Friday, April 15


Obviously ...

... we cannot possibly agree with everything on every single link from this blog


... we cannot possibly agree with everything on every single link to this blog.

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Thursday, April 14

Red Herrings

Teachers as DJs?

Ethiopia, one of the lowest users of information technology in the world has signed with Cisco Systems to expand internet service from the current 30,000 users to 500,000 users. 6,200 miles of fiberoptic cable is being laid and the government has invested $40 million in developing internet service.
Premier Meles Zenawi said information technology lay at the heart of transforming the impoverished country where millions are dependent on foreign aid.
"We are fully committed to ensuring that as many of our poor as possible have this weapon that they need to fight poverty at the earliest possible time," Meles told a gathering of government ministers and information technology experts.

"We plan to ensure universal access and Internet connectivity to all the tens of thousands of rural kebeles (districts) of our country over the next two to three years," he said.
"Poverty is rooted in lack of knowledge," he said. "Internet technology is all about the distribution of knowledge."

The prime minister added that information technology could be used for "e-schools," improving governance and e-healthcare. It is launching "schoolnet" which will provide 450 secondary schools around the country with Internet access and will link all regional and district government offices.

"Healthnet" will connect all referral hospitals around the country as the basis for a nationwide tele-medicine infrastructure.

"Not long ago many of us felt that we were too poor to afford to seriously invest in information and communication technology," Meles told government ministers and experts.

"We were convinced that we should invest every penny we have on securing the next meal for our people. We did not believe serious investment in ICT had anything to do with facing the challenges of poverty that kills. Now I think we know better," he added.
These aims, why don't we call them Internet Miracle Development Plans (IMDP) or Internet Development Led Industrialization (IDLI), are certainly admirable ... but as usual we have our two cents to add for consideration.

We wrote a series of posts titled ‘Information De-Evolution’ about the history of information technology and computing in Ethiopia. We concluded that absolute government control had hampered its development at every stage, particularly in terms of hostility to the internet and indifference to telecommunications.

In addition to questioning the governments monopoly role in this realm we wonder if this is the best way to spend the scant resources available for Ethiopia‘s growth. Harsh practice and tightening laws against the free flow of information in all media made us concerned that belated internet expansion was a sign of government confidence that internet use could be reliably managed and monitored.

The murderous communist junta, the Dergue, that ruled for 17 years championed the spread of literacy. That was a good aim in its own right, of course, but literate Ethiopians only had the freedom to read the government's own propaganda and to study endless volumes of the collected speeches of Leonid Brezhnev.

Because of human nature and because of the state of affairs in Ethiopia, widespread access to the internet will necessarily result in harsh words about the government in forums, blogs and other settings as well as exposure to unapproved sources of information. Today, even severely restricted freedom of the press only exists in places like Addis Ababa where a nice impression has to be made for foreign aid donors.

Knowledge is certainly a factor in poverty but even a nation where every citizen had an advanced university degree would be bitterly poor without ideas, policies, and institutions friendly to development. They would be in particular trouble if their rulers also made every effort to maintain rule by creating suspicion between groups - those who studied liberal arts against the engineers versus the scientists - a sort of official academic federal tribalism if you will.

The sudden discovery that information technology will usher in an age of plenty without the requirements of development such as private property rights, a friendly atmosphere for investment, political enfranchisement and a free market economy must be viewed with a very jaded eye.

No country has ever escaped or improved on the litany of third world misery without those and other basic factors lacking in Ethiopia because of political and ideological decisions. Let us take a look at a previous gold plated venture into technological solutions to simple problems.

Meskel Square reported on a visit to a rural school
The scenery was stunning and the rural development sites we visited (with the UN's World Food Programme) were fascinating. But, for me, they were topped by a visit to a remote high school, a day-and-a-half's trip on rocky, unmade roads south of Addis Ababa.

As we walked up to one of the outdoor classrooms, we heard the voice of a Maths teacher going into great detail about the angles of a parallelogram. When we went in, we found the 60 or so students were all taking their lesson from a professor speaking through a state-of-the-art Samsung plasma video screen that would be way beyond the budget of many schools in the UK. The lesson was being beamed in from Addis via a huge satellite dish outside through a rack of Digital Video Broadcasting (DVB) receivers.
Later on the author reconsiders
Two days ago, an Ethiopian student commented on my post about the screens.

“At school the English in plasma is not good for me , It is too fast and too short, the supporting materials are not easily available particularly for those of us out side Addis. My teachers are not some times sure of the subject may be because of the English like my self. Most students are not happy with the plasma. We would like to get copy of the CDs so we could study at our own time. Please help us.”

Then today, the Rev Andrew Proud, vicar of St Matthew's Anglican church in Addis Ababa, had this to say on his weblog Arat Kilo.

“There have been two major impacts of this technology here so far: only those who have good English are able to keep up with the lessons, most students are beginning to feel left behind; and the teachers have become supervisors and technicians, turning the equipment on and off at the beginning and end of each session. The students even refer to them as DJs.”

It is a useful cautionary tale for tech cheerleaders like me who automatically assume that hi-tech advances are good things in themselves. It is also something that Bono might want to consider before pushing on with his plan to connect every Ethiopian school and hospital to the internet.

Maybe we should be looking for something lower-tech, something that actually works.
There are simply no shortcuts to development and education. One must wonder why Ethiopia is always discovering some new theory of development and governance. A few weeks ago $122 billion in foreign aid over the next ten years was to fall from the sky and solve all problems while today it is the miracle of technology. Somewhat undercover of late but the real basis of governance is an abiding faith in the familiar and manifest failures native to Marxist-Leninism to maintain the status quo.

Consider what is now being planned. Ethiopia earns almost no significant amounts of hard currency beyond the coffee crop that is valued only in the hundreds of millions to finance all the activities of a government for 70 million people. Foreign aid makes up the bulk of every budget dollar spent and the lion’s share of all development dollars.

