Saturday, April 30, 2011

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

I just finished reading The Crusades Through Arab Eyes by Amin Maalouf. The author is a Lebanese journalist (writing in French but well translated in this English edition) who quotes extensively from Arabs writing in the middle ages as he tells the story of the Crusades from their perspective.

The book starts at the end of the 11th century and ends two hundred years later. The world was a complicated place at the time. Islam had spread from Spain to India, from the steppes of Central Asia well into Africa. Christianity was shared by (or divided among) the Roman Catholics of Western Europe, the Byzantines, as well as by Armenians, Coptic Christians in Egypt and other sects. The book focuses on an area bounded by Byzantium in the north and Egypt in the South, the Mediterranean in the West and what is now Iraq in the east.

One strong impression I got out of the book was the importance of recognizing culture as a collection of memes. Of course, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece and Rome had developed early civilizations in the region, which must have left their traces. Arabs had dominated much of the region in earlier centuries but Turks were increasingly powerful during the time covered by the book, with powerful threats from Mongols late in the period. The Byzantine empire was in decline, but it left a powerful legacy of memes. There were ethnic groups such as the Kurds, Armenians and Syrians that played an important role in the story Maalouf tells. In an epilogue Maalouf mentions some of the many memes that Europe acquired from the region through the returning Crusaders and through contacts with Islam in places such as Spain and Sicily. Each local culture must have been aswarm with competing memes acquired from ancient history and what was at the time modern history, as well as trade, travelers and conquerors. This was indeed a crossroads!

The story of The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is one of very rapid cultural change, with political institutions that provided very little continuity of leadership. Note that the story might be different through Christian, Sunni or Shiite eyes, or through Turkish, Armenian or Kurdish eyes. While the ethnic Arabs would have presumably given great importance to the "Frankish" incursions in the eastern Mediterranean, I assume that Muslims in Persia, the steppes of Central Asia, East Africa, the Subcontinent, the Maghreb, sub-Saharan Africa or Spain might not have been aware of the Crusades.

Another way of looking at the story is of the consolidation of a lot of city states into a larger state dominated by the Mamluks. Many of the cities have famous names (i.e. Antioch, Aleppo, Tyre, Jerusalem) and some have names in today's news (i.e. Damascus, Hama, Homs, Mosul). Alliances among these city states were constantly shifting, often more in response to the local military situation than to ethnicity or religion of those in control of the city. The history is full of Christians allying with Muslims against other Christians and Muslims, of Byzantines allying with Turks, Egyptians with Syrians, etc. The politics within the city states reminded me of Renaissance Italy, marked by assassination (a word derived from that place and time) and wars of succession, as well as by external conquest or the acceptance of foreign rulers as lesser evils. The peasants suffered under all, but perhaps less under Crusader rule than under the rule of even more barbaric tribes). It seems that war became more and more cruel over these centuries, with conquered cities in the latter period suffering the deaths of all the soldiers. slavery of women and children, looting, and destruction of that which could not be moved.

We are in the midst of Arab Spring, and the radical cultural change that resulted in a radical revision of political institutions in the Middle Ages seems to demand comparison. However, radical political upheaval also occurred in 1848 in Europe, in the 18th century in North America, and in Eastern Europe with the fall of Communism two decades ago and in other times and places. While some historical parallels may apply, others surely do not.

The book does help to see the way in which their understanding of the history of the Crusades influences the Islamic peoples and especially those of the region covered in the book. Not only are the Western nations described in terms of memories of the Frankish crusaders, but so are the Israelis. One might also recall that after two centuries of struggle, the Muslims defeated the Crusaders who left never to return; people in the Middle East may have a longer view than most Americans.

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a short, readable book. I found myself reading it like a novel. The profusion of names previously unknown to me made it difficult for me to recall the details, but there are good maps and a good chronology in the back of the book that help. I recommend it.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A thought about the digital divide and power

Joe Nye has recently published Soft Power: The Means To Success In World Politics and The Future of Power. The first deals with the power to persuade and the second deals with the balance between the power to command and the power to persuade.

I wonder whether one might not add a concern for cyber power. There has been a considerable amount of attention directed to the "digital divide", but I suspect that that divide is widely misunderstood. Most of the people who could or would read this blog have access to a personal computer and the Internet. When I started thinking about computers more than 50 years ago, the idea of more than a billion people with access to the information stocks of the World Wide Web, using search engines like Google, via their own personal computers, would have been seen as science fiction of the more fantastic kind. A decade ago, much of the discussion of the digital divide focused on the divide between those who had personal computers and Internet access versus those who did not. Now with the proliferation of cell phones, text messaging, and smart phones billions more have or will soon have access to the Internet; there remains a gap in internet access but it is narrowing; there is more of a remaining gap between those who have access to powerful personal computers and those who do not, but few of us begin to exploit that power.

I focus however on the fact that not only do rich countries have more money to spend per capita on information and communications technology than do poor countries, but they also tend to spend a greater portion of their GDP on that technology. Thus you find the U.S. intelligence community seeking to use computers to capture and screen a huge portion of all the telephone and Internet traffic in the world. The U.S. military apparently is using huge amounts of computer power to monitor battlefields and all the persons on the battlefield to provide all its soldiers with comprehensive information on which to act (including pilots in the continental United States operating drones over battlefields in other nations). Government hackers are presumably able to command huge information and communication technology resources to mount attacks on the cyber structure of enemy nations. Rich countries have ICT resources that can not be afforded or even approximated by poor countries, and that it not only a continuing digital divide but quite possibly an expanding one.

Arab Spring is being described as partially the result of the new social media which enabled disaffiliated youths and educated persons to organize massive demonstrations, and as such as an indication that the new ICT technology is promoting democratic movements. Maybe! But I suspect that the digital divide as described above will help some repressive regimes to deny democratic movements. Control of military ICT applications and massive expenses on intelligence applications may support coercion.

