Demonstrations in the New Iraq, or It's the Economy, Stupid

The playwright Jean Kerr once remarked that "you don't seem to realize that a poor person who is unhappy is in a better position than a rich person who is unhappy.  Because the poor person has hope.  He thinks money would help."  So it might be said for poor governance and democracy. That is, "you don't seem to realize that a person in a badly governed dictatorship is in a better position than a person in a badly governed democracy.  Because the person in the dictatorship has hope.  He thinks democracy would help."

I mean this mostly seriously, I think, and I do think it might help to explain what it is that has Iraq participating (in lower levels, with not nearly the same repression, the numbers tell that tale well, but nonetheless participating) in the same demonstrations that have the balance of the Arab world so excited.  The tendency, it seems to me, has been to find precisely what is the same about Iraq and the rest of the Arab world, which is probably right.  But the way it has been done is to try to make PM Maliki into something of a dictator.  Then everything would fall into place, Maliki is Mubarak, Mubarak is a dictator, the Arabs want democracy, hence they want to get rid of Maliki.  Yet you have to stretch pretty far to reach the conclusion.  There is a Parliament, freely elected in elections monitored by the UN and the US, with folks screaming dictator and yet the man can be removed by that parliament by a simple majority vote.  That the opposition to Maliki is divided and that allows him freer purchase may be true to some extent, but surely that is not what makes one a dictator. 

No, the instinct to look for similarities is laudable, but perhaps it's not in finding Mubarak, much less Qaddafi, in Maliki, it's in discounting the whole democratic impulse as being purely about itself and nothing else to begin with.  I do not mean by this that Arabs don't actually want democracy, of course they do, and real democracy not one person one vote one time. But the real question is what else they want, or better stated what they want from democracy once they have it.  Not Islamic rule, or socialism, or whatever it is that Glenn Beck is going on about. But material improvement in their lives.The lives that citizens of the democratic states they know have. Because their governments are horrible at delivering public services.  They are awful in levels of corruption.  They are unspeakable in their unfathomable bureaucracies and endless regulation, which added together means a guy cannot even sell fruit on a street corner without getting a permit which will take three years or paying a bribe to a cop shaking him down.  You can only imagine what that does to a private sector, when regulation and bureaucracy and corruption are so stifling to a fruit vendor he'd rather set himself on fire than deal with it any longer. 

Problem is, just as Kerr's poor man doesn't realize it takes more than money to make happiness, so the Libyan or the Egyptian or the Tunisian doesn't know, or doesn't know yet, as the Iraqi does, that it will take more than elections to solve these problems.  A better life is not imminent. 

Yes I still have hope, I've said it in earlier posts, I do think that more accountable government is possible, in the same way that money can help create the possibility of happiness, but the correlation is loose and uncertain and requires other things, other changes to fall into place.  So I look at Iraq, and I am happy about what I consider to be a generally independent judiciary, and a genuine commitment to democratic politics, and a rejection of terrorism and sectarian violence, or at least let's say a broad improvement on those indicators that has NOT slipped back significantly despite everyone insisting it would upon US withdrawal. 

But on improving people's lives, on reducing bureaucracy, on eliminating regulation, on allowing greater foreign investment (in reality, not on paper), on easing licenses, on fostering private sector growth, on taking corruption more seriously, well not much has happened, and the positive way to see it is to say laws have been passed but to get it right it takes time, and look at what has been achieved. That's usually how I see things, it's China circa 1978 it doesnt flip in a day.  Like I said, I have hope. But to be fair, the other way to look at it is to be your average Iraqi is sitting in the damn heat without electricity with some ass in a government office refusing to deal with you and treating you like some lesser animal, though if you're lucky he'll be nicer and solicit a bribe to do hardly anything, while meanwhile those with influence get all the electricity they want, and your kid is dying of heat stroke but God forbid you take him to a hospital and bribe someone else to get him to a doctor while some other bureaucrat treats you just as badly as the first for daring to seek treatment.  I've been through it for some services, and it's made me quite angry, and I barely ever need to do it, I cannot imagine living with that nightmare of having to deal with the ministries day in and day out as most Iraqis do.  Anyway, the picture, I hope, is clear.  Your right to vote, even if it is real, and it is in Iraq, does not mean much under such circumstances.  In fact, you'd sell it in an instant for 24 hour electricity and a government official who will listen to you, which is precisely why Singapore isn't  convulsed by demonstrations, and neither is Shanghai, despite their lack of democracy.  Life's okay, who needs a vote, I think is the theory.

So yeah, the Arabs want democracy, badly. But they want it because they hope it will bring more accountable government, and with that, better governance, and with that, an improvement in people's lives.  But I don't think learned habits over the course of decades of government officials, and bureaucracies, and ideas of regulation, and notions of public and private enterprise, disappear just because a dictator is gone.   Some may delude themselves into thinking that Egypt is different, its revolution was indigenous, Iraq's was imposed, but that's really a sideshow in this context.  Indigenous or imposed, habits are habits, bureaucrats are bureaucrats, regulators are regulators, expectations among the populace of what kind of job they want (usually in a Ministry, with full pension and let someone else sweat out the world of private enterprise) are what they are, and those expectations and realities have been built, yes by dictators, over the course of decades, but still they do not disappear quickly just because the dictator goes.  Any more than a chronically unhappy person who comes into money suddenly becomes happy.

What he has, however is means to change his circumstance, means that he previously lacked by virtue of being poor.  (IE if he was unhappy because he really wanted to be a poet but had to feed his family, then money might well help him develop into the career he'd rather have but couldn't before) And that assumption of a means, of a way forward once there are elections and the dictator goes, we can only hope, will prove, over the course of time, significant time, to be all the difference.



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