$40 million (if this is actually done it will be more than that) is a whole lot of money and policies such as the new internet miracle plan are more indicative of the development priorities of foreigners than it is Ethiopians - who figure that they might as well embrace it once the decisions are made in Washington or Brussels - and they figure everyone will get some good press in the bargain. So the IMDP is actually the Bono plan whether or not Bono is actually involved.

In any case half a million fiber optically linked computers in three years is impossible. Imagine that the cable is laid and the proper monitorring systems are imported (probably from China) to prevent 'anti-revolutionary democracy' uses of the new technology.

Can Ethiopian society be reasonably expected to purchase, maintain and absorb 500,000 computers in a three year period? That is anywhere from a quarter to half a billion dollars worth of hardware. Perhaps what is really planned here is a government intranet.

The Red Herring Debate

One question raised by the Internet Miracle Development Plan (IMDP) is what else the money could be spent on or how it can be managed so the situation where teachers became DJs and there is less learning going on is not repeated in other fields of government and health. How many teachers could have been trained or paid for the cost of those plasma screens?

Indeed, how many teacher’s colleges, schools and textbooks could have been had for that price? What happens when the technology fails? There is no infrastructure to fix it when that inevitably happens and who will profit from the import of so many high priced items? Are donor governments keeping their constituents happy by insisting on particular brands of computers and plasma screens?

All of which leads to the real issue here: does the whole explosion of information technology really have much to offer a country like Ethiopia which is lacking so many of the basic policies to get on the first ladder of development to begin with?

This question was debated by Ethiopians and others after a 2000 editorial in Red Herring Magazine. It makes for disturbing reason in some ways but is worthy of consideration.
The wretched of the earth

What technology means to the third world.

I am in Ethiopia, on holiday, in the holy town of Lalibela, where a 12th-century Ethiopian king carved a series of churches from the living rock of the mountain. It is the day before Christmas according to the Orthodox Ethiopian calendar. There are priests and pilgrims. There are beggars, too -- hundreds of them, all of them hungry, all of them miserable, most of them sick, most of them deformed.

I have never been anywhere so poor.

With me I have a dog-eared copy of The Economist. A leader asks, "Will developing economies really be left behind by the information technology revolution?" and answers No. The British news magazine writes, "The information technology revolution is ... the main driver of growth, and ... some people worry that the gap between the developed and less-developed countries [will] widen further."

But people shouldn't worry, The Economist argues, because, "The IT revolution need not prevent emerging countries from growing at an even faster pace [than America] ... Poorer countries can copy those technologies at relatively low cost." Sooner rather than later, the leader concludes, poor countries will catch up with the rich.

I'm reminded that retired admiral Bill Owens, the co-CEO of Teledesic , a company that is building a satellite network that will offer cheap broadband data and voice services, once said to me, "Can you imagine what a Teledesic disc, beaming broadband technology into an African village would mean?"

Now that I have seen the African village of Lalibela, I can answer: No. I cannot imagine it. The Economist, and Admiral Owens, are wrong.

Both imagine a future where poor countries leap over an entire stage of industrialization and take their place in a global economy. There are two things wrong with this triumphalist millenarianism. One, it is at odds with the reality of life in a very poor country; two, it is at odds with economic theory.
Most of Ethiopia's population works the fields; the rest work for the state; only 8 percent of Ethiopians work for private enterprises. While most Ethiopians are dignified, pious, temperate, and hardworking, they are also ignorant and illiterate peasants. What would information technology do for such a place? No one would know what to do with it, and even if they did, it would change little about people's lives.

The economic theory behind the idea that technology will quickly enrich the third world is suspect, too. Robert Lucas, the University of Chicago economist, whose theories were the inspiration for The Economist's leader, believes that once poor countries start growing, they grow at a rate of 2 percent per year plus a margin proportional to the gap between the country and its richer neighbors.

But is there any reason to believe such a thing? There are two reasons for economic growth: capital investment, or an increase in productivity. Ethiopia has neither.

I am not arguing for hopelessness. But I do think the technology industry, and those who love it, should show less arrogance when they imagine its wonderful ability to grow economies. Most technologies would not make a difference to a country like Ethiopia. One exception is the genetically modified seeds developed by companies like Monsanto that resist drought, pests, viruses, and fungi. They might do a lot to eliminate hunger.
When you are in Ethiopia you know where you are. It is the middle ages, with Russian-made tanks trundling north to an obscure border war. It will take a while for such a place to join the developed nations of the world. Technology isn't magic.
Later, the editor describes the overwhelming reaction to his essay from Ethiopians.
Nothing we have published has ever generated such a bitter response as a recent editor's column about what technology means to the poor African country of Ethiopia.
In that column, I disagreed with an Economist leader that argued that technology would allow third world nations to develop much more quickly than developed nations, and would soon bestow upon poor countries all of the economic and political benefits the Western democracies enjoy.

I was travelling in Ethiopia at the time, and was bemused by how unknowing The Economist seemed: Ethiopians needed education, health, water, food, roads, foreign investment, and basic liberties before technology could make any difference in their lives. "Technology isn't magic," I said.

The column was posted on electronic bulletin boards frequented by the remarkably talkative, well educated, and increasingly incensed Ethiopian diaspora. In the end, we received hundreds of emails. Most were more or less insulting.

Criticism tended to follow one of three arguments. The first agreed that Ethiopia had been underdeveloped and in little condition to use technology, but noted that things were getting better. The second simply rejected the idea that technology would not make a huge difference to the country. The third took great offense at my characterization of Ethiopia as backward; in particular, readers were upset that I said that "most Ethiopians are ignorant and illiterate peasants."

For the first two arguments, I feel I have little to apologize for. Ethiopia remains underdeveloped, however much worse things were under Mengistu. And I remain unconvinced that Ethiopians would know what to do with technology even if they could afford it.

But I do apologize for any offense I caused. Such was not my purpose. For while most Ethiopians are poor and ignorant peasants, they are a great and noble people, who live in the most beautiful of African highlands. They have every reason to be proud.
Follow this link as well as this one and this one to the letters to the editor to find all manner of reactions to the essay in question - many of which are supportive. The editor’s facts and analysis are hard to deny even if his characterizations of Ethiopian poverty were problematic for some. We really doubt he intended to be offensive in any way.

