Among the welter of news reports about the recent tragedy in Haiti, I noticed a couple that were quite perceptive. As it happens, they both broke surface on the PBS News Hour.
One came a few days after January 12th from David Brooks, the Hour's token conservative. He observed that a slightly more severe earthquake had hit San Francisco and Oakland in 1989, which brought down some highways and buildings and killed 63 people and left a few thousand homeless. The one near Port au Prince brought down 90% of the city, made a million homeless, and killed maybe 150,000. That, Brooks said, points up the problem: the catastrophe was caused more by poverty than by tectonic plates.
The second came from in-house reporter Ray Suarez on February 4th; he had just returned from a couple of weeks on the island, where he had done some outstanding reportage. He was asked for his most enduring memory of the visit, and replied that it was that of observing the incredible patience of the bulk of Haitian survivors; displaced, penniless, frequently grieving, living on the very edge of survival, they stoically bore the lot that life had handed them and waited quietly for help, even thanking God for being alive.
Neither theme was given air time for development, so let me try to make good that omission.
Brooks' comparison is not entirely fair, because the Bay Area is built on a fault line and quakes hit very frequently; they are expected, so houses are constructed to survive them. Haiti, in contrast, is said to have seen no major tremor for two centuries and so it was not unreasonable for people to build to somewhat lower standards. Even so, the appearance of the rubble suggests that constructors there may have used what my grandfather (a reputable builder) would have called "two of sand and one of water" - a reference to how his rivals saved costs when mixing concrete. However, Brooks was quite right to point out that lack of money was the prime reason over two thousand died in Haiti for every one in San Francisco.
So we need to know: In this era of plenty, why is that country so dirt poor?
Caribbean islands are not uniformly wealthy, by any means; but many have done well by making cigars, rum and other useful products and by welcoming tourists from Europe and America, and by providing at least until recently a standard of financial privacy, security and liberty from taxation not offered back home. I understand that even Hillary, that paragon of statist virtue, stashed away a few million in Nassau that she had supposedly earned by honest skill and labor by trading cattle futures back in Arkansas. Bermuda, the Bahamas, the Caymans, St. Kitts and others have all built quite vibrant economies in such ways, even though all share a common heritage of slavery. Even Cuba parlayed its proximity to Florida into prosperity by becoming a playground for those wearied by puritanical US restrictions on gambling-- until the disaster of 1959, that is. But Haiti hasn't made use of its opportunity to join them. How come?
Haiti's history is as turbulent as any on the planet, yet there was a time--most of the 18th Century--when it was very prosperous, growing much of the sugar and most of the coffee then consumed in Europe. However, that economy was built on slavery, and slavery did not end cleanly; after 1800 there began over 200 years of savage in-fighting between freed slaves, non-freed slaves and initially French owners. There was hardly a decade of peace; each successive set of government thugs was displaced forcibly by another, sometimes with almost unbelievable brutality such as throwing enemies—alive--into vats of boiling molasses. Such savagery continued right through the Duvalier era from 1957 to 1986 and then by Aristide and his successors to the present day. Each in turn used its power to loot what little wealth the population had produced.
Now, all governments are kleptocratic; they rule, they steal. That's their universal nature. But the smarter ones, those ruling the affluent "West," have figured out how to milk the capitalist cow efficiently by stealing not the whole of the agricultural surplus, but just some of it, leaving the rest to be enjoyed by the producers. That gives the latter motive to produce more, and so to yield ever more to the thieves; it's a perverted form of "investment" and is the principle of the "Laffer Curve," by which Arthur Laffer famously showed that tax revenues can be made to increase by enacting a decrease in tax rates. Those smarter kleptocrats also make sure that some of their loot is spent on highly visible goodies for the population: roads, the appearance of justice and education, extensive welfare to bind them ever close to the government teat, parks, impressive monuments, and so on. The most successful of all have augmented that with the widespread illusion that the population actually shares in the act of ruling--by a fiction carefully taught in their schools and elsewhere, under the label "democracy." An elementary grasp of mathematics will demolish that nonsense very quickly, so government education has emphasized subjects other than math, so that only a few can do the needed sums.
These widespread tricks of the government trade are almost wholly absent on Haiti, and for good reason: once the French plantation owners had been massacred, all the rulers ruled with zero background of any business skills whatever. All were products of several generations of slave dependency, so the only things they knew to do were to rule and steal. So they ruled and stole as much as they could, and when it became obvious that each in turn was likely to suffer violent displacement after a few years, they took care to send the loot out of the country, instead of allowing it to be invested in the island and trickle down to benefit the locals. This has been true up to the present day; Jean-Claude Duvalier squirreled some $5 billion out to Switzerland, where he thought it would be safe; last week the Swiss gave him reason to doubt it.
Result: negligible infrastructure, oppressive bureaucracy, subsistence poverty. A slave population, in all but name. Governmental "dumbing down" has never been more complete. That's one of the two major sources of the people's patient submissiveness that Suarez observed. Perhaps in the current dreadful conditions there is some merit to it; if a million people were rampaging through the streets, violently demanding what is simply not available, the situation might be worse yet.
What a tragedy! If Haiti's history had been different, if the hand of centuries of government had been lighter--or better yet, absent altogether--eight generations after slavery would have produced a population of self-helpers, individual capitalists able to grow and build and trade and save and plow back what they saved to create a prospering, free society. Today they would still be suffering acutely from the quake's devastation, but rather than sitting patiently but passively, they would be figuring out how to rebuild their own lives and make the best use of the charitable help that has been pouring in from their neighbors here.
There's another aspect to Suarez' report, and another source of that helpless, patient passivity, and it's the religion deeply embedded in Haitian society. Most here would agree that Voodoo is nonsense, but fewer would apply that word to its other main one, Roman Catholicism. Yet think about it: the latter has as its central tenet the idea that the universe was created and is maintained by a supreme being who is simultaneously omniscient, omnibenevolent and omnipotent. He is said to be infinitely knowing, infinitely good (pitying especially the poor) and infinitely powerful.
And yet this God, on January 12th, set in His cross-hairs the poorest city on this side of the planet and shook it until it fell; killing, injuring and displacing hundreds of thousands of people who had tried hard to worship Him. Since He is allegedly omnipotent, He could readily have placed the epicenter a few hundred miles out to sea; since He is allegedly omniscient, He would know in advance the acute suffering that would result from targeting Port au Prince, and since He allegedly pities the poor and the meek and wants it known that they shall "inherit the Earth", He could have furthered that purpose by targeting somewhere rather less poor and not meek at all; Washington, DC, say. The fact that He didn't do so provides ample reason to dismiss these doctrines for the contradictory nonsense they plainly are, and acknowledging that all religion is close behind government itself as a prime cause of the acceptance of systemic poverty and the misery it brings.
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