I am Going Out on a Limb by David Montgomery


I am going out on a limb.  As I see it, people who idolize foulmouthed comics like Amy Schumer are having fainting spells over President Trump’s alleged comment about shithole countries. Outlets that happily quote obscene rants from Sarah Silverman put on their Victorian costumes and cover up the same words with **** when the President utters them.

Obscenities and profanity have become part of the common language of movies, cable TV and rap music blaring from rice rockets on the road.

If his critics use language just as crude as the President, what is the flap about?  I believe that what the President did is violate the diplomatic pretense that every country is as virtuous, well-governed and civilized as the Western democracies.  That may not be the behavior that some sensitive souls expect of the President, but it is a long overdue recognition of the fact that almost all the poor countries of the world are so because they are failed states, governed by violent thieves and riven with crime and corruption.  That is not a criticism of their people, almost all of whom are peaceful, Christian, desperately poor and deserving of a far better life.  It is a factual description of how they are governed and of the nature of the despots and elites that plunder and rule them.

Since even before Papa Doc Duvalier took over in 1957, Haiti has been governed by a sequence of corrupt rulers and their cronies.  Large parts of Mexico are no-go zones for Americans because of drug wars and crime and its economy has been hamstrung by cycles of socialist and xenophobic policies, not to mention persecution of the Catholic Church by anticlerical revolutionaries on a scale to rival ISIS.  Venezuela was driven from relative if unequally distributed prosperity to the brink of starvation by a socialist demagogue who destroyed its most important industry.   

Ecuador is ruled by a delusional demagogue.  Rwanda, Sudan, and the Congo are repeatedly riven with genocidal wars between tribes and ethnic groups.  Zimbabwe, the breadbasket of Africa when it was Southern Rhodesia, became unable to feed even its own people after decades of expropriation of white farmers and theft by Mugabe and his family.

Countries like Namibia and Botswana have improved their standard of living in almost miraculous fashion because they adopted the clean governments and economic freedoms that we expect in the West.

The Heritage Foundation annually publishes an Index of Economic Freedom that ranks countries in a number of dimensions of governance.  The countries that score lowest in these rankings are consistently found in the list of countries will lowest per capita incomes and lowest per capita income growth.   So why the official silence on this issue?

I believe that the silence furthers the agenda of international bureaucracies and is sustained by fear of appearing racist or xenophobic.  I spent two decades working with and criticizing the UN sponsored groups that develop forecasts of future greenhouse gas emissions.   These scenarios have to be adopted by other subsidiaries of the UN before they can be part of official pronouncements about future levels and impacts of climate change.  

In all these scenarios, the failed states of Africa, Latin America and Asia were assumed to have the fastest rates of economic growth of all countries, so that the point could be made that wealthier countries must give up fossil fuels immediately to make room for their poorer neighbors to grow into economic equality.  

Even when scenarios were admitted that did not assume all countries converge to equal levels of per capita GDP, the reason given for slow growth in poor countries was the Marxist fantasy that wealthy countries continue to exploit them.  No mention was made of internal failures of governance and institutions.

Rarely is it admitted that there is not a snowball’s chance in global warming hell of most currently-poor countries achieving rapid economic growth.  Pointing out in a UN workshop on emission scenarios that these countries are poor precisely because they are failed states run by oppressive dictators would lead to exactly the same reaction that greeted the President’s uncouth comment.  

Thus we have had exaggerated predictions of emissions growth based on the politically untouchable assumption that poor countries are all poised to take off into sustained growth. The underlying policy agenda as well as diplomatic courtesy was furthered by ignoring the fact that there are failed states unlikely to grow without fundamental institutional change.

More important than this minor aberration in UN forecasts, this pretense that the governments of poor countries are virtuous and accountable lies behind much of the failure of aid policy since WWII.  As Easterly and Collier amply document, aid policy toward developing countries has been a sham, in which donor agencies pretend that the funds they distribute through the corrupt governments of these countries are being put to good use, and the despots and thieves who run them pretend that the funds and supplies are being distributed to the poor when in fact they are lining the pockets of the ruling elites.

The rate of growth of per capita income in many of the poorest countries has been zero or negative in recent years, and those that did achieve sustained growth all did so by controlling violence and achieving a degree of political and economic freedom.  But the bureaucracies of foundations, government agencies that dole out aid, and the UN in particular have nothing to gain by requiring accountability.  Their metric is how much money they have sent out, not what change they have affected.  And that will not change until the fact that bad governments and failed institutions are the reasons for poverty is admitted.

So what is happening in U.S. policy that affects these countries in fact, not just in words?  Last week, Vice President Pence and Ambassador Haley broke the conspiracy of silence to demand that United Nations relief efforts recognize that Christian minorities being oppressed in these countries are as deserving as other recipients of UN aid, and USAID started moving funds and supplies to those communities directly.

