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Monday, November 6, 2006

You can't talk about good empires! My head is exploding!

Posted By on 11.06.06 at 06:49 AM

Stacy Mitchell clinches her case against big-box stores with an anti-imperialist cameo from American history:

"When American colonists forced their way onto three ships docked in Boston harbor in 1773 and dumped more than 90,000 pounds of tea into the sea, their actions were as much a challenge to global corporate power as they were a rebellion against King George III.  The ships were owned by the East India Company, a powerful transnational corporation . . . [seeking] to undercut small competitors . . . and drive them out of business. . . . Our communities are fast becoming colonies once again." 

She'll be in town Wednesday, November 8, to talk about her new book, Big-Box Swindle. I have a brief review of it in this week's Reader, but what struck me about this particular passage has nothing to do with Wal-Mart.  Notice how naturally this anti-imperialist rhetoric comes to us. After 233 years of repetition and counting, Mitchell doesn't have to explain that being a colony is just about the worst thing in the world. We take it for granted that "empire" = "exploitation."

So when a couple of Dartmouth economists come up with some evidence going the other way, it's hard to process:

"Using a new database of islands throughout the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, we examine whether colonial origins affect modern economic outcomes. The number of years spent as a European colony is strongly positively related to the island's GDP per capita and negatively related to infant mortality. This basic relationship is also found to hold for a standard dataset of developing countries."

Abstract here. A journalistic summary at Slate, followed by numerous highly critical and intelligent comments.  (Whatever its other flaws, the study does examine a random sample, because colonization was determined by wind currents in the days of sail, not by the amount of resources or other economic promise.)

The notion that empires might be OK is, of course, what historian Niall Ferguson is all about. (Not that I am a fan.)  It has also recently crept (in more and less sophisticated versions) onto blogs as different as Pseudo-Polymath and Marginal Revolution. Blip or trend? Threat or menace?

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