Oddly enough, or in this case, quite appropriately, the term 'Red Herring' originated in the late 1800s and refers to
Something that draws attention away from the central issue, as in "Talking about the new plant is a red herring to keep us from learning about downsizing plans". The herring in this expression is red and strong-smelling from being preserved by smoking. The idiom alludes to dragging a smoked herring across a trail to cover up the scent and throw off tracking dogs.
That Ethiopia is desperately poor on a scale that exceeds ‘biblical poverty and suffering’ is evident. Right now Ethiopians manage to survive under the burden of defunct socialist policies, unworkable get rich quick schemes and insincere rhetoric about adapting the habits of successful societies.

At harvest 3,000 years and counting that should be the main cause for real offense from all observers. The Millenial Development Goals, the Internet Miracle Development Plan, and the pretense of free elections are the real Red Herrings of concern here.

What is most painful for us on the entire subject of Ethiopia and her prospects is the sense of frustration at opportunities missed on a daily basis by ruinous government policies. We recently came across this essay from EthioMedia that makes this point eloquently.
Ethiopia has the identical natural resource fundamentally responsible for the West's rise: the human mind. But it has neither the freedom nor the Enlightenment philosophy of reason, individualism and political liberty necessary for creating wealth and health. Ethiopia is mired in tribal cultures that stress subordination to the group rather than personal independence and achievement. All over Ethiopia the brutal dictators murder and rob innocent citizens, students and the opposition in order to aggrandize themselves and members of their tribes.

What Ethiopia desperately needs is to remove the political and economic shackles and replace them with political and economic freedom. It needs to depose the socialist regime and establish capitalism, with its political/economic freedom, its rule of law and respect for individual rights. And to accomplish that, it first needs to remove the philosophic shackles and replace tribal collectivism with a philosophy of reason and freedom. The truly humanitarian system is not the Marxism espoused by Western intellectuals but the only system that can establish, as it historically has, the furtherance of life on earth: capitalism.
Pride and affection for Ethiopia's ancient history and people is all well and good. However, pride and attempts to police commentary from any quarter should not shield those who keep Ethiopia in such a bad situation to begin with from criticism.

Imagine who is suffering today for the sake of the revolutionary feudal aristocracy and what all could accomplish in a free society the likes of which billions across the world have already created.

Without the basics of developing and healthy societies that are being denied Ethiopians by a selfish elite, all of those thousands of miles of fiber optic cable might as well be cut up and used to make harnesses for plows.

There are no shortcuts to development or education or healthcare or good governance regardless of publicity and every manner of miracle development plan. The government should just give the people the land they live on as a start to any sincere effort.

Tuesday, April 12

Luck and the Idea Trap

In his article, The Idea Trap, Bryan Caplan observes that “If we look around the world, there is a lot of circumstantial evidence that bad performance is not self-correcting.” To arrive at the why of that state of affairs he notes that
the least pleasant places in the world to live normally have three features in common: First, low economic growth; second, policies that discourage growth; and third, resistance to the idea[s]. that other policies would be better
So far so good or rather so bad in this case. Ethiopian economic reality and government policy clearly demonstrate these points. 1., Aside from anecdotal accounts from Addis Ababa and foreign aid dependent GNP growth the economy is doing quite poorly. 2., The most basic building blocks of economic growth including private property and rational governance are missing.

3., Finally, Statements such as this "Land will remain state-owned as long as the EPRDF is at the helm of the country's leadership" that go against the sum of all human experience indicate that little will change in the future - especially given the state of Ethiopian 'democracy'. The author has a theory to explain why these things happen.
Imagine that the three variables I just named—growth, policy, and ideas—capture the essence of a country's economic/political situation. Then suppose that three "laws of motion" govern this system. The first two are almost true by definition:

1. Good ideas cause good policies.
2. Good policies cause good growth.

The third law is much less intuitive:

3. Good growth causes good ideas.

The third law only dawned on me when I was studying the public's beliefs about economics, and noticed that income growth seems to increase economic literacy, even though income level does not. In other words, poor people whose income is rising—like recent immigrants—have more than the average amount of economic sense; rich people whose income is falling—like the Kennedy family—have less.
This point is a bit tricky. Perhaps Caplan means that how vulnerable one is to bad times makes a difference in the set of ideas that one holds?
This bare-bones model has a surprising implication: There is more than one outcome with staying power. The good news is that you can have favorable results across the board. Good ideas lead to good policy, good policy leads to good growth, and good growth reinforces good ideas. The bad news is that you can also get mired in the opposite outcome. A society can get stuck in an "idea trap," where bad ideas lead to bad policy, bad policy leads to bad growth, and bad growth cements bad ideas.

Once you fall into this trap, all it often takes is common sense to get out. But when people are desperate, common sense gets even less common than usual. The recent flu vaccine shortage is a fine example. Common sense says that to alleviate a shortage of the vaccine, you should make it more lucrative to supply. But the reaction of much of the public is, instead, to lash out at greedy suppliers for failing to do their job.

The connection between growth and ideas is not so much logical as psychological. It is not logical for people to embrace counter-productive ideas just because conditions are getting worse, but they seem to do it anyway.
Caplan takes a look at the explanation that Whittaker Chambers gave for becoming a Communist.
[A] man does not, as a rule, become a Communist because he is attracted to Communism, but because he is driven to despair by the crisis in history through which the world is passing... In the West, all intellectuals become Communists because they are seeking the answer to one of two problems: the problem of war or the problem of economic crisis.7

Chambers does not bother to explain why he thought that Communism was an effective means of solving either problem. Few Communists did. But the worse the world looked, the more certain they became that the solution to war was to repeat the Russian Revolution over the entire globe, and the cure for economic crisis was to expropriate all the entrepreneurs and collectivize agriculture.

