Thursday, April 29, 2010

Emerging Economies are Emerging as Innovators

The April 17 to 23, 2010 edition of The Economist has a special report on innovation in emerging markets. It makes the point strongly that firms that are battling for these new, different and rapidly growing markets are innovating both in products and organization in order to survive and thrive. Of course, some of the innovations intended for these new markets will prove to be competitive in existing markets (as happened in the past when innovations intended for the developing markets in the United States proved to be competitive in Europe).

Here are some product innovations from the report:
  • GENERAL ELECTRIC’S health-care laboratory in Bangalore has developed a hand-held electrocardiogram (ECG) that is "small enough to fit into a small backpack and can run on batteries as well as on the mains. This miracle of compression sells for $800, instead of $2,000 for a conventional ECG, and has reduced the cost of an ECG test to just $1 per patient."
  • Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) has developed a water filter that uses rice husks to purify water. "It is not only robust and portable but also relatively cheap, giving a large family an abundant supply of bacteria-free water for an initial investment of about $24 and a recurring expense of about $4 for a new filter every few months."
  • "Tata Motors has produced a $2,200 car, the Nano.
  • "Godrej & Boyce Manufacturing, one of India’s oldest industrial groups, has developed a $70 fridge that runs on batteries, known as “the little cool”.
  • "First Energy, a start-up, has invented a wood-burning stove that consumes less energy and produces less smoke than regular stoves.
  • "Anurag Gupta, a telecoms entrepreneur, has reduced a bank branch to a smart-phone and a fingerprint scanner that allow ATM machines to be taken to rural customers."
Of course innovations of this kind will not only find markets in India and China, but eventually in Africa and Latin America, and indeed in Europe and the United States.

A great graphic conveys a lot of information

This figure shows not only the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India and China) but their increasingly important role in international decision making. I present it not only because the information itself is interesting, but because The Economist figure is so dense in the information it portrays yet so pleasing and intelligable.

More reason to worry about American education

The first graph indicates than not only is income inequality greater in the United States than in other developed nations, but that a child's income is more determined here by that of his/her father than in other rich countries. This was once the land of opportunity, but apparently less so now.

The second graph indicates that not only do American school children show up worse than those in other countries on key measures of educational progress, but they are falling behind.

World Bank Group Opens Data to All

The World Bank Group is now providing free, open, and easy access to its comprehensive set of data on global development. Some 2,000 indicators, including hundreds that go back 50 years will be available at the new interactive website “,” which offers advanced and accurate searches of databases, data visualization tools, and applications for developers. The data will be available in Arabic, French and Spanish in addition to English. Website | Blog Post | Read More

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Rant: What do we have to do to get adequate financial regulation?

Markets are institutions. They are complex institutions. Even the simple open air produce market depends on a system to assure that weights and measures are fair.

If you buy milk you want to be sure that what you are getting is all milk and not half milk and half water. In theory it is easy to check in milk has been watered down by simply inserting a hydrometer in the milk. When I worked as a health planner in South America I discovered that the guys who went out to the farms to assure that the milk was not watered were being killed for their efforts -- farmers reacted violently to the government cutting their profits from watering the milk.

The stock market is regulated in a lot of ways, importantly by requiring firms to use standard accounting practices, to employ outside auditors, and to publish their financial data. The regulation of the stock market resulted from a long history of watered stocks, Ponzi schemes and other misconduct.

It should be clear enough from the current problems caused by unregulated derivative markets that we need good regulation.

I really believe that our society depends on good institutions, and that strong markets are among the most important of those institutions. Good government is also an important institution.

The Republicans in Congress seem to feel that the public will not notice nor care that they are pandering to a greedy, already wealthy elite rather than taking care of the public business. Their refusal to debate regulatory reform before the public demonstrates that fact. I will remember their failure in this and future elections and suggest my readers do so as well!

The problems in Europe today suggest that we may not be over the worst of the financial problems that started a couple of years ago. We need to see governments in Europe do hard things for the global economy. We are also going to have to see the government of the United States play its part.

I note that the United States can not successfully regulate the financial services industry alone, since the huge firms are global in scope, as are financial markets. That has been made very clear over the last couple of years. Nor, I fear, is there any possibility of something like the World Trade Organization effectively regulating the financial services industry. What will be needed will be an agreement among sovereign nations to regulate their financial service industries to common standards. Governments will be meeting to determine those standards, and should be led by the United States as the world's largest economy. To provide the leadership the world and our citizens need, the Congress should step up and do the right thing.

Lets see some open debate about the merits of alternative regulatory mechanisms, and some strong and effective legislation NOW!

A Thought About Corporate Capital

When we think about the modern corporation we tend to think that the stock holders are those who have invested in its capital. Much of recent management effort has been directed to maximizing the return on the capital investment of those who invested in the corporation stocks.

It occurs to me that employees also invest capital in the corporations for which they work, not only in employee stock plans but also in terms of the investments in development of their own skills and knowledge which they put to the use of the corporation. They risk that capital, as we have discovered with folk who worked for years for corporations only to be laid off with knowledge and skills the worth of which had depreciated over time. The remuneration of staff of corporations then should be seen as repayment for the value of their time and effort, but also for the investment in human capital that they have made and its risk incurred by its dedication to the corporation.

