Snarky Behavior

Entries tagged as ‘democracy’

Live From Bolivia

October 24, 2007 · Leave a Comment

Reader’s Note: My friend Katie is working on a prolonged water sanitation project in Mizque, Bolivia as part of the Peace Corps. She sent me a wonderful birthday care-package and included a really interesting “day in the life” note that I asked to share on my blog, and she obliged. Really worth the read for four important reasons: 1) to get a snapshot of what the Peace Corps is all about, 2) to gain an appreciation for just how suspect the third world is toward United States foreign policy in Latin America, 3) to gain an appreciation for how democracy works in a small, multi-ethnic, underdeveloped country like Bolivia, and 4) to gain a perspective for the challenges of development work. It’s sweethearts like Katie that make me resent my sometimes cold-hearted professors who call us “modern day missionaries” and describe the world through a pessimistic, “realist” lens.  The contents of this Web site are mine personally and do not reflect any position of the U.S. Government or the Peace Corps.

Dear Jon,

Happy Birthday! Hope you’re celebrating al estilo New York City – though maybe in grad school birthday festivities consist of giving yourself a much needed nap? Well, I hope you treat yourself in some way – and I know I’ll be toasting you with chicha from Mizque!

I had a super interesting/hard day today in Mizque – started writing your b-day note while processing the whole experience and then thought it was just too intense for a nice little update. Long story short, I sat through a long afternoon of reuniones at our town Central Campesina where dirigentes from all over the communities in our municipality were gathered to decide whether our alcalde was cumplir‘ing with his mandate, or whether, midway through his term, he should be kicked out and replaced by someone more “effective” from within his MAS (Evo’s) party.

I showed up to support the mayor 1) because a change midterm would delay all the projects I’m trying to finish this spring and 2) if this mayor goes, so does my AMAZING counterpart, the Jefe de Obras Publicas in the alcaldia, a dude who’s widely recognized within PC to know his shit, especially when it comes to sustainability and the social/community development side of projects — a rarity among Bolivian engineers.

Anyway, it turned into a draining afternoon as different groups presented on the state of the nation/department/town etc., and of course TONS oftime was spent praising the donations and coordination from Venezuela/Cuba/Japan (we also have JICA volunteers in Mizque), and then criticizing America repeatedly for having plans within the CIA to kill indios or for our desire to see Evo kicked out of office (of course in order to prove I didn’t feel the same I felt I had NO option but to sign the petition being passed around to give Evo the next Nobel Peace Prize :) )

So, it was just a frustrating few hours of feeling bashed and isolated among people I typically think of as companeros. I kept getting teary-eyed and walking around outside to esacep all the accusations a bit– and of course every friend/dirigente I chat with NEVER saw the connection between the criticisms and me! The just keep coming up to me and chatting about projects or their kiddos — and when I bring up how awkward I felt during the speeches they remind me how much I know they care for me and cuidar me as a Mizquena, but to think of how badly/isolated Bolivians must feel when THEY go abroad to work and are always treated like poor second-class citizens…

Well, I guess that put me in my place, b/c it really is true — PEOPLE in Mizque couldn’t be more humble, generous and supportive of me and my work, so I need to get over the fact taht I don’t get much recognition publicly b/c of the poor US image.

Development work really is thankless most of the time — and I’m used to being so well supported and loved and thanked in life that leaving all that reassurance to live and work amongst people who maintain pretty steely characters and don’t like your country can be really frustrating. Luckily the work itself is usually its own reward — like seeing kids washing their hands with soap for probably the first time in their lives or teaching my women’s organization how to make a meal that has neither papas nor arroz in it and instead uses lots of colorful veggies and fruits, and the actually LIKE it.

