What to think of Edward Snowden?

When the outcry over the NSA’s PRISM surveillance program broke out as a result of yet another whistle-blower (Edward Snowden) going public with classified information, I had just finished reading a book which, among other related topics, discusses the inevitability of such programs: ‘The New Digital Age’, written by Eric Schmidt, who leads Google, and Jared Cohen, a former adviser of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. After extolling the increased efficiency, innovation, opportunities and better quality of life which comes with this ‘new digital age’, they also write that the “impact of the data revolution will strip citizens of much of their control over their personal information in virtual space, and that will have significant consequences in the physical world.”

They then discuss the phenomenon of whistle-blowing in the new information age, focusing in particular on Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks and the fate of Bradley Manning, the source of much of the classified material which WikiLeaks made public. While they make it clear that they do not agree with Assange’s approach, and while they clearly do not have any sympathy for Manning either, noting that “lack of judgment around sensitive materials might well get people killed”, they also write the following: “How different would the reaction have been, from Western governments in particular, if WikiLeaks had published stolen classified documents from the regimes in Venezuela, North Korea and Iran?” Schmidt and Cohen then conclude that they “expect that future Western governments would ultimately adopt a dissonant position toward digital disclosures, encouraging them abroad in adversarial countries, but prosecuting them ferociously at home.”

This is obviously happening already today. Schmidt and Cohen are optimistic as to the impact of all of this for the future of our democracies. Indeed, they write the following: “While of this digital chaos will be a nuisance to democratic societies, it will not destroy the democratic system. Institutions and policies will be left intact, if slightly battered. And once democracies determine the appropriate laws to regulate and control new trends, the result may even be an improvement, with a strengthened social contract and greater efficiency and transparency in society.”

However, they also note that “This will take time, because norms are not quick to change, and each democracy will move at its own pace.”

I must admit that I am not so sure that ‘our democracies’ will actually move at all and, if they do, that they will move in the right direction. That’s why, for the first time, I actually reacted positively to the Avaaz petition which is currently circulating. I think the ‘lack of judgment’ of Bradley Manning and Julian Assange might indeed have endangered lives. However, for some reason, I feel that this Snowden guy is a different case. For starters, he’s incredibly naive – which is another reason why I think he deserves more sympathy.

On the death penalty

Gruesome murders, such as the recent brutal killing of a serving soldier in Woolwich by Islamic radicals (followed by an equally senseless attempt to kill a French soldier in Paris) or, worse, the 2011 massacre in Norway perpetrated by Anders Behring Breivik (who was diagnosed to be ‘criminally insane’), usually reignite the debate on the death penalty. I find it interesting, because the debate involves an aspect of justice which is usually not being discussed openly: its retributive aspect.

Indeed, abolitionists neglect this aspect of justice completely. They argue – ad nauseam one might say – that the death penalty does not act as a deterrent and, hence, that imposing or re-imposing it has no impact on crime rates. Most studies confirm that. In fact, public execution was generally known to increase (rather than decrease) violent criminality, especially at the time and place of executions – which is why executions were moved inside prisons and away from public view hundreds of years ago.

While such reasoning is essentially correct, it does not address the public call for social justice because the argument behind is that deterrence, rather than retribution, should be the main justification for punishment (hence, the death penalty should be done away with, because its aggressive application did not seem to reduce crime in the past). In addition, despite the introduction of advanced techniques in forensic science (such as DNA profiling), there is always the fear of a mistake. In the 12th century already, Maimonides – a famous Jewish philosopher – wrote that “It is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death.” So this line of reasoning – which amounts to stating that errors of commission are much more threatening than errors of omission – also leads abolitionists to argue that executing an accused criminal on anything less than absolute certainty should not be tolerated. Of course, because absolute certainty is obviously not of this world, it is equivalent to stating that the death penalty should be outlawed – which was done in most democratic countries, albeit it very recently in most of them.

I can see the point, even if I do not subscribe to the view that societies should eliminate all risk of errors of commission, because this will, inevitably, come at the cost of too many errors of omission. More fundamentally, however, I believe one cannot neglect the aspect of retribution in justice. In fact, one of the main reasons why some say that individuals such as Breivik or the Woolwich suspects should be executed is actually because these individuals do not seem to be afraid of any punishment – including the death penalty. Hence, the deterrence aspect of the death penalty – or of any alternative punishments, including the maximum sentence of life imprisonment (which, as we all know, is seldom fully implemented) – becomes irrelevant in such cases. In fact, this is what probably irks the public instinct most: the abolitionists’ argument, which focuses on the (non-)deterrence aspect only, misses the point. The death penalty is all about retribution indeed – and that’s why anyone debating it should address it. In fact, I think the emotional center of the debate revolves around it – even if few would dare to admit that because of reasons related to political correctness (which I will set aside for the moment).

