What’s the Reason?

Why is life in some countries great while in others it’s crappy? Take Russia. Streets are covered in shit, roads are non-existent, domestic violence is through the roof, corruption is ridiculous, women are being raped and killed all over the place, and a quarter of all households doesn’t have access to indoor toilets. Why is it so bad?

And please don’t think I’m picking on Russia. Take any other example. Haiti, Uruguay, Belarus, Azeibarjan, Eritrea, whatever. There are obvious differences of degree but shit piled up in the streets, corruption, violence and horrific treatment of women are all the same. The reason why I used Russia is to avoid the inane and lazy first-grader response that it’s all colonialism or racism that’s causing this.

What is it, though? I’m sure everybody has their answer but I’m curious what it is.


30 thoughts on “What’s the Reason?”

  1. My unpopular answer: Countries are largely the way that their residents want them (I’m a big believer in unconscious collective agendas).
    That doesn’t mean that Russians like the shit in the streets or domestic abuse etc…. but at some level they realize (I’m talking about the majority with lots of individual exceptions) that changing it would be more work than they want to invest in Russia and might get in the way of things that are more important to them (like invading other countries).
    Poland is not super duper, but it’s light years ahead of where it was in the early 90s fresh out of communism because people wanted better and were willing and able to do the work to make it happen.
    Russians aren’t willing to do the work…. Ukrainians (despite massive problems) are more willing and so the longterm prospects of Ukraine are a lot better.


  2. // My unpopular answer: Countries are largely the way that their residents want them

    I understand your point, but the refugees and the migrants being smuggled into EU do not want to live in their countries, so one cannot claim the life in their countries is the way they want it.

    I think history – not necessary / only colonialism or racism – does play a major role in numerous ways. Imagine a group of people born in Somalia vs the same group born in America. In order to achieve normal life, the American group would need only not to be extremely, energetically suicidal, while the Somalian group would need to show feats of courage, resourcefulness and even genius to achieve 1% as much as in USA. If this group is not strong enough to transform the situation in Somalia, does it mean they want it?

    When I studied economics, I did study why third world countries have a difficulty to gain enough money for development. It is not merely lack of desire or being corrupt.

    Most people are average by definition; once a country is in a deep pit, they will not become new inspirational leaders advocating for change in a situation of perceived mass hopelessness and resulting apathy, unless something creates the momentum. For instance, Russian aggression changed the way many Ukrainians think of their country and of their own role as citizens in society.

    Also, the past does play a role in the creation of mass hopelessness and apathy. While Americans absorbed the belief in their country’s greatness with mother’s milk and know of past successes, some ethnic groups in the Middle East not only have only failures in the past but may have never had a nation state they could truly identify with. Before people are ready to sacrifice for their country’s future, they must have their own country to begin with.


    1. “one cannot claim the life in their countries is the way they want it”

      and they’re not interested in doing the work to change it for the better… a place the local population doesn’t invest in will become a shithole, that investment isn’t magic or a guarantee of success but it is a precondition for success

      of course there are lots of factors and history and economic factors play a role, but I don’t like pandering to the idea that people or countries are helpless pawns of forces beyond their control.


      1. I think some are. What’s been visited on Haiti, Central America, large parts of Africa, people DID do their best to resist, and they lost. The current idea, that poor Hondurans as individuals could change their country and should not flee, is ridiculous.


        1. “people DID do their best to resist, and they lost”

          Well the thing about resistance is that it doesn’t make things better, it makes them much more difficult in the short term so it takes a long time and the fruits of real resistance won’t be prosperity but increased hardship.
          Poland resisted communism since the mid 1950s and when it finally freed itself from that in 1989 the economy was in a shambles, inflation (correcting for decades of socialist price distortion) had eaten up everybody’s life savings there was a colossal housing shortage and most of the infrastructure was a sad joke.
          Successful resistance is just the first step in a long, hard road.

          “that poor Hondurans as individuals could change their country and should not flee”

          I don’t know nearly enough about Central America to know the specifics of the source and daily workings of the dysfunction. But real change is a generational undertaking and not something that a new caudillo or ‘revolution’ can effect – it’s millions of small daily decisions by the population at large and the easier out-migration to less screwed up places is then the harder it will be to ever fix. If Poles could have just fled by the tens of thousands every few months in the extended crisis years (beginning mid to late 1970s) then the country might still be a people’s republic….