Agencies like Catholic Relief Services, though they pursue some politically correct agendas of questionable value, recognize that the only way their help can be effective is if it is delivered directly at the community level, not through corrupt regional and national officials.  This approach is increasingly being adopted by privately-funded organizations working in poor countries.

But on top of this it is necessary for the international community to end its code of silence about the nature of failed states and the culpability of their rapacious rulers.  If President Trump’s words could lead to recognition that there really are failed states for which the description is accurate, they might lead to action that would actually do some good for the people suffering under those regimes.

A final reflection: if a citizen of Zimbabwe were to tell me that for all the faults of its leaders, he loves his beautiful country and cannot abide hearing it called a ****hole, I would apologize to him.  I am equally offended at what many say about my beloved country, and I am aware that Zimbabwe is a wonderful place to hunt and a very special place.  I would agree that the President’s alleged comment was a poor choice of words, and he should have talked about countries with ****head leaders and ****ty institutions that keep their people in poverty and desperate to come here.  

Still, the solution to oppressive regimes and failed institutions cannot be migration on a global scale.  It has to be making things better where people now live, and that requires a complete rethinking about how to be prudent and effective contributors to their betterment.

David Montgomery was formerly Senior Vice President of NERA Economic Consulting. He also served as assistant director of the US Congressional Budget Office and deputy assistant secretary for policy in the US Department of Energy. He taught economics at the California Institute of Technology and Stanford University and was a senior fellow at Resources for the Future.


Letters to Editor

  1. Carla Massoni says

    Who are you?

  2. J. Michael Kramer says

    I don’t see where you make the case that a person is less qualified to be an immigrant to our country because he or she comes from a failed state. Nor do I see any validity in comparing the language used by a comedian and the president, Should we not hold the president to a higher standard of behavior as the leader of great nation.

    • I quite agree that the President of the US should be held to a higher standard than a comedian, but surely that does not rule out comments on blatant hypocrisy. I also agree that an individual should not be denied either refugee or immigrant status because they reside in a failed state. If anything, citizenship in a failed state usually increases chances of being granted refugee status. As a matter of curiosity, what “qualifications” would you set for an aspiring immigrant?

    • david montgomery says

      I see that my column on immigration is not longer online, but I assure you that my opinion about immigration is exactly the opposite of what you assume. I favor abolishing all quotas by country and accepting anyone who can prove their moral character and ability to support themselves without welfare. Nevertheless, the solution to oppressive regimes and failed institutions cannot be migration on a global scale. It has to be making things better where people now live, and that requires a complete rethinking about how to be prudent and effective contributors to their betterment.

    • Robert Kramer says

      Mr Montgomery sawed the limb off with him at the end trying to balance his rationalizations. Mr Montgomery also made a great case that our president is indeed a comedian rather than the political leader of a great nation that used to be considered kind, generous and welcoming to immigrants. In addition, our president has set his standards at the level of those he has condemned with his obscene analogies.

  3. James Nick says

    Well, well well! This apologia from Mr Montgomery on behalf of a potty-mouthed, lying, inept excuse for a president is without question the most convoluted and tortured tirade I have had the misfortune to read so far from any conservative source in trying to explain away the use of the phrase “****hole countries”. In a blame-the-victim tour de force, Mr Montgomery sends up so much flak and irrelevant misdirection trying to distract from the racist’s utterances from the Very Stable Genius (VSG) in the White House that by the end, you almost forget that we should actually expect, if not demand, that the incumbent occupying the highest office in the land and the Leader of the Free World should be setting the standard for civil behavior and discourse worldwide. It is a gas lighting masterpiece.

    There is no pretending anymore that Republicans like Mr Montgomery have made their Faustian bargain with the VSG and are now all in. Since history is written by the victors, Mr Montgomery must be counting on Republicans retaining their grip on the reins of power in 2018 and then again in 2020. Otherwise the chronicles will correctly record that the period in which we are now living as the time when America lost its mind – when she opened her Pandora’s Box and let out all the evils and miseries contained therein to afflict mankind. The Kraken released by the VSG is in the form of white nationalists, neo-Nazis, the KKK, science deniers, fake news purveyors and ambush “journalists”, greedy robber barons, Randian econo-zealots, pedophile politicians, and religious fanatics who have all been given an explicit or implicit permission slip by the VSG to let their inner id out and drop what Mr Montgomery seems to argue has just been the facade of pretentious and unnecessary frills of civil society which amounted to just some, ummm…, old fashion “Victorian” political correctness.

