Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Which Country is the Best Colonizer?!?

I stumbled across a funny little article on Slate courtesy of Manolo. The article lauds a working paper written by two economists from Dartmouth College claiming that “islands with a longer colonial history (and more settlement by Europeans) have higher income per capita and lower infant mortality than other similar islands.”

Intrigued, I go on and download their working paper here. (It’s total crap, so it’s free).

James Feyrer and Bruce Sacerdote (yes, like in the bible) selected 80 tiny islands in the Atlantic and Pacific. The median population of their database is 14,000. Happily, their database includes Luzon. Yay!

In a nutshell, here are their assertions:

1. These islands have an increased income due to their “exposure” to Europeans because of increased trade.

2. Colonialism was good because it introduced political and economic structures that would later support Democracy; establishment of property rights, a system of government, education.

3. Pre-enlightenment colonizers (à la Magellan) bungled their colonial endeavors while post-Enlightenment colonizers (à la Cook) were somehow more benevolent and more successful.

4. It mattered who the colonizers were. Happily, US colonies outperformed Dutch, British, French and Spanish ones. The Portuguese were the worst of the lot.

If we add up these suppositions, we come to this shocking conclusion: Colonialism is good for you little brown island dwellers! If you want to get rich then you better pray you get American imperialists instead Portuguese ones. You might suffer a little, you may have to swallow your pride and live under American “tutelage” but really, its all for the best. See? Increased per capita GDP!

I don’t know about you, but I tend to disagree with these astonishing!!! conclusions. Let us try to address each assertion mentioned above.

1. Well, since majority of these islands were pre-capitalist societies and most likely were subsistence economies (they didn’t produce extra, they consumed what they made), an increase in “trade” wouldn’t matter to their daily lives. What did matter was when these colonies were forced to produce coffee, sugar, tobacco and bananas for export, all their productive energies were taken away from developing their own indigenous economies and were instead made to service the needs of their colonial masters.

What did matter was when these tiny islands were incorporated into the colonial world economy, they had to sever trade (if any) with their own neighboring territories.

2. Again, this supposes that the European way of organizing polities was the best way; i.e. a “capitalist-democratic” State. And that this winning formula could easily be adopted by societies the world over with little trouble.

I suppose it is difficult to imagine what may have happened had these islands been left alone all these past centuries. Can you imagine what we could be today had Magellan not come? But then you will argue some other European seafarer would have come and so it is moot to imagine another history. We would have been colonized by any other European power anyway. Because Capitalism was born in Western Europe, because the State was born in Western Europe, because Democracy (as it is known today) was born in Western Europe, and Western Europeans would go and conquer practically the whole world in about a couple of hundred years, then ours is a world where Capitalism, the State and Democracy are the standard way of living. God forbid one imagine another world differently. You can get bombed to smithereens thinking that.

3. The Philippines is a living and breathing result of a couple of great powers’ colonial experiments. Both the pre and post-Enlightenment kind. For long and short periods. What are the implications of our mixed typology? Has the American post-enlightenment colonial business corrected the wrongs of the pre-enlightened Spanish? Do 50 Yankee years erase 300 Hispanic ones? Does Luzon have better per capita GDP than, say, Martinique under France? Well according to this paper, no. Luzon has $1,000 compared to Martinique’s $21,000. What does that tell you? 3 centuries trump half a century?

4. The case of Luzon again weakens the findings of Feyrer and Sacerdote’s paper. If US former colonies performed better than, say, British or French ones then how come Singapore (under Britain) and Vietnam (under France) are outperforming us? Oh heck, everyone is outperforming us. Except maybe Africa.

Which brings us back to these economists’ claim that the longer you’ve been colonized the better. Well, most of Africa were "let go" in the 60s, the last to gain freedom among less-developed countries in the world. These days they're in so deep a shit Bono's organizing concerts to have their debt cancelled. And you've got these Hollywood types snapping their fingers on black and white ads. And you've got these other rockstars sporting white arm bands. They're in so deep a shit Angelina and Madonna are adopting their babies!

So, again, let us reiterate that this paper is a misleading, even fallacious piece of crap. A bald-faced propaganda. It is written inelegantly (so says the grad student who has the distinct pleasure of reading many, many, many! journal articles in the past few years) and it makes little sense at best. Which makes you wonder why a professor from Wharton such as Joel Waldfogel would choose to write about this crappy working paper.

Well, because it says colonial empires are good. And American colonial empires even better.

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