Friday, December 30, 2011

A Thought About Richard III

I just watched Olivier's Richard III. I was impressed by the layers of the play.

At one level, the play is driven by the propaganda of the day that the House of Plantagenet destroyed itself, and that Queen Elizabeth's grandfather, Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings had saved the nation.

I suppose at another level the play, which is actually the fourth in a set of history plays, is the culmination of the tragedy of the House of York, as the misdeeds of the members of the House lead to the most evil member of that family who kills the last remaining members before his misdeeds lead to a revolt which ends his own life.

In the play as Shakespeare wrote it (but not as Olivier and the movies rewrote it) there is apparently a Cassandra like character who curses each of the doomed characters, explaining what that character has done to merit the curse and destruction, and the curses of course come true. This would add another layer to the play of preordination, in the sense that evil deeds lead to one's destruction as well as that the curses are working themselves out.

Shakespeare must be considered, as a man of his time, to believe in the divine right of kings, so that Edward IV, Richard III and Henry II must have had that right. In some sense the story must be seen as one of fate unfolding as was preordained.

Yet the play at another level is that of Richard, Duke of Gloucester manipulating his way to the throne and then, by his evil nature, continuing in manipulations that drive away his supporters, disgust the public (and the audience), lead to rebellion, and eventually to his defeat and death. Shakespeare succeeds in making this a tragedy in the sense that the audience is brought to identify with Richard, approving as he brings down those whose evil deeds were exposed in previous plays and rises to the throne, only to be undone by the flaws in his own character. It is the murder of the princes, sons of Edward IV, in the Tower of London that marks the second part of the play, since they did not themselves commit sins meriting their deaths.

I suppose the play can also be seen as a lesson in Machiavellian statecraft, in which the prince does what is necessary to secure the throne, but then fails to assume the beneficence of the successful ruler and thus loses his throne and his life.

Finally, of course, the work is hugely successful as a work of theater, its language, structure and characters grabbing and interesting audiences for four centuries.

I suppose that one sees today the similarity with Gaddafi and other would be kings who are getting their comeuppance today, or Hitler and Mussolini in my youth. I suppose Shakespeare's English contemporaries saw parallels in their own time.

That surely must be one aspect of Shakespeare's genius, creating works that could be read at so many different levels, relevant to so many different times and places.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Knowlede in the progressive movement?

I have been reading The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter. In the second section of the book, dealing with the Progressive era leading up to the First World War, among other topics, Hofstadter focuses on the changes which led Protestant ministers, college faculty and lawyers to become progressives.

After the Civil War, the United States economy changed, most notably through the development of large corporations in manufacturing, transportation and energy. Hofstadter also cites the rise of universities, both empowering a new class of social scientists as public intellectuals and radically transforming the education of lawyers. The results included a reduction of the power of the ministry, (a reduction of the authority given to mugwumps, the business leaders in small communities and owners of small businesses), and a change in the legal profession which resulted in a few lawyers becoming more affluent than their predecessors while many lost status as compared with earlier lawyers. Hofstadter traces the progressive politics of large numbers of these professionals to the change in their social and economic status.

I find the idea that "where you stand depends on where you sit" to be quite persuasive. On the other hand, I tend to give more weight to the abuses of the plutocracy and the anger that those abuses engendered in the rest of the population than does Hofstadter. I also wonder whether there was not an important difference in the knowledge system, including better education of these professionals, better systems for the dissemination of knowledge, and a stronger class of people investigating what was happening and disseminating the information that they found.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Peace on Earth and Good Will to Men!

Thomas L. Friedman and Michael Mandelbaum, authors of That Used to Be Us: How America Fell Behind in the World It Invented and How We Can Come Back, believe that the United States has overall been a positive force in world affairs. I would agree, although perhaps not as uniformly so as many Americans would believe not without factions within the United States opposing our best efforts.