    Like the VSG, Mr Montgomery is apparently either unwilling or incapable of drawing a distinction between what goes on in popular culture or even recognizing that there are some norms of behavior that should not be crossed by people in power in a civilized society. The humor of Amy Schumer and Sarah Silverman no more gives the VSG permission or right to use language that children should not be exposed to than Lenny Bruce gave to Dwight Eisenhower or Howard Stern gave to Ronald Reagan. If Barack Obama had uttered one-one-hundredth of what the VSG has or even greenlighted similar actions by his supporters like we’re now seeing coming from the right-wing, the tiki torches and pitchforks would have made an appearance way before they did in Charlottesville.

    Mr Montgomery also seems to conveniently ignore the shameful legacy and unhealed scars that the slave traders and occupying colonial powers left in these ****hole countries, a term that more aptly refers to the almost bottomless ****hole that the white colonialists left these countries in after raping and pillaging their natural resources and wealth and leaving them to fight over the dregs as they were forced to withdraw. Or, in more contemporary times, the chaos sowed by the endless geopolitical proxy wars between the righteous capitalists and the evil communists engineered by the CIA in Central and South America that created a drug trade of industrial proportions in their wake.

    As the VSG once explained to Bill O’Reilly: “You think our country’s so innocent?”

  4. Rick Balaban, says

    You miss all the important points just as your fool of a president always does. NERA tells me you at an actuary or a statistician ot an economist or all three. Clearly not a thoughtful fellow though despite your profession and your podia.. It’s not the language per se that offends, but the dismissiveness it portrays. He could have said garbage dumps or trash bins and been just as guilty of racist attitudes. As you are guilty for defending him. The expression of the idea tells us everything we need to know about Trump. Judgmental language in lieu of facts and sensibility is the best indicator of intellectual shortcuts and predetermined outcomes. Why choose your words thoughtfully when your purpose is to speak in code to your cohort and win them over with winks and nods instead of logic and truth. Your NERA colleagues should be ashamed of you.

  5. Steve Narowanskie says

    Why spend so many words defending the presidents vulgarity. Perhaps to divert attention away from racism. I think that is what the “flap” is about. Perhaps Mr. Montgomery should reel off another thousand words on why, based on the president’s words and actions, we should believe that the president is not a racist.

  6. Carl Radtka says

    The statements of the author of this article are ,unfortunately for the most part, true. The United states for all intents and purposes rebuilt Europe and Japan after WWII using our(meaning the citizen’s of this country) treasure….earned by the citizens of this country and given to our former enemies and friends. There was oversight on where the money went…for the most part. The monies being taken from us now go to the UN and to corrupt governments with no oversight at all. It is used against us and against the people it is supposed to be helping. We have people streaming into this country with so little vetting there is no way to know what we have allowed to come here. Our taxes are supporting these people and the illegals we have streaming over our borders. What in the H are we going to do in the future? Most of these people do not want to be a part of the US like the legal immigrants who came here in the past. The seem to want to change this country to be like where they came from…2nd 3rd and even 4th world countries. Our jobs are leaving and welfare roles are expanding to include non-citizens….who in my opinion need to go back where they came from and rise up and change their own homelands. And until the UN does the job it is supposed to do correctly…we need to send not even one penny to the UN or countries who are not our friends.

    • Maria Wood says

      Your comment should have been moderated for your use of the offensive term “illegals” to describe human beings.

      Where did your family come from? How did they get here? Chestertown takes great pride in its Revolutionary history. Should the residents of the North American continent have “gone back where they came from” and “risen up and changed their own homelands”? Or maybe they should have assimilated into the existing culture?

      You are woefully misinformed about the amount of vetting immigrants to the US are subjected to. Immigrants – even undocumented immigrants – pay taxes.

      There is almost nothing accurate in your comment.

  7. Joan Berwick says

    Let us hope our president is held to a higher standard.

  8. Bob Ingersoll says

    Dear Mr. Montgomery,
    Even though I was born here, I spent a long time living in Maine, where I volunteered on more than a few town committees. At Town Meetings, which is about as democratic a system of government as you can get, each voter was allowed his time to speak at the podium before the town voted. If I was ever not really sure how I should vote on a complicated issue, I only had to wait until Mr. “P” spoke; and he always spoke, at length. As he stated his point of view, the issue usually became clearer to me, and I knew how I should vote. I always cancelled his vote.
    My point is this: Please, never stop writing your essays to the Spy. Your views are always understandable, and very revealing. I know, that as long as you put forward your view of the world, I will know where and what mine is, and I will go the the polls as long as my aging body will carry me to politely cancel your vote.
    Thank you for your service.

  9. Maria Wood says

    Really, you don’t see the difference in the preserving the dignity of the Office of President of the United States and the petty envelope-pushing that has always been the province of art and comedy?

    You don’t see the necessity for the most powerful leader in the world to use diplomacy, tact, and respect in his (and it is always HIS) language and comportment?