Exploring the retribution aspect of the death penalty may well look like trying to walk down a very slippery slope. Let me therefore bring the discussion more down to earth: how would an abolitionist feel if his or her minor daughter was brutally raped, and then slaughtered afterwards (this amounts to committing a double or triple capital offence in those countries which still apply the death penalty)? I know, for sure, that I would like to see the perpetrator dead. Worse, I actually think I would be capable of killing the perpetrator myself – and probably rather slowly and in full consciousness of what’s going on, just like his or her victim. However, I also know I would rather see the offender punished through some kind of collective action – i.e. through a  case in court with, preferably, the involvement of a grand jury. Such thoughts have nothing to do with deterrence. They are all about retribution: an eye for an eye, a life for a life. The real question is whether or not the individual is authorized to follow this principle. That is obviously not the case in most of today’s societies: it is generally agreed that such decisions should go through a justice system.

The ‘eye for an eye’ principle obviously sounds primitive and medieval. However, one should not forget that it was the foundation of the so-called lex talionis which is very much part of all Abrahamic traditions – Jewish, Christian and Islamic. Indeed, one forgets easily that Jesus only warned against excessive vengeance, not so much against the principle of retribution (call it vengeance if you want) as such. In fact, doing my usual superficial research on the Web, I was surprised to learn that the Vatican City only abolished its capital punishment statute in 1969 – so the Catholic Church is certainly not holier than Islamic traditions in this regard.

We all too easily forget that an important function of the state is to carry out justice on our behalf. As Hobbes pointed out: life without a government – the state of nature – would be a state in which each person would have a license to everything in the world, including the right to take revenge on someone else. This, Hobbes argues, would lead to a bellum omnium contra omnes: a war of all against all. And so that’s why it makes sense to create a proper state – led by a government and governed through laws and regulations, including a justice system which, until very recently, usually included a capital punishment statute.

We should have a closer look at the very recent (and very particular one might say) context in which countries abolished the death penalty: most countries did so as part of a process of rather radical political change, when they shifted from authoritarianism to democracy. As such, the death penalty was often portrayed as being incompatible with human rights. Indeed, Amnesty International considers the death penalty to be “the ultimate denial of human rights.” It is equally often associated with political oppression. Such lack of nuance – especially the ‘denial of human rights’ claim – is totally out of place in my view, and it surely does not convince the crowd. Of course, abolitionists – elitists as they are – will argue that the opinion of the crowd should not matter. Well… Let me just note that a number of very democratic and very well-respected countries have signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and have integrated its clauses in their constitution and their laws while retaining the right to execute criminals: the US and Japan are probably the two most significant examples.

Of course, the case of China is also there, and I acknowledge it (even if most, if not all, executions do involve criminals there, not human rights offenders). That being said, I think it is extremely simplistic to suggest that the European Union would not be true to its democratic history and character if, one of these days, it would decide to do away with article 2 of its Charter of Fundamental Rights – which prohibits the use of capital punishment. Besides from reassuring Europeans that the EU is not there to eat into their rights as voters in sovereign countries (which, as we all know, is currently a rather big issue indeed), it would also make it easier for the EU to truly engage with its development partners. On the other hand, it is true that EU countries, if they would reinstate the death penalty (which, I know, they will not do any time soon) would also have a lot more difficulty trying to convince other countries not to apply the death penalty when the case involves one or more of their citizens: when everything is said and done, it would be difficult for, let’s say, the UK to convince Egypt or Indonesia to not execute British drugs smugglers caught red-handed over there if the UK would still have the death penalty in place. In fact, I am using the UK as an example, because the UK only formally abolished the death penalty in 1998, and it did so as part of its EU membership obligations only. Frankly, I find it hard to not see some degree of international opportunism here.