I tend to believe that movement towards knowledge societies will lead to demands for more responsive and beneficial governance. I am not sure that the technology per se will be  helpful, but the change in culture with education and increased expectations may.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Sophal Ear - NPS - April 2011

Sophal Ear, Assistant Professor at the Naval Postgraduate School who was also a TED Fellow, has been a pioneer of bringing non-traditional issues such as disease into the security arena. Here he discusses issues such as the impact of tax policy on political stability, viral sovereignty as a threat to global health security, and the evolving geopolitics of Southeast Asia.

You may think this is funny unless you are my age!

Thank goodness we have a representative democracy with checks and balances

Sophia Rosenfeld had a piece titled "Beware of Republicans bearing ‘common sense’" in yesterday's Washington Post. I quote from it:
Once democracy is established and consolidated, common sense is rarely a match for the messy and complicated business of governing. No matter how many times politicians invoke the term today, there can be no such thing as a single, simple, common-sensical solution to the problems confronting the nation. The mind-boggling complexity of the issues surrounding climate change, economic recovery, multiple wars and, yes, federal and state budget deficits outstrips the authority of common sense either as the basis of workable policies or as a critique of those already on the table.
Rosenfeld looks back on the founding fathers with a lot of mythology. I think there are two big issues:

  • The founding fathers had more than "common sense", and people like Madison, Hamilton and Jay not to mention Robert Morris and Franklin did an amazing job of developing the Constitution that has functioned for a couple of centuries and been a model for many other governments.
  • They got a lot wrong, especially if one looks at the Articles of Confederation. Imagine a government without an executive branch, with no national currency, no power of taxation to pay for the military services fighting a war, etc.
The Constitution set up the House of Representatives as a vehicle for representative democracy (which I don't think existed in class-divided England much less the British Empire of the time), but provided checks and balances of the Senate, the Executive branch and the Judiciary. It also left the development to George Washington, who amply justified the judgment that he could be trusted. Finally, it was brief leaving room for development and correction in the processes for its implementation and it included provisions that allowed amendments.

A special report on democracy in California in the current Economist magazine attributes the decline in that state to reforms seeking more democracy gone wrong. California allows not only recalls and referendums but also initiatives that if passed can not be changed by the legislature. Moreover, the legislature is small (80 members of the Assembly and 40 of the Senate) as compared with the size of the state population, and has short term limits (maximum of 3 terms of 2 years for the Assembly and 2 terms of 4 years for the Senate). There are also a dozen statewide elected offices. According to the Economist, the voters don't understand the ballot propositions on which they are voting, much less the relations among them and the effect of their votes on the choices made by government, nor does the legislative body have the expertise to make good choices even if they had the power to do so. The whole system makes one appreciate more and more the work of the authors of the Constitution and the Federalist Papers.

A basic problem is the incredible ignorance of the public. Look for example at the following table which shows the percent of correct answers on a number of questions of what should be universally understood knowledge (taken from the NSF Science and Engineering Indicators 2004):
 Do you want to leave important decisions on your future to public opinion, or do you hope that they will be made by experts in government, with checks and balances to keep the more stupid results being fixed in stone?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

More on Income Inequality in the United States

I quote from "The United States of Inequality: Trying to understand income inequality, the most profound change in American society in your lifetime" by Timothy Noah, Slate, September 14, 2010.
(I)ncome distribution in the United States is more unequal than in Guyana, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and roughly on par with Uruguay, Argentina, and Ecuador. Income inequality is actually declining in Latin America even as it continues to increase in the United States.......Today, incomes in the U.S. are more unequal than in Germany, France, and the United Kingdom, not less so.
He also addresses the effect of immigration on income inequality:
But when economists look at actual labor markets, most find little evidence that immigration harms the economic interests of native-born Americans, and much evidence that it stimulates the economy. Even the 1980 Mariel boatlift, when Fidel Castro sent 125,000 Cubans to Miami—abruptly expanding the city's labor force by 7 percent—hadvirtually no measurable effect on Miami's wages or unemployment.......
Immigration clearly imposes hardships on the poorest U.S. workers, but its impact on the moderately-skilled middle class—the group whose vanishing job opportunities largely define the Great Divergence—is much smaller. For native-born high-school graduates, Borjas calculated that from 1980 to 2000, immigration drove annual income down 2.1 percent. For native-born workers with "some college," immigration drove annual income down 2.3 percent. Comparable figures for Mexican immigration were 2.2 percent and 2.7 percent. (For all workers, annual income went down 3.7 percent due to all immigration and down 3.4 percent due to Mexican immigration.) To put these numbers in perspective (see Figure 1), the difference between the rate at which the middle fifth of the income distribution grew in after-tax income and the rate at which the top fifth of the income distribution grew during this period was 70 percent. The difference between the middle fifth growth rate and the top 1 percent growth rate was 256 percent.
And on taxes:
(T)ax brackets, including the top one, tell you only the marginal tax rate, i.e., the rate on the last dollar earned. The percentage of total income that you actually pay in taxes is known as the effective tax rate. That calculation looks at income taxed at various rates as you move from one bracket to the next; it figures in taxes on capital gains and pensions; it figures in "imputed taxes" such as corporate and payroll taxes paid by your employer (on the theory that if your boss didn't give this money to Uncle Sam he'd give it to you); and it removes from the total any money the federal government paid you in Social Security, welfare, unemployment benefits, or some other benefit. Reagan lowered top marginal tax rates a lot, but he lowered top effective tax rates much less—and certainly not enough to make income-tax policy a major cause of the Great Divergence.
In 1979, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent (i.e., rich people) was 42.9 percent,according to the Congressional Budget Office. By Reagan's last year in office it was 32.2 percent. From 1989 to 2005 (the last year for which data are available), as income inequality continued to climb, the effective tax rate on the top 0.01 percent largely held steady; in most years it remained in the low 30s, surging to 41 during Clinton's first term but falling back during his second, where it remained...... 
The inequality trend for pre-tax income during this period was much more dramatic. That's why academics concluded that government policy didn't affect U.S. income distribution very much.