In other words: Teach the malefactors of great wealth a lesson they will never forget. Most contemporaries did not become Communists, of course, but all over the world, deteriorating conditions seemed to inflame bad ideas, leading to bad policies, leading to still worse conditions.
It seems Caplan is saying that bad ideas are the result of faith defined as “a set of principles or ... belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence“ or as “the body of dogma of a religion.“

So how do you change faith and get ideas that work? Caplan sees
[t]he answer, in my model, is luck. An economy in the idea trap usually stays in the idea trap. But once in a while, it wins a little lottery. Maybe the president of the country happens to read Bastiat during his last term, and decides to try a more free-market approach. This increases growth, which in turn improves the climate of public opinion. And maybe—just maybe—public opinion changes enough to elect another president who embraces his predecessor's reforms.
Luck!? That is a rather depressing point of view taken at face value so let us see what Caplan means. To fundamentally change policy, ideas must change and it takes visionary leadership to look beyond the basic housekeeping functions of rule such as staying in office .

Even democracies can make bad decisions such as Argentina did in the 1940s and 1950s. In single party states such as Ethiopia public accountability is absent as a factor so it all depends on the luck of the draw. Which leaders make it to the top of the revolutionary party food chain determine what happens.

This causes two related problems. The set of skills needed to deal with the political milieu of a revolutionary party may not be best suited for an enterprising peace time state. In addition, bad decisions in the economic realm may reinforce the exigencies of political staying power so all to often priorities are not what observers would expect.

So Caplan is right in a sense. ‘Luck’ may not be the right word but the words ‘cruel fate’ together may be. The author continues
Failed socialist policies were rarely abandoned, and often inspired more radical steps. Disappointment with the Soviet Union inspired radical Maoist policies like the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. Second, when glasnost and perestroika hit the Soviet bloc, the standard of living in Communist countries had never been better. It was low by Western standards, but vastly better than in the hungry days of Stalin. There is no reason why the Soviet Empire could not have endured to this day. Its leadership simply lost faith.

The standard view is that they lost faith because their policies did not work. But if that were true, the Soviet Union would have ended seventy years earlier. The normal reaction to failure was to repeat it on a grander scale. My account, in contrast, is that the long-suffering Soviet people finally had some good luck named Mikhail Gorbachev.
Depression and disarray benefit the Lenins of the world. That is when the public is most receptive to nonsense, to scapegoating sneaky foreigners and greedy corporations. The voice of reason, in contrast, gets its most sympathetic hearing when things are running smoothly, so the public is calm enough to think rationally about how to improve on the status quo, and maybe even appreciate how much their favorite scapegoats do for them.
All in all a great article and not just because it fits ethiopundit’s preconceived notions (which in our humble opinions are supported by the overwhelming tide of human history). Read the whole thing.

Friday, April 8

Politburo Knows Best IV - Revolutionary Feudalism

Revolutionary Feudalism among the Wretched of the Earth and the Feudal Label

The feudal label is both a potent and tired term of derision in the Ethiopian context and it is usually used inaccurately in reference to the past. The Creation of A Nation of Serfs gives a sense of the complexity of land tenure and social relations before the advent of Marxist-Leninism. While that time may not have been a golden age of history its passage represents a loss of hope in change wrought by reform and not by revolution - which is always a dead end. A crucial point for understanding of the role of tradition in limiting the potential brutality of government follows.
In Ethiopia’s modern history, the power of governments has invariably been absolutely unchecked, while individual freedom has been highly stifled. During the imperial era, the Emperor, who believed he was the Elect of God, perceived the limits of his power as concurrent with his lifetime and, but for the fear of God, the then rulers could do anything they wanted to their subjects.
The system usually derided with the feudal pejorative is that exemplified in the modern era by Emperor Haile Selassie. His imperial rule, while by no means that of a liberal democrat, did have crucial limits on its behavior based on tradition and religion. The Dergue and the current government do not because both inhabit moral universes inspired by Marx and Lenin. Two 'gods' whose followers will never be remembered for being in touch with their inner children.

To be fair we should note that the current government is a great improvement over the Derg exactly to the degree that today their shared communist roots have been betrayed. Governmental authority today as inspired by ruinous foreign ideology is far more powerful, intrusive and absolute than ever been in Ethiopian history - (again, except for the rule of the Dergue - and that is no great recommendation).

The moment the idea is admitted into society that property is not as sacred as the law of God, and that there is not a force of law and public justice to protect it, anarchy and tyranny commence. Property must be sacred or liberty cannot exist.

John Adams

Even for people whose human and civil rights are already secured by their right to own property this quote can be a bit jarring. However, it is clear that prosperity and all manner of rights are habitually found in each others company. Ultimately, no one can be free unless he can be secure in ownership that no one can take away from him. Especially government which habitually tends towards oppression unless there are fearless citizens to keep it in its proper place. The kind of freedom that land ownership represents is the anchor of all the rights given to man by virtue of his existence and therefore it is sacred.

Indeed, the system of land ownership defines a nation and its prospects far more accurately than any other factor. Look for groups in a society who are excluded from that natural right and you will find serfs or slaves. As the circle of owners of land narrows a feudal class is defined. Where the state owns all land, those who own the state become the ultimate feudal aristocracy. Invariably in the human experience misery and oppression are inversely related to rights of land ownership.

In the past religion was abused to dehumanize masses of humanity and to justify the control of a few by their control of land. In ancient Egypt or the antebellum American South god kings or god simply wanted everything that way - at least according to the ruling classes. For them most men were just drones born to servitude.

In modern times the false gods of scientific ideology generated their own religions to justify mass servitude. Totalitarian societies of the National Socialist (Nazi - Fascist) and Socialist (Communist - Marxist / Leninist / Maoist) varieties all denied the right of ownership absolutely or particularly as a precondition of dictatorship. This matched perfectly the process of defining and excluding the designated enemy who was pursued on either on racial/religious or convenient class criteria from 1930s Germany to the 1950s China.

The system of private property is the most important guaranty of freedom, not only for those who own property, but scarcely less for those who do not.

