I am Going Out on a Limb by David Montgomery

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I am going out on a limb.  As I see it, people who idolize foulmouthed comics like Amy Schumer are having fainting spells over President Trump’s alleged comment about shithole countries. Outlets that happily quote obscene rants from Sarah Silverman put on their Victorian costumes and cover up the same words with **** when the President utters them.

Obscenities and profanity have become part of the common language of movies, cable TV and rap music blaring from rice rockets on the road.

If his critics use language just as crude as the President, what is the flap about?  I believe that what the President did is violate the diplomatic pretense that every country is as virtuous, well-governed and civilized as the Western democracies.  That may not be the behavior that some sensitive souls expect of the President, but it is a long overdue recognition of the fact that almost all the poor countries of the world are so because they are failed states, governed by violent thieves and riven with crime and corruption.  That is not a criticism of their people, almost all of whom are peaceful, Christian, desperately poor and deserving of a far better life.  It is a factual description of how they are governed and of the nature of the despots and elites that plunder and rule them.

Since even before Papa Doc Duvalier took over in 1957, Haiti has been governed by a sequence of corrupt rulers and their cronies.  Large parts of Mexico are no-go zones for Americans because of drug wars and crime and its economy has been hamstrung by cycles of socialist and xenophobic policies, not to mention persecution of the Catholic Church by anticlerical revolutionaries on a scale to rival ISIS.  Venezuela was driven from relative if unequally distributed prosperity to the brink of starvation by a socialist demagogue who destroyed its most important industry.   

Ecuador is ruled by a delusional demagogue.  Rwanda, Sudan, and the Congo are repeatedly riven with genocidal wars between tribes and ethnic groups.  Zimbabwe, the breadbasket of Africa when it was Southern Rhodesia, became unable to feed even its own people after decades of expropriation of white farmers and theft by Mugabe and his family.

Countries like Namibia and Botswana have improved their standard of living in almost miraculous fashion because they adopted the clean governments and economic freedoms that we expect in the West.

The Heritage Foundation annually publishes an Index of Economic Freedom that ranks countries in a number of dimensions of governance.  The countries that score lowest in these rankings are consistently found in the list of countries will lowest per capita incomes and lowest per capita income growth.   So why the official silence on this issue?

I believe that the silence furthers the agenda of international bureaucracies and is sustained by fear of appearing racist or xenophobic.  I spent two decades working with and criticizing the UN sponsored groups that develop forecasts of future greenhouse gas emissions.   These scenarios have to be adopted by other subsidiaries of the UN before they can be part of official pronouncements about future levels and impacts of climate change.  

In all these scenarios, the failed states of Africa, Latin America and Asia were assumed to have the fastest rates of economic growth of all countries, so that the point could be made that wealthier countries must give up fossil fuels immediately to make room for their poorer neighbors to grow into economic equality.  

Even when scenarios were admitted that did not assume all countries converge to equal levels of per capita GDP, the reason given for slow growth in poor countries was the Marxist fantasy that wealthy countries continue to exploit them.  No mention was made of internal failures of governance and institutions.

Rarely is it admitted that there is not a snowball’s chance in global warming hell of most currently-poor countries achieving rapid economic growth.  Pointing out in a UN workshop on emission scenarios that these countries are poor precisely because they are failed states run by oppressive dictators would lead to exactly the same reaction that greeted the President’s uncouth comment.  

Thus we have had exaggerated predictions of emissions growth based on the politically untouchable assumption that poor countries are all poised to take off into sustained growth. The underlying policy agenda as well as diplomatic courtesy was furthered by ignoring the fact that there are failed states unlikely to grow without fundamental institutional change.

More important than this minor aberration in UN forecasts, this pretense that the governments of poor countries are virtuous and accountable lies behind much of the failure of aid policy since WWII.  As Easterly and Collier amply document, aid policy toward developing countries has been a sham, in which donor agencies pretend that the funds they distribute through the corrupt governments of these countries are being put to good use, and the despots and thieves who run them pretend that the funds and supplies are being distributed to the poor when in fact they are lining the pockets of the ruling elites.

The rate of growth of per capita income in many of the poorest countries has been zero or negative in recent years, and those that did achieve sustained growth all did so by controlling violence and achieving a degree of political and economic freedom.  But the bureaucracies of foundations, government agencies that dole out aid, and the UN in particular have nothing to gain by requiring accountability.  Their metric is how much money they have sent out, not what change they have affected.  And that will not change until the fact that bad governments and failed institutions are the reasons for poverty is admitted.