How about government? Well, governments invest in roads and services without which the corporation would not be profitable; those investments are at risk as some of the rust belt cities clearly demonstrate. Governments obtain operating costs for those investments in the form of taxes and fees for service but do they not also deserve a return on investment commensurate with the risk that was involved?

How about those firms and individuals that do business with the corporation. There is, at a minimum, social capital in the market institutions through which they interact with the corporation and sometimes much more investment directed toward the success of the corporation. I suggest that both buyers and sellers (and often government) invest in building these institutions through which they successfully interact.

Perhaps directors and managers of corporations should consider how most appropriately to allocate risk and return among all those who invest in the corporation and the institutions on which it depends.

Monday, April 19, 2010

A thought on American History

I saw a presentation by Douglas Blackmon on his book Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II. This appears to be a good book and it has received good reviews.
Blackmon tells the story of the imprisoning of hundreds of thousands of blacks during several generations and leasing out their labor to local white owned businesses -- a form of forced servitude. This system, complementary to that of black tenant farming in the south, which served to force blacks to labor for the economic advantage of white land owners. Both can be seen as versions of involuntary servitude developed in the south after the emancipation of slaves.

Blackmon made a comment which was both very reasonable and very unreasonable in introducing his talk. He said that it made no sense to attribute the poverty of modern blacks to the poverty of their emancipated slave ancestors in 1865. It is clearly true that other (white) ethnic groups who were equally poor have progressed more economically than have blacks. It seems to me equally clear that had the blacks had more social and economic power in 1865 they could not have been as severely victimized as they were and in that sense their current plight is directly related to their plight in 1865 which is in turn related to the intervening decades of exploitation and repression.

In the Revolutionary War, the southern colonies constructed a rationale that they merited independence from the English king and parliament, and that they would associate with other colonies to obtain that independence. Between that war and the Civil War, the south built a cotton economy based on slaver; southerners from the power elite, especially after the Missouri Compromise, built a philosophical defense for slavery and for their right to run a slave society including a belief that southerners were keeping faith with the Revolution and with the Founding Fathers -- Washington and Jefferson.. After the civil war a new economic system was built that also exploited blacks for the benefit of a white power elite; southerners in that power elite built a philosophical defense again based on states rights and on segregation.

I understand that part of the justification offered by southerners was an attack on the northern system that was, in their view, following an English model of industrialization based on wage slaves. It is hard to argue against the position that northern mines and factories, not to mention civil works such as the construction of canals and railroads, were built by exploiting poor and especially poor immigrant labor. Indeed, in the north during the 19th century the power elites were systematically building a philosophical basis for this exploitation and some white ethnic groups faced long-term lack of economic and social opportunities due to the social and economic system in which they lived.

I find the ways in which societies respond to revolutionary change to be interesting. Pre-revolutionary power elites seek to build new social and economic systems to retain or restore their power, and I bet they often succeed. Philosophy seems to follow interest.

People now make the case that American society should seek to find ways to rectify the social and economic injustices done to the blacks in the past. Indeed, the country would be better off were blacks better able to compete economically and socially, since it is clear that they would contribute more to the welfare of all.

I wonder whether the same argument could be made for rectifying the hangovers from the economic and social injustices done to minority ethnic groups that were exploited as wage slaves for a century of more -- the Italian-Americans, the Irish-Americans, the Eastern European-Americans, the Chinese-Americans.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Myron Tribus "Perversity Principle":

"If you try to improve the performance of a system of people, machines, and procedures by setting numerical goals for the improvement of individual parts of the system, the system will defeat your efforts and you will pay a price where you least expect it."

"Knowledge without know-how is sterile. We use the word 'academic' in a pejorative sense to identify this limitation."

Dr. Tribus taught me thermodynamics and I had the pleasure of meeting him later when I was working in the White House and he was an advisor. He was a memorable person and may have had a wildly disproportionate influence on my career. He was the first person I knew who spoke about operations research, a career I later followed for a decade.

Do we need a new standard for the Internet?

I post descriptions and links for online news articles to Linked In and to Zunia. The postings include a title and a description of the article. When one posts an article to Linked In, one inputs the URL and the site itself seeks to recognize that title and tends to try to utilize the first characters of the story as the description; you are allowed to edit. Zunia expects the user to enter all the information personally.

Even the Linked In system often fails, apparently because different online news sources use different formats for the title and description information. It would be nice if there was a standard that most news sources would use. Then portals could make pointing to the news stories easier and more informative.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Remembering Guy Stever

Dr. Guy Stever died recently at the age of 93. His was a most distinguished career. I can do no better to summarize it than to quote the description from his book, In War and Peace: My Life in Science and Technology:
Science came into Guy Stever s life as a pure and peaceful pursuit. It was only later, as he walked through the wreckage of wartime London that he began to see science as central to a desperate struggle to survive.

Past president of Carnegie Mellon University, former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force, one-time Director of the National Science Foundation, professor at MIT for 20 years, member of the National Academies of Sciences and Engineering, and science advisor to two presidents Guy Stever was a central figure in twentieth century science consistently on the front lines, changing the fate of a nation.

In this thoughtful and candid memoir, Stever recounts an extraordinary life that reveals as much about the man as about the major scientific and technological events of his day. Born of humble origins and orphaned at an early age, Stever journeyed from a small town in New York to work alongside British comrades who were developing and refining the critical radar technology that was to turn the tide of the war against the Germans. As a technical intelligence officer, these harrowing wartime years took him from the beachheads of Normandy to the German slave-labor factories responsible for building the V-2 rockets.

