Monday, June 07, 2004

Small Boy Sums Up Problems with Iraqi Occupation

This is a re-post of a piece I wrote in response to one in a number of Slate Dispatches from Iraq.

[author Wendell]Steavenson writes:
"In the corner, an American sergeant was being taught Arabic by a small local boy.

"I'm trying to get him to take some money for it," he told me, "But he shakes his head. I told him that in America when someone does something for you, you should pay him. I don't know if he understands that.""

If you want to get starry eyed, which I think is a good thing sometimes, you could be led to believe that this boy, as boys and girls and adults in many cultures, believes that certain things you do to be civil, certain things you do because you want to; certain things' value lies not in money, and helping, chatting, contacting other humans is not something that can or should be paid for, and cannot be replaced with money, contingent valuation or no.

The sergeant is offering the boy this culture of money, and he is saying no -- is this emblematic of something greater?

If you want to be a little more cynical, this interaction may not be so noble. Perhaps the young boy is helping the sergeant in hope of future favors -- a seemingly plausible and smart investment. In the turmoil that is outside of the Green Zone, and is trying to extend its tendrils inside, a favor from a US sergeant may be the difference between being recognized and being shot; between aid in a crucial moment or pragmatic apathy; between life and death for you or your family.

Perhaps this is also not the small boy's intent. I don't know. But it is a plausible conjecture, and certainly reinforces the concept that we went to Iraq without knowing who they were or what they want. And how can we "rebuild" their country with them, if we don't know such crucial things? We are trying to "modernize the savages" once again, to bring capitalism to the backwards people of the world. Iraq is not completely foreign to capitalism, of course. But the custom of gift-giving, of a certain civility, repeated in Stevenson's dispatches, seems to baffle us as much as we seem to baffle some Iraqis. And why shouldn't it? Modern capitalism presumes that almost everything is infinitely interchangeable with money or alternate economic goods. Yet, if the sergeant paid the boy, if their relationship was more business like, in a theoretical crucial moment, where that sergeant may be able to help that little boy, will he feel the same obligation to aid an "employee"? Or is there a relationship that is formed from freely given help that is different, that is precisely invaluable, that we, the US, have seemingly long since forgotten, and are now trying to "sophisticate" out of the Iraqi people?

I got several responses questioning my questions (or rather, how I approached it I suppose). Major themes:

I was making something out of nothing.
The soldier was just trying to be nice.
Hospitality is alive and well in various cultures.
I misread their exchange.
Capitalism is not to blame/the Iraqis cannot/should not be portrayed as "naive" to capitalism; they've been part of capitalism like everyone else.

See this discussion thread starting with a rebutting response here.

Some of my responses:

The possibility that relativism is real

Granted, I may be making more of it than what is there. There may be no "there" there, to use my favorite Goodspeak (or perhaps "doubleplus ungood crimethink"). But that's sort of what metaphors are for -- and what I was trying to make was a metaphor.

Anyway, while I agree that there may be less to this than it seems, I think you should realize that "being civil" is not an absolute thing. What is civil in one culture is pretty rude in another. Before extensive US contact, a "thumbs-up" in Iraq would have been quite the opposite of civil (it means, approx., "up yours" apparently). I agree the officer was *trying* to be civil, but my point is *trying* isn't the same as *understanding* what civility is to the other person. In some parts of Latin American culture (by which I mean my ex-girlfriend's family at least), it's *very* rude to offer to pay for a favor. It's saying you don't value their friendship, that you wouldn't do the same favor for them for free, that you don't want their help or to be beholden to them.

It ain't always that deep. But the thing is, what I learned at the former Fortune 500 co. I worked at that, if nothing else, had excellent "diversity" training, is that the Golden Rule is a HORRIBLE idea. Don't treat others as YOU'D want to be treated -- you may want to be treated very differently than they do -- treat them as THEY want to be treated, which means talking to them and figuring out how they see things, and trying your best to find some compromise where you both are treated as each of you want, rather than assuming everyone wants the same thing you want.

Bottom line: the soldier may be trying to be civil, but that doesn't mean his actions are *received* as any more civil than a friend that always comes over and eats all your food or continually doesn't pay back loans or borrows the car and nicks it and thinks that's ok would be seen as civil here. He should try and figure out why the boy doesn't want the money, and work from there, rather than trying to make him a good American capitalist.


Ahhh, I see the problem

Ah, I see the problem.

I am assuredly under no delusions that Iraqis do not use, know, or understand capitalism.

