Discontinuities are interesting things. When small differences in inputs result in large differences in outputs, it can sometimes give hints as to what exactly is causing what.
For instance, Douglas Almond's great paper on the in-utero effects of the Spanish Flu gets you mostly convinced just by a single picture
The ideal case observes a sharp discontinuity in a single input variable and examines the effect on the output. Economists search for these perfectly clean cases like financial traders search for arbitrage. They find them about as often, too.
But sometimes you get a second best instance - a case where a good fraction of the inputs stay smooth and continuous, and yet you observe a discontinuous shift in the output. This suggests that one of the remaining variables is having a large effect.
This is especially true in the case of development. The classic problem, concisely stated, is that goods go together and bads go together. In other words, countries tend to have good governance, good rule of law, a free press, low corruption, etc. or they have none of these things.
Boosters of the polite consensus wisdom occasionally enjoy pointing out the difference in light patterns between North and South Korea.
It is indeed a striking one. Scott Alexander cited it in his Anti-Reactionary FAQ as supporting the proposition that the quasi-monarchy of North Korea seems to result in much worse outcomes than the capitalist social democracy of South Korea.
Fair enough. So it does. Though of course what we're really seeing is the sum of all the differences between the North and South since the Korean War. The main quibble is the extent to which Kim Jong-Un is a good representation of monarchy as a system of government, but I take Alexander's point.
But if you're going to play that game, you have to take the comparisons that are not flattering to your world view, as well as the ones that are.
One such equally stark comparison is between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
No, they didn't draw the border at some magically discontinuous shift in micro-climate. This is all one island of Hispaniola, split into two parts. It's just that the Haitians deforested their part of the island, leaving the land looking like it was denuded by a plague of locusts. The Dominicans, however, didn't.
And this is the start of a series of differences that are not quite as stark as North and South Korea, but they're pretty darn stark nonetheless. Haiti is supremely screwed, as bad as anywhere in the Third World. We're talking GDP per capita of $661 and life expectancy of 63 screwed. The Dominican Republic, by contrast is at $5442 and 74. Not exactly first world standards, but functional enough that westerners want to go there on holidays. To slightly modify the Hilltop Hoods - like a free trip to Port-Au-Prince, you don't want it.
And there basically is no polite explanation for why this is. The standard banalities about the causes of poverty don't get you very far. If Haiti's problem is that it was colonialized, so was the Dominican Republic. Admittedly the Haitian part was run by the French for more of its history, versus the Dominican Republic being run by the Spanish. But people don't usually clamor to attribute strong economic success to Spanish colonialism. In fact, the Dominican Republic was run as a colony for considerably longer, as recently as 1865 (compared with Haiti, which kicked out the French for the last time in 1804). Indeed, Haiti actually invaded and ran the Dominican Republic from 1821-1844, and got to implement some of its disastrous policies then.
The other sob stories don't get you much further either. Both areas had a lot of slaves. Both were administered by the US during the 20th century. And while the Dominican Republic produced a lot more sugar during the 20th century, this seems better understood as effect rather than just cause, as Haiti produced lots of sugar during the 18th century, and climate-wise could have done so again.
So since the countries were united for most of their history, one must expect that the causes might seem to be differences that were more pronounced after 1844.
First off, Haiti had killed most of its white population in a genocide, and added to its constitution in 1804 a clause that whites could not own property. Another country imposed this recently in the wake of similar genocidal behavior. You might almost conclude that this is a disastrous policy. It was imposed in the Dominican Republic too in 1821 when Haiti took over, but they hadn't gone for the full genocidal answer of killing all the whites. So even though lots of the Spanish left after their stuff was confiscated, enough of them stuck around, and eventually managed to successfully gain independence from Haiti in 1844. The Dominican Republic tended to be mostly governed by its richer and better-educated Spanish elite for much of its history, whereas Haiti mostly was governed by the descendants of slaves (either black or mulatto). Just look at the pictures of some of the presidents of the Dominican Republic. No matter how you cut it or interpret it, the difference is striking.
Now look at some of the corresponding presidents of Haiti
Of course, a closer examination makes all this a bit murkier. Even after most of the leaders above, both countries were sufficiently dysfunctional that the US chose to invade, in 1915 and 1916. Equally dysfunctional? It's hard to say, since this was the era before great GDP figures. In terms of long-serving leaders during the 20th century, they had different paths. Rafael Trujillo seems to have looked somewhat like Pinochet, brutal but effective. Papa Doc Duvalier seems like a cross between Idi Amin and Robert Mugabe, repulsive in every possible way. It turns out that being a black nationalist intent on driving out the mulatto elite tends to just produce a mass emigration of the educated parts of the populace. We've heard about that one before too. It's not for nothing that I compared him to Mugabe. Maybe this is the main difference, these two men. It's hard to say.
So we get to the end and don't get the neat schadenfreude of Scott Alexander's simple narrative. In the end, we observe a discontinuous outcome, not a discontinuous input, and identification still eludes us. I am not nearly enough of an expert to compile anything like an exhaustive list of the differences between the countries to say for sure what is driving it. And yet, the aerial photographs remain. Something is producing enormously discontinuous outcomes across small geographical differences. And if you dislike the things I've raised, does that not just deepen the puzzle? Admit it, my progressive friend - you don't have a satisfactory explanation for the difference, do you?
By any measure, Haiti has been profoundly misgoverned. The Dominican Republic serves as Banquo's Ghost, reminding us awkwardly that it didn't have to end up this way. It is not a happy tale, and the lessons, if there are any, don't seem to support the standard leftist narratives of why the third world is poor. No wonder you never hear about it.
Actually, that's not quite right.
You do occasionally hear about it, in the form of editorials in lefty western newspapers excoriating the Dominican Republic for its racism in deporting Haitian illegal immigrants, notwithstanding the fact that, by US definitions of race, the Dominican Republic itself is 80% black.
Yep, racism. That's the key to understanding all this, according to our intellectually bankrupt intellectuals. The overwhelmingly black Dominican Republic must be cast in the role of racist oppressor, because that's the only way by which the left can understand Haitian poverty, or indeed any poverty at all.
With such brilliant insights among our elites, I have no doubt that Haiti will soon be returned to the days when it produced leaders like Thomas-Alexandre Dumas and Alexandre Dumas.
I wouldn't hold your breath. Haiti has been collectively holding its breath for 200 years.