 And finally:
Who are the Stinking Rich? Their average annual income is about $7 million. Most of them likely work in finance, a sector of the U.S. economy that saw its share of corporate profitsrise from less than 10 percent in 1979 to more than 40 percent in the aughts. The rest of the Stinking Rich are in good measure likely divided between the corporate and entertainment worlds. Among the latter two, the Rich and especially the Stinking Rich are often beneficiaries of the Winner Take All phenomenon (Kaus calls it the "Hollywood Effect"), in which those deemed best in their field are, thanks to improved technology, able to disseminate praise for their work across a broader geographic area and sell their services to many more people than they ever could in the past.

The series of articles makes the case that it is lobbying paid for by the rich, the very rich and the stinking rich that results in policies and institutions which in turn have led to more rapidly increasing wealth for the top 0.1% percent of income earners. A radical change in our political institutions may be necessary to return to a society that is becoming more rather than less egalitarian.

Income Inequality in the United States

I quote from "INEQUALITY: Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%" by Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz in Vanity Fair:
The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.
Stiglitz goes on to write:
(O)ne big part of the reason we have so much inequality is that the top 1 percent want it that way. The most obvious example involves tax policy. Lowering tax rates on capital gains, which is how the rich receive a large portion of their income, has given the wealthiest Americans close to a free ride.
This is an article that every American should read!


Source: "The case against globaloney: At last, some sense on globalisation," Schumpeter, The Economist, April 20th 2011

I quote:
Only 2% of students are at universities outside their home countries; and only 3% of people live outside their country of birth. Only 7% of rice is traded across borders. Only 7% of directors of S&P 500 companies are foreigners—and, according to a study a few years ago, less than 1% of all American companies have any foreign operations. Exports are equivalent to only 20% of global GDP. Some of the most vital arteries of globalisation are badly clogged: air travel is restricted by bilateral treaties and ocean shipping is dominated by cartels.

Far from “ripping through people’s lives”, as Arundhati Roy, an Indian writer, claims, globalisation is shaped by familiar things, such as distance and cultural ties. Mr Ghemawat argues that two otherwise identical countries will engage in 42% more trade if they share a common language than if they do not, 47% more if both belong to a trading block, 114% more if they have a common currency and 188% more if they have a common colonial past.
I would suggest that figures on the percent of people living outside their own borders or being educated abroad imply regionalization rather than globalization; Europeans go to other European nations if they live abroad, etc.

Of course globalization as a term applies more to international trade in high tech items such as high performance aircraft, high-tech weapons, and modern ships built in high-tech facilities.

Quotation: Madison on information and democratic government

A popular Government, without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.
James Madison 

Throughout the Civilized World, nations are courting the praise of fostering Science and the useful Arts, and are opening their eyes to the principles and the blessings of Representative Government. The American people owe it to themselves, and to the cause of free Government, to prove by their establishments for the advancement and diffusion of Knowledge, that their political Institutions, which are attracting observation from every quarter, and are respected as Models, by the new-born States in our own Hemisphere, are as favorable to the intellectual and moral improvement of Man as they are conformable to his individual & social Rights. 
James Madison

Chinese Proverb: The Three Truths

There are three truths: your truth, my truth and the truth.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Thinking about U.S. Foreign Policy

The people of the United States demand that the U.S. Government act transparently and efficiently to assure policies and institutions that provide themselves with a good life and the prospect of a better life for their children and their grandchildren. The State Department seeks to fulfill this demand in the creation and implementation of U.S. foreign policy.

What is considered a good life in 2011 is quite different than that which would have been so regarded in 1911 or 1811. Of course today it involves an adequate income and economic security and adequate physical safety. It also today involves liberty, education and access to information and knowledge, and other basic human rights.

I would suggest that the vast majority of U.S. citizens would agree that they would not be living a good life were they unwilling to sacrifice some portion of their income to help people in need. So too, a good life would for most Americans require some concern for the quality of their environment. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans would agree that living a good life involves being a good neighbor, and would extend that belief to assuming that the United States should seek to be a good neighbor to other nations.

It seems clear that properly regulated free markets are the best institutional form known today to promote economic growth. Government institutions that adequately respond to the interests and demands of their citizens seem necessary for social as well as economic development. It also seems clear that the American economy benefits from the economic development of other nations and a global trading system. So too does American security benefit from more nations attaining high levels of development and democratic governance. Thus U.S. foreign policy seeks not only to support the U.S. economy and democracy, but to encourage economic and democratic growth in other nations, both out of domestic interest and as a good neighbor to those nations. So too does it seek to promote the betterment of life for those in need worldwide as part of its foreign policy.

Too many Americans seem to assume that the Arab nations or the Latin American nations are similar, one to another simply because they are referred to by collective nouns. As the Arab Spring is demonstrating, Arab nations have different cultures, different histories, and different circumstances that require different U.S. foreign policy responses, as do our different interests in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Libya as well as other nations. So too do the dynamics of the different Arab nations in regional issues such as those presented by the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Iraq, Afghanistan or Iran. So do do the various Latin American countries require U.S. foreign policies tailored to their special circumstances; U.S. foreign policy for Brazil has little to do with U.S. foreign policy for Colombia or Haiti.

It is hard to infer overall U.S. foreign policy from its implementation in one or a few countries because that is not the best way to understand that policy; it is better to analyze that policy from first principals and knowledge of local circumstances. So too, it seems fatuous to assume that the United States should be willing to embark on the same actions in support of democratization of Saudi Arabia as it does in support of democratization of Libya or Iraq, or for that matter China.

All too often foreigners seek to understand U.S. foreign policy from false assumptions as to the objectives of the American public and/or the responsiveness of the U.S. Government to those objectives.

"The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution"

I just read The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern
 Borderland of the American Revolution by Alan Taylor. I recommend the book to those with serious interest in North American history, but it may be too detailed in its treatment of land deals for the casual reader. Taylor, who previously won both the Pulitzer and Bancroft Prizes for his book William Cooper's Town: Power and Persuasion on the Frontier of the 
Early American Republic is an important historian with great knowledge of the history of the region described in these books.