Friedrich August Hayek

Actually, frankly totalitarian or nascent despotisms are little more than modern incarnations of inhuman serf or slave societies that mankind has fought so desperately to escape, All the power of the modern state and of technological and industrial progress along with pledges to the service of ‘the people’ are the instruments and lies of ... why don’t we just come out and say it ... EVIL ... it is simply evil to take away people’s natural rights.

What do we mean by natural rights? Simply put, rights that man has earned simply by virtue of his existence that are not dependent on the whims of the state and the ruling class commanded by it. The 1789 French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man emphasizes that “property is an inviolable and sacred right”. The freedoms found in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution are grounded in the liberating concept of private property. When men know they have something that can not be taken away from them they can freely express themselves and exercise their rights without fear.

Let’s look at three of the amendments. The 3rd and 4th defend property from soldiers in peace and war while prohibiting “against unreasonable searches and seizures”. The 5th states that no person can “be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”. This security on one’s own piece of turf guaranteed that the other rights of religion, assembly, and bearing arms had meaning. The laws of every free and prosperous nation of the modern era as well as those on the path of democracy and development recognize these truths.

The tragedy of Ethiopia is that a modern movement to give “land to the tiller” effectively denied all Ethiopians the right to own land forever and thus denied them the most elementary rights every human deserves by virtue of birth. Why can’t Ethiopians kick agents of the government off of their land if they intrude with no warrant just like other humans all over the world with the very same DNA?

For the very same reasons Ethiopians are also destitute and disenfranchised. They have no land. The honest slogan would have been “land to the politburo”.

[H]alf of the commissioners are African.Is this supposed to make Africans feel better? Do they feel encouraged that their fate is the hands of leaders like Ethiopia's Meles [...] who refuses to reform Ethiopia's feudal land system?

The Times of London on Cargo Cult Economics

The Creation of a Nation of Serfs traced the history of land ownership in recent Ethiopia beginning with all of the myriad shortcomings of the Imperial free / communal / feudal system and the society thus defined. However, the state nationalization of all land by the Marxist Dergue was far worse and ushered in an era of eternal catastrophe that any one could have predicted from the most cursory reading of Russian or Chinese history.

Actually, the issue was not ignorance of history but rather an acute appreciation for it. One way in which those bloody tyrannies excelled was gaining and keeping power against all of the interests of the people they allegedly spoke for. Like the pharaohs before them the new god kings of revolution liked the blueprint they found for absolute power and religious authority to justify and support it. Dictators and elites who take land away know exactly what they are doing and why.

In the name of the people the solution agreed upon by both the Dergue and the TPLF for the current state of affairs was a renewed all encompassing ‘revolutionary feudalism’ where no one could own land and all would be subjects not citizens of an ever more rapacious revolutionary aristocracy. The portion of the Dergue’s reign of death and destruction directed against the people of Tigray led to a justified and thankfully successful rebellion - but as far as the victorious rebel leaders and the Dergue were concerned it was in many ways a fight to determine who the ‘real communists’ were.

Indeed, the ethno-radical roots of current tribally based ruling party and political system where ethnicity is the principal determinant of participation in national life is also also based on the precepts of Marxist-Leninism. The Tigrayan People‘s Liberation Front (TPLF), the current ruling or vanguard party hid its Marxist-Leninist roots from the people of Tigray until it no longer depended on their good will to function. The fact that both the Dergue and the TPLF did not think that any Ethiopians had the right to own land was an inconvenient truth until ‘the people’ concerned had no choice in the matter and nowhere else to turn .

In a country where the sole employer [or landlord] is the state, opposition means death by slow starvation

Leon Trotsky

Rurally based revolutionary armies and parties such as Mao’s and that of today’s rulers in Ethiopia have an acute understanding of the profound meaning of land ownership. That is why they don’t want anyone besides themselves to control it. However elite and urban the origins of vanguard parties are, they know very well that recruits voluntary or not can only come from rural areas and that real power lies in the land and the people on it. The revolutionaries are also determined that such power should not belong in the hands of the people.

By their understanding the people are revolutionary when they don’t have land and reactionary when they do. Remember revolutions kill reactionaries - after all they deserve it - and if you don’t agree, hey you just might be a counter-revolutionary too ... This revolutionary feudal paranoia translates into an obsessive desire to control the land because the people in whose name the revolution is being conducted have a marked tendency to do the very opposite of what their revolutionary aristocrats want.

Of course the TPLF had to lie to the Tigrayan people about its intentions. The revolutionary vanguard knew very well that given a choice between two forces who wanted to take their land away and to alienate them from all other Ethiopians they may have searched for other options or at a minimum denied the vision of the ethnic Marxist god its chance for realization.

Those who don’t have property, who want to keep it or who want to get it given back to them become desperate pawns and tools of dictatorship and let slip their moral visions. Because they can have no independent existence without some utitlity to the powerful who command and demean them, they are eternal servants to injustice more determined than familiar traditional feudalism could ever have been.

Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff.

Frank Zappa

The current government is better than the Dergue exactly to the degree it has abandoned their shared ideological roots. In the late 1980s as the Soviet Empire collapsed and the West seemed ascendant both the TPLF and the Dergue made the same tactical decision to turn away from Marxist-Leninism. At least both pretended to do so just enough to garner Western support or at least decrease Western hostility - and most importantly to get Western money.

The Dergue, as brutal and inept as ever, failed because too much blood had been shed and too much suffering caused for Ethiopians and even foreigners to ever believe it. The current government was far more successful. Superior to the Dergue from every standpoint from military acumen to public relations schmoozing the TPLF made a more sincere effort to deal with the prevailing conditions in a world where its cherished worldview was widely seen as defunct.

'A large portion of the motivation for free market and democratic pretense was a dependence on foreign aid and loans that would be more forthcoming to a government with the nominal structure and appearance of successful societies. Where it really matters though in term of law there is no right to private property. Any economic or social backwardness or suffering caused by that policy is considered well worth it as long as it ensures power . Therefore there is eternal aid dependence and dreams of massive infusions of aid instead of conditions for actual growth and the very worst crony capitalism instead of the real thing.

