18 May 2010

My Week in Haiti

Haiti, Shameless Self-Promotion 4 Comments

At Mises.org today I have a long article describing some of my “economic” lessons from Haiti:

In my brief time in Haiti, I saw the laws of economics at work. Entrepreneurs rushed to satisfy customers, as proven by the owners of motorcycles who suddenly became taxi drivers after the roads were filled with rubble. Government, in contrast, completely failed to deliver promised services to the people. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the “nongovernmental organizations,” at least the one I worked for, were filled with some of the most interesting people I have ever met.

4 Responses to “My Week in Haiti”

  1. Ricardo Cruz says:

    That was inspiring. Good job!

  2. Argosy Jones says:

    Anyway, I tried several times to get the engineers to come down one way or the other on this dispute about building codes. For sure, they agreed that the Haitian structures were not well designed, according to US standards.

    This whole discussion interests me considerably, since I am trained in architecture (Just took the structural systems portion of the Architect Registration Exam yesterday), and have a considerable interest in economics. I’ve done a little googling, but have not found much of note, beyond a lackluster cato piece. I would like to read more about this, so if any readers–or Robert wants to point any out, I’d love it.

    Couple of comments.

    1. Building codes clearly make us safer. This isn’t to say that they have to be provided by the state, in fact in the US, anyway, they were provided first by fire insurance companies, who didn’t want to spend their money on tinderboxes. The Sanborn Maps company started out making maps of US cities, showing every building coded according to construction material and height (the buildings neighboring a proposed structure affect it’s fire risk.) Once building codes like this existed, bankers would likely have been the first line of enforcement, not lending money to a project that would literally go up in smoke, blowing their chances of being paid back. Of course, if people are paying saved cash for construction, this system breaks down, but this just transfers the incentives to the owner himself.

    2. Building codes and their enforcement provide us with a kind of collective memory that enhances our ability to deal with problems that are outside our own experience, so that we don’t have to deal with the great Chicago fire every other generation. This sounds like an exaggeration, but I don’t think it’s quite so. Wikipedia says that building of wood and thatch was illegal even before the great London fire of 1066, on the grounds that it posed great danger both to self and neighbors. Even back then, people knew quite well that fire can burn as long as it has fuel, so this isn’t a problem of ignorance. After the fire, central London was rebuilt, primarily in stone and brick. more than 1000 years later, this part of London remains with us. We could debate whether this was because of law or because of the immediate experience of the great fire, but we all know that it’s because the rebuilding was of brick and not of straw.

    3. It isn’t quite clear, but the photo in the post appears to show a completely unreinforced concrete wall, which is kind of shocking, since steel reinforced concrete has been around in this country since the 1800’s, and has some precedent going all the way back to the renaissance; Brunneleschi reinforced the dome of the florence cathedral with iron chain. I should make it clear that building codes wouldn’t have prevented damage to the structure entirely. It would likely have to be rebuilt or repaired at considerable expense. But knowing what little I do about the subject, many buildings like this in Haiti probably killed their occupants. I’m pretty sure that the occupants of those buildings would in hindsight rather have paid a bit more for their home than die. Sure, hindsight is 20/20, but institutions like building codes, whether provided by the state or by market institutions, could have saved many lives in this instance.

    Thanks for reporting your experiences, I am considering volunteering in Haiti, perhaps with this same organisation. If it’s not too personal, may I ask about your out of pocket costs for the trip? I have a little expertise and a lot of construction experience, but little money, so your answer matters to me personally.

  3. Peter Drobny says:

    Great post. Thanks for sharing all these ideas.

  4. User says:

    “In particular, when they would see a team of HODR volunteers engaging in literal hard labor, using sledgehammers and wheelbarrows to remove rubble from a collapsed residence, many of the Haitians apparently resented the fact that we were “stealing their jobs.” In other words, the Haitians — where unemployment is apparently 90 percent — thought they should be getting paid to remove the rubble from their collapsed homes.”

    “But what of the unskilled workers (which included me, in this context)? For example, the three main tasks I performed during the week were removing rubble, building emergency shelters (using PVC pipe and shrink-wrap for boats), and cleaning the HODR base.”

    “They couldn’t even think of rebuilding their houses, because a huge pile of rubble sat on their land and they didn’t have the tools to tackle it.” (From your previous blog post, not the article)

    These three quotes indicate to me that the suspicious Haitians were right. There is a large pool of available unskilled labor that merely lacks tools. It seems like you could pay them (perhaps only in food, perhaps as much as it costs to fly volunteers in and out as well) and supply them with tools and they could remove their own rubble. The rubble would be removed, the emergency shelters built, and the volunteers would (presumably) be producing wealth doing whatever it was before they volunteered. If the non-volunteers really felt like it they could even go without running water and donate the savings on their water bill to someplace like HODR so they could bring in people like engineers which the Haitians can’t provide. It seems like you were taking their (potential) jobs, and reducing the net wealth in the world (in an opportunity cost sense). Unless you think that there was something else the unemployed Haitians could be doing to produce wealth, which seems unlikely.

    “What’s my point? We were not staying at the Four Seasons. THIS WAS NOT A VACATION.”

    Reading your article, it really seems like it was. It wasn’t a vacation like you get when you go to a relaxing beach resort. The volunteers didn’t get relaxation, they got a feeling of satisfaction from felling helpful, whether they were actually a net benefit or not. Hard work just increases this feeling. It’s just a different kind of vacation, one which it’s easy to self-deceive about.