However, the point that "markets exist", such as the Baghdad market, is quite different than saying that someone is a capitalist, or understands the (current US/Western) form of capitalism.

Markets do many things well. But Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes both presumed that markets should have a moral and/or local component not governed strictly by "economic logic" (although neoclassical/neoliberal economists dismiss these parts of their arguments as flawed logic by otherwise brilliant people). My only point was the the US form of capitalism assumes that markets do almost *everything* well, which is not a scientific hypothesis, but a belief founded primarily in theory and unresolved empirically (sidenote: it's also assumed, or sometimes mathematically asserted, that the market foils of negative AND positive externalities, incomplete information (i.e. transparency), interchangability of goods, and competitive markets don't matter, which is convenient if not correct as it encourages the Western countries to forge on in the same way as we have been gooing.).

Many or some countries don't view everything as commoditizable -- human contact, interpersonal relationships, favors, proximity/community, etc. Even things that are impossible/inconvenient to market in reality (i.e. human lives/suffering) have been attempted to be encompassed by convenient monetary figures (sometimes through contingent valuation). While I would say its a sometimes necessary evil, some think that paying someone for a service/favor is interchangable/superior to doing someone a favor gratis.

Bottom line: I agree with your point, and the facts as presented. My metaphor was only based on the fact that things like extended families, home care, vacation time, family time, free time, air quality, water quality, global warming, friendship, person-to-person communication, person-to-person customer service, small, local shops, etc., or *personal favors/general friendship/hospitability have been found wanting by the American market in many cases, and that may not be the case in all places, and may not have been the case with the small boy. And indeed I gave theoretical market"ish" reasons in the metaphor as well, that would explain his gratis actions still based on self-interest. (Sorry this is a bit longwinded).

As I said before, if it happened as described, I would just like the soldier to try and learn about the boy and not *only* teach him "our" way to do things -- the seeming tradition of shopkeepers offering (apparently free) drinks or small snacks to some of the American passers-by in the Green Zone isn't normally the American Way. There are many things in Iraq that are certainly not done the American Way, or the Capitalist/Neoliberal Way. Small boy included or not, let's not presume to teach them/change them to our ways without bothering to learn theirs, and perhaps in some cases changing ours as well.
Nota bene on economics

I'm curious to what extent you think we *don't* view everything as commoditizable. I will readily agree not everyone in the US does. And not all academics or politicians or economists do. But if you've read much about the prevailing neoliberal/neoclassical economics that our economists and most business ilk advocate, the theoretical structure for where they want our economy to go is built on an everything-is-commoditizable assumption. This is also the rhetoric of our government, most often. Privitization is the big thing now, to turn back the governmental structures of the past. Many New Deal (and other) programs certainly have problems to be addressed. But any assessment of the market as stands will show efficiency is certainly not always found in or improved by privatization. Externalities exist. Large ones. Transparency is low. And the rhetoric of pulling oneself up (cf Ward Connerly) is predicated on our being discrete atomic units of "homo economicus". I worked in a Fortune 500 company for several years, and let me tell you, they were certainly moving and marketing based on the idea everything is commoditizable. And those things that aren't readily made economic, well the entire purpose of contingent valuation is to absorb those wholly into the economic sphere.

If you've read a lot of papers or columns in mass or academic media about how economic theory has strict limits in its ability to encompass human life, interactions, and happiness, please point me to it, I'd love to read it.
Quite True

People are ambivalent about it because there's a substantial (and seemingly growing) Malthusian/Ricardoan resurgence in the ideals of a free market and Social Darwinism. But on the other hand, people tend to like the primary existing New Deal programs (eg. Social Security). And they tend to think the economy shouldn't leave them to the wolves. But there's this nagging feeling that maybe it would be better if we did... we're told everyone's better off if everyone pursues their own self-interest.

The fact that game theory basically says "it depends" -- sometimes it's better and sometimes cooperation is (see recent work by Joel Cohen), and the fact that in the past we got what most people would call pretty undesirable results from Social Darwinism, and the fact that most people WANT to help others, but they're told the best way is to pursue their own self-interest wholly -- well, no wonder we're confused.