Central to all of these points we have endeavored to make is the state ownership of land based upon the social religion of communism. No matter what accommodations the Dergue or the TPLF could make with reality one point neither could abandon was state, party and their personal control of every single square meter of land and thus control of every Ethiopian life.

The free market is the only mechanism that has ever been discovered for achieving participatory democracy.

Milton Friedman

Every society that has held those views is neither prosperous nor free. It is all that simple. The essential bits of that ideology and its cannibalistic appetite for power such as state ownership of land and beyond the eyes of foreign aid donors the primacy of a single vanguard party will never be abandoned. Western aid donors are financing the proverbial boot on the common Ethiopian neck. The government has 70 million hostages against Western indifference or interference.

Two brands of totalitarianism (or modern slavery) have haunted Ethiopia in the past century. The first was fascism back in the 1930s when Mussolini invaded Ethiopian territory and communism since the 1970s when Marx invaded Ethiopian minds. The first never had a hold on a people determined to be free. The second, and we fear the more insidious for its staying power, may not leave without an exorcism whose trauma can be ill afforded.

The past century was a cauldron of industrialized religious, racial and ideological bloodletting. However, the world entered this new century with the same era's bitterly won legacy of hope. Aside from a few unenviable holdouts, the links between economic rights, prosperity and ultimately human rights has become a commonly accepted point of view.

Tragically, aside from carefully crafted policies to convince foreign observers and donors to the contrary, Ethiopia remains one of the last bastions of human civilization to reject these hard earned rights and rewards that were dreamed of and won at the cost of almost unimaginable sacrifice from Ethiopians.

Land will remain state-owned as long as the EPRDF is at the helm of the country's leadership.

Meles Zenawi

Simply put and deserving of repititon - the absence of prosperity, of human rights, of democracy and of the right to own land are inseperable concepts - and for Ethiopians their time has come.

No people anywhere can be free or experience any meaningful form of democracy without the right to own land as the ultimate factual representation and living symbol of their independence from those who would have them be subjects and not citizens.

Politburo Knows Best V - The Wretched of the Earth will take a look at these truths already evident to the vast majority of Ethiopians who actually live on the land and who are subject to dictatorship far from the eyes of Western aid donors.

Observers, both Ethiopians and ferenjis (foreigners) who comment on Ethiopian affairs uncritically should wonder if they themselves would want to live in such dire straits with no hope of escape. They should wonder why it is somehow OK for Ethiopians to have natural rights denied them that they have suffered and died for over countless generations while an inalienable right to property is a birthright of the rest of humanity.

A glance at the economic system and methods of totalitarian states -- of the Soviet bloc, for example -- is enough to show that state-ownership of the means of production does not lead to an increase of wealth for the people but, on the contrary, to their exploitation, whereas the reverse is true of the free countries and peoples, which are denounced for their so-called capitalism but which clearly illustrates how private ownership of the means of production is contributing more and more to the general welfare.

Ludwig Erhard

Wednesday, April 6

The Birth Of Plenty

Questions about how to make any poor country more wealthy can be approached by wondering how any human societies ever managed to end the age old reign of human poverty to begin with. In a reasonable and readable manner William Bernstein answers those questions in The Birth of Plenty where he argues that
Prosperity is not achieved by merely by possessing hydroelectric dams, roads, telephone wires, factories, fertile farmlands, or even great quantities of money. Nor can prosperity be transplanted from one nation to another simply by transferring the key components of an economic infrastructure.

In all but the most exceptional cases, national prosperity is not about physical objects or natural resources. Rather, it is about institutions—the framework within which human beings think, interact, and carry on business.
Most of humanity has been desperately poor for most of history with meaningful growth measured over centuries but
[t]he nature of that growth changed dramatically in the centuries following 1600. Initially, the growth was "extensive," consisting of a significant expansion of the national economy caused purely by population increase, unaccompanied by real improvement in the wealth or material comfort of the average citizen.

For the first time, the British economy mustered enough growth to keep pace with population numbers. By the nineteenth century, however, growth had become "intensive," outpacing even the human urge to reproduce, with advances in per capita income and an increase in material well-being at the individual level.
Karl Marx took note of this sea change in human affairs when in the Manifesto of the Communist Party he wrote “ The bourgeoisie, during its rule of scarce one hundred years, has created more massive and more colossal productive forces than have all preceding generations together.” By the ’rule of the bourgeoisie’ he means, of course, capitalism.

Contemporary Ethiopia does not rate very well among the preconditions for future plenty to spare her people levels of suffering that have become tradition. The author of ‘The Birth of Plenty’ defines the ‘sources of growth’ thus:
Property rights. Innovators and tradesmen must rest secure that the fruits of their labors will not be arbitrarily confiscated, by the state, by criminals, or by monopolists. The assurance that a person can keep most of his just reward is the right that guarantees all other rights. Note the emphasis on the word most.

The right to property is never absolute. Even the most economically libertarian governments, such as Singapore and Hong Kong, levy some taxes, enforce some form of eminent domain, and maintain some restrictions on commercial freedom of action. Similarly, confiscation can be more subtle than that which occurs in feudal or socialist states.

A government that fails to control inflation or maintain proper banking controls, such as Brazil's in the 1980s or present-day Zimbabwe's, steals from its citizens as surely as Edward III and Stalin did. In premodern Europe, government-granted monopolies, while highly profit-able to those who exercised them, sapped the incentive of the rest of the nation.
All land in Ethiopia belongs to the state. The citizens of any such state necessarily live in fear of losing their life’s work, represented by their property, for reasons either political or economic.

