed job skills beyond low-grade manufacturing. But what makes more economic sense? Punishing them through barely-scraping-by unemployment benefits? Or enough assistance to help them transition to a new profession and, if necessary, a new city, where they can be economically productive?

I know the counterargument to this is that generous social policy just encourages people to have that third child, to drop out of high school, to retire early. But surely there are ways to discourage those beyond perpetuating the factors that drive them in the first place. Government should be in the business of getting you where you need to go, not  telling you why you shouldn’t be lost.

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