Stever returned home committed to serving his country. He became intimately involved in America s nascent guided missile program and was to remain a key player in the anti-ballistic missile defense program that heralded the era of the Cold War. As the decades passed, Stever continued to exert lasting influence on countless scientific endeavors. He was instrumental in the formation of new institutions, from the creation of NASA in the post-Sputnik years to the merging of Carnegie Tech and the Mellon Institution, giving birth to Carnegie Mellon University. As Presidential Science Advisor to both Nixon and Ford, Stever shaped the very structure of contemporary presidential science advising. And he was to chair the oversight committee that redesigned the space shuttle boosters after the Challenger explosion.

Guy Stever s life offers remarkable insight into the twentieth century. Through his eyes, we relive the history of the past 50 years, witnesses to a tale of science and technology that is revealing in its scope and sweep.
I knew Dr. Stever through his service to the Board on Science and Technology for International Development (BOSTID) of the National Academies in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time he was the Foreign Secretary of the National Academy of Engineering, and I was the project manager of the USAID grant that funded BOSTID.

I came to have great respect for his wisdom, his courtesy and his skill in the provision of scientific advise. Only later did I come to wonder at the willingness of this very important and very famous man to devote so much time and effort to helping develop science in poor nations and helping to make the fruits of science available to the poor in those nations. I was very fortunate to come to know the gentleman!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

How the press has changed

My history book club met last night and got me thinking about how much press coverage of scandal has changed in U.S. history. We were discussing The Irregulars: Roald Dahl and the British Spy Ring in Wartime Washington by Jennet Conant, which describes a fair number of sexual liaisons among its characters. It came to our attention that sexual misbehavior of political leaders in that time, and indeed in the time of Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, were not covered in the press.

Today there seems to be little chance that a Clinton or an Edwards could get away with much of the kind without it being splashed across the news channels and other media.

However, it you look back a couple of hundred years, there were many published charges from attacks on the wives of President Jackson and a member of his cabinet, to charges that President Jefferson sired a child by his slave Sally Hemings, to the charges of infidelity implicated as a cause of the Hamilton-Burr dual.

What could cause the pendulum to swing so violently? I suppose that the Victorian age intervened between the free-swinging 18th century and the more prudish press of the mid 20th century. Since World War II, we have seen a sexual revolution (birth control pills, legalized abortion, Playboy and Penthouse, etc) which has made sex a much more acceptable topic for discussion, and the creation of a mass market for television news -- providing graphic depiction of peccadillos in living color.

Where do we go from here?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

It seems to me the Obama Administration is doing well

President Obama seems to be setting reasonable priorities.
  • The administration took very rapid action to revive the economy, and the stock market is half way back to pre-crisis levels while employment is beginning to revive.
  • The health care reform law is a historic achievement, one that several previous administrations had failed to obtain.
  • There seems to be progress on nuclear disarmament.
  • We seem to be phasing out of Iraq in a reasonable manner.
  • The Bush administration's war on science, science education and family planning have been reversed.
  • There seems to be progress in foreign policy with regards to China and Israel, not to mention a radical change from the global anger at Bush to wide spread favorable opinion about Obama.
Not a bad first year!

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Economics of Empire

I have been reading After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire Since 1405 by John Darwin. It occurred to me to think about the economics of trade in that context.

It seems rather clear that economic productivity must increase from that of hunter gatherer societies to allow much trade to take place. I suspect that a significant turning point takes place when primary producers produce enough, and social stratification takes place with some people appropriating the surplus of others. These then have the resources with which to engage in trade for high-value luxury goods.

Generally however, increased productivity provides more to trade. Increased productivity of course depends importantly on changes in technology and changes in productive institutions.

The theory of comparative advantage indicates that there will be a potential economic advantage to trade, allowing communities to produce those things for which they have a comparative advantage and to trade for those things for which others have a comparative advantage.

Trade is only profitable if the transaction costs are less than the benefits of the exchange.

The transaction costs include such things as costs of transportation, costs due to loss of goods during transportation, and tariffs. In the bad old days, when you transported goods over a distance you had a fairly high probability of someone stealing them.

Of course, part of the transaction costs were the profits taken by intermediaries who carry out a useful function for which they expect to be paid.

Clearly there are technological solutions to reducing transaction costs, such as the construction of roads and canals, improved ships, improved port facilities, improved vehicles, improved power sources, and improved communications technology.

There are also institutional solutions to reducing transaction costs. Thus institutionalizing government services such as road construction and maintenance or the construction and maintenance of postal services are important. So too is institutionalizing banking services so that financial transactions are simpler and less risky.

If one thinks historically, the role of Islam and Islamic states in producing a vast area over which people and goods could pass in relative safety is perhaps comparable to the role of Rome in producing a vast road system and the Pax Romana.

Perhaps even more fundamental is the institutionalization of markets that allow trade to take place. Think of the continent spanning trade systems of the pre-colonial Australian aborigines of Australia or native Americans; how long did it take and how much effort was involved to build the networks that allowed trade in stone axes in Australis or in feathers and turquoise in America. The more elaborate trade networks of empires clearly developed over long periods due to large investments of time and effort.