Taylor focuses on the Confederation of the six Iroquois nations, which together numbered about 10,000 people at the time of the American Revolution. His book goes back to the Seven Year War (and its North American element, the French and Indian War) which ended in 1763, but we know that Eurasian diseases were spreading through the Indian populations of North America for hundreds of years before that time. We can assume that the Iroquois population had been considerably larger, peaking at a time before that covered by Taylor’s book. We can also assume that the pre-Columbian Indians had been a powerful “keystone species” dramatically changing the balance of flora and fauna in their environment. When their population was quickly reduced, their impact on the environment must also have been reduced, and that environment must have changed accordingly. Thus the Iroquois that Taylor finds in 1763 may well have been a remnant population living in an environment degraded (in terms of Iroquois livability) from that of the past.

During the French and Indian War, troops from the British American colonies traveled to attack French Canada, using waterways and portages in Iroquois territory. Both sides recruited Indians to their cause, not only as scouts and auxiliaries, but also to attack settlers. Remember, that the colonies were economically and militarily weak, and the supply lines from the metropolitan countries long and expensive. While the Indian warriors were few by today’s standards, so too were the professional troops from Europe and the colonial militias. Moreover, the Indians knew the terrain, were skilled warriors, and fought in a style well suited to the “wilderness”. They were critically important allies.

1763 set the stage. The treaty ending the Seven Year War transferred the Canadian colony from French to English control. The English Royal Proclamation of 1763, recognizing the promises made to Indian allies, reserved lands west of the continental divide of the Allegheny Mountains for the Indians and barred colonial settlement therein. Settlement took place anyway, and the process of dispossessing the Iroquois from their lands began.

The American Revolution again saw the British and the Americans seeking to recruit Indians against the other. Both made promises to the Iroquois. The Iroquois nations divided their loyalty. The Americans, in retaliation against those of the Indians allied with the British, invaded Indian territory – the first example of scorched earth warfare in North America.

The aftermath of the war was ugly. The British refused to give up forts promised to the United States in the peace treaty, as the Americans failed to pay the war debts. The newly created states bickered among themselves for control of the western lands and both bickered with the national government. The states or the United States and the national government both sought to dispossess the Iroquois from their lands at low prices in order to raise revenue for their empty treasuries by land sales at higher prices. Rich and powerful speculators sought to acquire large tracts of land, using both their wealth and their political power to do so. Settlers, who tended to believe they had the right to the land by purchase or divine order, moved in in numbers. In both treaty and land dealings with the Iroquois, people of the United States tended to be devious and to supply huge amounts of alcohol to the Iroquois negotiators and warriors to weaken their bargaining power - a process that created and supported alcoholism. Agreements were often broken by the U.S. parties.

The book also treats the relations between the British governors of its Canada territories and the Iroquois, describing double-dealing, racist, governors with class prejudice generally awaiting orders that took months to arrive from a government in England with little understanding of Canadian reality. Their agreements too were often broken to the detriment of the Iroquois.

Taylor devotes a considerable portion of the book to Joseph Brandt, an Iroquois, and Samuel Kirkland, a white, who together attended a religious school which later became Dartmouth University. Each of these played an important role over decades in relations between the Iroquois and the white communities and political systems. Brandt especially was a man who managed to navigate the two cultures with marked success for much of his life.

The Iroquois culture was very different from that of the British, French or Americans. In political dealings, the perceptions of the various sides were often quite different. So too, in land transactions the perceptions of the various sides as to what was occurring were often quite different (although the Iroquois frequently understood that they were being reamed). Euro-Americans must have been very confused by Iroquois matriarchal society and the different roles of sachem spokespersons and war chiefs; the Iroquois by the patriarchal and class-ridden European society with its ideas of monarchy and sovereignty. There were few intermediaries who could and would interpret each side for the other well, and Taylor shows those interpreters often to be bribed, partial to one interest or the other, or incompetent. Moreover, each side tended to be prejudiced against the other. Euro-Americans tended to see the Indian men as lazy and violent, unwilling to till the soil; Iroquois thought the American settlers did women’s work of growing crops. Each saw the other as unreliable and untrustworthy.

The Iroquois had impressive leaders, who spoke well in public and who made a great impression in Albany, Philadelphia (then the capitol of the United States) and London. The six nations managed to remain linked even when taking different sides in war, and maintained a political culture that valued consensus and reasoned debate. They valued individual liberty, indeed finding the subservience of Euro-Americans difficult to fathom.

Some of our founding fathers come off less well in the story. Washington and Franklin were land speculators, and Robert Morris (the second most important man in the United States) dwarfed their speculations until his financial empire fell apart and he went bankrupt. All of those founding fathers seemed convinced that the Indians east of the Mississippi either had to agree to live like “white men” or get out of the way by moving west if they were not to be exterminated. The best of them made promises in the name of government that their successors would not keep; the worst simply dissimulated or lied.

It is difficult not to judge these people by the standards of our time, even realizing that their culture and beliefs were very different than our own. Still, it is hard to see how a few thousand Iroquois could have withstood the pressure of hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens hungry for a better life and willing to fight for the land that would make that better life possible.

The book told me more about land dealings than I really wanted to know, but the accumulation of detail was probably necessary to convince the reader of the accuracy of the revisionist history. It changed my ideas about the founding of the United States and taught me a lot about the Iroquois.

The tribes in the purple area spoke Iroquoian

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Should people believe what scientists say?

When a scientist reports an observation, other scientists do not simply accept the observation, but seek to replicate it. It is only when an observation has been independently replicated in several different laboratories by several different scientists that it becomes generally accepted. Even then scientists would be very interested to find circumstances in which a widely replicated observation can not be replicated. So the more widely replicated an observation has been the more confidence you can have in its report.