Let me be clear: I am a very staunch defender of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In fact, I think its adoption was probably the most uplifting event in that eventful 20th century – and, of course, of its fundamental clause which states that everyone has a right to life – which should come with all that modern life involves: political, economic, social and cultural rights. I also need to state here that I feel very uncomfortable with the idea of having non-democratic governments and justice systems decide on who is to live and/or die in their jurisdiction. That being said, no right or freedom is or can be absolute. Individuals live in societies, and my freedom may end where the freedom of someone else begins: we all agree that we do not have the right to just go and kill someone else (let alone torture him or her before the murder). If they do, such individuals become criminals and, hence, some kind of collective body – representing what we refer to as society – may well decide to take some of their rights away: first and foremost their right to freedom (to ensure no further harm to the freedom of others is done) but, perhaps, also their right to live.

Of course, this assumes due consideration and due process – which ought to be guaranteed in a democracy. Indeed, criticizing China because of its capital punishment statue is fairly easy: China is not a democracy and, hence, as mentioned above, there is obviously more of a risk of a miscarriage of justice. However, criticizing the US or Japan for retaining the ultimate penalty in their legal code is a rather different matter. Executing criminals for the gravest of crimes, such as murder or sexual assault of minors (or the combination of both in one single heinous act), has nothing to do with deterrence: it is about addressing the public’s sense of social justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights clearly states that “every human being has the inherent right to life” and that “this right shall be protected by law: no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his life.” Applying the death penalty does not arbitrarily deprive someone of his life. It is a legal decision made after much deliberation and – in democracies – only in very rare cases. Indeed, when it comes to specific cases, it would seem that most citizens in our democracies are able to unambiguously answer the most obvious of all of the difficult questions involved: does the criminal involved deserve to be executed, or should he be put behind bars instead? Make the question specific: what if your daughter or son would be one of the victims of an insane criminal? What if he or she would be the only victim? Would it matter?

If it does, you should probably adjust your opinion on the death penalty in order to be consistent.

Roads and development in Nepal

Much of the donor money which was spent in Nepal after the 2006 Comprehensive Peace Agreement was spent on infrastructure. For tourists, the effort to build roads stands out, as many classic trekking routes have lost their charm because of the road-building drive. Indeed, it is not so nice to trek along a dirt road, or to see jeeps on dirt roads nearby bring the locals to the same place as the ancient trail you’re following – but in an hour or so, while you will be walking all day. According to the third Nepal Living Standards Survey (NLSS-III), which was carried out last year, not less than 94% of the Nepali population in rural areas now has access to a dirt road within 30 minutes. Access to basic health care centers, primary schools and other facilities also confirm a huge improvement since 2005/2006 (i.e. when the second survey (NLSS-II) took place).

The quality of these dirt roads is abominable. I biked along such roads between Trisuli and Gorkha, thereby avoiding the main highway Kathmandu to Pokhara (which I find too dangerous for biking), and then I also cycled further west of Beni and Baglung, in an attempt to cycle to Dhorpatan and then on to Dolpo. In the Indian Himalayas (I’ve biked through Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Ladakh and Kashmir), I would easily cover 100 to 150 km per day. Not here: 50 km per day is a very good average. It’s not the gradient of the slopes: the Manali-Leh road has, most probably, the longest and steepest climbs in the world and, while they’re tough, I don’t mind. It’s the poor quality of the roads. Nepal’s dirt roads are extremely badly constructed: bulldozer roads really – extremely rocky, extremely muddy, or extremely sandy: it is difficult to move on them (the Census reveals that the population qualifies about a third of the roads as vehicle-impassable) and, if you do, it is at the expense of a lot of material wear and tear. Only jeeps, trucks and 4WD buses can go on them, and they break down too. As for me, I had to replace the whole drivetrain after the ride.

But so the roads are there, and they do bring cheap rice and other consumables from the plains. They also bring satellite dishes and TVs, along with other household investment items – but I am mentioning the satellite dishes and TVs in particular because of their cultural impacts. These cultural impacts are not very different from what happened in my home country forty or fifty years ago. My father was the first to buy a black-and-white TV, and the whole neighborhood came to gape at what they presumed to be the American lifestyle. They saw it in color later, which led them to buy their own TV. So that is happening here too (but the black-and-white phase is skipped of course). However, as an economist, I am more interested in the economic effect of these roads – i.e. the effect of the cheap rice and other consumables. What does it do to a village?

