Is The Dictator Racist?

Yes. And it's not that funny either.

In his new movie The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen borrows liberally from the "wacky dictator" cannon established by some of Hollywood's great comedians. There's a mistaken identity switcheroo straight out of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator, a send-up of earnest American lefties that could have been cribbed from Woody Allen's Bananas, and a "young foreign aristocrat learning important life lessons in the outer boroughs of New York" storyline from Eddie Murphy's Coming to America. But in updating the wacky dictator genre for the Arab Spring era, Cohen ends up with a pretty confused final product in which it's not really clear who is being mocked.

There were some early, and likely intentionally misleading, reports that the movie was a loose adaptation of Zenobia and the King -- a potboiler allegedly authored by Saddam Hussein -- and a title card at the beginning of the film dedicates it to the memory of Kim Jong Il, but the inspiration for Cohen's protagonist -- Admiral General Aladeen -- is obviously the late Libyan strongman Muammar al-Qaddafi, from his costumes to the Amazonian bodyguards to the ambiguous North African location of his country, Wadiya.

Cohen plays Aladeen as more of a spoiled, childlike buffoon than a calculating tyrant. When not working on his country's covert nuclear weapons program or ordering the execution of his underlings for minor slights, he amuses himself by re-enacting the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre on his Wii and paying for sex with Hollywood starlets. (One of the movie's best running jokes is the notion of celebrities literally whoring themselves to the world's autocrats -- Megan Fox and Edward Norton have cameos as themselves -- a send-up of how entertainers including Beyonce and Sting have appeared at private functions for dictators for the right price.)

Like Cohen's Borat and Bruno, most of the comedy in the film comes from dropping an over-the-top "foreigner" caricature into the United States and watching him interact with ordinary Americans. When Aladeen comes to New York to address the United Nations about his country's nuclear weapons program, he is abducted as part of a plot hatched by his scheming uncle (played by Ben Kingsley), replaced by his body-double, and then set loose on the streets of New York, where no one recognizes him without his trademark beard. He is then taken in by an earnest Brooklyn food co-op manager played by Anna Farris, who mistakes him for an exiled dissident and starts to fall for him as he schemes to return to power.

Cohen clearly knows his politics (how many comedies include both extended masturbation jokes and references to Gazprom?), but it's hard to get past the fact that most of the film's comedy derives from a British actor playing a crude Arab stereotype. Yes, at one point Aladeen protests that he's not Arab while being insulted by a racist Secret Service agent played by John C. Reilly, but given that the "Wadiyan" language is clearly mock Arabic, not to mention all the al Qaeda jokes, this seems pretty flimsy. It doesn't help that the other principal Wadiyan characters are played by non-Middle Eastern actors Kingsley, Fred Armisen, and Jason Mantzoukas.

Cohen has walked a thin line between mocking stereotypes and reveling in them before, but has largely gotten away with it because of the mockumentary format of his earlier movies. Borat may have been a Slavic caricature who referred to black people as "chocolate faces" and believed Jews have horns, and Bruno might have been a homophobe's worst nightmare of a gay man, but the joke was always on the real people with whom these characters interacted. Cohen was not being racist or homophobic, the logic went -- he was forcing Americans to reveal their own prejudices. (Though how humiliating an entire Romanian village served this goal is a little unclear.)

It's harder to make that excuse for Cohen in a scripted film. Yes, the film includes some send-ups of American hypocrisy in the war on terror -- there's a pretty good bit in which Aladeen sniffs at the outdated torture devices of his American captor including one that was "banned in Saudi Arabia for being too safe" -- and most of the American characters are either Islamophobic rubes or patronizingly P.C. liberals, but it's not as if any of them are wrong in their perceptions of Aladeen. He's a violent, misogynistic, anti-Semitic ignoramus who has the real Osama bin Laden stashed in his palace's guest suite. The only ordinary Wadiyan citizen in the film, the body double also portrayed by Cohen, is a dumb peasant who drinks his own urine and has difficulty distinguishing between women and goats. Whose prejudices are we mocking here? Cohen even throws in a few Chinese and African caricatures for good measure.

