Of shitholes – foreign and our own


Donald Trump doesn’t mince words – in fact they’re usually like a very rare steak with blood still dripping as you slice through. Some months ago, “the controversy of the day”, or perhaps “the controversy of two days” to distinguish it from an usual Trump media scandal that lasts a single day every day, was his reference to “shithole countries” that the United States should take fewer migrants from in favour of countries that have their shit more together. This, arguably, would dumb down the immigration system too much: any potential migrant should be judged on their individual merits, not on where they come from, as I would argue. Be that as it may, some countries are indeed shitholes, though contrary to pearl-clutchers and political opportunists, this has nothing to do with race but with culture and political, economic and social institutions which reflect that culture. White communist Romania, for example, was as much of a shithole as the Latin Guatemala or the black Sudan are today.

The other day, Trump continued his verbal steak streak, calling Baltimore a “very dangerous & filthy place”, “disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “no human being would want to live.” He was specifically talking about Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, represented by a Democrat Rep. Elijah Cummings, his Twitter tirade in response to Cummings’ comments about the conditions at the US-Mexican border. Cummings being black and representing a majority black district, Trump’s words were instantly deemed racist, despite being accurate (Baltimore is one of the most dangerous places in the world outside of active war zones) and despite similar concerns being expressed in the past (albeit more elegantly) but everyone from Bernie Sanders to “The Baltimore Sun” editorial board (which three years ago agreed with Trump that the blighted inner city should be declared a disaster area).

I think there is a connection here, deeper than merely being targets of Trump’s outbursts. In most if not all developed economies there are pockets of underprivilege and dysfunction that resemble more the less successful swathes of the developing world than they do the rest of country they belong to. In fact, they stand in a similar relationship to their country’s “normal” that the poorer parts of the developing world stand to the developed world. There are domestic shitholes next door just as there are overseas shitholes on other continents. They are not the same in absolute terms – the residents of Baltimore are by and large much better off than the residents of Belem, Bamako or Brazzaville – but certainly in relative terms.

The left thinks that money is the solution to all of world’s problems; if only we could tax the rich more and redistribute that money to all those who need it more things would be so much better. This is why, over the past few decades, trillions if not tens of trillions of dollars have been spent on foreign aid, “the war on poverty”, health and education, environmental challenges and myriad of other causes, mostly with minimal impact (as the old joke goes, in the war on poverty the poverty won). Certainly, the bang for over one trillion bucks channeled in what is now called “development assistance” from the developed to the developing world has been more of a fizzer. The academic consensus is that, despite all the best intentions, foreign aid has at best been a band aid. Certainly no country over the past half a century has escaped poverty because of international assistance; freer market, free trade and institutional reform have performed the miracles that aid money never could. As overseas so at home; no matter how much you spend on welfare and social programs, the disadvantage proves impossible to eliminate.

This is because the problems run deeper than merely “insufficient resources” – they are really about culture. That’s why domestic and overseas shitholes are quite similar in nature. Baltimore and Bamako share the same characteristics that result in dysfunction and poor outcomes for their long-suffering residents, as do areas as different as Paris’s concrete banlieues or remote Aboriginal townships in Outback Australia. What are these characteristics? This is a partial, very much non-exhaustive list:

1. they are one-party states, whether literally or in practice, which means that politics is not responsive to the masses but is built around patronage, nepotism and rampant corruption

2. social structures revolve around groups – families, clans, gangs, parties, tribes – which are in a perpetual state of conflict or at best non-cooperation with other groups

3. traditional ways of betterment and advancement like education or entrepreneurship are undervalued and frowned upon

4. endemic lack of trust as a social and economic glue

5. interpersonal violence imposes huge social costs on the community

6. as a result of vicious cycle involving all of the above factors, few genuine economic opportunities exist

7. in the absence of a viable private sector, the government and the shadow economy provide the only avenues of status, advancement and opportunity (the former with all the pitfalls mentioned in point 1 above)

8. fatalism and learned hopelessness sap the individual and collective energy

9. law seen as oppression

Let me say once again that this not about race and colour but culture and institutions. There are shitholes on every continent and within every country. The factors above account for why Baltimore and Bissau are the way they are, but on a more general level they also account for why, for example, northern Europe is more successful than southern Europe, northern Asia than southern Asia and north America than south America.

And this is of course why it’s not simply a matter of money. You can throw as much money as you want at these sorts of problems but at worst it will end up being pilfered and mismanaged and at best will simply not achieve the expected results. If you want to change the material conditions you need to change the prevailing culture. This is not impossible, but it is a long and difficult process since we are talking about patterns of thought and behaviour that are imbued in everyone through generations; it’s not going to happen overnight and it’s not a matter of a billion dollars more. This is also why politics, with its short attention span and short horizon, finds it virtually impossible to have significant positive impact.

The shitholes, whether at home or abroad, are real, and have very real problems, which are relatively easy to identify but very tough to solve. We need patience and imagination, but most of all we need the correct understanding of the roots of disadvantage and underperformance.