I definitely feel pretty lucky to get to do this work in Bolivia — especially in my 20s when I could be stuck doing clerical work in some office 9-5 back home :) And it’s always validating to read someone like Jeffrey Sachs and check out all the different Millenium Goals that PC work gets to work toward. I agree with the importance of providing basic services and infrastructure ESPECIALLY in sanitation in places like Bolivia where people are so poor and dispersed (this country’s geography really does make development SO DIFFICULT!)

And I like all of Sachs’ ideas on debt relief and more aid and economic reforms within developing countries. What still consistently frustrates me (and I’m not sure if he addresses this at all b/c I’m just halfway through) is how you get people working an a developing country like Bolivia on a well-thought out plan that they can actually follow through on to better their economic situation/daily life. Because, to me, it seems like other countries could donate more $ to places like Bolivia to use to develop their basic services, infrastructure, shitty education system, etc. but if there’s no plan from them on what to do with the newly educated/urban populace (here they mostly become taxi drivers or leave the country to work in Spain/US/Argentina, etc.) or how to keep people from leaving their communities once all those basic service projects are finished (it’s super commonplace to finish a bano/water system project here just as all the most active/good leaders of the community leave to make more money in the city or abroad), then I just don’t see how things will get much better any time soon.

And I really don’t see organized leaders with good plans for moving people out of poverty in meaningful or lasting way in Bolivia — though I do think Evo DOES promote a lot of good efforts like the Cuban “Yo Si Puedo” literacy campaign and the attempts to keep private investment in the country while trying to nationalize some aspects of industry — especially the gas — so that Bolivia isn’t just pillaged of its natural resources as it always has been.

But yeah, like you said — other industries need to be developed for when oil/gas is no longer as pricey of a commodity. And I just don’t see many plans being developed that are working toward long term goals of growing Bolivia on competitive footing to deal with the rest of the world? Well, I hope building rainwater catching tanks makes some difference!

Anyway, I guess my 2nd attempt at a letter today once again isn’t very birthday-esque. Just nice to be able to share some of the frustrating/tough bits of life here with someone who actually cares and is probably up way too late most nights reading and thinking about all these development issues.




The majority voted to keep our mayor in office — yay! They were there till 4 am discussing everything, good thing I gave up at dinnertime :)

Cool, huh? Katie’s the best…

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Dropping Knowledge: Rentier States

October 15, 2007 · 2 Comments

“Dropping Knowledge”… where I laymenize an important aspect of social science.

A rentier state is a government that derives all or a significant portion of its national revenue from the rent of its indigenous resources to external clients.  It is a term most commonly applied to oil rich countries (such as Saudi Arabia), which grant access and management of its petroleum deposits to the United States (or the UK, Russia, etc.) in return for a “rent.”

Rentier states are inherently undemocratic.  You see, the geo-political distribution of natural resources makes certain areas extremely profitable, by random chance.  If the states themselves lack the privately developed technology and infrastructure to efficiently extract and distribute their resources, they must (or are otherwise coerced to) outsource such activities.

The thing is, democratic societies detest foreign management of domestic resources (see: Venezuela, Bolivia), and will take steps to “socialize” their industries, directly tax the exports instead of charging rent to foreign entities, and redistribute the wealth domestically, for a much bigger return.  But democratic management of a single resource economy naturally entails a heck of a lot of fighting over “who gets what, and why.”  And government industries are never as efficient as private industries in terms of production, so global trade organizations (OPEC) get antsy when a member state isn’t hitting its productive capacity.

The most efficient governmental arrangement for single-resource economies is therefore the rentier model… small, authoritarian leaderships (Saudi royal family) that placate domestic population by subsidizing EVERYTHING (except, generally, higher education, since educated elites tend to challenge authority).  The tax costs “flow” through the rent charged to Americans for pumping out oil and establishing military bases in the region for security purposes, and no taxes are levied domestically.  The royal family invests the majority of its staggering financial resources back into US securities, which solidifies the dollar and keeps oil demand and prices high.

