Er, Yes, Madam, Muslims do want liberty

There is a common view that Muslims don't share the values of liberty and democracy, as expounded by, say, to take a random example, Michele Bachmann from a few years ago. Do recent events vindicate those who had already argued there was a universal hunger for liberty? One of them was Michael Novak, who says today in a Wall Street Journal oped  (gated, sorry) today:

{There was} the slumbering yet restless desire for liberty in the Muslim of the human race would one day be awakened, even with an awful suddenness.

It may be that this is what we are seeing today, if only in a promissory note to be fully cashed in years to come. A rebellion against a cruel dictator is not same long step as a choice for a polity of law and rights; it is only a step.

Yet it took the Jewish and Christian worlds centuries to begin cashing in their own longings for liberty...The universal hunger for liberty is not satisfied in any one generation..

But let us now rejoice that in our time we have lived to see one of liberty's most fertile and widespread explosions. Islam, a religion of rewards and punishments, is -- like Christiantiy and Judaism -- a religion of liberty. History will bear this out.

David Brooks in NYT agrees on the Arab world:

many people in Arab nations do share a universal hunger for liberty. They feel the presence of universal human rights and feel insulted when they are not accorded them.

Culture is important, but underneath cultural differences there are these universal aspirations for dignity, for political systems that listen to, respond to and respect the will of the people.

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OK let's get really rigorous about using local knowledge on US regions

One great response to Friday's post on David Brooks' less-than-perfect-knowledge about the Midwest was a Discover Magazine blog post by Razib Khan that provided the following evidence-based map:

and for those who missed it in the comments section, here's a story from my favorite news source:

'Midwest' Discovered Between East And West Coasts

"I long suspected something was there," said Franklin Eldred, a Manhattan native and leader of the 200-man exploratory force. "I'd flown between New York and L.A. on business many times, and the unusually long duration of my flights seemed to indicate that some sort of large area was being traversed, an area of unknown composition."

Though the Midwest territory is still largely unexplored, early reports describe a region as backwards as it is vast. "Many of the basic aspects of a civilized culture appear to be entirely absent," said Gina Strauch, a Los Angeles-based anthropologist. "There is no theater to speak of, and their knowledge of posh restaurants is sketchy at best. Further, their agricentric lives seem to prevent them from pursuing high fashion to any degree, and, as a result, their mode of dress is largely restricted to sweatpants and sweatshirts

"We must remember that these people are not at all like us," Conde Nast publisher and Manhattan socialite Lucille Randolph Snowdon said. "They are crude and provincial, bewildered by our tall buildings and our art galleries, our books and our coffee shops."

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Why populism is popular with elites

Amusing quote from David Brooks' NYT oped today:

populism is popular with the ruling class. Ever since I started covering politics, the Democratic ruling class has been driven by one fantasy: that voters will get so furious at people with M.B.A.’s that they will hand power to people with Ph.D.’s. The Republican ruling class has been driven by the fantasy that voters will get so furious at people with Ph.D.’s that they will hand power to people with M.B.A.’s. Members of the ruling class love populism because they think it will help their section of the elite gain power.

The development version of populism is to appeal for stronger and more sweeping actions to help "the poor." Of course, those actions will be implemented by the development elite. Unlike domestic politics, both elites in development are usually Ph.D.'s.

There are the "pro-market" Ph.D.'s that claim to have expert wisdom on how to make markets work in poor countries (with insufficient knowledge of those countries' complex informal and formal institutions). Think shock therapy in former Soviet Union and structural adjustment/Washington Consensus in Africa and Latin America.

Then there are the "pro-state" Ph.D.'s that claim to have expert wisdom on how to make states work in poor countries to alleviate poverty (with insufficient knowledge on the politics and capacity of the state). Think industrial policy, protectionism, Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers.

The alternative to top-down expert-driven populism in development is bottom-up development that promotes decentralized help and self-help by many, many actors...

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NYT's David Brooks on "What Works in Development"

An editorial in the NYT by David Brooks discusses "What Works in Development" (see our previous posts on the book) in the context of explaining why aid has thus far failed to achieve growth in Haiti.

In the recent anthology “What Works in Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t seem to produce the expected results.

The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit Banerjee: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control.”

(We should point out that the book has some positive messages to offer too, for example on how economists are reaching some consensus around using rigorous evaluation to study what does work.)

Read the whole op-ed here.

Also of interest in the article is Brooks' argument that Haiti's "progress-resistant" culture is largely to blame for the country's extreme poverty. This strikes me as overly reductive (although interesting recent economics research does point to the importance of values like trust in determining prosperity.)  Brooks' list of rejected explanations include slavery and colonial history, bad government and corruption, foreign invasions,  geography and climate. I wonder what others who have spent time studying, living or working in Haiti think of the relative weight of these explanatory variables.

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