Mexico’s best president


Ernesto Zedillo caught a lot of flak from Mexicans while we were living there (among other things they thought his grito de independencia was “weak”), but Kevin and I always thought he was by far Mexico’s best president.  After finishing the Opening Mexico book, I am more convinced than ever.  Here is one of my favorite tidbits of the book:

“He (Zedillo) didn’t invite the political elite to Los Pinos to shoot the breeze with them and coddle them. Whereas it had been customary for el Señor Presidente to be courted and petitioned by supplicants of all stripes, Zedillo regarded such entreaty as undignified.  In the sitting room of his office at Los Pinos he hung a lithograph by a Oaxacan artist, Francisco Toledo, of a large cricket.  In Mexico the Spanish word for cricket, grillo, also denotes someone who is always engaged in cheap political maneuvering and gossip–a “third rate politician,” as Zedillo once defined the term.  If he felt that a visitor had come to press some personal interest on him, he would sit the guest in an armchair under the painting, then point to the grillo on the wall behind.  “Don’t try to lobby me!” Zedillo would say, shaking his finger.”

I wonder if he has a grillo print in his office at Yale for when students come in to lobby for better grades.

p.s. I don’t know which grillo painting he had in Los Pinos, but the one above is my favorite so I thought I’d choose it.

“The friendliest slum in the world”

What do slum residents think about the increasing popularity of slum tourism?  Jason Patinkin, on Informal City Dialogues, tries to find out first hand in Nairobi.

First he searches for a tour and finds that there are several to choose from.  The advertise with promises such as “The friendliest slum in the world,” “Raw” and “eye-opening,” as well as assurances that the money spent on the tour will help the local community.

After a 4-hour walking tour in Kibera, Jason returns the next day to interview residents about their feelings towards these tours.   While far from scientific or comprehensive, he reports some interesting findings:

1. Most residents don’t like having their pictures taken, even after guides explained that there was no ulterior motive behind it.  The reasons they cited are (a) it was offensive, “equating people to animals;” (b) the photos might be used for profit without the locals receiving a portion; and (c) the photos might be “used to scam would-be donors into giving money to fake aid programs.”  The last one was the most surprising to me.

2. Not surprisingly, the people who directly profited from the arrangement seemed happy with it.  He finds that employees at the curio workshop (one of the stops on the tour) actually pay a percentage to the guides.  Jason finds this to be exploitative, but the members reassure him that they are happy with the system.

3. Even those who did not directly profit had a positive image of the tours.  Jason writes: “To Frederick Otieno, 28, who sells water and washes cars with a youth group, tourists mean potential donors. “When muzungu (white people) go to see animals, it is mostly the government that benefits,” he said. “We’d rather prefer that the muzungu comes to see us because they [might] come and fund a school here.” Otieno’s hope isn’t so far-fetched. In some blocks of this Kibera neighborhood, almost every other storefront is a local or foreign NGO, and volunteers and interns flock to the area every summer.”

Personally I feel way more comfortable on a photo tour of wildlife than I do people.

Private law in Mexico?

I just finished an excellent book about Mexico’s democratization called Opening Mexico: The Making of a Democracy by Ny Times reporters (and Pulitzer Prize winners) Julia Preston and Samuel Dillon.  The book was published in 2005, so it isn’t exactly recent, but it was well worth it.  Chock full of behind the scenes details and interesting tidbits, I’d highly recommend it.

The authors made one point that I found incredible and I’m wondering if there are any readers who can tell me if this is still true.  They write:

The judiciary was traditionally the weakest branch of government, and a legal principle that has become central to the operation of the Mexican system symbolized the bench’s limited powers:  laws ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court remained in force for all citizens except those who filed the legal challenge.  The principle was pioneered in 1847 by Mariano Otero, an eminent constitutional lawyer.  To this day, the Otero principle has forced all Mexicans except a handful of wealthy litigants to obey laws already ruled unconstitutional and obligated the country’s highest tribunal to spin its wheels endlessly, reviewing the constitutionality of the same laws again and again.