Of course, technological changes can also allow institutions to span larger geographic areas. The communications improvements of the ancient Persian and Inca empires surely had a role in allowing them to span such large distances. Tamerlane's horsemen could extend state power over a huge area, larger than the infantry based military of earlier empires.

In the 19th and early 20th century, European powers established institutions of colonialism that reduced transaction costs for trade within their colonial empires. In the late 20th century, the United Nations system including the World Trade Organization were representative of new institutions that replace the intra-empire trade institutions with more global free trade institutions. These have been called the two epochs of globalization, but their patterns were somewhat different as well as the volumes of trade.

It would be interesting to see a visual presentation of the growth and decline of trade patterns over historical time, and how they correspond to the growth of states and empires.

I suspect that the economic advantages to trade with lower transaction costs -- some of which can be appropriated to finance the institutions supplying those advantages -- help to explain the growth of empires. Indeed, I suspect that the improved technologies for trade help to explain the changing scales of states and empires.

Of course, the Roman empire declined and led to the Dark Ages, and the World Wars and Great Depression put an end to the colonial empires. Just because an institution provides economic advantages for trade does not imply that mankind is smart enough to maintain and improve those institutions.

Video: Ted-Talk The danger of science denial

Sam Harris: Science Can Answer Moral Questions

Science can inform us about the conditions that foster human wellbeing.

Human wellbeing is the root purpose of morality.

Therefore, science should inform ethics.

Big Shifts are Creating Big Changes

John Seely Brown & John Hagel

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A thought about universities

Source: "Does the University Have a Future in the Network Society?" Ian Angus, Truthout, Sunday 11 April 2010

This is an interesting article. I quote one of many interesting paragraphs:
The double, inside/outside relationship of the modern university to society meant that the university was both a social institution and a relatively independent standpoint from which the whole (of society, history and nature) could be represented in the form of knowledge. The end of the double relationship means that the university is in danger of being subsumed within society to become exclusively, one-sidedly, a servant of social interests. We can see emerging a university thoroughly immersed in socio-technical networks identical with those of the society as a whole. This indistinction between university and society implies the end of a standpoint from which one can represent the whole in the form of knowledge and the beginning of the production of forms of knowledge that have a directly social function. Knowledge-production becomes an action alongside other actions rather than a representation of the whole field of action.
The author points out, correctly I believe, that the role of the university is changing, both as higher education becomes far more common and as the evolving global information infrastructure results in changes in information and knowledge systems.

He seems especially concerned with the changing role of the university in the creation of technological knowledge. I suggest that technological knowledge has always been created primarily in industry, but now there are increasing efforts to utilize technological departments in universities for the creation of technological knowledge.

He is also concerned that the public university is increasingly facing competition from private universities (and I suppose that public financing is increasingly being supplemented by private financing of higher education).

He is most concerned I think with what he perceives to be a decline in the role of the university as a producer of public knowledge. I suggest that it is important to think about this phenomenon in terms of a classification of knowledge.
  • Technological knowledge that is best utilized within private industry probably should not be "public" in the sense of being placed in the public domain, but rather should be protected by intellectual property rights to enhance the probability that corporations will invest in its commercialization.
  • Policy relevant knowledge, such as that from much of social science research, should be made available to policy makers and its import conveyed to the general public.
  • There is also a large component of knowledge that is probably neither suitable for commercialization nor potentially improving policy, and this body of knowledge might be seen as common property knowledge.
The proliferation of colleges and universities will tend to increase the production of the latter two kinds of knowledge in the higher education system. One might think that the proliferation of private colleges and especially the increased demand for higher education coupled with the reduced public support for higher education would reduce the production of policy relevant and common property knowledge.

Some things that we might look too are:
  • Increased public support for the creation of policy relevant knowledge in institutions of higher education.
  • New modalities for the popular dissemination of policy relevant knowledge, especially new ways to finance the translation and transmission of such knowledge.
  • Ways to better acknowledge the value of contributions to common property knowledge.
I wonder whether we are producing and recognizing the great public intellectuals who can revolutionize our understanding of critically important public issues, as did the political philosophers of the Enlightenment, those who led the intellectual battle against slavery, or those who like Gandhi and Mandela reconceptualized colonial and race relations.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Belief, Knowledge and Literacy

There is a mini controversy about the decision of the National Science Board to delete a section of the 2010 edition of Science and Engineering Indicators. The section dealt with the responses in a national survey to two questions:
  1. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
  2. “The universe began with a huge explosion.”
Apparently the National Science Foundation and its Board deleted the section, which indicated low understanding of science by people in the United States as compared with other developed nations, because of concern with the methodology.

Lets think about this.

I would hope that Americans would understand the theory of evolution and have a general idea of the evidence that supports it. I would also hope that Americans would have a general understanding of modern cosmology.

How well worded are the questions? The wording of the second question draws on the metaphor of "the big bang". I am not sure that the conditions at the beginning of the universe as they are now understood have much to do with anything we would recognize as an explosion either from common experience nor from extreme events such as super nova. On the other hand, the universe seems to be expanding at an increasing rate suggesting that if we use the explosion metaphor, the universe is still exploding. So too, human beings develop from embryos in the most common meaning of "develop". The species of Homo sapiens of course evolved from some other species.

But what if a Christian fully understands the theory of evolution and modern cosmology, but chooses to answer that both statements are false, feeling that that response is more faithful to his religion and his religious community.

