Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Rosenblum's Cant and Stearns' Guild

A few weeks ago, a friend sent me a link to Peter Rosenblum’s latest broadside, a letter he addressed to the SEC excoriating my New York Times’ op-ed. The note she attached to the link said, “What did you do, run over his dog?!”

Now that I’ve read the letter, I can understand the impetus behind her question. It’s an odd piece of writing for a law professor to dispatch to a body like the SEC, and not just because it contains a startling number of grammatical errors (see over the fold for the [sic]s).  In it, Rosenblum argues that the evidence I provide of the harm caused by the law is impressionistic and selective.  He has heard “similar claims over the course of more than 20 years,” he tells the SEC, and he assures them that my comments provide no basis on which to judge even the short-term impacts of the law. 

I wasn't surprised that Rosenblum would take issue with my op-ed. He thought highly enough of the conflict minerals campaign to have issued a press release commending it back in March. But I am a little surprised at how he's gone about it. In fact, this letter to the SEC is the third time Rosenblum has taken to keyboard in opposition to the editorial. After it appeared, he published a letter in the New York Times stating that while DF-1502 wouldn’t solve the problem, it did constitute a small but vital step in the right direction. My claim that it was hurting the very people it was meant to help was "impressionistic," he wrote--there's that word again--and and my assertion that the Chinese would eventually step in to pick up the slack in the mineral trade was “vague.”

He next left a comment on Stearns’ blog suggesting that I had become mentally incapacitated during my trip to the Congo. I wish I were speaking hyperbolically, but here--judge for yourself: “Many of us have struggled during field research, when the most recent grievance overwhelms all others. It makes sense for the people we encounter, but long-time Congo watchers presumably have a sense of context. David Aronson seems to have lost all perspective.”

After he published those notes, but before I’d seen his letter to the SEC, I sent Rosenblum an email pointing out that we had met on several occasions, including in Kinshasa in 1997, and I told him that I hoped we’d have the chance to debate the issue more thoughtfully. As I wrote on my blog, “I know Peter. I respect Peter. He seems to have responded more to the editor-chosen title of my op-ed than to anything I wrote. I hope he'll provide a more thoughtful critique in the future.” A couple of weeks later, I was delighted when the New York Bar Association invited us, quite out of the blue, to have that very debate at their headquarters in Manhattan. Unfortunately, Rosenblum backed out at the last moment, citing prior commitments, and the debate went ahead without him. I then invited him to elaborate on his criticism here, in my blog; I even promised to let him have the last word. Rosenblum failed to respond to that invitation or to several follow-up emails and telephone calls. (See after the fold for the sequence.) It’s because of his silence that I am writing now.

Part of the difficulty of responding to Rosenblum's criticism is that its intensity isn't matched by a corresponding clarity. For example, his main criticism is that the evidence I provide is "impressionistic." But it's not clear precisely what he means by that. I assume that he means that it's sufficiently uninformed and selective as to be unreliable. But I'm left wondering why he would think that to be the case, and what evidence he has that contradicts mine. I reported what I saw and heard over the course of four weeks, visits to seven mining sites, and discussions with dozens of Congolese stakeholders and experts. What, precisely, does Rosenblum think I got wrong? The advocates themselves have stipulated that the law--or more precisely, the resulting embargo--caused a precipitous drop in mineral exports. What does Rosenblum think happened to the million or so people in the region who depended on that trade for their livelihood? What does he think of the increasing number of journalists and human rights groups who have corroborated my reporting, such as the Economist, Reuters, the UN Group of Experts, and  tk? And what does he think of the many Congolese who have testified to the law's deleterious consequences? If he has ideas on the subject, he doesn't say.[1]

Unfortunately, labeling my piece "impressionistic" is about as substantive as Rosenblum gets. His letter to the SEC, for example, reiterates the "impressionistic" criticism in half a paragraph; the rest of the letter is concerned with setting forth his own credentials as an expert on the country. Indeed, the letter makes it sound like Rosenblum believes the SEC ought to believe him because of his impressive-sounding credentials--even in the absence of any argument!  If I didn't know him, I'd think this the work of a crank, albeit of the tufted, tenured variety. But I do know Rosenblum, and I know that he is capable of writing concise and effective take-downs; see here for an example [link tk]. Blithely asserting that I’ve lost my marbles, or that I’m not as credentialed as he is, doesn’t do much to advance the substance or the tenor of the debate.