The most annoying thing to me is that the fact that Ricardo and Malthus both *specifically* delineated one the flaws of their arguments (that landholders and company owners could become wealthy, and unproductive members of society because owning the factors of production, beyond a certain point, did nothing to directly increase its efficiency, and indeed at a certain point, they would want to keep their own wealth and thereby decrease the ability of their employees to spend money to keep consumption up), and they basically said "well, let's exclude land owners and corporation owners from the analysis. They're of a class smart enough to know they shouldn't reproduce that much, but should keep consuming to keep the economy going and keep their poor laborers from gaining too much power through higher wages."

The Republicans often decry Democrats as using class warfare -- but isn't it pertinent that some of their theories of free market are based explicitly on proponents of class warfare, who excepted part of their theories from analysis in order to support the argument that the poor should remain that way ad infinitum?


(response to Metro_Hillbilly's posts here & here)

I would agree that greed is the root cause of the problem; but urban sprawl is the result of this greed, and becomes a means to perpetuate the problem.

A) Re: sprawl, property laws and the housing subsidies after WWII, as well as declining taxes and tax bases in cities and reductions of social services have caused major urban flight. Neighborhoods have cleaned out, and the social safety net (of the kind Kucinich-type politics endorses) leaves little resources to better cities. "Personal initiative" is often spoken of as the key, but as was said in "King Lear": "nothing can come of nothing." The serious effects of inherited wealth and privelege are almost always overlooked in our culture -- is it pure coincidence practically all of our presidents have kinship with English royalty? I do not for a moment believe this is somehow "in the genes" or coincidence -- it is the inheritance of privelege (which, if I understand, is why many of the Founding Fathers were in *favor* of the estate tax -- (some of them) did not want the creation of a hereditary aristocracy, such as we have today.

Posits: Quality education with individualized instruction can help children of almost any background; they've even seen very good results with developmentally retarded children that get close, well-planned education. The parental involvement is very important, but this again ties to the lack of community, the lack of resources (i.e. spare time, two parent homes, well-paying jobs, an engaged school staff encouraging parental involvement, and safe community spaces for children to get together and learn with each other or their parents outside of school). People argue that money spent per student is not a predictor, as it wildly varies across the US -- but this is a false analysis. Much more money may be spent at an inner-city school for worse results than a school in a small rural community, or a suburb, that spends less per child. But this has to be normalized -- city schools have higher operating costs (land costs more; skilled & unskilled labor costs more; maintenance & security almost certainly cost more). If the data is correctly normalized, one finds that money spent per student is a *strong* predictor of success, but there are obviously different minimum requirements in rural Iowa than in inner-city Phoenix as far as how far the same amount of money goes. This kind of external structural failure is exactly the type of thing Kucinich's policies would attempt to correct. (Though since Kucinich will not be the nominee, I'm likely supporting Nader.)

As far as sprawl, the size of the average house is increasing, and the lawn size, and the use of planned subdivisions which isolate communities into little islands that can be broached only with cars (and therefore, with adults), and the marketing of houses, appliances, and entertainment, and the niche specialization of all of these, driven by greed and the possession-focused American lifestyle all send the message to people that their space should begin and end within their own home. Civic involvement is a "plus", but few people (in the Cincinnati and Michigan suburbs I've lived in) view involvement in local government, the PTA, and other imperative issues of a strong community sphere as a necessary part of life, but rather as "nice to haves" or jobs that they're "glad someone else is doing." There is a theory that this is in part due to the present incrementalism of job wages -- as opposed to earlier in the last century, where there were significant differences in effort required to get above certain wages, which therefore conspired to keep people working at a certain level with a certain stable amount of effort, the number of levels one can move up and incremental wage increases encourages people to work ever more hours (and this lack of time for community further encourages the withering of a public sphere and the embracing of home amenities as the focus of life when not in work). It's important to note that Americans get the lowest amount of vacation days and work the longest hours of the developed countries (excluding Japan perhaps), and have the lowest productivity. Working more does not mean working better; and two to four weeks of vacation a year further shrivels the fruit of community and family time on the vine. But no one in the American community is willing to be the first one to cut hours or encourage more time at home -- being a company that well serves its customers is insufficient. Each company must grow, and grow faster than last year and than all other countries (which, in the long and short terms, is unsustainable -- nothing can grow forever without crashing, and in general in nature, the slower something grows, the more careful it is about it, the longer it lasts).

As far as family time and two working members, I don't blame the women's movement at all. For one thing, the promiscuity you talk of has been here for, if not time eternal, a long while. I can't think of any reason that the public exposure of it makes it worse -- if you think of actual historical/political studies of the past, and even popular culture like Shakespeare, or even theatre in, say, Egypt or China or Japan -- the difference was marital infidelity was expected, accepted, and not talked about openly. But there was a whole lot of sleeping around among all classes of people; the social mores regarding admitting it openly, or accepting it (especially among women), were different. And men were far more prone to cheat than women. I see little about previous systems to commend them on their own merits.