This brings up a couple important issues:

1)  Some “experts” like to state that Islam is incompatible with democracy.  Bush is actually right when he says this is false (just look at Indonesia).  It’s actually more likely that democracy cannot exist without a diversified economy.  The less access there is to economic opportunity, the less people are involved in the management of the economy.

2)  Democracy is about sovereignty, about the population making decisions based on the Wilsonian principles of self-determination.  If you look at Iraq, you have two major obstacles:  the first is the introduction of a political power struggle between rival populations (Sunni and Shia).  Sunnis are keenly aware of their minority position in Iraq and refuse to participate in a political framework that is illegitimately stacked against their interests.   Shias are a minority within the greater Muslim world and subscribe to a cultural narrative based on resistance to oppression and illegitimate authority.  Even if Shia leadership wanted to achieve stability under the watchful eyes (and guns) of the US, they would continue to be undermined by Iran, which has no interest in seeing a successful secular Shia-dominated democracy as a neighbor, because that would intensify domestic pressures for reform.

The second obstacle to self-determination is that clearly, the preferred interest of Iraqis is American withdrawal, if not now (in the short-term), certainly in the medium- and long-terms.  Iraqis are well aware that the Persian Gulf war resulted in the construction of permanent bases in Saudi Arabia.  And Secretary of Defense Gates has stated publicly that the US “has historically had a strong presence in the region, and we will continue to have a strong presence in the region, and it’s important for our friends, and those who might consider themselves our adversaries, to recognize that.”

The US would prefer for the political outcomes of Iraqi democratic elections to be friendly governments that actively engage in rentier relationships to assuage the masses and ensure their positions of power.   But the Iraqi population will never recognize a pro-US business government as legitimate.  We live in an Age of Information where covert regime changes or puppet governments are really, really hard to achieve.  In the meantime, as instability and civil war rage on in Iraq, the US is quietly consolidating four major bases around the strategic oil regions in the country.

3)  That last point is the most telling.  For all of the gum flapping that goes on about “the principals of liberal democracy” and “freedom,” we tend to get distracted from the realist perspective — that control of Iraq means control over the second largest oil reserve in the world.  Always keep in mind that oil is a finite resource whose price rises with scarcity.  It’s one thing for Saudi Arabia to sell oil at (relatively) competitive prices now… it’s another thing entirely for the US to be rationing the last drops of oil in 20 years, at monopoly prices (don’t forget about Alaska!).  That means the potential for wealth and global power… power over everyone who is addicted to oil… is assured to whomever controls Iraq and the Persian Gulf.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news to some, but that means the business and military pressures are too great on the executive branch of the US government to expect a withdrawal anytime soon, unless Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul magically win their primaries.  The US army/state department did not spend billions of dollars on bases and the world’s largest embassy to come home any time soon.

4)  With all of this in perspective, it’s important to recognize why Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize.  The real “Inconvenient Truth” isn’t necessarily that global warming is a real threat per se… I mean, that was already pretty obvious.  It’s that oil consumption is behind global warming, and that oil demand makes actions like the war in Iraq profitable.  By raising awareness about an ancillary (but still primary concern) of global climate change, Gore is indirectly calling for the necessity to research and develop alternative sources of sustainable energy that would compete with coal, oil and natural gas, making those resources’ price demands more flexible, and reducing the profit incentive of military control and domination of them.  Hence the “Peace” rationale in the Nobel Peace Prize.

The thing is, alternative energy sources are nowhere nearly as profitable as oil, even given the tremendous extraneous costs of financing strategic military bases around the world to protect the investments.  And the transition costs to adopting alternative energy sources would be tremendous in every sector, so oil companies can continue to pass the costs incurred from political instability and deeper, harder to get to reserves (i.e. the melting North Pole) onto the consumers.  I’ve read somewhere that the McKinsey Global Institute did an analysis of gasoline consumption in America, and found that demand wouldn’t significantly falter until the price went past $5.00 per gallon.  (I’m couldn’t find the exact report via a Google search, but hey, it’s midterms… give me a break).