The United States has generally sought to promote peace, has stood as a symbol of democracy and sometimes acted to promote self determination, and has promoted human rights. One looks back Wilson's efforts to promote self determination of peoples and a League of Nations to deter future wars, to Roosevelt's leadership against fascism in World War II, Truman led efforts to rebuild our allies and even our enemies economies after that War, the U.S. support for decolonization and the emergence of new nations, Kennedy's leadership of the nation in support of development of poor nations, and Carter's bringing human rights into U.S. foreign policy.

Friedman and Mandelbaum also recognize that U.S. influence has depended on the strength of the U.S. economy, and that that economic strength is now threatened and with it positive aspects of the world order that the United States has supported.

The Economy

I have read that people sometimes confuse "comparative advantage" with "competitive advantage". The first is a theory that the difference in relative costs of production of different tradables in different countries leads to situations in which countries can profit by producing those goods in which they have a comparative advantage and trading them for goods in which another country has comparative advantage.

Competitive advantage comes from producing goods or services either that other countries can not produce or can not produce competitively, creating jobs and profits by exporting those products.

In an increasingly globalized world, a world in which the transaction costs of international trade are small relative to the costs of production, there will be more opportunities for trade based on comparative advantages. The United States economy will, in all probability, be increasingly integrated into international markets.

Friedman and Mandelbaum, correctly I believe, emphasize that the United States must invest in education, technology and infrastructure in order to rebuild and expand its competitiveness. Unfortunately we are consuming too much and investing too little, and in fact wasting resources.

Our educational system discriminates against a vast underclass, and too often provides education as a consumer service rather than as an investment in our economic future (or indeed as a preparation for effective social and political participation). We are not only not investing enough in new infrastructure, but we are allowing our existing infrastructure of roads, railroads, ports, energy, water, sewerage, and communications and information to decay unrepaired. We have not invested enough to maintain the global lead we once held in invention and technological improvement.

Our federal government has been run for decades by Republicans (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) who found that spending more than they taxed was a recepe for political success. As individuals we have bought houses we could not afford by the millions, and run up credit card debt in order to buy stuff we neither needed nor could afford. We have as a nation gone into debt to foreign nations by running trade deficits for decades, in order to consume more than we produce.

The fault is in part that of our political leaders, but far more in ourselves. We eat our seed corn in order to get fatter! We are too often greedy rather than wise. We live in a democracy, yet we don't throw out the politicians who vote for bad economic policies, and indeed we allow changes in our political system that empower the greedy and unwise.

The Environment

Friedman and Mandelbaum correctly feel that the risks to the world from climate change and prudence require immediate efforts to reduce the global production of greenhouse gases. While there has been considerable progress in the United States in cleaning up water and air, on a global scale there continue to be threats to health from polluted water and air. There are also threats from deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, pollution, loss of coral reefs and fisheries, etc.

Environmental degradation, including global warming and consequent sea level rises and loss of fresh water resources, represent a threat not only to the U.S. economy and the welfare of Americans but to all the world's people and the world order.

What do we do?

I think we need a cultural change. Friedman and Mandelbaum focus on the need for political movements, perhaps a third party that would help bring the parties back to the demands of a "radical center". I suspect that the Tea Party movement and the Occupy movement are steps in the right direction, demanding change.

I would think that we also need leadership from public intellectuals and from the media to promote the kinds of cultural changes that we need. Friedman and Mandelbaum note a failure of ethics; the willingness of our ancestors to save and sacrifice for the future seems to have eroded.

Perhaps that is in part due to the fact that we have allowed our society to lose its support for social mobility. Ours is no longer a society in which almost everyone feels that their children can do better than they do themselves if they and their children only work and invest in themselves. Many of us seem to think that if we only allow the rich to get richer faster, they will save us all by the wealth trickling down. (That does not work!)

Reporters, teachers, bloggers, anyone who can reach the public should be promoting a better society with more opportunity for all in the pursuit of happiness, more willingness to save and invest in ourselves, more willingness to help our neighbors, and less willingness to tolerate the greed and self-serving behavior of our self-appointed leaders.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Blackfoot: I'taamomahkatoyiiksistsikomi!