          1. The question is whether “poor Hondurans”/Ukrainians/Russians/Eritreans, etc really want to flee. Or if what they really want is to bring Honduras, Ukraine, Eritrea, etc with them. I think it’s actually a huge projection on our part to assume they hate their Honduras, Ukraine, Eritrea, etc as much as we hate it without knowing much about it. I talked to a group of Mexican immigrants a couple of weeks ago. They hate the US and adore Mexico.

            So I’m saying let’s not assume that Ukrainians (Cubans, etc) are very unhappy to see their streets covered in dog shit.


            1. “let’s not assume that Ukrainians (Cubans, etc) are very unhappy to see their streets covered in dog shit”

              And we’re back to my original suggestion – countries are largely the way they are because the people there want them to be that way (or see change as too much work).


            2. If we are talking about immigrants for some reason, I think that most people fail to understand that in the vast majority of cases immigration is not about “I want to leave this horrible place and go to that wonderful one.” People can go all the way around the world, and their internal narrative is still directed only to the place of origin.


          2. Do you think Jews should have stayed in 3d Reich to work on incremental changes, and that if more had stayed and tried harder they could have saved more people, turned the tide, something? (I recommend the fleeing)


            1. There was a Ukrainian recently on the blog who’s been living in the US for years. All she wanted to talk about in every context of every discussion is how Americans are stupid, everything they do is stupid, everything in this country is just so stupid. And it’s not just this lady. This is the favorite pastime of all immigrants everywhere always.

              I have no idea why we are discussing this or the Holocaust in this thread but since we are OT anyways, why not.


            2. “Do you think Jews should have stayed in 3d Reich …. I recommend the fleeing”

              Well it’s like the old song “The Gambler”..
              you gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
              know when to walk away, know when to run….

              But the more people run as a first response the bigger the chances that only catastrophic mass destruction will fix the place…


              1. Americans tend to think that everything outside the US border is a scary jungle. And the only way to make the rest of the world happy is to transport it en masse into the US. The reality however is that it’s much more like what a lady I used to know said about her boyfriend. “Of course, Jacques is hideous and I gag every time he touches me but he gives me the best presents.”


  3. Well, there are factors that are beyond the control of individuals or even groups of them. But I think some things have to do with what people think is or is not possible. Some random examples.
    1/ When I went to live in northern Brazil, and found middle and upper middle class people not repairing things they obviously had the money to repair. I was like what? you are just going to put up with this broken phone / this leak in the roof / etc., when it is so inconvenient and you don’t have to? but they would put up with this stuff, for the longest. They were also willing to do without things that would require waiting in line for. There were multiple factors that went into this, some of which was class prejudice and some of which was that the things I found could be done with some effort, had in fact recently been yet harder to do within recent memory.
    2/ Scandinavians. They’re frugal. If there’s a transportation strike they are resigned — we cannot travel. It just does not occur to them to do something like rent a car, even though this is possible. It does occur to me and I say well, if we really want to go we can, if we increase budget, do we want to do that? And they think it’s a revelation. “Americans. You are sure you are free, and it occurs to you to just do things, in a way it simply does not occur to us.”
    3/ People in Louisiana. They have not experienced as much democracy as I have and tend to have less awareness of possible rights.
    …surely there are things I put up with and don’t have to, and don’t see clearly…


  4. It’s a bullshit answer, but maybe things are the way they are because they’ve been the way they are? There’s an implicit assumption in a lot of answers here that current-day factors is what defines the current state of the country, rather than developments centuries ago or even just the way climate and geography set the stage for the polities in question.

    As for why things have been the way they are, is there a reason why it would have to be the same reason for all countries in question?

    It’s a very pseudo-mathy answer, but so long as the various factors involved are productive – as in, the better things get, the easier it is for things to get better – it would not take very much in terms of differences in starting position to produce vastly different outcomes over time. Compound interest of society, if you will.

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  5. “life in some countries great while in others it’s crappy? ”

    A long time ago I saw this (link below), and while the author is kind of a crackpot (warhawk and former fox commentator) and it’s over-simplified it seems like an okay starting point. He lists seven “failure factors” and the idea is that the more of them apply to a country (and the stronger they’re followed) the more likely the country is to be a shithole (he doesn’t use that word)
    These key “failure factors” are:

    -Restrictions on the free flow of information.
    -The subjugation of women.
    -Inability to accept responsibility for individual or collective failure.
    -The extended family or clan as the basic unit of social organization.
    -Domination by a restrictive religion.
    -A low valuation of education.
    -Low prestige assigned to work.

