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Tuesday, April 3, 2012

How the other half thinks

This half of this island.

(From NYT via Tyler Cowen's Marginal Revolution).
Recently, just behind the base’s barbed-wire periphery, Dieula Sénéchal squatted with her skirt hiked up, scrubbing exuberantly colored clothes while a naked 6-year-old girl, Magalie Louis, defecated by the bank, gnawed on a stalk of sugarcane and then splashed into the water to brush her teeth.

Approaching with a machete on his way to hack some cane, her gap-toothed father, Légénord Louis, said Magalie had contracted cholera late last year but after four days of “special IVs” was restored to health. He knew the river water was probably not safe, he said, but, while they brushed their teeth in it, they did not swallow.

For drinking water, Mr. Louis said, his family relies on a local well. But he lives from hand to mouth and cannot afford water purification tablets; the free supply he got in 2010 ran out long ago. So he gambles.

“If you make it to the hospital,” he said, “you survive the cholera.”
Tyler Cowen, being an academic economist, is intrigued by the cost-benefit analysis performed by Mr. Louis, hence the title of his post. What he and others overlook is how the analysis is warped by the father's high time-preference and free medical care. It's cheaper to rush your daughter to the hospital for four days of antibiotics and IV's from Doctors Without Borders than bother with digging a proper latrine and teaching your children basic hygiene. The daughter, being a child, perfectly illustrates high time-preference: run around naked chewing on sugarcane and just poop right where you are, next to the river, where you wash your clothes, and brush your teeth.

All welfare suffers this same flaw: the subsidy of poor lifestyle choices. Mr. Louis's energy would even be better spent getting his friends and their machetes together and marching to the UN base or the office of his town's "crisply dressed" deputy mayor and demanding a sewer system. The billions of dollars in foreign aid and thousands of clueless busybodies milling around the place might think first we'll build a wastewater plant, then we can teach them to read. But that's just crazy talk.

The article is also noteworthy for how it gingerly violates journalists' Rules For Writing About Haiti. You would never know without looking at a map, for example, that Haiti is the western part of an island which also houses the Dominican Republic, a place that's not nearly as interesting to the New York Times. The Dominican Republic doesn't seem to share everybody else's preoccupation with her perenially crisis-ridden neighbor, other than to make sure Haitians stay in Haiti. I've seen articles about the Haitian cholera epidemic for months now, and this is the first one I've read which mentions that Haiti has a cholera epidemic because people are shitting in the water supply. This hatefact would not generally be discussed in polite company, because it implies that Haiti has a people problem, not a lack-of-potable-water problem.

3 comments:

Ingemar said...

I glanced at the Wikipedia article for DomRep and saw that the country was briefly ruled by Haiti.

Thus they have three independence days, the first and third from Spain, the second from Haiti.

Scotsman said...

They need to end this charade that Haiti is capable of real independence. The UN ought to invite France to take back over the place again.

Hail said...

I wonder why Haiti is so much worse off than the other all-Black island nation, Jamaica?

Jamaica was only fully independent in 1962. Haiti was on its own already around the time Jefferson was elected.