The Open Drains of Latin America

NEW YORK – Stories are most believable when they reaffirm our prior beliefs and assumptions. If not, we tend to find them implausible.


A case in point is Eduardo Galeano’s much-admired 1971 book The Open Veins of Latin America, which has sold more than one million copies in 12 languages and defined a generation’s view of the region’s tortured history. The late Hugo Chávez gave US President Barack Obama a copy when they met in 2009 in Trinidad.

The book is commendable for its ability to describe five centuries of Latin American history with great coherence, something that only a work of fiction can achieve. History, unfortunately, is a bit more complex. A few weeks ago, Galeano, to the astonishment of many, distanced himself from his own book. He said he could no longer bear reading it, and that when he wrote it, he “lacked sufficient knowledge of economics and politics.”

Why was the book so well received, and what accounts for its author’s second thoughts?

Galeano’s book interprets Latin America’s history as the consequence of foreign plunder. Over the centuries, bad guys change nationality – say, from Spanish to American – but their intentions remain the same. Current problems are the result of evil deeds committed by foreign powers that came only to exploit. The poor are poor because they are victims of the powerful.

Even the most distorted myths contain a kernel of truth. Throughout human history, those with superior technology have tended to displace or even annihilate their neighbors. That is why the Welsh and the Pygmies live in remote places, and why English, Spanish, and Portuguese are spoken in the Americas. In fact, recent scientific evidence indicates that the Neolithic Revolution – the transition from hunting and gathering to agriculture – spread mostly because farmers displaced hunters, not because hunters learned from them.

But, while technological superiority and confrontation can wipe out the weak side, technological diffusion across cultures can be mutually beneficial. It allows all to do more with less, thereby generating a surplus that can be distributed.

As in any such relationship, all parties want to get the lion’s share of the gain, but some get the short end of the stick. Yet, without the relationship, there would be no stick. The real challenge for a patriot is to obtain the largest amount of pie, not a large share of a small pie.

Alas, those inspired by Open Veins, like Chávez (and Fidel Castro before him), are bound to create very small pies. For example, while Chávez’s intention was to double Venezuela’s oil production to six million barrels per day by 2019 – a feasible goal, given that the country has the world’s largest oil reserves – his penchant for expropriation and for firing able dissenters caused output to fall by one-fifth. While Venezuela remains mired in economic malaise, its allies – China, Russia, Brazil, and OPEC – have raised output by 14 million barrels per day, laughing all the way to the bank.

But to tell the story of Latin America as one of foreign pillage is to ignore the benefits that the region has gained from foreign efforts, especially in Venezuela. So here is an alternative story.

Once upon a time, in ancient Mesopotamia, oil was known to exist and it was peddled by some quacks for its medicinal powers. Around 1870, John D. Rockefeller spearheaded the development of the modern oil industry to produce kerosene for lighting. Later, while he was in a ferocious confrontation with Thomas Edison, who was threatening Rockefeller’s business with the electric bulb, unrelated technological developments led to the gasoline-powered internal combustion engine and to the idea of putting it on wheels. This soon made oil the preferred energy source for transportation, not lighting, and even for electricity generation.

But to develop the oil industry, many more technological advances needed to occur. First, oil had to be found. Then it had to be extracted, refined into more useful products, and transported cheaply. All of that required a plethora of breakthroughs in geology, metallurgy, material science, chemical engineering, cars, roads, cities, rules, and other areas.

It was this extraordinary technological revolution that made oil valuable. While this was happening, many of today’s large oil producers – including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Nigeria – were missing in action. For the most part, they did not know that they had oil or where it was. They did not know how to get it out. They did not know about seismic lines, drilling, pipelines, refineries, or tankers. More important, they did not do much to construct the complex ecosystem that makes oil valuable.

They did, however, have the right to restrict access to their underground resources in order to extract rents, just as the despised agricultural landowners have done for centuries. They could become rentiers and live off the work and ingenuity of others. The chutzpah of Open Veins and Chávez is to describe their situation as victimhood, not good fortune.

Similar stories can be told of other industries, even those that do not require natural resources but rely on global value chains instead. In developing countries, economic progress requires absorbing and adapting technology that exists in other places, which necessitates engaging with those that have it. By characterizing these interactions as pure exploitation, rather than as value-creating opportunities, the Open Veins mentality has been a real drain on the possibilities of so many in Latin America and elsewhere.


Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning of Venezuela and former Chief Economist of the Inter-American Development Bank, is a professor of economics at Harvard University, where he is also Director of the Center for International Development.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.
www.project-syndicate.org

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Freud is renowned, but his ideas are ill-substantiated

The Oedipal complex, repressed memories, penis envy? Sigmund Freud's ideas are far-reaching, but few have withstood the onslaught of empirical evidence.