I’m fascinated by this and I have to say it explains a lot about the Mexican judiciary and its ineffectiveness.  What was the legal reasoning behind such a principle? It seems to violate all notions of common sense, fairness, ethics, and rule of law. Does anyone know of any other countries that have had a similar rule?

Rush hour in Mexico City

The Atlantic recently had a great photoessay called Inside Mexico City’s Chaotic Underground Rush Hour.  Driving in Mexico City is always treacherous, but things come to an absolute standstill during rush hour, which seemed to expand every year we were there.  Apparently things aren’t much better on the subway, which 4 million people ride every day, making it the second busiest metro in North America behind NYC.

The photos were taken by a Spanish photographer named Héctor Mediavilla. Here are 2 of my favorite:



Disease & Development

Two of the best economists on the topic of agriculture and development, Margaret McMillan and William Masters, have teamed up with a good development economist from Oklahoma State University, Harounan Kazianga, and written an interesting new working paper called Disease Control, Demographic Change and Institutional Development in Africa.  The abstract below gives more details, but they essentially find that selective treatment of river blindness has had a significant long term effect on population growth and institutions in those villages.  I am teaching a Ph.D. class on development this fall and I have a section on institutions, geography, and development.  Looks like I have a new addition to the syllabus:

This paper addresses the role of tropical disease in rural demography and land use rights, using data from Onchocerciasis (river blindness) control in Burkina Faso. We combine a new survey of village elders with historical census data for 1975-2006 and geocoded maps of treatment under the regional Onchocerciasis Control Program (OCP). The OCP ran from 1975 to 2002, first spraying rivers to stop transmission and then distributing medicine to help those already infected. Controlling for time and village fixed effects, we find that villages in treated areas acquired larger populations and also had more cropland transactions, fewer permits required for cropland transactions, and more regulation of common property pasture and forest. These effects are robust to numerous controls and tests for heterogeneity across the sample, including time-varying region fixed effects. Descriptive statistics suggest that treated villages also acquired closer access to electricity and telephone service, markets, wells and primary schools, with no difference in several other variables. These results are consistent with both changes in productivity and effects of population size on public institutions.

h/t @JustinSandefur

The old ways aren’t always the best ways

In a recent Boston Globe article, “Lima: Where the pallbearers are black,” I learned that there is a long racist tradition in Lima of only using black pallbearers.  Apparently, the custom started in colonial days, when the elite typically had many slaves in the household.  According to a historian of Peru’s slave trade, Maribel Arrelucea,  ‘‘to have one’s body carried by a black is understood by many to be a symbol of prestige, just as it was in the colonial era when the aristocrats of Lima went to church accompanied by a slave.’’


While the tradition never took off in any other Latin American country (or even other part of Peru), it still seems to me a mark of prestige in Lima.  I didn’t even realize that being a pallbearer was a full time job, but apparently it is in Lima.  The city has “about 50 pallbearers, organized into teams, and each man earns $5 per burial or about $70 a week, the equivalent of minimum wage. They are contractors, not funeral home employees, hired on a per-job basis with no benefits.” {Sidenote: how can there only be 50?}

In an ironic moment, Peru’s “most prominent funeral director,” refuted claims that only employing blacks as pallbearers is somehow racist.  His reasoning:  blacks know better than  “laughing or making faces’ at funerals. ‘‘

While it is considered a mark of elegance and honor to have black men serve as pallbearers, the men who get into this line of work do so because of a lack of other opportunities.  The article notes that around 10% of the Peruvian population is of African descent, but only 2% of that population attend college.  There are almost no blacks amongst the Peruvian elite (either in the government or in the private sector) and almost all work in manual labor jobs like in the sugar cane plantations by the coast.

I don’t think the answer to the problem is simply to prohibit blacks from being pallbearers, but a recognition of the tradition’s racist past as well as a plan to promote opportunities for blacks would be a step forward.