In the example, the person would know the scientific theories but choose not to believe them. There are lots of examples in which we know an explanation of a phenomenon and choose not to believe that explanation. There are in fact situations in which we act at times in belief and at others in disbelief. A scientist can teach a currently accepted scientific theory while working hard to find evidence contradicting the theory and working to create an alternate theory.

Consider Einstein during the work to create the Theory of Relativity. He clearly knew Newtonian theory, and equally clearly he thought that there must be some way in which it could be improved. Would he have taught Newtonian physics if asked? I suppose so.

Certainly the most visible promoters of creationism are not ignorant of evolutionary theory, nor do those who believe in a relatively recent divine creation of the universe necessarily live in greater ignorance than the rest of us of modern cosmology.

"Scientific literacy" should be defined in terms of one's understanding of the content of science, not whether one actually believes in the findings of science, and especially not one chooses to believe different things in different settings of his life.

I guess I agree with the decision to delete the section of the report as it was written. On the other hand, I would hope that better methods could be used to allow future reports to tell us how much Americans really know about science. and to better illuminate the difference in beliefs that exist about evolution and creation of the universe.

Public financing of health in developing countries: a cross-national systematic analysis

Source: Chunling Lu, Matthew T Schneider, Paul Gubbins, Katherine Leach-Kemon, Dean Jamison and Christopher JL Murray, The Lancet, Early Online Publication, 9 April 2010

Findings: "In all developing countries, public financing of health in constant US$ from domestic sources increased by nearly 100% (IMF 120%; WHO 88%) from 1995 to 2006. Overall, this increase was the product of rising GDP, slight decreases in the share of GDP spent by government, and increases in the share of government spending on health. At the country level, while shares of government expenditures to health increased in many regions, they decreased in many sub-Saharan African countries. The statistical analysis showed that DAH to government had a negative and significant effect on domestic government spending on health such that for every US$1 of DAH to government, government health expenditures from domestic resources were reduced by $0·43 (p=0) to $1·14 (p=0). However, DAH to the non-governmental sector had a positive and significant effect on domestic government health spending. Both results were robust to multiple specifications and subset analyses. Other factors, such as debt relief, had no detectable effect on domestic government health spending."

There is also an article covering the report in The Guardian.

Friday, April 09, 2010

UNA-USA Calls for Faster Action on Ratifying Treaties

The United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) has called on the Senate and the Obama Administration to move quickly to ratify international agreements that safeguard peace, security, human rights and the environment.

Observing that the U.S. poor record on treaty ratification has increasingly isolated the country from the growing world wide codification of international norms and from our democratic allies in particular, the Association called for a concerted effort to review and accept the many outstanding treaties that serve America’s interest and values.

In May 2009 the Administration formally asked the Senate to ratify 17 treaties, including the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Almost a year later, not one of these treaties has been ratified or scheduled for a Senate vote.

“To protect and strengthen rule-based international order, and secure the cooperation abroad needed to solve global problems, America should support treaties” observed UNA-USA President A. Edward Elmendorf. “The President should continue to lead, and the Senate must rise to its responsibilities to grant its advice and consent.”

The Association statement accompanied its release of a report entitled “Renewing America’s Commitment to International Law” by Lawrence C. Moss, a member of the Association’s Task Force on Human Rights. The report stresses that American participation in international treaty regimes is essential to induce other nations to join in cooperative action on the great many global challenges America faces. Treaties on nuclear arms, international justice, human rights, biologic diversity, organic pollutants, climate change, and regulation of the oceans have been adopted by much of the world but have languished without ratification by the United States.

The report notes that trade treaties have been “fast-tracked” and adopted by majority votes with amendments and filibusters barred. It observes that human rights treaties have been unable to win a 2/3 majority in the Senate and suggests a similar “fast track” treatment for human rights treaties.
To access the report, click here.

Comment: Let me add my support for rapid ratification of these treaties. If the United States wants to be credible on issues of human rights, we should be leaders in the ratification of human rights treaties.

Of course the problem is that we still have real domestic human rights problems. We enlist 17 year olds in the military, there are still states that impose the death penalty, and prostitution is still legal in Nevada. We are going to have to clean up our act if the federal government is going to be able to ratify all the human rights conventions. JAD

How does the State Department work

A former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State spoke in my class last night, describing in some detail how decisions were made in the State Department during his period in office on the matters under his supervision.

He described a complex system involving:
  • coordination with subordinates in State, and in other executive branch departments which have substantive interests in the programs of international agencies -- a lot of decisions are made at this level
  • the roles of the Assistant Secretary, the Deputy Secretary and Secretary (a significant responsibility was keeping issues contained so as not to require their attention)
  • budget negotiations with the Office of Management and Budget
  • participation of National Security Council staff and others in the White House in major policy decisions
  • discussions with Congressional staffers
  • inputs from the public, including officials of civil society organizations
I came away with the perception that many, perhaps the vast majority of issues were handled at a technical level, while a few issues are seen as "political".

He identified a key function of the State Department, which includes the U.S. contributions to international organizations in its budget, as monitoring the efficiency of the organizations in utilizing their budgets to implement their missions.

He stressed the importance of mid level State Department officers who follow the agencies for extended periods of time, developing both expertise and contacts.

He stressed the importance to diplomats of selection of the top officials in these agencies.

