Sunday, February 10, 2008

Wolf Dreams

I’ve just finished reading a thought-provoking book called Wolf Dreams (À quoi rêvent les loups, in French) by Yasmina Khadra. This is the female pseudonym of an exiled former Algerian army officer who made his name writing very dark crime novels set in contemporary Algeria, some of which have been adapted for movies or TV in France. (Khadra writes in French, but several of his books have been translated into English.) His crime novels featuring Algiers police Commissaire Llob are stylish, razor-sharp, noir tales set against the background of Algeria’s repressive political system, corruption, and seething social conflicts.

But Khadra has also written several novels which depict, from the inside, the ferocious Islamic insurgency which raged in Algeria in the 1990’s. I’ve read two of those, In the Name of God (Les agneaux du seigneur) and now Wolf Dreams. And I’d say that anyone who wants to understand Islamic extremism ought to read them, too.

In the Name of God focuses on a village in rural Algeria as it succumbs to a local band of fundamentalists led by a charismatic imam. Wolf Dreams is set mainly in the capital, Algiers, and follows a young man’s trajectory from unemployment through religious awakening to full-fledged insurgency. Both books provide a chilling look at how a compelling ideology can channel malice, legitimize thuggery and suppress humanity.

Indeed, the most disturbing element of Khadra’s depiction is the human familiarity of his characters. To most of us, jihadists can never be more than caricatures—the violence of their rhetoric and their actions is so extreme that they are simply opaque. We can’t locate the human being in there anywhere. So our only reaction is revulsion. And that’s only natural—people who decapitate hostages on video can hardly expect anything else. But while the jihadists have willingly suppressed their humanity, they are not a new species—and Khadra shows us where they came from.

This is by no means to plead for sympathy. Khadra is quite explicit about the appalling cruelty of the Islamists, particularly toward women. (Kidnapping, sexual slavery and eventual murder is the frequent fate of female victims of Islamist raids.) There are no redeeming features of the Islamic insurgency to be found in these books. But Khadra’s point is that the men (and yes, women) who are drawn to jihadism are no different from people who have been drawn to extremist movements elsewhere. People who are disaffected, alienated, maybe just bored, are easy prey for ideological snake-oil peddlers. And extremist ideologies make explicit and effective use of the old, toxic claim that the end justifies the means.

Khadra’s message is that Islamic extremism is like all the other extremisms that have come and gone. It is an ideology peddled by a ruthless minority in a society under stress. In this it resembles Nazism in the crumbling Weimar Republic or the totalitarian brand of Shinto espoused by the military clique that took Japan into the Second World War. This means that it can be beaten.

Of course, that first means that it has to be fought. It can’t be appeased. Sometimes we are going to have to shed blood in resisting it, because it is ruthless. But also, while it can be beaten, it can’t be beaten only by military action. When all the Al-Qaeda bases have been bombed to rubble and all the leaders killed or captured, there is still going to be a long arduous task to be done—the task of engagement and debate and patient insistence on the political values that so exasperate totalitarians: the rule of law and plurality and tolerance and rational debate and limits on power.

Some people claim that Islam is incompatible with these values, that it is essentially totalitarian. I don’t think it is—I think the appeal of these values is powerful enough to change Islam without destroying it, just as they changed Christian society in the course of the Reformation. I think the existence of voices like Yasmina Khadra’s is evidence of that.

Yasmina Khadra is a Muslim and an implacable opponent of jihadism. He’s also a humane and tolerant observer of people and a fine writer. I recommend his books highly.

Sam Reaves

Monday, February 4, 2008

Free Trade

Free trade is a tough sell for a lot of people. When your job goes south, or west to China or wherever, it’s asking a lot to expect you to wave the banner for unhindered trade between nations. When you’re sitting there looking at unpaid bills with the first faint stirrings of desperation in the pit of your stomach, textbook explanations of comparative advantage are not going to be much comfort. You’re going to find it hard to be philosophical. You’re going to be much more inclined to call your congressman.