The movie's climax is a speech mocking American hypocrisy for lecturing the world on democracy. If America were a dictatorship, Aladeen helpfully suggests, 1 percent of the population could control 90 percent of the wealth, one minority group could be targeted for imprisonment, and the government could torture foreigners without due process. This might be a bit more biting if the rest of the film didn't seem to do everything in its power to confirm a jingoistic and borderline racist view of non-Western cultures.

Humor has always been a powerful weapon against dictators, no matter how unspeakable their crimes. As Mel Brooks, another past master of the wacky dictator genre, has said, "With comedy, we can rob Hitler of his posthumous power." In 1940, while Hitler was still very much on the march and the United States was still technically at peace with him, Chaplin used comedy to viciously mock the Nazi's leader megalomania.

Humor has also, of course, been a powerful weapon throughout the Arab Spring, from Mubarak jokes to Qaddafi's Zenga Zenga YouTube sensation. But it's hard to escape the feeling that Cohen is not so much mocking Arab dictators as the cultures and countries that produced them. In the end, the movie suggests that despite a change of heart brought on by his relationship with Farris's earnest co-op manager, Aladeen -- and Wadiya -- are ultimately irredeemable.

The best satire targets the powerful, bringing them down a few notches and deflating their bubbles of self-importance. But in the first Hollywood film to address last year's Arab uprisings, Cohen seems less interested in laughing with the people who live under the Qaddafis and Mubaraks of the world than at them.



The Ravenous Dragon and the Fruits of Adversity

Academic economists usually air their new ideas first in working papers. Here, before the work gets dusty, a quick look at transition policy research in progress.

Food Aid Conundrum. Civil wars in poor countries, ranging from Darfur to Somalia to Afghanistan, disrupt farming and food distribution, and thus cause hunger -- if not outright starvation. Hence the welcome intervention of humanitarian aid groups, both public and private.

It's long been understood that a portion of the food aid must be written off because it is diverted by corrupt local officials or stolen outright by bandits. The bigger worry, though, is that the food will be appropriated by local militias, and thus serve to lengthen the conflict.

A new analysis by Nathan Nunn (Harvard) and Nancy Qian (Yale) confirms those fears. Using data from USAID projects, they found that food aid increases the frequency as well of the duration of civil conflicts in recipient countries. That, of course, ought to force aid donors to confront the reality that their actions may cost more lives than they save. Ideally, it will change the way the aid is handed out, with a premium placed on guarding distribution channels against predation. Aiding Conflict: The Impact of U.S. Food Aid on Civil War. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 17794. Download (limited free distribution) here.

Manna from Spectrum. Business school guru Clayton Christensen coined the term "disruptive innovation" -- a technological advance that fundamentally changes how something important is done. (Think of the automobile or electric lighting.) The mobile phone fits this category in many developing nations, where in a single generation it has leapfrogged the sluggish expansion of costly wired telecom networks.

Kenya is a case in point. At the turn of the millennium, just one percent of Kenyan households had telephone service of any sort. Eleven years later, the figure was 93 percent -- virtually all of it via mobile phones. Equally startling, suggest Gabriel Demombynes and Aaron Thegeya of the World Bank, wireless phones are filling a vacuum in the provision of financial services to the poor and struggling middle class, radically boosting the growth of the financial services industry.

You can now deposit cash into your mobile phone account at phone company outlets in virtually every neighborhood and village, and then use your handset to transfer the money electronically to just about anyone you want. Mobile money is rapidly becoming the premier medium of exchange in Kenya. That's because it's far more cost-effective than bank-based checking. And, perhaps more importantly, it finesses the problem of street robbery in urban areas. Mobile money customers in Kenya went from zero in 2007 to 18 million in 2011. The system is now rapidly deepening to become a vehicle for interest-earning household savings as well as for bill payments. Kenya's Mobile Revolution and the Promise of Mobile Savings. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5988. Download (free) here.

No Polish Joke. For hundreds of years, Poland has been a pawn in the games of empires, shrinking, expanding, and sometimes disappearing altogether at the whim of tyrants and geo-politicians. Could anything good have come from this endless struggle for independence and identity?

Mitchell H. Kellman and Yochanan Shachmurove of the City University of New York do see hints of a silver lining. They argue that the aplomb with which the Polish economy has adjusted to dislocation over the last three decades is testament to its hard-earned adaptability and resilience.

