Friday, August 13, 2010

Authoritarianism the economy democracy! crystals stability star ancestors roll a saving throw v. recession

Well, this article (which I come to via Matt Yglesias, who I finally just added to my reading list after a few years of getting him only via the mockery of those like IOZ and the praise of those like digby, which if you think about it is kind of the same thing...but anyway) is a delightful example of contemporary fantasy literature. Sometimes (actually a lot more often than sometimes), I'll read an analysis of some aspect of politics or economics or whatever and it will be so dramatically unrelated to reality that it's hard to even describe it as wrong, really, any more than you could say that, oh, J.R.R. Tolkien's portrayal of Sauron is factually incorrect.

The gist of the article is that in general "democracies" fare economically better than "authoritarian regimes." Most readers of this blog have probably already come up with a lengthy list of objections just to this premise: how do you decide what country is which, what definition of economic success are we using, etc etc blah blah blah.

It's one of those charmingly formulaic articles that starts with a little "I wasn't there but let's write like I was" scene-setting, which then leads into The Point:
On a recent Saturday morning, several hundred pro-democracy activists congregated in a Moscow square to protest government restrictions on freedom of assembly. They held up signs reading “31,” in reference to Article 31 of the Russian constitution, which guarantees freedom of assembly. They were promptly surrounded by policemen, who tried to break up the demonstration. A leading critic of the Kremlin and several others were hastily dragged into a police car and driven away.

Events like this are an almost daily occurrence in Russia, where Prime Minister Vladimir Putin rules the country with a strong hand, and persecution of the government’s opponents, human-rights violations, and judicial abuses have become routine. At a time when democracy and human rights have become global norms, such transgressions do little to enhance Russia’s global reputation. Authoritarian leaders like Putin understand this, but apparently they see it as price worth paying in order to exercise unbridled power at home.

What leaders like Putin understand less well is that their politics also compromise their countries’ economic future and global economic standing.
From this, we're meant to see that Russia falls into the "authoritarian" column, which, you know, I wouldn't necessarily dispute, I guess. I don't know much about Russia, honestly, but the takeaway here is that countries, like Russia, where people aren't even allowed to peacefully protest in freedom, are authoritarian baddies.

Oh, oops, I linked to an event in the wrong country. WELL I'M SURE THAT WAS AN EXCEPTION, RIGHT, AND NOT A PARTICULARLY TAME EXAMPLE OF THE NORM HERE RIGHT. I mean, it's not like the US has ever murdered or in any other way violently impeded dissidents, right?

Attempting to analyze the rest of the article makes my head hurt. Beyond his weirdo little anecdote about the Russian protest, he never defines the difference between authoritarianism and democracy. He explicitly excludes countries "that owe their riches to natural resources alone" from his theorizing, so we can continue to hate mozzies even if they're rich--what a relief!
When we look at systematic historical evidence, instead of individual cases, we find that authoritarianism buys little in terms of economic growth. For every authoritarian country that has managed to grow rapidly, there are several that have floundered. For every Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, there are many like Mobutu Sese Seko of the Congo.
Ha ha! Mobutu, whadda kidder! And I suppose the fact that for every [insert name of universally prosperous democracy here if you can think of one] there's an Iceland or a burning banker in Greece is...what, statistical outliers or something? OK then.
Democracies not only out-perform dictatorships when it comes to long-term economic growth, but also outdo them in several other important respects. They provide much greater economic stability, measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle. They are better at adjusting to external economic shocks (such as terms-of-trade declines or sudden stops in capital inflows). They generate more investment in human capital – health and education. And they produce more equitable societies.
Ha ha ha, what the fuck is this economic stability? I'd like to get some of that for myself!!! Too bad then that it's "measured by the ups and downs of the business cycle," rather than by whether or not ordinary people have what they need to live. And "investment in human capital," aside from being one of those terrifying terms that economists like to throw around as if it were some kind of a good thing, is another laugh and a half, for reasons I doubt I have to provide any links to. The "equitable societies" thing pushes it all over the edge for me, because, well, Indians weren't US citizens until 1924 and even now they don't even have to bother stepping out of line for this to happen, Black people here are still legally enslaved to this day, and women, we all agree, aren't even human. To name three examples.
For the true up-and-coming economic superpowers, we should turn instead to countries like Brazil, India, and South Africa, which have already accomplished their democratic transitions and are unlikely to regress. None of these countries is without problems, of course. Brazil has yet to recover fully its economic dynamism and find a path to rapid growth. India’s democracy can be maddening in its resistance to economic change. And South Africa suffers from a shockingly high level of unemployment.
And waddaya know, that South African unemployment just happens to plague primarily the population that was the victim of the authoritarianism there before that magical "democratic transition" they accomplished. It's almost like it didn't actually happen--or, maybe, it's almost like democracy is a fucking crock, a hoax, a distraction.

As some of my smarter readers may have gathered, I actually know less than jack shit about "economics." And you know what? I don't care. I know a hell of a lot more about the meaning of "democracy" and "authoritarianism," of "wealth" and "poverty," than this hack's article demonstrates. Economics is magical bullshit. It's remarkably successful in convincing large numbers of people that the suffering of the vast hoard of humanity for the profit of a tiny little segment of the population is good, just, scientific, rational, and best for everyone, but beyond that it's about as "true" as the notion that if I put on a magical ring I'll turn invisible.

PS I'm not actually a fan of Tolkien if you were wondering.
PPS My point, which I never actually made, is that economic interests in the US have a vested interest in defining "democracy" and "economic success" the same way, and that definition is of course that both are any country which submits itself to the rules laid out by those economic interests.


Charles F. Oxtrot said...

Given that "economics" is just human whimsy where money is concerned, you already know all you need to about "economics."

That's not the same as being informed (or not) on the technical jargon and insular lingo used by "economists," however. But I would quickly add that such jargon and lingo are used to create a smokescreen of pseudo-importance, to separate "economics" from sociology or, what it resembles even more closely, Ouija-board-reading.

If you can think about how people care about and behave toward money and material "wealth," you know everything there is to know about "economics."

I dare say I can prove my thesis correct, no matter whom my opponent.

Randal Graves said...

Wasn't Mobutu the guy who died while searching the whatchamacallit, thereby permitted Fry and Bender to get his swanky pad?

Can't disagree with either of you guys. Someone ought to market Magical Bullshit Ouija Boards. Help grow the economy.

almostinfamous said...

our government is practically sucking at the american teat, while letting it's citizens starve(linkety link). no wonder we are resistant to the kind of change that the writer of the article wants.

verification - diaststr - i think that's appropriate given the article we are discussing.

Ethan said...

Charles: exactly.

Randal: Yes, and Lee Kuan Yew is, I believe, Bajoran.

almostinfamous: I love it when the verification words work out like that. Thanks for the brief summary of the situation in your country and for the link. I knew the article was bullshitting, of course, but I'm pretty ignorant when it comes to India relative to what I know about South Africa. And yeah, "resistance to economic change" is one of those delightful propaganda euphemisms.

Soj said...

Just imagine if there were some kind of quantifiable data showing that "authoritarian" countries did better economically. Just imagine.

Ethan said...

Augusto Pinowho?

zencomix said...

Like Russia, oops!

Ethan said...

Wow, I didn't hear about that at the time.