Economists tell us that better connectivity – i.e. not only roads but also mobile telephony – integrates markets and reduces transaction costs: roads make it cheaper to ‘export’ or ‘import’ goods and services from one region to another, and the phone makes sure you are not taking too much risk when doing so because price differentials (the price of a bag of rice in the nearest town for example) can be ascertained instantly. There are no surprises any more. Hence, farmers in the hills and mountains can sell their surpluses of rice, wheat or barley – or whatever they are able to sell – and buy cheaper… well… cheaper rice and wheat basically. Huh? How does that work?

It doesn’t. Cheap imports do reduce the incentive to produce food stuffs locally. It is a well-known fact that cheap food imports (e.g. cheap wheat flour) have a negative impact on local food production, changing consumption patterns (who eats manioc in Kinshasa nowadays?) and introducing dependency in the process. Economists do not look at that as a problem. On the contrary, it is part of a process of economic specialization during which countries or regions exploit their comparative or relative advantages vis-à-vis each other. Let me recall the basics of that theory: comparative advantage refers to the ability to produce a particular good or service at a lower marginal and opportunity cost over another. There is no need to have an absolute production advantage. Even if one country (or region) is more efficient in the production of all goods than the other (i.e. if it has an absolute advantage in all goods – which is probably the case in Nepal: whatever product we are considering, it is cheaper to produce it in the plains than in the mountains), both countries or regions will still gain by trading with each other, as long as they have different relative efficiencies. For example, if, using machinery, a worker in one country can produce both shoes and shirts at 6 per hour, and a worker in a country with less machinery can produce either 2 shoes or 4 shirts in an hour, each country can gain from trade because their internal trade-offs between shoes and shirts are different. The less-efficient country has a comparative advantage in shirts, so it finds it more efficient to produce shirts and trade them to the more-efficient country for shoes.

That’s the theory. So what products or services should be produced in the hills and mountain zones? What is their comparative advantage? In practice, the theory of comparative advantages and/or specialization does not work. If anything, it is labor which is being exported. Indeed, most people in the more remote areas are happy to stop cultivating their land, and families push their men and sons (and their able young women as well) to seek some kind of employment in Kathmandu or, even better, somewhere abroad. Yes, the equivalent of the American Dream in Nepal is to become a dish-washer in Dubai, a security guard in Kabul or a nanny in London (of course, women are also being offered more sinister possibilities for employment abroad: trafficking of women is a huge issue in Nepal).

The roads make it easy: your beloved ones can use them to visit you during the weekend when in Kathmandu (it only takes a dreadful journey on bus and/or by jeep), or once or twice a year when abroad.

The statistics don’t lie. The Census data shows that, over the past decade, Nepal’s population has grown from 23.1 to 26.5 million people but that, at the same time, not less than 27 districts (out of a total of 75 districts) recorded negative population growth during the last decade. [The Census uses the same nice economic euphemism: negative growth. Decrease doesn’t sound right I guess.] These 27 districts are all hill and/or mountain districts and, hence, the conclusion is quite straightforward: the newly built roads in the hills and mountain zone make it easy to leave. There are 17 districts with a population of less than 150,000 now, and they account for 6% of the population only (1.6 out of 26.5 million). All of the districts in the mountain zone (except for Sindhupalchok north of Kathmandu valley) have a population of less than 200,000 people. A quarter of the population now lives in a town (defined as a village of more than 20,000 people) or one of the larger municipalities.

The Census also took stock of the above-mentioned phenomenon of seeking employment abroad or in the capital: in one into four households, one or more members of the household are absent or working abroad indeed. The total number of such absentee family members adds up to close to 2 million people, as opposed to about 760,000 only a decade ago (i.e. in 2001). These people are currently the main breadwinners of Nepal – even if they’re not present in the country.

It is an inconvenient fact that economic development is, more often than not, disruptive and, hence, comes at the expensive of huge social-economic costs. Some win, some lose: one can only hope there are more winners than losers. In Nepal, however, the social costs of development seem to be enormous. Grandmothers or uncles and aunts take care of kids, as their father or mother is trying to earn some money for the whole family in Kathmandu or abroad. As they grow older, they will be sent to a private boarding school – if the family can afford it – because that’s the gateway to a job in Kathmandu or abroad. In the worst case, they will only make the army of the unemployed swell even larger. While Nepal’s social fabric has not broken down – as yet – the current political quagmire would seem to indicate that the system may be close to it.

But so what do the locals think of it all? That question is easy to answer. All of the people I met think the new roads are good: they bring development. So who am I to criticize?