The Corner

Re: A Dash of Pessimism

Derb — Thanks . . . I think. On the assumption that you’re trying to start a conversation. Let me respond to your last point first. You state that Haiti really isn’t “that poor.” And for proof you list the 29 countries that are as poor or arguably slightly poorer than Haiti:

The Gambia; Uganda; São Tomé-Príncipe; Burma; Burkina Faso; Guinea; Mali; Nepal; Comoros; Madagascar; Tokelau; Ethiopia; Mozambique; Togo; Sierra Leone; Rwanda; Afghanistan; Malawi; Central African Republic; Niger; Eritrea; Guinea-Bissau; Somalia; Liberia; Burundi; DR Congo; Zimbabwe.

Call me crazy, but that reads like proof of the opposite point. Those are some pretty frickn’ poor countries! Hey, Haiti’s not poor, it’s on par with Rwanda, Guinea-Bissau, and Somalia! To me that’s like saying Rupert Murdoch isn’t that rich and then listing a bunch of billionaires who are in his same class or richer.

(As an aside, I will confess to being surprised that Burma is that poor).

Of course Haiti is poor. Surely we can agree that when a country has a per capita GDP of $2 per day, it’s poor. I’m kind of at a loss as to why anyone would bother disputing the point.

Then there’s your opening bit:

Hey Jonah: Nice tribute to the transformative powers of American culture. There is a great deal more to be said about that, though. I have said some of it in my book (which you should buy!), quoting good, careful, multi-generational studies like this one. And when will the transformative power of our culture work its magic on the Haitian street gangs that have been plaguing Miami for years (and seem to be metastasizing)

I’m not entirely sure how to respond to this since it reads as if there are more arguments implied than actually stated here. Yes, there are Haitian gangs in Miami. They are bad. Therefore . . . what? American culture isn’t transformative? It’s only transformative on certain groups? What’s the point?

If your point is that American culture isn’t perfectly alchemical, converting the crooked timber of humanity into gold instantly, I agree with you entirely (did I suggest otherwise?). After all, the transformative power of our culture has taken considerable time working on all sorts of ethnic gangs and similar criminal endeavors. The Cosa Nostra is still hanging on and the Russian mob is thriving. Does that mean I think it’s just as easy to assimilate Haitians as it is Russians? No (though I suspect a rich Hatian would be easier to assimilate than many poor Russians). But you seem to want to imply that it is impossible because of some gangs in Miami, and going by the Haitian Americans I know, never mind common sense, I don’t think that insinuation is fair or right.

Regardless, it’s all a red herring insofar as I’m not actually advocating anything that has to do with Haitian immigration into the U.S.

And then you write this:

It is all very well to say that we need to transform Haiti’s “culture of poverty.” Does anyone actually have a clue how to do that? And are your “culturist” assumptions anyway solid enough to serve as a basis for public policy? They seem to me to belong in the realm of good manners and social taboos, not in the realm of fact.

For the record, the word “we” doesn’t appear in my column. I don’t advocate that America take over Haiti and fix the place. Although I do think as a moral and political matter we need to help the country in at least the short- and medium-term. The point of my column was that Haiti’s problems stem largely from its culture. I don’t think you disagree with that, or at least you don’t in your post. And the obvious implication at the end of my column is that America should stop sustaining a culture that keeps Haiti in poverty. I don’t know that you disagree with that either.

Last, the assertion that this argument about aid and development resides solely in the “realm of good manners and social taboos not in the realm of fact” strikes me as rather nonsensical. It is a raging debate. It is also not purely about culture as you seem to want to describe it, but culture as I want to describe it, so as to include the rule of law, property rights and so on. Hernando de Soto hardly seems like someone who confines himself to taboos and good manners, whatever that actually means.

I confess that I don’t have a ten-point public policy program (“culturalist” or otherwise) But I can think of point number one right now: Stop what we’ve been doing.

For those interested, Bret Stephens had a great column on this point just yesterday.

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