We hear that autism rates are increasing. That is based on the observation of people exhibiting behavioral syndromes. However, it is also dependent on the syndromes being classified as autism. Now people with more groups of symptoms are classified as autistic than in the past. Taxonomy, the science of classification, is a critical part of science and scientists debate in depth about the right classes to use and the right criteria for inclusion of something in a class. In some areas, such as the classification of common plants and animals, taxonomy is well established and you can have great confidence in such classifications. In other areas, such as genetically distinct species that have converged to be physically extremely similar, the classifications can be less credible.

Similarly, scientists give more credence to theories that have survived many different tests. Still, Newtonian physics which had survived huge numbers of tests over centuries was replaced by Einsteinian physics when it proved better to explain the path of light from distant stars passing close to our sun. Newtonian physics may suffice for 99.99.....% of our experience, but a better theory accounts for still more. Some areas of science have very well supported theories and others not so much.

When scientists are speaking of their own area of scientific training, they speak from years of specialized education and research, and are generally pretty credible. On the other hand, in scientific peer review good practice is to seek opinions from several fully qualified scientists with comparable areas of interest to that being reviewed rather than to simply believe the first opinion one gets. Where one gets different opinions, one seeks more reviews.

When scientists are speaking outside their area of expertise, they are no more credible than others of the same intelligence and general education.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

There is an interesting Schumpeter column in The Economist

Source: "Fail often, fail well: Companies have a great deal to learn from failure—provided they manage it successfully"

I quote:
(S)imply “embracing” failure would be as silly as ignoring it. Companies need to learn how to manage it. Amy Edmondson of Harvard Business School argues that the first thing they must do is distinguish between productive and unproductive failures. There is nothing to be gained from tolerating defects on the production line or mistakes in the operating theatre......

Companies must also recognise the virtues of failing small and failing fast. Peter Sims likens this to placing “Little Bets”, in a new book of that title......

Placing small bets is one of several ways that companies can limit the downside of failure. Mr Sims emphasises the importance of testing ideas on consumers using rough-and-ready prototypes: they will be more willing to give honest opinions on something that is clearly an early-stage mock-up than on something that looks like the finished product. Chris Zook, of Bain & Company, a consultancy, urges companies to keep potential failures close to their core business—perhaps by introducing existing products into new markets or new products into familiar markets. Rita Gunther McGrath of Columbia Business School suggests that companies should guard against “confirmation bias” by giving one team member the job of looking for flaws.

But there is no point in failing fast if you fail to learn from your mistakes.
You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a princess!

Essentially, I think the argument is that companies (and others) should take risks that they can afford if and only if the payoff if the bet turns out to win will be large enough to justify the risk. Part of the payoff may be in knowledge gained from the experience. I think I might be more likely to put money in a start up by people who have failed once or twice in previous startups and learned from the experience.

This is also part of the scientific method. Create a hypothesis that you can afford to test. Test it, and if it fails, do it again.

Public finance requirements

Source: The Economst

If you are wondering why S&P is thinking negative thoughts about the U.S. federal debt, note that the U.S. public financing requirements are up there with those of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, all of which are in real financial trouble. Unlike Japan, our debt is not held primarily by our own citizens (and the Japanese save a lot and patriotically support their government).

We need to cut the deficit of the federal government. We should do so by growing the economy, raising tax revenues and cutting government expenditures. Ending the U.S. participation in Iraq and Afghanistan should be part of the solution. We should not cut back more than necessary on the government expenditures that will more than pay for themselves in the growth that they generate. Belt tightening means giving up on things we want but don't need.

Health care is a problem. A key is reducing the growth of health care costs by focusing on preventive services and improved efficiency in the delivery of care. I don't think it matters much if we increase taxes to pay for health care or increase out-of-pocket expenses for patients, as long as we do set up a system in which people who need care can not obtain it.

Social Security also needs to be fixed. I suppose that as people are living longer and are healthier in old age, raising the retirement age makes sense. (I worked until the age of 72,) A more progressive Social Security taxation might also make sense, since I think the wealthy might well help out the poor in their old age.

Should we raise taxes on the richest people in America?

The IRS has released data on the 400 tax returns showing the highest incomes in America from 1992 to 2007. The average income for the 400 in 2007 was just under $345 million! Those 400 returns represented 1.59% of the total income in the 143 million returns filed. Most of their income came from capital gains. Their average tax rate was 16.62% in 2007, down from 26.38% in 1992. They payed less than $23 billion in taxes out of total income of nearly $147 billion (leaving these 400 families with only $124  billion dollars to live on that year).

Is this good for the economy? Essentially these folk are withdrawing money from investments, and we can assume that they are increasing consumption. If the marginal tax rate was higher, and especially the rate on capital gains, then presumably they would leave money in the companies in which they had invested to allow the capital to grow, rather than selling their investments and increasing consumption. Isn't investment better for growth of the economy and jobs than conspicuous consumption?

Republicans keep saying that tax breaks for the rich support economic growth because the rich lead the productive sectors of our economy. They emphasize the rich owners/managers of small and medium enterprises. First, nearly one quarter of the 400 returns showed no salary income at all. Moreover, I want the owners operating small and medium enterprises to keep their investment in their companies, rather than withdrawing them. I want the managers of these companies to have skin in the game rather than selling their shares. A tax code that encourages rich people to sell their shares and pay only low taxes on the income doesn't seem to me to be likely to encourage investment.

If the top 400 only averaged $50 million per year in income instead of $300 million, and the ranking were the same, do you think it would decrease their incentives?

The New World Bank "World Development Report

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How do we grow out of the budget crisis?

The graph shows that the government debt problem started in the Reagan-GHW Bush years and grew again with the stimulus packages required by the recent financial crisis to avert a full depression. It is not now as bad as the debt crisis after World War II, which was resolved by the long term rapid economic growth through the 59s and 60s.

Of course we need some combination of tax increases (and/or reductions in tax expenditures) and reductions in government spending to stop making the hole deeper and to start climbing out of it. I would suggest that some of the tax breaks (such as tax deductions for interest on huge mortgages) should not only be eliminated to raise money but to correct errors in public policy.