I happened to mention these frustrations to the friend who originally sent me the link to Rosenblum’s SEC letter. She told me I needn’t be too concerned: “You’ve reduced an Ivy League law professor to several iterations of name calling and rank pulling. Now, apparently, you've forced him to retreat into an embarrassed silence. It’s not you who has anything to worry about.”

In the meantime, Stearns seems to be pulling back on his initial criticism of my piece. In a Wall Street Journal book review, he admits that the law has put tens of thousands of people out of work. He has also refused opportunities to defend his own account of how the law might work. You’ll remember that he suggested that the main mineral exporters, the comptoir owners, threatened by the loss of income, would pressure the central government to provide better security throughout the region. I doubted from the outset that comptoir owners had that kind of pull and wondered, if they did, why they hadn't used that power to put an end to the conflicts a long time earlier. I haven't seen Stearns make any subsequent defense of his argument, but I haven't heard him repudiate it either.

Stearns is a generally reliable guy, thorough and accurate. But I’ve reluctantly called him out once or twice in the past for fence sitting. Back in 2003, he wrote a piece for the International Crisis Group in which he alternately called the continued presence of the FDLR/ex-genocidaires in the Kivus a “pretext” and the “explanation” for Rwanda’s incursions into the Congo. "Well, which is it?" I wrote to him. If it’s the former, we need to pressure Rwanda to back off. If the latter, we need to work harder on repatriating the FDLR. Surely an analysis of how Rwanda has behaved inside the Congo will go far toward telling us where the truth lies. My own reading is that the FDLR’s presence is largely pretextual, and that Rwanda’s main business in Congo since 1999 has been plunder on the one hand and territorial control on the other. Or so memory serves me of that conversation: I no longer have access to the email account in which it transpired.

And if memory serves, I wasn’t able to elicit much of a response from Stearns then, either, except for a retreat into vagueness. Look, I respect Stearns enough to believe he isn’t fence sitting to retain his viability on the issues, but there are times, too, that I want to remind him of what Dante thought of neutrality.

[1] It's a little hard to divine, but at one or two points Rosenblum appears to suggest that my informants can't be speaking accurately or truthfully about the law's impacts because he has heard Congolese voice similar complaints about their lives in other contexts. It's true that Congolese have complained, for a very long time, about their inability to pay school fees, afford health care, and even buy food. But does the fact that Congolese are desperately poor--and have been for ages--mean that the miners haven't been impacted by the mining embargo? Would Rosenblum have been more convinced if they'd come up with different, and more original sounding complaints? It's a silly question, I know, but I'm grasping at straws: I really don't understand what Rosenblum is getting at, otherwise.
The history of my--alas!--one-sided conversation with Rosenblum, in which he attacks me publicly, gets invited to discuss/debate the issues, and retreats into an Olympian silence.

Rosenblum's letter to The New York Times:
 To the Editor:
The long-term development of Congo depends on channeling potentially vast mining revenues into long-term development. At this moment, the mineral wealth of the eastern Congo feeds conflict and corruption, with a few crumbs falling to the local population; almost nothing goes to government coffers.
The “conflict mineral” provisions of the Dodd-Frank financial reform law, which put the burden on companies to know and disclose the source of their supply, are a small but vital step in shifting the incentives away from the warlords. They won’t solve the problem, but their part in “devastating” an already devastated land is overstated.
David Aronson’s impressionistic account of harms and vague reference to the specter of China’s seizing of business don’t justify giving initiative back to the warlords.
New York, Aug. 8, 2011
The writer, a professor at Columbia Law School, is a consultant to the Carter Center on a project regarding industrial mining in Congo.