Indeed, the agents of such an all powerful state hold dominion over the very life and death of what are little more than millions of serfs. Thus, there is little to distinguish socialist models of governance, such as Ethiopia’s from feudal ones. In either case, the people are powerless and the engines of growth are crippled in the service of the power of a few.
Scientific rationalism. Economic progress depends on the development and commercialization of ideas. The inventive process requires a supportive intellectual framework—an infrastructure of rational thought, if you will, with a reliance on empirical observation and on the mathematical tools that support technologic advance. The scientific method that we take for granted in the modern West is a relatively new phenomenon.

Only in' the last four hundred years have Western peoples freed them-selves from the dead hand of the totalitarian, Aristotelian mind-set. Even today, particularly in parts of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, honest intellectual inquiry places life and property at grave risk from the forces of state and religious tyranny.
This section, in its negative aspects defines contemporary Ethiopia quite clearly. The governing ideology of ‘revolutionary democracy’ is a set of nonsensical frankly silly radical mantras that were long forgotten or wisely ignored by most of humanity. It gives Marxist-Leninist-Maoist justifications for effective one party rule while foreign aid donors are reassured by an impossible and non-existent simultaneous commitment to the free market.

Rationalism is also abandoned in an ethnic mode of governance where all political and thus all economic and social interactions are dominated by tribalism that is manipulated to the minute by minute advantage of Ethiopia’s rulers. Constitutionally any group of any size can secede at will for any reason - of course that is not the case but it lays the foundation for destroying potential rivals of every kind at the center’s convenience.
Capital markets. The large-scale production of new goods and services requires vast amounts of money from others—"capital." (money available for investment) Even if property and the ability to innovate are secure, capital is still required to develop schemes and ideas.

Since almost no entrepreneur has enough money to mass-produce his inventions, economic growth is impossible without substantial capital from outside sources [outside meaning from all but personal sources]. Before the nineteenth century, society's best, brightest, and most ambitious individuals had scant access to the massive amounts of money necessary to transform their dreams into reality.
The litany of impediments to any native entrepreneur’s efforts are only exceeded by how unwelcome foreign investors are beyond almost anecdotal reports involving foreign remittances in Addis Ababa. Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of foreign investment in Africa and considering the size of its population, per capita foreign investment may be the lowest on the planet.

In addition vast sums are locked up in the removal of all land from economic activity by the fact of state ownership. Taking into account the general anti-growth set of policies in place and the state of the banking sector it is clear that very few can dream of capital of any kind. Even those who manage it find themselves in competition with an effectively one party state and that owns businesses both ‘private’ and public at every level of society - taking any concept of patronage one might imagine to catastrophic levels.
Fast and efficient communications and transportation. The final step in the creation of gadgets [that were necessary for the industrial revolution] is their advertisement and distribution to buyers hundreds or thousands of miles away. Even if entrepreneurs possess secure property rights, the proper intellectual tools, and adequate capital, their innovations will languish unless they can quickly and cheaply put their products into the hands of consumers.

Sea transport did not become safe, efficient, and cheap until two centuries ago with the development of steam power, and land transport did not follow suit until about fifty years later.
Government monopoly of telecommunications places Ethiopia consistently in the very last group of failed of nearly failed states. This is compounded by frank hostility to freedom of communication evidenced by crippling the internet and in the limitations on a free press - or rather the absence of a free press outside of the hearing or sight of foreign aid donors.

Transportation is, of course, hampered by Ethiopia’s terrain. However, even there government interest is almost entirely based on foreign willingness to finance road construction projects. None of these factors can be divorced from each other and one must imagine how many more roads would be built in a rationally governed Ethiopia than the present.

The author continues
Not until all four of these factors—property rights, scientific rationalism, effective capital markets, and efficient transport and communication—are in place can a nation prosper. These four factors first coalesced, briefly, in sixteenth century Holland but were not securely in place in the English-speaking world until about 1820. Not until much later did the four factors begin to spread over the rest of the globe.
The absence of even one of these factors endangers economic prog-ress and human welfare; kicking out just one of these four legs will top-ple the platform upon which the wealth of a nation rests.

This occurred in eighteenth-century Holland with the British naval blockade, in the world's Communist states with the loss of property rights, and in much of the Middle East with the absence of capital markets and Western rationalism. Most tragic of all, in much of Africa, all four factors are still essentially absent.
One of the missing pieces in this book and of much development literature is the stomping roaring brightly pink colored elephant in the middle of the room with the word culture written all over it. We will begin to deal with culture shortly first in terms of Smith and Fukuyama, but will now note that culture is not static and that long before it becomes an issue some minimal accommodations to basic human experience must be made that are - as of 2005 still being ignored in Ethiopia.

Consider the wonderful possibilities of a stock market and imagine one in Ethiopia. Lack of property rights would deny most the capital to participate. The whole thing would never be taken seriously beyond the first few times Western journalists visit because the possibilities of market decisions and new concentrations of wealth and effort would be suspect and considered undoubtedly 'anti-revolutionary democracy' activities. Lastly, how could anyone ever know what a stock was worth when devaluing the stock of a government or party or crony owned company could mean imprisonment or 'disappearance'.

Understanding contemporary Ethiopia makes one come to the tragic realization that Ethiopia’s rulers are actually making perfectly rational choices every day and even in their long term planning. Purely from the point of view of staying in power and jealously guarding most of a small pool of rewards for as long as the juggling act can be kept up - all the right moves are being made.

The mistake from the observer’s point of view comes with the rather innocent set of assumptions one tends to bring to considerations of most national governments - often out of a desperate hope against all evidence.

The natural assumption of the well meaning mind that a decent balance can be found or is even considered worthy of discovery between the general good on one hand and the ruler's will to power on the other does not fit Ethiopia.

Monday, April 4

100 Days of Rwanda Project

Below are parts of the first and last posts from the essential 2004 blog '100 Days of Rwanda' that traced the 1994 genocide there on a day to day basis ten years after the fact. No one could have imagined that it would happen and it is hard to face the fact that it did. Usually in accounts of those bloody days there is much attention paid to international indifference that prevented the US, the UN or even the EU from stopping the genocide or even admitting that it was going on.