However, we need also to grow the economy to get out of this problem and to improve the lives of Americans. Economists universally agree that government needs to assure good policies and good institutions to grow the economy. Economists agree that government should assure access to international markets while avoiding protection of domestic industries against the legitimate challenges of fair competition. The antithesis of good economic policy would be to fail to increase the debt ceiling (or even to threaten to do so) threatening the good faith and credit of the United States Government. More to the point, good institutions such as the rule of law, and good economic policies that reduce the uncertainties faced by investors and business managers are required. Given the drag on our economy of $4 per gallon gasoline prices and the periodic petroleum crises, not to mention the questions of electric power availability and costs, a good energy policy is increasingly seen as required by the economy.

The public sector also must provide public goods. Thus government must assure a good transportation and communications infrastructure, and provide for the common defense. On the other hand, spending huge amounts on unnecessary foreign wars or protection against imaginary or miniscule threats wastes money that could be used productively.

It is increasingly clear that the key to long term economic growth is a high rate of innovation. Government can encourage such a high rate of innovation by:

  • supporting basic research
  • encouraging innovation based on imported technologies in areas of U.S. comparative advantage
  • tax financing of industrial research and development
  • maintaining immigration policies encouraging the immigration of technological innovators and entrepreneurs, including scientists and engineers, and training of foreign graduate students in relevant fields
  • maintaining good intellectual property rights policies, keeping up with changing technology opportunities
  • assuring a strong workforce by good education policies, including both secondary and tertiary education.
Republicans and Democrats agree on the need to reduce government deficits and the importance of growing the economy. I hope to see the Congress and the Obama administration work out a good plan to do both. I suspect that such a plan would best be achieved as a compromise worked out using the best conservative and progressive principles. I fear that people from the extreme wings of the political parties will block such a solution by insisting on their view of the world, views not supported by the informed opinions of economists.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Should we raise taxes on the very rich?

Republicans are currently holding that the taxes on the very rich should be low to enhance economic growth. Lets look at the increase in per capita GDP since World War II.

It seems clear that there are fewer recessions in recent decades, but also that per capita GDP increased more rapidly in the 1960s and 1980s than the did in the last decade. The following table shows the income tax rates on the highest incomes over time:

It surely seems that we made rapid economic progress in the past with much higher tax rates for the very rich than we did recently with low tax rates for the very rich. Indeed, I find the following quote:
(C)ountries with less unequal distribution of income have experienced faster growth than their counterparts with more inequality. This research is mostly done using cross section data on different countries. Although there are problems with the data and some studies have reached contrary results, the preponderance of evidence supports a positive relationship between more equitable distribution of income and wealth and faster growth.
Who are the people in the top income bracket? Wikipedia cites three studies identifying the highest family incomes:

  • Capitalist class (1%) Top-level executives, high-rung politicians, heirs. Ivy League education common.
  • Upper class (1%) Top-level executives, celebrities, heirs; income of $500,000+ common. Ivy league education common.
  • The super-rich (0.9%) Multi-millionaires whose incomes commonly exceed $350,000; includes celebrities and powerful executives/politicians. Ivy League education common.

How much do you think the heirs, high-rung politicians, celebrities (movie stars, pop stars and athletes) contribute to building the economy? Top level executives include the "masters of the universe" on Wall Street, the guys in banks and other financial institutions with their huge bonuses who brought us the recent financial meltdown. How much do they contribute to growth? Eight universities form the Ivy league out of the 4,352 institutions of higher education in the United States. Even adding the handful of other elite universities, how much do you think their graduates contribute to the economic health of the United States compared to the rest of us?

I think some of the excesses that brought us the last financial crisis and recession, the dot com bubble, the Enron debacle, the saving and loan crisis of the 80s and 90s, and the junk bond scandal associated with Michael Milkin and Ivan Boesky, not to mention the Wall Street crash of 1929, were fueled by greed of those who wanted to get very rich very fast. Taxing the huge income of the very rich might help moderate such greed and save the economy from its consequences.

Finally, we are creating a hereditary plutocracy with the huge, untaxed incomes our society is allowing a small minority to obtain and accumulate, and that will not be good for democracy!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why Health Costs are Increasing and How they can be Contained

Health costs are increasing for the United States because our population is aging and older people have more health problems that are more expensive to treat. They are also increasing because we have an increasingly unhealthy way of living, They are also increasing because medical science is advancing, and new diagnostic and curative services are being developed to deal with formerly unmet needs, Finally, as the demand for health services grows more rapidly than the supply, there is inflation of health service costs.

Costs can be contained by providing more cost-effective preventive health services, especially health education to encourage people to live healthier lives. They can be reduced by providing service guidelines to reduce the prescription of services that have little value in improving health (which is why I belong to Kaiser Permanent, which has good procedures to assure that only useful, cost-effective services are provided). They can be somewhat reduced by installing good administrative procedures (such as purchasing and inventory control measures to reduce drug costs, and effective ICT systems to reduce information processing costs).

Price control mechanisms can be useful to reduce run away inflation in medical costs when the demand for services is increased by subsidies faster than services can be expanded. On the other hand, something might be done by delegation of medical functions and increase in the numbers of service providers (overcoming rigidities in professionalization systems).

It is not a good idea to reduce costs by keeping people from affording medical treatment that they need.

It is not a saving to put the costs on individuals or states rather than the U.S. Government!

The Republicans are Wrong to try to cut Planned Parenthood

Planned Parenthood bills the U.S. Government for specific services it delivers to patients that are covered under U.S. Government programs. Since abortion services are not so covered, the Government is not billed for any abortion services provided by Planned Parenthood. Among the services covered are family planning services, sexually transmitted disease services and breast examinations. Planned Parenthood provides services to some 3 million patients per year. These are provided at low cost, and that cost is subsidized by state governments and private donations as well as financed by federal government payments. If the Federal Government stopped paying for Planned Parenthood services, many of its patients would go to hospitals and other facilities that would charge more to the Government for the same services. Others would not receive the early outpatient services; the result would be more unwanted pregnancies, more abortions, and more health expenditures.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Development Assistance as % of GDP

The United States is no longer dead last in the percentage of GDP devoted to economic aid. Of course, the American public assumes that the nation is far more generous that it is in fact, another example of the myth of "American exceptionalism".