I was taken by his description of the functioning of the governing bodies of these agencies as high theater, a theater which seems invariably to draw in American diplomats; they wind up really caring about "wining" in the parliamentary votes and decisions.

He also mentioned the similarity of the parliamentary dynamics of the international organization governing bodies to those of the U.S. Congress.

World War II

I just looked up
casualties in World War II on Wikipedia, and was surprised. Did you know that an estimated 62.4 million to 78.3 million people died due to the war? The greatest numbers of war related deaths were:
  • The Soviet Union, 23,954,000, more than 14% of the population
  • China, 10,000,000 to 20,000,000, 1.93 to 3.86% of the population
  • The Third Reich, 6,756,700 to 8,456,700, 8.04 to 10.1% of the population
  • Poland, 5,620,000 to 5,820,000, 16.1 to 16.7% of the population
  • The Dutch East Indies, 3,030,000 to 4,030,000, 4.3 to 5.76% of the population
  • Japan, 2,700,000, 3.78% of the population
  • India, 1,587,000 to 2,587,000, 0.43 to 0.66% of the population
  • French Indochina, 1,000,000 to 1,500,000, 4.07 to 6.1% of the population
  • Yugoslavia, 1,027,000, 6.67% of the population
  • The Philippines, 557,000 to 1,057,000, 3.48 to 6.6% of the population
Compare these numbers to those of the Western allies:
  • France, 567,600, 1.35% of the population
  • The United Kingdom, 449,800, 0.94% of the population
  • The United States, 418,500, 0.32% of the population
While I tend to think of the war in terms of the Western allies, it was Eastern Europe and Asia that suffered most. Looking at death tolls in India, the Dutch East Indies, French Indochina and the Philippines it is not surprising that decolonization followed the war -- the colonies were certainly not protected by the metropolitan country.

Similarly, it is not surprising that China and the Soviet Union took a dim view of the Western allies after the war, especially as so much of the support for rebuilding went to Germany and Japan, the defeated enemies.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Free Online Publishing of Federally Funded Research Results

Source: "US seeks to make science free for all," Published online 7 April 2010 | Nature 464, 822-823 (2010) | doi:10.1038/464822a

My friend Julianne pointed out this article. As the title suggests, the U.S. Government is taking action to see that research it funds will be made freely available on the Internet when it is published in a peer-reviewed journal. "(T)wo parallel efforts from the US government could see almost all federally funded research made available in free, publicly accessible repositories:"
The Federal Research Public Access Act (FRPAA), a bill reintroduced in the Senate in June last year by Joseph Lieberman (Independent, Connecticut) and John Cornyn (Republican, Texas), would apply to all research funded by federal agencies with annual research budgets of more than $100 million, with a few exceptions such as classified research. The House could consider the bill within months.

Meanwhile, a six-week public consultation on whether and how public-access policies might be implemented ended on 21 January. Organized by the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the consultation has sparked intense speculation that President Barack Obama might soon sign an executive order bringing a policy covering similar ground to the FRPAA into force. That order might also dispense with the $100-million budget cap, but, being an executive order, it would be more vulnerable than a federal law to being overturned by a future administration.
The article also notes:
Public access was boosted in late 2007, when the US Congress passed a bill making it compulsory for scientists funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to deposit their papers in the agency's PubMed Central archive within 12 months of publication.

Guinea worm is on the way out!

Source: "Guinea worm a greater challenge than smallpox," Madison Park, CNN, April 6, 2010

Guinea Worm is a parasitic disease which is quite debilitating to its victims. The Carter Center has led a program for three decades to eradicate the disease and it is now predicted that the disease will be gone for good for the entire planet by 2015.

A former colleague, Don Hopkins, was totally dedicated to the eradication of the disease, and I believe it was he who convinced President Jimmy Carter to focus on the disease as a major program of the Carter Center. Congratulations to Don.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Two examples from Jeffrey Sachs

From his article "Expert Systems Fight Poverty" in the April 2010 Scientific American:
On a recent trip to Africa, I saw two simple but powerful examples of lifesaving protocols enabled by mobile phones. In the Ghanaian village of Bonsaaso, part of the Millennium Village Project, a simple phone-based system is lowering maternal mortality during childbirth. Community health workers (CHWs) with basic training, a skilled midwife, an ambulance driver and a receiving hospital use mobile phones to coordinate as a team. Ever more deliveries now take place in the clinic rather than at home; in the event of complications, the mother is whisked to a receiving hospital about 10 miles away. Mobile phone connectivity among community, clinic, ambulance and hospital makes possible a once unthinkable degree of coordination.

In the Kenyan village of Sauri, also part of the Millennium Village Project, CHWs are pioneering the application of expert systems for malaria control. In the past, suspected malaria patients had to walk or be carried to a clinic, often miles away, have a blood smear read under a microscope by a trained technician and, if positive, receive a prescription. With clinics few and far between and with trained technicians and microscopes even scarcer, untreated, lethal malaria ran rampant.

In the new approach, CHWs visit households on the lookout for fevers that may signify malaria. They carry rapid diagnostic tests that examine a drop of blood for the presence of the malaria pathogen. Then they send an SMS (short service message) text with the patient’s ID and the test results. Seconds later an automated text response informs the health worker of the proper course of treatment, if any. The system can also send reminders about any follow-up treatments or scheduled clinic visits for the patient. The new system of malaria control includes insecticide-treated bed nets made to last for five years and a new generation of combination drugs based on a traditional Chinese herbal treatment, artemisinin.