    Apply each to Russia and Ukraine and see what you get…
    He doesn’t get into questions of how these arise or how to change them but it’s a useful starting point.


    1. The first time I was in Havana, what struck me is how much time people can spend sitting outside, in the midst of, literally, piles of garbage, without even trying to clean up. I’m not dumping specifically on Cubans because I come from a culture that litters with glee. It’s about accepting things as they are without trying to do anything about it. That’s why we (or Cubans) don’t invent anything, suffer endless corruption,and have the dirtiest toilets ever. We just accept things. If it rains shit, we won’t move an inch to get out of the way. Instead, we’ll explain how refreshing and original shit it. It’s one more factor to add to the list.


      1. My ex-chair always justified the crappiness of Louisiana as “jazz.” And I would groan. Jazz was invented by people who suffered from the crappiness and worked against it, and also moved away when and if they could. And jazz is not disorganization, lack of care, egotism, etc. — it is quite the opposite.


      2. ” It’s one more factor to add to the list”

        In other words “fatalism” the belief that the universe is the way it is and nothing can (or maybe should) be done to change it…


    2. That isn’t a perfect fit for Louisiana, but it is good enough one to explain a lot. Extended family as basic unit really is NOXIOUS, by the way, even though many people think it is warm and wonderful.


      1. “isn’t a perfect fit for Louisiana”

        Well there are lots of factors and they often work together, one neglected fact (AFAIK) in Louisiana is the different legal system. Some years ago I attended a lecture on legal translation, mostly related to Polish and English, and one of the problems (of course I’m simplifying) is that Poland uses a civil law system like most of Europe and English speaking countries use common law the terminology needs differ according to the structure. The lecturer even said that the Louisiana system is (unlike other US states) largely a civil law system which makes it a good source of terminology in English.
        I don’t do legal translation but the point stuck and I wondered how the legal difference plays out at ground level.


        1. Not much except in terms of inheritance law. Civil code means principle is more important than precedent. But these are minor differences in practice, it’s just a couple of courses in law school, it’s not a reason for the 3d world nature of the place.


      1. Oil allows them to stay in the middle ages and yet remain relevent. Saudi Arabia is another example of this.

        Without oil it would be other countries carving slices out of Russia instead of Putin going on adventures.

        An external threat is a powerful motivator. Japan is an example of a country that modernised very fast when it realised it was either that or become a European colony.


  6. There’s definitely a national and regional mentality. Northern Europe has the protestant work mentality (work=good). Southern Europe/Mediterranean and Eastern Europe have different mentalities, quite a few of which include the notion that hard work is for the dimwitted who can’t find a way to get out of it, and that true success is being rich while working as little as possible and ideally by making a fool/taking advantage of someone or something in the process.

    I was always poorly aligned with my native country because I am a workaholic and I feel very much at home in the US. Back home, bus schedules are loose suggestions, there is litter and piss on the streets, in building hallways, in elevators, people work little and stay up too late and eat and drink too much. Many people are bright and street smart (wily!) but they are lazy and opportunistic. Corruption and nepotism are rampant. There are quite a few countries throughout the world that have a similar mentality. Cultures that celebrate wiliness and slacking are not attached to rich, well-organized societies.


    1. Where I come from, if people need to get on the bus (tram, trolley, subway car), they all just storm the door in a large group, trying to squeeze in while the others are trying to get out. It takes forever and everybody ends up mangled at the end. They’ve been at it for a century, literally. And not a single one of the whole hundred and fifty million population of the Russian-speaking world has managed to figure out that it would be faster and easier to let people disembark and then form a neat line and get on the freaking bus without jostling each other in a crazy stampede.

      I almost keeled over when I emigrated and first saw how people got on the bus in Canada.

      And this is just one tiny example. So yeah, I know exactly what you mean.


  7. “shit piled up in the streets, corruption, violence and horrific treatment of women are all the same”

    If these are symptoms of a single syndrome experienced by otherwise heterogeneous countries… It sounds like macho kleptocracy run by idiots? And possibly living off the material and cultural wealth of another, more civilized time or place.


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