Friday, January 15, 2010

Random Memories

When I was about ten, we had a "guest" of some sort come to our class with a project for us to complete. We were divided into groups, and each group received an envelope of pieces for a simple puzzle - but no one had all of the required pieces. Our task was to trade with other groups so that we could complete the puzzle.

When my group opened our envelope we found a large number of identical pieces, and two other unique pieces - well short of the number we needed to complete the puzzle. You're probably guessing at this point that the pieces were distributed randomly, so we could simply go around the room trading our large set of pieces for the others we needed. Wrong. Everybody already had that puzzle piece. And we couldn't trade our other pieces without ending up exactly where we started - no, there was no artificial scarcity of those pieces such that we might have been able to do a two-for-one trade. It was one-for-one at best, so a trade would leave us exactly where we started. So, basically, we sat out the exercise while we watched the other groups complete their puzzles.

We did have options, I'll grant, but none that would have worked in a controlled classroom setting. We could have "declared war" on another group to take the pieces we needed. We could have attempted to trick other groups out of their pieces ("I'll trade you the pieces you need, hidden in this envelope, for the following..."). We could have tried stealing. Or begging. In retrospect, a war might have been fun, but by now you've figured out that we were in an impossible situation.

As no explanation was provided to the class, once we were done I asked our visitor why we were given no chance of succeeding. I was told that the exercise was to demonstrate international trade, and that we were in the position of a "have not" nation. Perhaps that was realistic, as none of the "haves" even noticed that our group existed, but there was a bit of a problem: they also didn't notice that they were supposed to be learning something beyond the immediate exercise of trading puzzle pieces. Even within my group the lesson was far from obvious. I think, by virtue of my asking, I was the only person who was let in on the little secret of what we were supposed to have learned.

Many years later, I went to see a documentary with a group of friends. One asked, "What's the movie about?" The response, "A journalist in Haiti."

"Oh, then it has an unhappy ending."

"How do you know?"

"Because it happened in Haiti."

Going back to my elementary school exercise for a moment, I don't think you have to have any great amount of insight to recognize why a nation that has virtually nothing in the way of resources has a difficult time emerging from poverty. You can argue that some form of paternalism could help Haiti improve itself, and you would probably be right, but perhaps you shouldn't do so after glorifying the rise of the resource-rich, uber-authoritarian People's Republican of China. (Is it something in the water at the Times building?)

You can also argue that there's "no consistently proven way to reduce corruption" or increase growth; but that doesn't mean we can't figure out, in retrospect, why a particular nation has high levels of corruption or why it hasn't grown. You can talk about how Haiti and the Dominican Republic share a desperately poor island, but that the Dominican Republic is much less desperate in its poverty and "has trees", but to then switch topics to China, the Barbados and Harlem suggests an overt effort to avoid drawing any lessons from Haiti's history. It's not as if Haiti's trees one day decided things were better in the Dominican Republic and snuck across the border - there's a history there.

Perhaps you should also start by recognizing that people who are mostly concerned with getting enough food to eat aren't going to be listening to your moral disapprobations over their own stomachs, no matter how benign your paternalism or how misguided you believe their religion to be. China has the puzzle pieces. Harlem has the puzzle pieces. Even controlling for massive earthquakes, Haiti still has to beg.
It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people - maybe just in a neighborhood or a school - with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.
That shouldn't be too hard. I suspect Haiti actually does have enough middle class people to fill up, um, one neighborhood1....

It's the darndest thing - sometimes a people's belief "that is life is capricious and planning futile" is borne of the fact that their world is miserable. Sure, you have Nick Kristof to occasionally tell you of the glories of child sweatshop labor as a means to rise... if not out of poverty, at least away from the need to sell your children or prostitute yourself. But when companies decide to move their factories out of Haiti to the relative stability of China, where does that leave you?
1. I exaggerate, but:
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with 80% of the population living under the poverty line and 54% in abject poverty.
* * *
Household income or consumption by percentage share:
* lowest 10%: 0.7%
* highest 10%: 47.7% (2001)

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