Wednesday, December 20, 2006

To heck with it

Gosh, look at the time. Has it really been three months since my last post?

I've been ruminating on whether to take this blog down; I work in a bastion of progressivism, in a field in which my "clients" expect and favor the nice-sounding but too often ineffective nostrums of that ideological position, regardless of its irrelevance to what I do and what they expect me to do, and I feel a certain responsibility to my wee staff not to rock the boat with our "clients." (Am I being sufficiently inscrutable? Sorry about that... I fear Google.) But in the end, I yam who I yam. I skipped the election season; it's time to say something again.

Newsweek has noticed what's been reported in "off-Broadway" sources for over a year now: Iraq's economy is booming. Of course they don't present this "news" without the requisite disclaimer:

Says Wael Ziada, an analyst in Cairo who tracks Iraqna: "There will always be pockets of money and wealth, no matter how bad the situation gets."

But the funny part is that that statement immediately follows this one:

[T]he company [Iraqna, a mobile phone company] posted revenues of $333 million in 2005. This year, it's on track to take in $520 million. The U.S. State Department reports that there are now 7.1 million mobile-phone subscribers in Iraq, up from just 1.4 million two years ago.

That's... let's see... fivefold growth in subscribers in two years nationally, and a near-doubling of revenue in one year for that company. Looking further:

Real estate is booming. Construction, retail and wholesale trade sectors are healthy, too, according to a report by Global Insight in London. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce reports 34,000 registered companies in Iraq, up from 8,000 three years ago. Sales of secondhand cars, televisions and mobile phones have all risen sharply. Estimates vary, but one from Global Insight puts GDP growth at 17 percent last year and projects 13 percent for 2006.

Requisite disclaimer: The World Bank "has it lower: at 4 percent this year." And more requisite disclaimers: the article lays credit for Iraq's economic growth at the feet of the rest of the world ("money pouring in from abroad"), while nearly simultaneously noting that oil revenues "and foreign grants" are set to exceed $41 billion this year. That's a nice bit of sleight-of-hand: combining revenues from sales of Iraq's one unequivocal natural resource with handouts from a sympathetic world, without telling us how much comes from each source.

But that's not enough yet:

It goes without saying: real progress won't be seen until the security situation clears up. Iraq still lacks a functioning banking system. Though there's an increasing awareness of Iraq as a potential emerging market, foreign investors won't make serious commitments until they are assured a measure of stability. Local moneymen are scarcely more bullish on the long term. In Iraq's nascent bond market, buyers have so far been willing to invest in local-currency Treasury bills with terms up to six months, max.

If it "goes without saying," why does it have to be said? "Real" progress is apparently signified only by foreign investors' trust, not at all by a nascent and enthusiastic middle/entrepreneurial class and several-hundred-percent real estate price growth. A moving goalpost, in other words: signs of health in the economy of another nation cannot possibly be taken as signs of health in the Iraqi economy, because the narrative is Disaster; therefore, we have to discount these signs and look only at the ones Iraq isn't yet exhibiting. Remember the Iraqi elections? Remember the ratification of the Iraqi constitution? In both cases, the pre-vote story was that security issues would overshadow and ultimately kill the democratic process; since the democratic process failed to be killed, the post-vote story had to be that in spite of the millions of Iraqis who voted, the electoral results were unimportant, even irrelevant, because violence didn't suddenly and magically cease.

Why, I continue to wonder, is the narrative Disaster? What's the goal of those penning (keying?) that narrative? Why not hope for success and concentrate on potentially useful critique of strategy and tactics, rather than carping, snarking, and continually pointing out only those areas where success hasn't yet been achieved?