Iraq: Some very interesting measures of how well things are going

As an economist, these measures of well-being are quite attractive because they rely on people "voting with their feet," what economists would call revealed preferences. From an article in Commentary magazine by Amir Taheri (the whole article is worth reading):

. . . Since my first encounter with Iraq almost 40 years ago, I have relied on several broad measures of social and economic health to assess the countrys condition. Through good times and bad, these signs have proved remarkably accurateas accurate, that is, as is possible in human affairs. For some time now, all have been pointing in an unequivocally positive direction.

The first sign is refugees. When things have been truly desperate in Iraqin 1959, 1969, 1971, 1973, 1980, 1988, and 1990long queues of Iraqis have formed at the Turkish and Iranian frontiers, hoping to escape. In 1973, for example, when Saddam Hussein decided to expel all those whose ancestors had not been Ottoman citizens before Iraqs creation as a state, some 1.2 million Iraqis left their homes in the space of just six weeks. This was not the temporary exile of a small group of middle-class professionals and intellectuals, which is a common enough phenomenon in most Arab countries. Rather, it was a departure en masse, affecting people both in small villages and in big cities, and it was a scene regularly repeated under Saddam Hussein.

Since the toppling of Saddam in 2003, this is one highly damaging image we have not seen on our television setsand we can be sure that we would be seeing it if it were there to be shown. To the contrary, Iraqis, far from fleeing, have been returning home. By the end of 2005, in the most conservative estimate, the number of returnees topped the 1.2-million mark. Many of the camps set up for fleeing Iraqis in Turkey, Iran, and Saudi Arabia since 1959 have now closed down. The oldest such center, at Ashrafiayh in southwest Iran, was formally shut when its last Iraqi guests returned home in 2004.

A second dependable sign likewise concerns human movement, but of a different kind. This is the flow of religious pilgrims to the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf. Whenever things start to go badly in Iraq, this stream is reduced to a trickle and then it dries up completely. From 1991 (when Saddam Hussein massacred Shiites involved in a revolt against him) to 2003, there were scarcely any pilgrims to these cities. Since Saddams fall, they have been flooded with visitors. In 2005, the holy sites received an estimated 12 million pilgrims, making them the most visited spots in the entire Muslim world, ahead of both Mecca and Medina.

Over 3,000 Iraqi clerics have also returned from exile, and Shiite seminaries, which just a few years ago held no more than a few dozen pupils, now boast over 15,000 from 40 different countries. . . .

A third sign, . . . is the value of the Iraqi dinar, especially as compared with the regions other major currencies. In the final years of Saddam Husseins rule, the Iraqi dinar was in free fall; after 1995, it was no longer even traded in Iran and Kuwait. By contrast, the new dinar, introduced early in 2004, is doing well against both the Kuwaiti dinar and the Iranian rial . . . .

My fourth time-tested sign is . . . whenever things have gone downhill in Iraq, large numbers of such enterprises have simply closed down, with the countrys most capable entrepreneurs decamping to Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf states, Turkey, Iran, and even Europe and North America. Since liberation, however, Iraq has witnessed a private-sector boom, especially among small and medium-sized businesses. . . .

UPDATE: A reader named Guav alerts me to the fact that Amir Taheri was apparently the same person who has recently made some mistakes reporting on Iran.

A news story and column by Iranian-born analyst Amir Taheri in yesterday’s National Post reported that the Iranian parliament had passed a sweeping new law this week outlining proper dress for Iran’s majority Muslims, including an order for Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians to wear special strips of cloth.


Anonymous Guav said...

You mean the same Amir Taheri who just caused a huge hubub by completely fabricating a story about Iran forcing Jews to wear yellow armbands?

As is stands, crude oil production, electricity availability, the number of people with access to potable water and the number of people with access to the sewer system are all lower today than pre-war levels.

5/23/2006 3:04 PM  
Blogger John Lott said...

Thanks. I have put up an update on the post. These are still the types of questions that one should look at, and I think that the numbers that he presents are at least plausible. I guess that we will have to rely on Commentary's reputation for accuracy and checking facts.

5/23/2006 4:07 PM  
Anonymous Guav said...

Taheri didn't "make some mistakes," he appears to have made it up from whole cloth.

I don't trust agents of disinformation, so I'll take his report on Iraq about as seriously as I'll take a report on gun control written by Sarah Brady.

In other words, I won't :)

5/24/2006 5:53 PM  

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