In 1980, Poland was a primary supplier of heavy machinery for the Soviet Bloc. But when COMECON (the USSR's autarkic economic system) fell apart in the 1980s, Poland's exports slipped back to agriculture. Strikingly, though, the export sector recovered quickly after privatization, and its industrial sector has integrated exceptionally well into the European Union, in spite of the EU's recent problems.

Kellman and Shachmurove offer four measures of trade sophistication, ranging from the rise of intra-industry trade in components to the speed at which Polish industry became a major exporter in new categories of goods. But their bottom line is always the same: Tempered by adversity, Poland's economic culture is highly adapted to managing dislocation and rapid change. The Ability to Adapt and Overcome Obstacles: Machinery Exports of Poland. Penn Institute for Economic Research Working Paper 12-004. Download (free) here.

Rain or Shine. Economists are (way too) fond of explaining that there's no such thing as a free lunch. But in fact, bargain lunches are just about everywhere in the form of institutional innovation that can increase material welfare without the need for further inputs. Case in point: weather insurance for farmers in developing countries who absolutely cannot afford to have a failed crop.

World Bank consultants/researchers Daniel J. Clarke, Olivier Mahul, Kolli N. Rao, and Niraj Verma explore the design and impact of weather-based crop insurance in India, which now covers some nine million farmers. These farmers paid premiums totaling $258 million in 2010-11 in order to insure some $3.1 billion worth of crops against adverse weather. Claims are linked to complex formulae that attempt to capture the impact of drought, flooding, and crop-damaging extremes of temperature. In some areas, the insurance is compulsory, with premiums that are capped at just a few percent of the value of the crop and are heavily subsidized by the government. In others, it is voluntary, with premiums determined by free markets.

The hybrid system apparently works pretty well. But like other sorts of societal catastrophe insurance, there are wheels within wheels that affect individual incentives or misdirect payouts. Weather Based Crop Insurance in India. World Bank Policy Research Working Paper 5985. Download (free) here.

The Dragon's Appetite. It's no surprise that the Chinese economy is now big enough -- and growing fast enough -- to have an enormous impact on the global economy. But even those who have been paying close attention to the phenomenon may get a jolt from this latest finding.

Ambrogio Cesa-Bianchi (Inter-American Development Bank), M. Hashem Pesaran (Cambridge), Alessandro Rebucci (IDB), and TengTeng Xu (Cambridge) used data from the last three decades to assay changes in the economic linkages between the China and Latin America. They found that the impact of a change in GDP in China has tripled since the mid-1990s, even as the parallel sensitivity of Latin America to swings in the U.S. economy has halved.

Part of the impact come from just what you'd expect: changes in China's demand for Latin American exports. But a surprisingly large portion is indirect, amounting to a secondary shock transmitted through the U.S. and European Union economies. That is, when China imports less from the United States and the European Union, the U.S. and EU import less from Latin America. Come to think of it, though, that shouldn't be much of a surprise, since the interdependence of national economies is growing ever more complex. China's Emergence in the World Economy and Business Cycles in Latin America. Inter-American Development Bank Working Paper Series IDB-WP-266. Download (free) here.

Solid BRIC Work. The BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China), all of which are coming into their own in economic terms, are an endless source of fascination to economic historians these days. One big question is: Why did they fail to catch fire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when America and Western Europe were growing at a prodigious rate?

Latika Chaudhary (Scripps), Aldo Musacchio (Harvard), Steven Nafziger (Williams), and Se Yan (Peking University) focus on one key element: the lack of mass access to primary education. They argue that in each country, provision of public education was decentralized, allowing local elites to prevent such investment in human capital. There's much more to the story, of course: each BRIC country faced unique challenges to growth. But whether or not you buy one-size-fits-all explanations (to be fair, the authors don't entirely), the paper is worth reading because it is chock-full of anecdotal evidence about the development experiences in countries that were home to half the world's population in 1910 and now constitute the most dynamic force in the global economy. Big BRICs, Weak Foundations: The Beginning of Public Elementary Education in Brazil, Russia, India and China. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 17852. Download (limited free distribution) here.