Rosenblum's comment in CongoSiasa, a blog by Jason Stearns
August 11, 2011
Peter Rosenblum said...
Jason went pretty easy on David Aronson. Many of us have struggled during field research, when the most recent grievance overwhelms all others. It makes sense for the people we encounter, but long-time Congo watchers presumably have a sense of context. David Aronson seems to have lost all perspective. The Eastern Congo was not 'devastated' in the last six months and certainly not by the US Congress.

Rosenblum's letter to the SEC
September 7, 2011

Elizabeth M. Murphy
Secretary Securities and Exchange Commission
100 F Street, N.E. Washington, D.C. 20549-1090
Re: Conflict Minerals, File No. 57-40-10

Dear Secretary Murphy:

I respectfully submit this letter and the attached comment (published as a 'Letter to the Editor' in the NYT August 15, 2011) regarding the proposed regulations to implement Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (the "Dodd-Frank Act" or the "Conflict Minerals Provision" or "Section 1502"), which mandates certain disclosures concerning conflict minerals that originate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo ("DRC") or an adjoining [sic] .[1]

I am a Professor at Columbia Law School, and the faculty director of the Human Rights Institute, here [sic].[2] For more than 20 years 1 have been working on issues of human rights and development in the DRC, first [sic] Human Rights Watch and other major international NGOs and, subsequently, with a variety of organizations including the UN, USAID and The Carter Center. Since 1998, I have increasingly focused my attention on the relationship among [sic][3] natural resource extraction, human rights and development. Since the 2006 elections in the DRC, I have been collaborating closely with The Carter Center on a project concerning industrial mining there.

I write in response to those who criticize Section 1502 for its short term impact on Congolese livelihoods and, in particular, claims by David Aronson, writing in the New York Times on August 8, 2011. Mr. Aronson suggests Section 1502 is to blame for loss of livelihood [sic][4] and opportunities in the DRC; he blames Congress for “devastating” the region. His evidence is impressionistic, drawn selectively from local actors. In my work, I have heard similar claims over the course of more than 20 years. Mr. Aronson's comments do not provide a basis on which to reach judgments, even regarding the short term impacts that he claims to address.

Moreover, the value of Section 1502 is its contribution to long term impacts [sic].[5] No single measure can reverse 15 years of war and turn natural resources into the engine of development. Without the transparency, supply chain due diligence and incentives for corporate responsibility required by Section 1502, however, those outcomes are significantly less likely.

Finally, many are arguing for delayed implementation of the regulations. In my view, such a delay would be inconsistent with the goals of the legislation and would arguably enhance incentives to game the system and avoid ultimate compliance.

[1] Missing word?

[2] Professor, alas, is a common noun. And a weird way to phrase the sentence, overall.
[3] Between ain't just for twosies, despite what your h.s. english teach might have told you.
[4] Faulty parallelism
[5] Its "contribution to long term impacts?" Surely he means that the contribution of 1502 lies in its long-term impact, or some such.

My emails to him:  

From:        David Aronson
To:            Peter Rosenblum
Date:         09/13/2011 10:24 PM
Subject:     Debating Possibility? 

This is David Aronson, the fellow who lost all perspective after his recent trip to the Congo. We've met a few times actually, the first in Kinshasa in 1997, and then at a few GLPF meetings. I understand you were invited to a panel at the New York Bar Association on conflict minerals, but that you're not sure if you'll be able to attend.
For what it's worth, I'd like to extend my hope that you'll be there. I think it would be useful to have the chance to debate the issue with you in a public forum.
In any case, I hope to see you again soon.

From:       David Aronson
To:           Peter Rosenblum
Sent:        Monday, October 10, 2011 8:21 PM
Subject:   Re: Debating Possibility?

I just came across your letter to the SEC. You clearly have strong feelings about me the subject. If you'd like to elaborate on them, I'll be more than happy to publish them in my blog. I promise to publish whatever you send in its entirety, and if I do respond to it, to give you the option of having the final word. 

I ask because it does seem as if we're fated not to cross each other's path any time soon.



Rosenblum failed to respond to this and several subsequent emails and phone calls.

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