A market to buy just in time computer services

I quote from a recent article in The Economist:
In the electricity business, it was the invention of something called the “rotary converter” and other transformers that led to the rise of the power utility. It allowed power from different generators to be pooled and distributed over the grid. The analogous technology in cloud computing is virtualisation. This separates software from hardware, allowing many programs to run on any machine, and indeed to switch between them. Although hardware stays in one place, “virtual machines” consuming processing power can jump around, even between far-flung data centres. Virtualisation has also given rise to big “cloud providers”, which offer computing power on demand, such as Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of the eponymous online-shopping giant.

It took decades for electrical power to become a tradable commodity. Computing seems to be getting there faster. Standards bodies are working on rules that would make it easier to move virtual machines around, and a raft of start-ups are making this their business.

Science Diplomacy

Source: "EDITORIAL: Peace Through Vaccine Diplomacy," Peter J. Hotez, Science 12 March 2010: Vol. 327. no. 5971, p. 1301 / DOI: 10.1126/science.1189028

I quote:
When the United States and Soviet Union entered a deep Cold War chill after the 1957 Sputnik launch, they also entered into a little-known scientific collaboration that led to one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century. With both countries suffering horrific epidemics of childhood poliomyelitis, Soviet and U.S. scientists, led by Albert Sabin, worked together to develop an oral polio vaccine that was deployed worldwide and ultimately eliminated the disease in most of the world by 2008 (the disease still persists in Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, and Nigeria). Similar international cooperative efforts with the Soviet Union led to an improved vaccine that eradicatednaturally occurring smallpox by 1977.
For many years I was involved in the Middle East Regional Cooperation Program and other USAID funded programs of science diplomacy. They work, but they work on the basis of real collaboration of value to all the collaborators. The benefits to different collaborators may be different, but they all must benefit somehow.

The U.S. is falling behind other nations in numbers of college graduates

Younger Adults (Ages 25 to 34)
Holding University/College Degrees
As the figure above shows, the United States is 8th among developed nations in the portion of young adults who have college degrees. It is second in the portion of those 35 to 64 who have such degrees.

The obvious implication is that some other nations are training more college graduates than is the United States.

As the European common market is more and more integrated, the relevant geographic area for human resource concerns is the entire EU. Thus one might compare either the entire EU with the United States (or the North American Free Trade Zone) or compare comparable regions, such as New England with Scandinavia.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Perhaps we should think about Science as a culture.

Have you heard of the Anasazi culture or the Inca culture? We use "culture" in that sense to connote a pattern of knowledge, beliefs and behavior that characterizes a group of people, serving to distinguish that group from other groups. Perhaps we should think about a "science culture" that distinguishes scientists as a group from other groups.

  • share knowledge and beliefs that differentiate them from non-scientists, and indeed share an approach to knowledge itself which is special to science;
  • share practices in their work and knowledge acquisition that are not shared by non-scientists.
  • share values specifically on knowledge and information, but others as well that are not widely shared by non-scientists;
  • participate in institutions which we may characterize such as scientific institutions, including professional societies, research laboratories and schools of science that are specific to their community.
  • share a language not understood outside of the community of scientists, including mathematics and statistics, as well as scientific nomenclature and jargon.
  • utilize tools and approaches in their work which are not widely used nor understood outside of science;
  • have a social structure with defined stratification of both prestige and leadership roles specific to science;
Scientists are acculturated into science not only by years of formal education, but also by participation in the community of scientists in which they obtain tacit knowledge. Indeed, surprisingly often, scientists are the children of other scientists.

We should not be especially surprised that the culture of science is not constrained to exist within countries since many other cultures span national boundaries, nor that members of the culture of science may participate in other cultures.

We tend to consider a culture to be defined by a community. Thus Inca culture is the interrelated set of knowledge, beliefs and behaviors that was shared by the Inca people; Anasazi culture those shared by the ancient people we now know as the Anasazi.

Anthropologists of course do the opposite, identifying the inhabitants of an archaelogical town or village site as belonging to the culture of the people whose artifacts are most similar to those of the village or town.

So too, I suppose we can define Science itself as a cultural pattern. That would lead us to define scientists as individuals who share the traits of science. So in fact we distinguish paradigms such as astrology or alchemy, creationism or evolutionary biology as fields of science as they share the characteristics of scientific culture.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

How has science changed since UNESCO was founded?

One of the ways cultures change is that the meanings of words change. Some time ago I posted some thoughts on the changes of the meaning of the word "culture" since UNESCO was created in 1945. This posting is on the changes in the meaning of "science" since UNESCO was created.

I perceive from the Wikipedia article on Science that there would be little difference from the beginning to the end of the 65 year history of UNESCO in the decision as to whether a specific individual in a specific activity was a scientist doing science. While the term "scientist" dates only from the first half of the 19th century, and while there continues to be debate on exactly what constitutes the scientific method, "(b)y the twentieth century (1900s), the modern notion of science as a special kind of knowledge about the world, practiced by a distinct group and pursued through a unique method, was essentially in place."

Since Thomas Kuhn's book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, achieved such wide distribution and acceptance it has been recognized that science is a social enterprise with scientists working in communities defined by common paradigms. In this sense it is possible to consider "science" as the term labeling the collection of these communities and their paradigms.