The key of course is then electing leaders who are seriously committed to implementing policies of consumer regulation that prevent us from letting our aggregate demand get the better of us.  Individual conscience in the US is (generally) against empire, against war, against destruction of the environment, against global injustice.  But we speak with our wallets, we make demands through our purchases and consumption, and global suppliers react accordingly, even if the outcomes violate our individual consciences.

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What I’m looking for in a candidate…

October 1, 2007 · 1 Comment

How I map on the political spectrum… slightly more authoritarian than the Dali Lama, slightly less communist than Ghandi.

Reader’s Note: The following blog post was written in early June. I may have spoken with many of you about Rohit and my intention to create a website based on the the ideas raised in this post. We both got extremely busy and were beaten to the punch by a site called , which has all of the components I was looking for (minus a viral component… which is a HUGE letdown). Nevertheless, I suggest anyone looking for a good way to engage in the 2008 political campaign begin by seeing how they align with the candidates based on THE ISSUES they represent… and if you’re curious, I match with 1) Obama 2) Dodd 3) Bloomberg 4) Clinton.

In today’s political climate of defining labels, it’s always good to get a gauge of how well those labels actually define you. I tried the political compass questionnaire , and was somewhat surprised to see how far to the left I actually am on most issues.

This got me thinking…

In lieu of the meaningless ongoing primary debates, I would love to see candidates actually use their phony “profiles” on myspace or wherever to create a questionnaire like this. How great would it be if you could answer a slew of policy questions and see which candidate best matched your interests, based on their official policy positions?

This would serve two important purposes:

1.) I think there is a perception gap, especially for Edwards (who is much farther to the left than people assume, most notably on health care and labor), and Obama (whose stance on social issues is actually more conservative than you might think).

It would be great too if you had “make or break issues” that immediately took a candidate out of consideration. For instance, I would never vote for someone who didn’t unequivocally denounce torture.

Or if you could “weight” certain issues if you “strongly” agreed or disagreed with them: providing universal health care, choice for women, choice in education, bench-marked withdrawal in Iraq, etc. These are especially important to me.

And you could tackle potential wedge issues (which clearly will be immigration in 2008) by delineating the nuanced positions. Do you support guest worker programs? Amnesty? Conditional amnesty based on secured borders? Do you support civil unions? Gay marriage? Tax breaks for gay couples? Shared workplace benefits? Adoption?

2.) This would give the candidates free information directly from their constituents about what issues were most important. They could then tailor their messages to policy issues that speak to people instead of hew-hawing on the same talking points that are already losing their luster. The graph could map out three dimensionally and let participants know how the rest of America fell. And the coordinates of the candidates could drift over time as the debates rage on to see who really is steadfast and who is playing political gambit (HILLARY… COUGH COUGH).

Anyway, I don’t have the know-how to program this. Rohit, I’m looking at you here… want to design a beta version and pitch it to Obama?


So I was thinking more on this… why couldn’t we just make a site called or something? How great would that be? It would ask you an extensive survey of policy positions and then rank order the candidates based upon how “compatible” they are, or closely aligned, with your own ideologies?

That would take a HUGE step in leveling the horse-race money aspect of the primaries. You throw the media-managed “intangibles” out the window, and focus strictly on the issues. And it virtually eliminates the bully-pulpit aspect, which just results in a lot of head-nodding or hand-wringing anyway. Why not let people decide on their own how they feel instead of intimidating them with political BS?

Plenty of non-profits produce “report cards” that hold candidates accountable to their voting records (which, by the way, inherently benefits governors over congressman). That approach assumes that the subscribers to the organization (be it Sierra Club or Business Roundtable) are already aligned whole-sale with the mission statement of the particular organization.

Why not skip the third party altogether and let the voter discover for him or herself who best represents his or her particular multitude of interests?

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