The growth of the U.S. aid budget is of course welcome, but I fear that the trend will be reversed in the current budget climate.

Cancer in the Developing World

The graph illustrates the huge problem we face in providing medical care to deal with cancer (and other diseases of development) in low income countries. How do we reconcile human rights with practical affordability?

"The World’s Technological Capacity to Store, Communicate, and Compute Information"

Citation: Martin Hilbert1 and Priscila López, Science 1 April 2011: Vol. 332 no. 6025 pp. 60-65

We estimated the world’s technological capacity to store, communicate, and compute information, tracking 60 analog and digital technologies during the period from 1986 to 2007. In 2007, humankind was able to store 2.9 × 10 to the 20th optimally compressed bytes, communicate almost 2 × 10 to the 21st bytes, and carry out 6.4 × 10 to the 18th instructions per second on general-purpose computers. General-purpose computing capacity grew at an annual rate of 58%. The world’s capacity for bidirectional telecommunication grew at 28% per year, closely followed by the increase in globally stored information (23%). Humankind’s capacity for unidirectional information diffusion through broadcasting channels has experienced comparatively modest annual growth (6%). Telecommunication has been dominated by digital technologies since 1990 (99.9% in digital format in 2007), and the majority of our technological memory has been in digital format since the early 2000s (94% digital in 2007).

I think that perhaps the most interesting aspect of this is not the huge expansion of the technological capacity to deal with information, but the radical change in the techniques involved.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Rise and Fall of Comancheria

I just read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen. It is one of those books that changed my view of history.

It tells the story of the rise and fall of Comancheria from the time of the Pueblo Revolt (1680) to the scorched earth policy of the U.S. Army in the 1870s. I would quarrel with the author's use of the term "Empire", which indeed seems in conflict with a fundamental postulate of the book -- that one has to understand Comanche culture in its own terms and not those of Euro-Americans. The Comanches did not have an emperor nor an imperial bureaucracy. They did not seek to mark out and hold land in the same way that European empires did.

The Comanches enter history as an offshoot of the Shoshones migrating into Ute territory, a people whose language was similar to that of the Shoshone. The Utes accepted the small tribe making them allies. The arrived after the Pueblo revolt which temporarily forced the Spanish out of what is now the state of New Mexico, and left large herds of horses available to the Comanches.

Adoption of the horse was the first of many innovations described in the "technology" of Comancheria. Others included metallic tools (e.g. arrowheads, lance tips, knives, pots, and firearmes. The Comanches used this technology to vastly increase their effectiveness as buffalo hunters, to increase their mobility, and to become among the most effective cavalry in North America,

They developed trading networks which extended over thousands of miles. In addition to metal products, they also traded for plant foods, cloth and clothing. In return they provided buffalo hides, meat, furs and later horses and mules as well as captives (for ransom.)

The Comanches also developed a system of raiding by which they obtained horses and mules for their own use and for trade to northern and eastern markets, and captives (most often women and children) to be incorporated into their own society as laborers and/or members, as well as to be exchanged with Euro-Americans (who sometimes forced the ransomed people into involuntary servitude or peonage). They also developed systems of tributary payments from Spanish, Mexicans, Texans, and eventually Americans.

Hamalainen suggests that the Comanches conceived of people in categories: those with familial ties, the larger Comanche polity, those with virtual family ties (often established by treaties) and others. Within the family. materials were freely given from those who had to those in need. Within "virtual families" there was reciprocal gift giving (rather than commercial transactions). Others could be raided and their goods simply taken.

The Comanches fought wars with the Euro-Americans, mestizos, and indians on the borders of their lands, although at time went on they successfully negotiated lasting peace with many of the bordering peoples.

While Comancheria did not have formal borders in the sense of Euro-Americans, at the peak of Comanche power they had a hunting, pastoral and trading economy dominating portions of six U.S. states, and raided many hundreds of miles into Mexico. Their population had soared from a few thousand to some 40,000. (I would note that in part this was due in part to the success in providing a good nutritional diet due to their "economic" success and to the practice of polygamy.

The population was spread over a very large land area, and the people lived in relatively small rancherias which moved frequently. This habit of life may have helped postpone the impact of Eurasian disease epidemics which apparently did not decimate the Comanches until late in the 18th and through the 19th centuries.

The decline of Comancheria was due to a combination of factors. After the little ice age, around 1850, there were droughts which reduced the grazing on the southern plains for buffalo, horses, and mules reducing the supply of meat and animals for trade and bringing economic hardship and hunger to the Comanche. The removal of Indian tribes from east of the Mississippi to the western Indian territories brought new pressures to bear on Comancheria. Buffalo hunters decimated the buffalo herds upon which the Comanche hunting and drought had already begun to thin. Finally, after the Civil War, the United States brought its full might against the Comanches, with troops under Sheridan and Sherman using the scorched earth policies that they had perfected in the Shenandaoh Valley, Georgia and South Carolina.

The end of the Comancheria was marked by a few thousand survivors moving (or being moved) into a reservation in Oklahoma, dependent on handouts from a corrupt government bureaucracy until they mastered a new way of life. Fortunately (although not covered in this book) the Comanche nation has been resilient, with its people recovered in number, its pride restored, and its prosperity on the increase.

One problem for the historian of an Indian tribe is that all the written records are from Euro-Americans. This book is I think good history (it won the Bancroft Prize for American History in 2009). However, I would have liked to see the history from the point of view of Comanches themselves, as well as from the Osages, Kiowas and other Native peoples with whom they interacted.

Indeed, will seek to learn more about North American peoples with unique histories such as the Apaches, the Iriquois, the Lacota, the Navajo and the Pueblo.