There's no reason we can't generate better parenting, but again this ties to the types of ideas Kucinich espouses. An encouragement for people to work to live, rather than live to work, to enjoy what they do and also enjoy their time away from work, to *value* non-working time as contributing to society and the economy, is certainly far more socialist that capitalist in nature, but I think it's apparent it would generate better results. As would more flexible work environments. Capitalism encourages competition, which is good for efficiency; but it's also good for wearing itself down into the ground. I.e. there's probably a most efficient way to make a bodywash (my old job); but competition has now driven us past this and into a place where companies try and invent some new benefit to a bodywash that, essentially, they can *convince us* we want, and then sell it to us. Would it not be more efficient, in a resource limited world (which is what we live in), to accept that a certain amount of consumer products and convenience is useful, but that in the scheme of things, it may be time to focus on other values? Without broaching any kind of more direct meddling, I'm thinking of the rat race that there was in bodywash, and how reluctant anyone was to take vacation lest they lose time to someone else and lose a promotion later down the line. But wouldn't we be better served with longer maternity and paternity leave, more flexible schedules, and more vacation, rather than more bodywash? (And just to show you this can fit into a capitalist mind set, my former company was headed in this direction until the "bubble" burst -- which made them focus on short term strategy again. But wouldn't staff training and satisfaction be the best long term investment?)

I also see no reason the man can't be encouraged to stay home more. If there's a problem with two working parents, I see no reason why 50% of the men should work and 50% should be stay-athome dads, and 50% of women work and 50% stay at home. I think the generalization of a woman submitting naturally is false -- some want to, some don't, but to assume all will do it naturally or happily is almost certainly wrong, and any cultural or social attempt to make those who don't want to do it is unfounded and undemocratic. The negotiation should be societal -- if we value child-raising so much, education should be better, more widely available, and provided for all the way through college. Exposure to college, even without graduation, tends to lead to better outcomes for people and their children, who they tend to pass down education's importance from their experiences. But many can't afford to go that want to, and society loses out. Child care should also be more widespread and community-oriented, and sprawl (which increases separation, segragation, and transportation costs) should be minimized.

These things have worked and not worked at various times in various countries; but there's no reason to think they're worse than our system as the US has the highest class separation (i.e. income inequality) of the developed world, the lowest educational outcomes for money spent, and the poorest health care for money spent vs. more socialized systems. The capitalist system seems to be stuck at a local maximum -- perhaps due to the large number of externalities we refuse to internalize.

A last note -- I don't know if you know anything about Cuba. I've been there, and my advisor has traveled there extensively. Although there is political repression, it *does not compare* to that of capitalist countries in SA such as Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in many ways. These all have different sets of freedoms and plusses and minuses, but Colombia has the highest murder rate in the world I believe, and opposition parties often have political members "disappeared." The average person feels little committment or involvement in the government. On the other hand, in Cuba, almost everyone votes (the accusation that Castro is unelected conflates different issues; he undoubtedly wields undue power, but his position is like that of a Prime Minister; the inherent character of his position is no more dictatorial than that of Tony Blair or any other parliamentary government. Other structures and cultural politics come into play in his position, but he is not elected directly because *you do not elect prime ministers*.) Everyone is involved in local community organizations. And all the people I talked to had reservations about their government; just like us. But few, if any of them, would trade their system for ours willingly (people from cab drivers to busboys to farmers asked us if the US were going to attack Cuba, and if there was anything we could do to stop the US from invading and bringing our politics there). Also, keep in mind that Cuba is considered a country of high development by the human development indicators. It has near universal literacy, more doctors per person than the US, infant mortality almost as low as ours, a high average education level, and perhaps ~25% of their population going to college. In other words, they are doing better than almost all other latin american (or African, or Asian) countries, with a far more limited (due to the embargo) economy.

While we certainly don't want all the conceits of a Cuban-style system ("the trains running on time" is no justification, that type of thing), I would say much of their success can be (and frankly, is) in a socialist-democratic context. (I can name similar examples of socialist-type program successes in Brazil, among other places).

So, yeah. That's kinda where I'm coming from.

Alrighty, I think that relieves much of my Slate backlog... tchau gente.

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