We believe that this point of view does a great harm to the essential history, identity and future of the Rwandan people of every tribe or ethnicity and indeed of all peoples. Decades of the politics of ethnic opportunism were really to blame for the deaths of 800,000 or more Tutsis and Hutu 'sympathisers'. Africans planned the genocide and they carried it out against other Africans.

Looking elsewhere for blame ignores the fact that Africans are adult citizens of the world fully cognizant of the choices between right and wrong. If evil in Africa is the fault of foreigners then surely foreigners must take credit for good in Africa. Africans and foreign observers are doing no one a favor by shifting blame - indeed acceptance of such blame is more of a sign of contempt than caring.

We think that Rwanda should serve as a cautionary tale for friends of Ethiopia in considering the consequences of current policies that see people first in terms of their tribe and second in terms of how that category of identification can be manipulated to the advantage of the elite.

Playing with ethnicity and race for political purposes is like playing with fire. If an inferno begins, the folks who will end up getting burned won't be the ones who started it.
[day 1]

On April 6, 1994, ten years ago this week, the small African nation of Rwanda began a journey down one of the darkest roads in human history, when the death of its president sparked the start of a virulent genocide that claimed over 800,000 lives... while the world stood by and watched.
The genocide in Rwanda lasted "only" 100 days. Three months where an average of 8,000 Rwandans were killed every day. It's occurred to me that one way to attempt to begin to understand, in a small way, the un-understandable, is to at least experience 100 days of being conscious of Rwanda, of what happened there, over the same stretch of time that it took hundreds of thousands of people to die.

We talk about "blogging" as a sort of ongoing thing... but it can also be an act, a finite effort with a beginning and end. I thought of creating a blog called 100 Days of Rwanda, where I would set out to present links to stuff (historical and present-day) about this country that Americans still don't know much about, and about what happened there ten years ago. It would be a learning process for myself, at the very least.

In the next 100 days I hope to learn a lot more about Rwandans of all backgrounds and their ongoing story.

[... day 100 ...]

They say the winners write the history. In Rwanda, mankind did not win. I must be honest and say that I found very little reason over the past 100 days to feel like there were any good guys in this story, although the very few ones who were, were exceptionally heroic. The question for me is, Are they enough? I don't know. They aren't enough for a rip-roaring feel-good, Western-moralists-to-the-rescue narrative, that's for certain. Are they enough to speak for mankind on a day of Last Judgment? Even that, I don't know.

As for Darfur, the crisis in the Sudan which has alarmed those who know what happened in Rwanda, the only reason people don't really care is because they don't know these people. Take a look at their faces.

Thank you for reading. Although this blog is now finished, Rwanda and its people will forever be real to me. I hope they will be real to you too.

Saturday, April 2

Capitalism & Slavery

The next time you come across a purported link between capitalism and slavery that does not seem the two as necessarily opposed to each other consider this article. In addressing the myth that "the modern world's prosperity is the product of the pre-20th-century enslavement of Africans in the Americas" he recounts a question and answer session after a talk he gave.
"But slavery ended in the United States in 1863!" I responded. "Look at all the wealth produced since then -- telephones, automobiles, antibiotics, computers. None was built with slave labor."

She anticipated my response. "Not directly. But the capital that made these innovations possible was extracted from slave labor. The wealth accumulated by slaveholders is what financed the industrialization that makes today's wealth possible."
I pointed out that slavery had been an ever-present institution throughout human history until just about 200 years ago. Why didn't slaveholders of 2,000 years ago in Europe or 500 years ago in Asia accumulate wealth that triggered economic growth comparable to ours?

Why is Latin America so much poorer today than the United States, given that the Spaniards and Portuguese who settled that part of the world were enthusiastic slavers? Indeed, the last country in the Americas to abolish slavery was Brazil -- in 1888, a quarter-century after U.S. abolition. By American and western European standards, Brazil remains impoverished.

And why, having abolished slavery decades before their Southern neighbors, were Northern U.S. states wealthier than Southern states before the Civil War?
The fact is that slavery disappeared only as industrial capitalism emerged. And it disappeared first where industrial capitalism appeared first: Great Britain. This was no coincidence. Slavery was destroyed by capitalism.

To begin with, the ethical and political principles that support capitalism are inconsistent with slavery. As we Americans discovered, a belief in the universal dignity of human beings, their equality before the law, and their right to govern their own lives cannot long coexist with an institution that condemns some people to bondage merely because of their identity.
The author rather conveniently skips over the fact that America took over 80 years to arrive at this point even in part and over 180 years to even accept it in full. But it does seem to us like he gets the basic point.
But even on purely economic grounds, capitalism rejects slavery because slaves are productive only when doing very simple tasks that can easily be monitored. It's easy to tell if a slave is moving too slowly when picking cotton. And it's easy to speed him up. Also, there's very little damage he can do if he chooses to sabotage the cotton-picking operation.

Compare a cotton field with a modern factory -- say, the shipyard that my father worked in as a welder until he retired. My dad spent much of his time welding alone inside of narrow pipes. If you owned the shipyard, would you trust a slave to do such welding? While not physically impossible to monitor and check his work, the cost to the shipyard owner of hiring trustworthy slave-masters to shadow each slave each moment of the day would be prohibitively costly.

Much better to have contented employees who want their jobs -- who are paid to work and who want to work -- than to operate your expensive, complicated, easily sabotaged factory with slaves.

Finally, the enormous investment unleashed by capitalism dramatically increases the demand for workers. (All those factories and supermarkets must be manned.) Even if each individual factory owner wants to enslave his workers, he doesn't want workers elsewhere to be enslaved, for that makes it more difficult for him to expand his operations. As a group, then, capitalists have little use for slavery.

History supports this truth: Capitalism exterminated slavery.
We went over most of these points in a previous post "Remembering Martin Luther King Jr." Essentially, capitalism and its cherished economic freedoms are impossible to separate in the long term from basic human and civil rights.

Attempted alternatives to capitalism in the modern era have invariably meant the horrors of arguably totalitarian slave societies of either the socialist or national socialist variety.