  10. David Montgomery says

    Doesnt anyone listen? I make what should be obvious points. 1. The President called countries ****holes, and not the people who live in them. 2. His description is accurate for many countries and regions. 3. People in those countries are kept poor by endemic violence, socialist experiments and rapacious governments. 4. We cant take in all of the poor in failed states because they outnumber us. therefore 5. Doing good that will last requires changing conditions where they live and 6. That requires admitting that official aid programs are hypocritical failures.

    I point out one more hypocrisy. Any person of good taste who expects all Americans to speak good English is entitled to tell public figures to clean up their vocabulary. But that is not what my critics are doing.

    President Obama used the s-word to describe Libya. Senator Graham, who didnt miss a beat to condemn the President, said refugees come from “hellholes.” Google the words and names if you don’t believe me. Lyndon Johnson was famous for his crudeness. Attackers of the President use the s-word or worse in every other sentence. Since they all get free passes on their language, I can only conclude that this intemperate outrage over the Presidents use of the word is phony.

    • Carla Massoni says

      Mr. Montgomery: Have you not been listening to the litany of remarks made by this man you choose to defend with all of your energy and intelligence?
      You doth protest too much. Trump is a racist. I am hoping that you are not.

      • James Nick says

        So what would the Republicans do and say if a Democrat found themselves in this situation? Here’s what they would do and say: It doesn’t matter what word was used. It doesn’t even matter what was meant by the words. It only matters that the comment is spread worldwide before the alternative fact even gets its pants on. Blow it up out of all proportion. “Swift Boat” it and Benghazi” it to the max! Exaggerate it so that it is no longer an arcane matter of internal politics. Put the White House in a defensive posture. If they’re explaining, they’re losing. As Kellyanne Conway once explained during the campaign when informed that an attack on Hillary Clinton was false, she unflinchingly and without hesitation responded “It doesn’t matter. The damage has been done”.

        But, as it happens, this time, the allegations are undoubtedly true. There’s no covering up 45’s racism. It’s there for all to see. It’s well documented (1). In fact, for his base, it’s a most desirable feature, not a bug. This time around, though, everyone is focused on just one specific vulgar word. But part of the full comment that tends to get overlooked included a wish that there were more immigrants from Norway rather than from third-world s***hole countries. That Norway is full of blonde hair, blue eyed Aryans and not brown and black people connects the dots. It makes it pretty clear that 45’s comment was about people, not countries.

        Oh, and about Norway… That would be a socialist country, Mr Montgomery. As I’m sure you know, it subscribes to the Nordic Model of Social Democracy that includes a comprehensive welfare state and collective bargaining rights at the national level.

        (1) https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/01/15/opinion/leonhardt-trump-racist.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection%2Fopinion&action=click&contentCollection=opinion&region=rank&module=package&version=highlights&contentPlacement=1&pgtype=sectionfront

  11. Deirdre LaMotte says

    Mr. Montgomery, please don’t insult the intelligence of Spy readers. Just stop. Of course this crude man was talking about the people, not the physical countries, when he said “sh** hole . That is why he wants more from Norway…nice white people, I imagine he feels. And your rant about all these takers coming into this country? I would think someone risking everything to travel here…whether over a border or on a raft…that is the person who I want in America; what has given our country a moral authority in the world is our open arms to all since our founding. Trump is crudely dismantling everything, I mean everything, that has made our country great.

    People like you, who continue to stand behind this unfit and unkind vulgarian, well you have lost all credibility. I am sorry for you.

    • Robert Kramer says

      Deirdre says: “who continue to stand behind this unfit and unkind vulgarian, well you have lost all credibility.”

      Exactly! Those who don’t condemn de facto condone such behavior… thus enabling the destructive, divisive behavior to continue. It’s obvious that Mr Montgomery’s attempt to rationalize such behavior erodes his credibility. And why waste time reading his outpourings in the future. Credibility lost is very difficult to regain.

  12. Connie Schroth says

    If the poverty of a citizenry is due to “bad government” and failed “institutions”, how does Mr Montgomery explain the distressing high rate of poverty that currently afflicts so many of our own citizens? Almost half of our public school children live at or below the poverty line. What are DJT and his flunkies (our government) doing about that?

  13. The difference is easy; Donald trump is the President while Sarah Silverman is a professional entertainer. What are you even on about? Comparing the two makes you the punchline.

  14. Gren Whitman says

    Wise words from Maya Angelou apply equally to Messers Trump and Montgomery: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”

Write a Letter to the Editor on this Article

We encourage readers to offer their point of view on this article by submitting the following form. Editing is sometimes necessary and is done at the discretion of the editorial staff.
We're glad you're enjoying The Chestertown Spy.

Sign up for the the free email blast to see what's new in the Spy. It's delivered right to your inbox at 3PM sharp.

Sign up here.