On the other hand, when Nissan opens a plant that gives you and your cousin jobs, or the company you work for adds an extra shift because their export sales have doubled this year, you tend to take it for granted. And when was the last time you wrote a politician to say thanks for that Chilean wine you’ve been getting at the Safeway because it’s just as good as the stuff you used to buy and a lot cheaper?

Free trade produces small numbers of obvious victims and large numbers of anonymous beneficiaries. That asymmetry is a problem for the people trying to make the case for free trade. This includes most economists, but economists don’t write our laws. Politicians do, and they’re the ones fielding the phone calls from the laid-off workers.

The victims of free trade are easy for journalists to find, and they always have specific decision-makers to blame—- the executives who decided to shift production to China. The beneficiaries, on the other hand, mostly don’t have a clue about how much they pay for shoes or televisions compared to people elsewhere or even about how prices are set. All most people know is that they wish prices were lower and jobs were more plentiful. So when they turn on the Chinese-made TV set they got such a good deal on and see politicians telling them that foreign competition is bad, they are happy to believe it.

A good example is the current controversy in Mexico over the lifting of tariffs on corn. Thousands of people, mostly farmers, protested in Mexico City on January 31st against the lifting of tariffs on corn from the U.S. The farmers protest that they can’t compete with subsidized corn coming from big mechanized producers north of the border. They’re right—they can’t. But the real question is whether that ought to be their aspiration. Most Mexican farmers farm less than five acres. They’re subsistence farmers, in other words. Now, I’m not sure why subsistence farming is so glamorous to anti-globalization activists-- perhaps it’s because Indians hacking at small uneconomical plots are so much more photogenic than tractors on big efficient farms. But the reality is that subsistence farming is poverty farming. Most subsistence farmers are dirt-poor, and a lot of them can’t wait to get off the land and go to the city and get a job in the Nike factory.

In Mexico, a lot of subsistence farmers have been given an incentive to stay on their farms and keep raising corn by government subsidies. Without them, most Mexican farmers would have either left the land or made the transition to more economical crops better suited to their plots. (Corn is particularly ill-suited to the small, arid plots that the poorest Mexicans farm.) Mexico would import most of its corn from the U.S. And all Mexicans would benefit from lower prices. (The way ethanol subsidies are currently driving up corn prices on both sides of the border, to the benefit of farmers but the detriment of consumers, is a separate issue and much more of a scandal than free trade.)

But it is true that any change in economic arrangements, like letting in cheap corn or moving production to China, is going to hurt some people in the short run. So what about those people who can’t pay the bills because their jobs have disappeared? Don’t they count?

Sure they do. But media coverage and outrage are selective. Few tears were shed for laid-off oil workers when the oil business tanked in the eighties. And environmentalists want to shut down whole industries based on coal and other carbon-producing technologies. I imagine at least some environmentalists are aware that people will suffer as carbon-related jobs disappear. But they don’t think that those jobs are more important than solving the carbon problem.

We should look at free-trade related job loss the same way. Laid-off workers should get temporary assistance and a new job. And, in a dynamic economy like ours, they usually do. Meanwhile, the gains from free trade make the economy as a whole more productive, which benefits everyone.

Most people, whether in the U.S. or Mexico, don’t understand how markets work to efficiently allocate resources. All they know is that there oughta be a law to protect them from economic adversity. And there usually is—which just prolongs economically inefficient and even contradictory arrangements, like paying subsistence farmers to stay on the land while letting in imports they can’t compete with. Putting politicians in charge of deciding what should get produced and how much of it is a recipe for absurdities like our tangled farm policy here in the U.S. Eliminating subsidies and tariffs and letting companies and individuals seek the best deal wherever they can find it is a much better way of making economic decisions.

And that’s all free trade is. Now, it’s quite true that NAFTA, CAFTA and all the other FTA’s that are popping up are not really free trade agreements—they’re managed trade agreements, which means they are messy political compromises with all that implies in the way of payoffs, bribes and sweetheart deals. But even under NAFTA’s absurd thousand-plus pages of micro-managing, Mexico and the U.S. both saw exports grow and unemployment fall. The warts on NAFTA are not an argument against free trade; they’re just another argument against politicians trying to run the economy.

And that’s the real problem. Politics always trumps good economic policy.

Sam Reaves