Cherokee: Uwotlvdi Danisdoyohihv, Alihelisdi Itse Sudetiyvda!

French: Joyeux Noël et Bonne Année!

Navajo: Ya'at'eeh Keshmish!

Portuguese: Feliz Natal e Próspero Ano Novo!

Spanish: Feliz Navidad y Próspero Año Nuevo

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Epistemology a la Franklin

"in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes"
Benjamin Franklin

Philosophers use words such as "truth", "belief" and "knowledge" in a restricted sense and formal way. Most of us use these words much less formally. We can say "I believe you will like this" or "I think you will like this" or even "I know you will like this" interchangeably when we might more accurately state "I hope that you may like this". On the other hand, we sometimes restrict these words to specific domains, so that we talk about "religious beliefs" and "technological knowledge". I fear that people are misled about the accuracy and precision of their ideas by the way they use these words.

I tend to assume that. in formal terms, all knowledge claims have implicit aspects of the credence with which they are held or the credibility with which they are transmitted. One might say "I am 90 percent sure" or "I am pretty sure". I suspect that few of those claims are to be accepted as quantitative. (An exception might be a statement such as "in a survey, 90 percent of respondents reported that they knew that the earth revolved around the sun?.)

Maybe because I am old and forgetful, I realize that some of the things that I think to be true are not true. Ask my wife if she can depend on my actually having done things around the house that I think I have done. And of course when you are depending on reports from others, they not only may have misremembered but may be communicating poorly or falsely,

A scientific study might report that a value is between a and b, with 95 percent confidence. What that really means is that "on the basis of our experiment we would only expect a value outside of the range from a to b once in 20 times, but of course there may be an unrecognized error in our experimental apparatus or procedure."
"The art of concluding from experience and observation consists in evaluating probabilities, in estimating if they are high or numerous enough to constitute proof. This type of calculation is more complicated and more difficult than one might think. It demands a great sagacity generally above the power of common people. The success of charlatans, sorcerors, and alchemists — and all those who abuse public credulity — is founded on errors in this type of calculation."
Benjamin Franklin and Antoine Lavoisier
It seems that betting might give us hints as to how to quantify confidence in our beliefs or knowledge. For example, one might ask what odds one would have to have to bet on being right. That is a model which has only limited areas of applicability.
  • For example, I think that there is probably other life in the universe. However, any bet on that postulate would be completely theoretical since there would be no way in my lifetime to demonstrate it to be false.
  • There is pretty good evidence from the way punters bet on horse racing that people make systematic errors in betting, too often overestimating the probability of longshots winning and underestimating the probability of favorites winning. On the other hand, people are pretty good at ranking alternatives on the probability that they will turn out to be right. Incidentally, the willingness to bet on being right is not only a matter of the odds one gets, but also the amount one stands to lose. I might bet two dollars on a horse at a given set of odds, but not 1000 dollars.
I wonder why it seems that people are much more ready to use violence in defense of beliefs which are based on faith and not evidence than they are in defense of hypotheses based on both theories that have met the test of many tests and professional review as well as a controlled observations.

I love the comment made by Benjamin Franklin on the last day of the constitutional convention:
I confess that there are several parts of this constitution which I do not at present approve, but I am not sure I shall never approve them: For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better information, or fuller consideration, to change opinions even on important subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow, the more apt I am to doubt my own judgment, and to pay more respect to the judgment of others. Most men indeed as well as most sects in Religion, think themselves in possession of all truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far error. Steele a Protestant in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the only difference between our Churches in their opinions of the certainty of their doctrines is, the Church of Rome is infallible and the Church of England is never in the wrong. But though many private persons think almost as highly of their own infallibility as of that of their sect, few express it so naturally as a certain french lady, who in a dispute with her sister, said "I don't know how it happens, Sister but I meet with no body but myself, that's always in the right — Il n'y a que moi qui a toujours raison."