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  • Sigmund Freud stands alongside Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein as one of history's best-known scientists.
  • Despite his claim of creating a new science, Freud's psychoanalysis is unfalsifiable and based on scant empirical evidence.
  • Studies continue to show that Freud's ideas are unfounded, and Freud has come under scrutiny for fabricating his most famous case studies.

Few thinkers are as celebrated as Sigmund Freud, a figure as well-known as Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Neurologist and the founder of psychoanalysis, Freud's ideas didn't simply shift the paradigms in academia and psychotherapy. They indelibly disseminated into our cultural consciousness. Ideas like transference, repression, the unconscious iceberg, and the superego are ubiquitous in today's popular discourse.

Despite this renown, Freud's ideas have proven to be ill-substantiated. Worse, it is now believed that Freud himself may have fabricated many of his results, opportunistically disregarding evidence with the conscious aim of promoting preferred beliefs.

"[Freud] really didn't test his ideas," Harold Takooshian, professor of psychology at Fordham University, told ATI. "He was just very persuasive. He said things no one said before, and said them in such a way that people actually moved from their homes to Vienna and study with him."

Unlike Darwin and Einstein, Freud's brand of psychology presents the impression of a scientific endeavor but ultimately lack two of vital scientific components: falsification and empirical evidence.

Psychoanalysis

Freud's therapeutic approach may be unfounded, but at least it was more humane than other therapies of the day. In 1903, this patient is being treated in "auto-conduction cage" as a part of his electrotherapy. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The discipline of psychotherapy is arguably Freud's greatest contribution to psychology. In the post-World War II era, psychoanalysis spread through Western academia, influencing not only psychotherapy but even fields such as literary criticism in profound ways.

The aim of psychoanalysis is to treat mental disorders housed in the patient's psyche. Proponents believe that such conflicts arise between conscious thoughts and unconscious drives and manifest as dreams, blunders, anxiety, depression, or neurosis. To help, therapists attempt to unearth unconscious desires that have been blocked by the mind's defense mechanisms. By raising repressed emotions and memories to the conscious fore, the therapist can liberate and help the patient heal.

That's the idea at least, but the psychoanalytic technique stands on shaky empirical ground. Data leans heavily on a therapist's arbitrary interpretations, offering no safe guards against presuppositions and implicit biases. And the free association method offers not buttress to the idea of unconscious motivation.

Don't get us wrong. Patients have improved and even claimed to be cured thanks to psychoanalytic therapy. However, the lack of methodological rigor means the division between effective treatment and placebo effect is ill-defined.

Repressed memories

Sigmund Freud, circa 1921. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Nor has Freud's concept of repressed memories held up. Many papers and articles have been written to dispel the confusion surrounding repressed (aka dissociated) memories. Their arguments center on two facts of the mind neurologists have become better acquainted with since Freud's day.

First, our memories are malleable, not perfect recordings of events stored on a biological hard drive. People forget things. Childhood memories fade or are revised to suit a preferred narrative. We recall blurry gists rather than clean, sharp images. Physical changes to the brain can result in loss of memory. These realities of our mental slipperiness can easily be misinterpreted under Freud's model as repression of trauma.

Second, people who face trauma and abuse often remember it. The release of stress hormones imprints the experience, strengthening neural connections and rendering it difficult to forget. It's one of the reasons victims continue to suffer long after. As the American Psychological Association points out, there is "little or no empirical support" for dissociated memory theory, and potential occurrences are a rarity, not the norm.

More worryingly, there is evidence that people are vulnerable to constructing false memories (aka pseudomemories). A 1996 study found it could use suggestion to make one-fifth of participants believe in a fictitious childhood memory in which they were lost in a mall. And a 2007 study found that a therapy-based recollection of childhood abuse "was less likely to be corroborated by other evidence than when the memories came without help."

This has led many to wonder if the expectations of psychoanalytic therapy may inadvertently become a self-fulfilling prophecy with some patients.

"The use of various dubious techniques by therapists and counselors aimed at recovering allegedly repressed memories of [trauma] can often produce detailed and horrific false memories," writes Chris French, a professor of psychology at Goldsmiths, University of London. "In fact, there is a consensus among scientists studying memory that traumatic events are more likely to be remembered than forgotten, often leading to post-traumatic stress disorder."

The Oedipal complex

The Blind Oedipus Commending His Children to the Gods by Benigne Gagneraux. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

During the phallic stage, children develop fierce erotic feelings for their opposite-sex parent. This desire, in turn, leads them to hate their same-sex parent. Boys wish to replace their father and possess their mother; girls become jealous of their mothers and desire their fathers. Since they can do neither, they repress those feelings for fear of reprisal. If unresolved, the complex can result in neurosis later in life.

That's the Oedipal complex in a nutshell. You'd think such a counterintuitive theory would require strong evidence to back it up, but that isn't the case.