In this latter sense, science has indeed changed radically in the last 65 years.
  • There are many more scientists today.
  • The geography of science has changed radically. The period encompassing World War I and World War II had seen science change from a Eurocentric enterprise to one in which probably half of the world's scientists worked in North America. Since 1945, European science has returned to comparable strength with that of North America, Asian science is moving toward that status, and scientific communities have developed also in Latin America and Africa.
  • Not only have there been paradigm shifts in many if not all of the communities existing in 1945, new paradigms such as genomics and computer science have been developed.
  • New scientific institutions have been created, including not only new formal scientific organizations and societies, but informal institutions such as Internet mediated scientific networks.
  • The linkages of science and the wider society have strengthened, including a much stronger linkage of science and technology and a growing linkage of science based policy.
UNESCO's science program has evolved over the decades since the organization was founded. The natural science program includes a facet dealing with the basic sciences, but focuses more on natural sciences oriented toward understanding natural resources -- hydrology, oceanography, geology, ecology. there is also a social science program -- the Management of Social Transitions. In keeping with European continental practice, UNESCO had defined a Social and Human Sciences program which includes social sciences, but also includes activities in fields such as philosophy, ethics and even sports.

Most of the elements of the natural science program have been in place for decades. I find it surprising that UNESCO does not seem to have a strong program in neurobiology, psychology and cognitive science given that these are both developing rapidly and strongly related to the organization's efforts in education and communications and information. Similarly, one might have expected a program in computer and information science, but such a program does not seem to exist. UNESCO at one time included the MIRCEN program which established an international network of centers dealing with microbiology. Even as the field of microbiology has exploded, spinning off important technologies for medicine, agriculture and industry, UNESCO has dropped that program.

Of course, UNESCO is only one of a plethora of United Nations organizations. It presumably defers to the World Health Organization in the area of health and biomedical sciences, to the Food and Agricultural Organization in areas such as agricultural, veterinary and food sciences, and the United Nations Industrial Development Organization in the field of industrial sciences.

Still, one may question why the UNESCO science program has not been more vigorous in expanding its science programs. Surely one answer is the perennial financial problems of the organization and the competition for resources with UNESCO's important education program, it popular cultural programs, and its Communication and Information program which is responding to the Information Revolution.

Perhaps another reason is the success of the international scientific organizations which it helped start or support, such as the International Council on Science, the Trieste System, and CERN.

Which Models of Decision Making Fit What Situations?

The other night in my UNESCO seminar we discussed some ethical issues raised in the context of that organization. I perceived among the students what might be a common problem -- discussing discussing decision making by an organization using the model of the individual's decision making. There are better ways.

UNESCO's Secretariat is charged with the implementation of some conventions. These multinational treaties are created by a process of negotiation among the foreign ministries of member nations and come into force when ratified by a sufficient number of states parties. The ratification usually requires legislative approval within the member nations. There exist approaches from political science and the study of international affairs which help to understand how agreement is reached in such legislative contexts.

Similarly, UNESCO's governing bodies, the 58 member Executive Board and the 193 member General Conference can be understood as legislative bodies, albeit complicated by the fact that the members of these bodies represent sovereign states, separated by the full spectrum of global cultural diversity.

UNESCO's Secretariat can be understood through the lens of organizational theory, since it is in fact a bureaucratic organization. Thus decisions are taken within the Secretariat by subgroups of the members of the staff, according to formal and informal processes, usually acting with incomplete information and influenced both by the rules set down by the governing bodies and the interests of the individual members of the Organization.

It may seem that UNESCO's program would be likely to present few ethical issues. Who would be opposed to education, science or culture? Indeed, for the vast majority of staff members most of the time will not be faced by any greater ethical issues than were they to be working in a supermarket or a bank.

There are counterexamples. Consider UNESCO's theme of HIV/AIDS education. The Secretariat was instructed by its governing bodies to deal with this issue, including helping member states develop capacities for such education. Since high risk groups for HIV infection include sex workers, homosexuals and young people engaging in sexual activity, educational approaches to high risk groups may be expected to raise ethical issues for some members of the Secretariat, especially when they are working with cultures quite different from their own. Indeed, similar examples could be raised for the science and culture programs.

We have come full circle. For the international civil servant working in the UNESCO Secretariat facing an ethical decision, the entire structure of theory of ethical and personal decision making can be brought to bear.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Wondering about sovereignty

The concept of "Sovereignty" is obviously socially constructed. Apparently it dates from the 14th century, and according to Wikipedia the Treaty of Westphalia codified its "basic principles of territorial integrity, border inviolability, and supremacy of the state (rather than the Church)." According to Joseph Ellis, the Founding Fathers of the United States created the concept of shared sovereignty between a federal government and state governments -- a concept which apparently is being applied in intergovernmental organizations such as the European Union.

In the age of empire, European imperial powers denied that peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas exercised sovereignty over the lands that they occupied.

Today we talk about "fragile states" and "failed states" recognizing that in such states governments exercise little or no sovereign power.

As I understand it, the creation of the United Nations Security Council represented a social construction of sovereignty to be limited when the community of nations decides that a government of a nation is acting in such a way as to threaten international security. A multinational force can be put in place over the objections of a specific government.

The question I have is whether in places such as the Congo, we should decide to limit sovereignty simply on the basis that the government of that country seems unable to secure the welfare of its citizens.