One of the revisionist assertions of this book, which seems quite reasonable to me as a non-historian, is that the outcome of the conflict between Mexico and the United States over the Southwest was significantly determined by the Comanche (and the Apache). Centuries of raiding by these tribes in Northern Mexico kept them from being developed and more fully integrated into the society centered around Mexico City. Indeed by the time of the Mexican-American War, much of the northern area in dispute was a devastated wasteland and states of Northern Mexico were in revolt against the central government which was not protecting them from the Indians. Thus the forces of the United States had a much easier conquest than they might otherwise have faced, and the central government was more willing to relinquish its northern lands than it might otherwise have been.

This book makes some things very clear. One was that the Euro-Americans and Comanches generally misunderstood each other for centuries because neither fully understood the cultural context of the other. The Comanches must have found it hard to understand subservient people giving allegiance to a king located so far away that he was never seen, and the role of a hereditary aristocracy. So too, the Spanish must have found it difficult to understand a people whose society was so meritocratic, who believed in gift giving rather than commerce, and who were so totally devoted to individual liberty for the members of society (within the society's cultural norms).

Comanche culture changed radically over the centuries of the Comancheria. Those who would freeze a culture at a moment of time should recognize that Comanche success in the 18th and early 19th century (as well as in the 20th century) was due to radical cultural innovations that the Comanches were able to adopt and integrate into a continuously changing cultural system.

For pre-literate societies, we tend to depend on archaeological records, ascribing high levels of cultural achievement only to those cultures that leave impressive ruins such as the Aztecs and Incas. The Comanches in their 18th and 19th century heyday were a nomadic hunting, pastoral and raiding people who left no record in stone buildings. Hamalainen shows that they had a complex civilization, flexible in its political, economic and social dealings with a wide variety of bordering peoples, which provided a good life for its members.

Friday, April 08, 2011

On the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

There were an estimated 3.25 million to 4 million soldiers enlisted in the service of the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, with some 620,000 deaths among them from wounds in battle or disease.

It has been estimated that the Civil War had an economic cost of $7 billion 1860 dollars, including a direct cost to the Union government of $2 billion.

The District of Columbia freed slaves in 1862, "reimbursing the "owners" for the value of their "property" and giving the newly freed persons the choice of staying in the United States or being emigrating to Africa.

Lincoln considered paying $400 per slave freed. For the estimated 4 million slaves, that would have been $1.6 billion. Cheap at twice the price!

Richard Feynman Talks Science

Of course, Feynman assumes the calculations predicting the outcome of the hypothesis are done correctly. Given how good he was, that was probably much more true of his calculations than it would be for mine!

Still the fundamental that one should extrapolate from one's hypotheses and test the extrapolations seems like a good rule for analysis in one's life as well as in science.

I remember the last time the government shut down

Remember when Newt Gingrich led the Republicans in winning control of the House of Representatives in 1994, and he and his Republican colleagues refused to compromise on the budget in 1995 leading to a shut down of the government in December of that year. That shut down, like the one the Tea Party Republicans are threatening this year, cost the tax payers money while denying them services.

This year the threat is especially hard on Washington which is expecting crowds for the Cherry Blossom Festival this weekend, Not only will the museums and other public government buildings be shut down, but the Metro will suffer; even the garbage collector in this federal city may be affected.

I took the opportunity to retire a couple of years later when the budget for foreign aid was cut from its already pitifully low levels and buy-outs were offered to encourage early retirement. In part, I did so because the Gingrich revolution soured me on government service in an environment of anti-government sentiment.

John Boehner and his Republican colleagues in the House may do real harm again today and in the near future!

Thursday, April 07, 2011

First patient to get stem cell therapy comes forward

The Washington Post reports today that
In the six months since scientists announced they had infused a drug made from human embryonic stem cells into a partially paralyzed patient’s spine, the identity of the recipient has been shrouded in secrecy......

After undergoing emergency treatment......(the patient) agreed to let doctors inject him with.....more than 2 million cells made from stem cells into his spine.......

The trial is primarily assessing safety, but doctors are also testing whether the cells restore sensation and movement.......

"We’re just in the early stages right now. It’s not at the stage to really know what’s going on,”
The repair of spinal injury through the use of stem cells is one of the dreams of medical research. This study is a very preliminary one, but it is a ray of hope for a lot of people.

This is the kind of research that the Bush administration blocked!

Blame the Republicans if the Congress shuts down the government

John Boehner, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, put forward a plan for $32 billion in cuts, and the Democrats accepted $33 billion. However, Boehner now says that the Republicans will not accept $33 billion in cuts, and will not accept any budget that does not include a number of provisos that current law in areas such as health care, environment and energy.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

A thought about the cause of the Civil War

The Civil War seems to have become inevitable when South Carolina seceded from the Union. We know that the Confederacy lost the Civil War, with the immediate emancipation of the slaves, the loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers lives, the destruction of its economy, and large areas razed by Union armies.

Had the southern states not seceded, slavery might have lasted a few more decades and been phased out gradually with much less damage to the southern economy. The markets for southern exports would not have been lost, and the south might well have been economically and socially much more successful in the later part of the century.

Not all southerners were blind to the probabilities. I quote from Senator Sam Houston:
"Let me tell you what is coming. After the sacrifice of countless millions of treasure and hundreds of thousands of lives, you may win Southern independence if God be not against you, but I doubt it. I tell you that, while I believe with you in the doctrine of states rights, the North is determined to preserve this Union. They are not a fiery, impulsive people as you are, for they live in colder climates. But when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche; and what I fear is, they will overwhelm the South."
Indeed, a number of slave states did not join the Confederacy, and the people of West Virginia seceded from Virginia rather than join it in rebellion.

So why did South Carolina secede and why did other southern states follow in its folly? Why was is that enough others did not share the correct perception of Sam Houston to prevent secession? It had to be a dramatic failure of decision making in the political system and the social system of the states that formed the confederacy.

Incidentally, Houston was a member of Congress from Tennessee and Governor of that state, a Senator from Texas and Governor of that State (the only man to serve as governor of two different states), a citizen of the Cherokee nation, and the President of the Republic of Texas. Probably pretty smart!