Studies claiming to prove the Oedipal complex look to positive sexual imprinting — that is, the phenomenon in which people choose partners with physical characteristics matching their same-sex parent. For example, a man's wife and mother have the same eye color, or woman's husband and father sport a similar nose.

But such studies don't often show strong correlation. One study reporting "a correction of 92.8 percent between the relative jaw width of a man's mother and that of [his] mates" had to be retracted for factual errors and incorrect analysis. Studies showing causation seem absent from the literature, and as we'll see, the veracity of Freud's own case studies supporting the complex is openly questioned today.

Better supported, yet still hypothetical, is the Westermarck effect. Also called reverse sexual imprinting, the effect predicts that people develop a sexual aversion to those they grow up in close proximity with, as a mean to avoid inbreeding. The effect isn't just shown in parents and siblings; even step-siblings will grow sexual averse to each other if they grow up from early childhood.

An analysis published in Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology evaluated the literature on human mate choice. The analysis found little evidence for positive imprinting, citing study design flaws and an unwillingness of researchers to seek alternative explanations. In contrast, it found better support for negative sexual imprinting, though it did note the need for further research.

The Freudian slip

Mark notices Deborah enter the office whistling an upbeat tune. He turns to his coworker to say, "Deborah's pretty cheery this morning," but accidentally blunders, "Deborah's pretty cherry this morning." Simple slip up? Not according to Freud, who would label this a parapraxis. Today, it's colloquially known as a "Freudian slip."

"Almost invariably I discover a disturbing influence from something outside of the intended speech," Freud wrote in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. "The disturbing element is a single unconscious thought, which comes to light through the special blunder."

In the Freudian view, Mark's mistaken word choice resulted from his unconscious desire for Deborah, as evident by the sexually-charged meanings of the word "cherry." But Rob Hartsuiker, a psycholinguist from Ghent University, says that such inferences miss the mark by ignoring how our brains process language.

According to Hartsuiker, our brains organize words by similarity and meaning. First, we must select the word in that network and then process the word's sounds. In this interplay, all sorts of conditions can prevent us from grasping the proper phonemes: inattention, sleepiness, recent activation, and even age. In a study co-authored by Hartsuiker, brain scans showed our minds can recognize and correct for taboo utterances internally.

"This is very typical, and it's also something Freud rather ignored," Hartsuiker told BBC. He added that evidence for true Freudian slips is scant.

Freud's case studies

Sergej Pankejeff, known as the "Wolf Man" in Freud's case study, claimed that Freud's analysis of his condition was "propaganda."

It's worth noting that there is much debate as to the extent that Freud falsified his own case studies. One famous example is the case of the "Wolf Man," real name Sergej Pankejeff. During their sessions, Pankejeff told Freud about a dream in which he was lying in bed and saw white wolves through an open window. Freud interpreted the dream as the manifestation of a repressed trauma. Specifically, he claimed that Pankejeff must have witnessed his parents in coitus.

For Freud this was case closed. He claimed Pankejeff successfully cured and his case as evidence for psychoanalysis's merit. Pankejeff disagreed. He found Freud's interpretation implausible and said that Freud's handling of his story was "propaganda." He remained in therapy on and off for over 60 years.

Many of Freud's other case studies, such "Dora" and "the Rat Man" cases, have come under similar scrutiny.

Sigmund Freud and his legacy

Freud's ideas may not live up to scientific inquiry, but their long shelf-life in film, literature, and criticism has created some fun readings of popular stories. Sometimes a face is just a face, but that face is a murderous phallic symbol. (Photo: Flickr)

Of course, there are many ideas we've left out. Homosexuality originating from arrested sexual development in anal phase? No way. Freudian psychosexual development theory? Unfalsifiable. Women's penis envy? Unfounded and insulting. Men's castration anxiety? Not in the way Freud meant it.

If Freud's legacy is so ill-informed, so unfounded, how did he and his cigars cast such a long shadow over the 20th century? Because there was nothing better to offer at the time.

When Freud came onto the scene, neurology was engaged in a giddy free-for-all. As New Yorker writer Louis Menand points out, the era's treatments included hypnosis, cocaine, hydrotherapy, female castration, and institutionalization. By contemporary standards, it was a horror show (as evident by these "treatments" featuring so prominently in our horror movies).

Psychoanalysis offered a comparably clement and humane alternative. "Freud's theories were like a flashlight in a candle factory," anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann told Menand.

But Freud and his advocates triumph his techniques as a science, and this is wrong. The empirical evidence for his ideas is limited and arbitrary, and his conclusions are unfalsifiable. The theory that explains every possible outcome explains none of them.

With that said, one might consider Freud's ideas to be a proto-science. As astrology heralded astronomy, and alchemy preceded chemistry, so to did Freud's psychoanalysis popularize psychology, paving the way for its more rapid development as a scientific discipline. But like astrology and alchemy, we should recognize Freud's ideas as the historic artifacts they are.

Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash
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