Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Of Construction Cranes and Body Counts- Reality in Iraq

When in search for some credible information about what's happening in Iraq, the last place I go to are the networks. Newspapers aren't much better for the simple fact that articles have authors who can present facts in such a way as to promote the journalist's point of view. What I go for are raw data figures from which I can draw my own conclusions. Arthur Chrenkoff's blog was a treasure trove of this kind of data, inundating the reader with unglamorous information but more accurately depicting the reality inside Iraq. This morning in a Wall Street journal opinion piece, Michael Rubin lists actual facts on the ground that would astonish most consumers of network and mainstream media news:

Objective indicators show that Iraqis have confidence that did not exist prior to liberation.
According to an Aug. 16, 2002, commentary in the Guardian--a British newspaper that often opposes U.S. foreign policy--one in six Iraqis had fled their country under Saddam. Millions left because of war, dictatorship and sanctions. Today, several hundred thousand have returned; only the Christians still leave. If Iraq were as chaotic as the media implies, it would export refugees, not resettle them.
Other indicators suggest Iraqis have confidence in their future. The Iraqi dinar, freely traded in international currency markets, is stable.
When people fear for their future, they invest in gold; jewelry and coins can be sewn into clothes and smuggled out of the country. When people feel confident about the future, they buy real estate. Property prices have skyrocketed across Iraq. Decrepit houses in Sadr City, a Shiite slum on the outskirts of Baghdad, can easily cost $45,000. Houses in upper-middle-class districts of Mansour and Karrada can cost more than 20 times that. Restaurant owners spend $50,000 on top-of-the-line generators to keep open despite the frequent blackouts. In September 2005, there were 40 buildings nine stories or higher under construction in the Kurdish city of Sulaymani. Five years ago, there were none. Iraqis would not spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on real estate if they weren't confident that the law would protect their investment.

Iraqis now see the fruit of foreign investment. A year ago in Baghdad, Iraqis drank water and soft drinks imported from neighboring countries. Now they drink water bottled in plants scattered across Iraq. When I visited a Baghdad computer shop last spring, my hosts handed me a can of Pepsi. An Arabic banner across the can announced, "The only soft drink manufactured in Iraq." In August, a Coca-Cola executive in Istanbul told me their Baghdad operation is not far behind. Turkish investors in partnership with local Iraqis have built modern hotels in Basra.

Being part of the building trades myself, I understand that prospering places build new structures at a higher rate than unprospering locations. Even if some of these new buildings are purely speculative and could be based on shaky financial considerations, the simple act of speculating signifies that developers and willing investors share a hope for the future. One can tell much about a place by looking at the built environment. What business is going up, how much of the new construction is for government, how extensive new infrastructure is being put up, and of course, property values. As all libertarians believe, unregulated prices don't lie.

I often find much of the reporting coming out of Iraq as simply keeping score, with publishing deaths and bombings a way of suggesting the daily reality to be even worse than it is. Naturally journalists provide little in the way of context, which results in increasingly abstract reports that are incomprehensible to people like me who have never seen a battlefield. What I do see a lot, though are construction crains, bulldozers, slick consumer goods, and buzzing television sets. And I do know that there are certain places one doesn't go for lack of safety. Although much violence does occur in a few pockets of Iraq, for most Iraqis much of those events are out of sight and therefore out of mind. Most are just trying to make a living, and muddling through. This is the part of the reality in Iraq that interests me most, and would better prepare me to understand the place when I do visit sometime in the future.

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