So what is happening in U.S. policy that affects these countries in fact, not just in words?  Last week, Vice President Pence and Ambassador Haley broke the conspiracy of silence to demand that United Nations relief efforts recognize that Christian minorities being oppressed in these countries are as deserving as other recipients of UN aid, and USAID started moving funds and supplies to those communities directly.

Agencies like Catholic Relief Services, though they pursue some politically correct agendas of questionable value, recognize that the only way their help can be effective is if it is delivered directly at the community level, not through corrupt regional and national officials.  This approach is increasingly being adopted by privately-funded organizations working in poor countries.

But on top of this it is necessary for the international community to end its code of silence about the nature of failed states and the culpability of their rapacious rulers.  If President Trump’s words could lead to recognition that there really are failed states for which the description is accurate, they might lead to action that would actually do some good for the people suffering under those regimes.

A final reflection: if a citizen of Zimbabwe were to tell me that for all the faults of its leaders, he loves his beautiful country and cannot abide hearing it called a ****hole, I would apologize to him.  I am equally offended at what many say about my beloved country, and I am aware that Zimbabwe is a wonderful place to hunt and a very special place.  I would agree that the President’s alleged comment was a poor choice of words, and he should have talked about countries with ****head leaders and ****ty institutions that keep their people in poverty and desperate to come here.  

Still, the solution to oppressive regimes and failed institutions cannot be migration on a global scale.  It has to be making things better where people now live, and that requires a complete rethinking about how to be prudent and effective contributors to their betterment.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.

 

Letters to Editor

  1. Karen Hayes says:

    David Montgomery indeed went out on a limb with this article. I was curious about his words “rice rocket”, as I have never heard that term, so I did a Google search. Wikipedia definition of rice rocket is : Rice machine, rice rocket, rice grinder, or ricer. Rice burner is a pejorative, used as early as the 1960s, originally describing Japanese motorcycles, then later applied to Japanese cars, and eventually to Asian-made motorcycles and automobiles in general. The term is often defined as offensive or racist stereotyping. In some cases users of the term assert that it is not offensive or racist, or else treat the term as a humorous, mild insult rather than a racial slur.

    My point is for Mr. Montgomery to not call out what he perceives to be foul mouths until he can edit his own comments that have a hint of Asian racism.

    • David Montgomery says:

      My Chinese houseguest assures me that she cannot detect any hint of Asian racism around me. Wikipedia seems a bit out of date, the current manifestation of a rice rocket is a heavily modified Honda Civic, with a lowered chassis, widened wheelbase, loud muffler, heavily tinted windows and a powerful speaker system racing in twos and threes down Route 50 blaring rap and weaving in and out of traffic at 80 mph. A closely related vehicle is the crotch rocket, a sport bike of European or Japanese origin, capable of weaving in and out of traffic at 150+ mph. Please try to be accurate about whom I am trying to insult, since I have owned nothing but Japanese motor vehicles (with one regrettable lapse) for over 30 years..

  2. Jim Franke says:

    I was surprised that Trump didn’t also name Ukraine as a shithole. Oh, I forgot that’s a place with a whole bunch of white folks. Remember when Trump didn’t like other people saying he was doing a Muslim Ban and that we could call it anything we want? I’d call it racist and this shithole comment racist.

  3. Scott Hamilton says:

    Really excellent essay.

  4. Jim Franke says:

    You spent a lot of time trying to defend a racist. Weird false equivalence nonsense. At least 18 GOP Senators so far have denounced Trump’s remark.
    GOP senator: Trump ‘owes the people of Haiti and all of mankind an apology’
    © Hill File Photo
    Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) said on Friday that President Trump owed the people of Haiti an apology after reports surfaced that he referred to Haiti, El Salvador and African nations as “shithole countries” in an immigration reform meeting.
    “He owes the people of Haiti and all of mankind an apology,” Isakson told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “That is not the kind of statement the leader of the free world should make, and he ought to be ashamed of himself.”
    “If he did not make it, he needs to corroborate the facts and prove it and move forward.”
    http://thehill.com/homenews/senate/368767-gop-senator-trump-owes-the-people-of-haiti-and-all-of-mankind-an-apology

  5. Susan D. Gilbert says:

    “If his critics use language just as crude as the President, what is the flap about?”

    For real, this is being asked? It was the President of the United States, the so-called Leader of the Free World, who uttered such noxious words & sentiment. And someone doesn’t understand what the flap is all about? Must set a pretty low bar for Presidential judgment & eloquence.

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