Monthly Archives: October 2010

Why Africa is Poor, and What We Can Do About It

THE SHACKLED CONTINENT by Robert Guest

by Robert Guest, author of The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives (Smithsonian Books, 2010)

I once hitched a ride on a truck through a West African rain forest. The journey was supposed to take less than a day, but it took four. The dirt roads were fine so long as it didn’t rain. But we were in a rain forest, so it rained often and hard, turning our route into a swamp. A collapsed bridge slowed us down, too. The worst delays, however, were caused by police road blocks, of which we met 47.

Every few miles, we’d see a couple of rusty oil drums and some barbed wire in the middle of the road, and we’d have to stop. A plump gendarme would check our axles and tail-lights and pick over our papers, hoping to find a fault he could demand a bribe to overlook. Sometimes, this took hours.

The pithiest explanation of why travelers in Cameroon have to endure such mistreatment came from the policeman at road block number 31. He had invented a new rule about not carrying passengers in beer trucks. When I put it to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”

Africa is poor today for many reasons, Continue reading

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Using Carrots and Sticks

CARROTS AND STICKS by Ian Ayres

by Ian Ayres, author of Carrots and Sticks: Unlock the Power of Incentives to Get Things Done (Bantam, 2010)

Rob Harrison is one of the most beloved teachers at Yale Law School. He has improved the writing and emotional outlook of generations of our students.  He is the kind of guy who unabashedly ends his emails “Love, Rob.” He is staggeringly kind. So it came as a bit of a shock when Rob told me that he had used unforgiving commitment contracts to help students overcome writer’s block. For more than a decade, students have given him checks of up to $10,000, signed and made out to charity, and authorized Rob to mail the checks if they failed to turn in a paper to the course professor by a specified date.

To date, his check-holding commitments have never failed. Rob has never had to mail one of these commitment checks. This is a spectacular result—particularly because Rob only offers the contracts to students who are hard-core procrastinators, kids who have already demonstrated a deep psychological inability of putting pen to paper (or nowadays, finger to keyboard).

I wrote Carrots and Sticks in part to understand why Rob has been so successful. Continue reading

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Teaching the Cold War to a Generation Born After

UNCIVIL SOCIETY by Stephen Kotkin

by Stephen Kotkin, author of Uncivil Society: 1989 and the Implosion of the Communist Establishment (Modern Library, 2010)

I started teaching at Princeton University in September 1989—and two months into my first course the Berlin Wall fell. The ink on my Ph.D. was barely dry. Within two years, the Soviet Union was gone. The conundrum of Communism’s collapse has haunted me ever since.  In 1989, more than 1 million people gathered in protests on Tiananmen Square, but the Chinese Communist regime endures. In Poland, there were hardly any street demonstrations in 1989, yet it was the first Communist regime to go.

Obviously, it was necessary to look inside Eastern Europe’s Communist establishments (what I call the “uncivil society”) and not just at the protesters (usually called “civil society”). What struck me was that the 1989 “roundtable” initiated by the Polish Communists with the opposition Solidarity was not intended as an end to the system—by either side. Continue reading

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