More on flu research and its dissemination

The H5N1 flu virus has been seen in epidemics in birds in Asia, with about 600 human cases in people coming into close contact with birds; half the people who came down with the disease died, but there has been limited if any transmission from person to person.

It is reported that researchers have made changes to the virus that allow it to be transmitted through the air from ferret to ferret, animals that are a usually reliable model for human to human transmission. It is also reported that
the US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) has asked Science and Nature to publish only limited information about the methodology and findings of new research regarding transmission of the H5N1 influenza virus.
Understanding of changes in the virus that allow such human to human transmission should be available to public health officials so that they can see if the bird flu is becoming more of a threat to people. On the other hand, one would not want those who might make bio-weapons based on the H5N1 flu virus to easily learn how the virus might be mutated for their purposes.

I think the normal means for restricting the publication of results of research done in the United States is simply to classify it, as the results of the research leading to the atomic and hydrogen bombs was classified. Information relevant to biological weapons could be so classified, but this research was done in Europe. Of course, classified information can be and often is shared with people "with need to know".

Source of map

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The World of R&D in 2010

World of R&D in 2010. Size of circle reflects the relative amount of annual R&D spending by the country noted. Source: R&D Magazine via Science.

Alice Huang showed this graph during her address on assuming the presidency of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She did so in a discussion of the need to build scientific bridges with the rest of the world.

Let me use the same figure to underline the need to be more inclusive in our recruitment of people into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The size of each circle in the graph reflects the total amount of R&D funding in each country. China and India have large circles (which are getting larger fast) because they have huge populations. Japan shows up as spending more per capita on R&D and having more R&D personnel per capita than does the United States. We have been competing by importing R&D personnel from abroad, and increasingly be recruiting women as well as men, but we need also to recruit minorities. There could be a lot more American inventors and innovators if we were more effective (and more ethical) in recruiting blacks and Hispanics into these fields.

China's indigenous innovation effort

According to Science magazine, the effort
aims to jump-start the country's transition from a manufacturing- to a knowledge-based economy by promoting domestic ownership of intellectual property rights for key technologies. Among the campaign's targets are integrated circuits, high-performance processors, large airplanes, high-speed rail technology, and supercomputers.
China clearly seeks to climb the high technology ladder and become not just competitive on the basis of low cost labor (and willingness to accept negative externalities that other nations would reject) but also innovation capacity based on smart, highly trained people in high quality labs and companies.

Good news on Malaria

I quote from Science magazine:
 Outside Africa, Plasmodium vivax is the dominant species of malaria parasite causing between 20 and 50% of the annual ∼515 million malaria cases globally. P. vivax differs from the deadly P. falciparum in that it develops “sleeping stages,” called hypnozoites, in the liver that can give rise to reappearances of parasites in the blood, months or even years after an infected mosquito has made the inoculating bite. The chronic, long-lasting nature of P. vivax infections has a substantial impact on an infected individual's health and economic well-being. Meister et al. (p. 1372, published online 17 November; see the cover) describe a systematic approach using an automated microscopy assay for identifying antimalarial drugs capable of killing liver-stage parasites. A series of orally available imidazolopiperazine compounds were able to prevent malaria parasites from developing within liver cells with a single 15-milligrams-per-kilogram oral dose.
Vivax malaria has been the most difficult to stamp out because the eradication programs can assume success and be dismantled while the hypnozoites slumber in the cells of some infected individuals. When they reappear, they not only sicken the person carrying them, but can be a source of infections for others restarting epidemics. If there will be an effective means of preventing this hibernation, it should be possible to eradicate Plasmodium vivax.  Of course it is a long way from a scientific result to a successful public health campaign.

Comments on Three Articles by Michael Mandel

Michael Mandel is the chief economic strategist at the Progressive Policy Institut.

"There Are Only 2 Ways to Save the Economy: Innovation or Inflation"
 It all comes down to this: We have to match growth to debt. If we can't create miracles from growth, we have to consider inflation to reduce the value of our debt
Of course, there are combined strategies. If for example, we could combine a growth rate of three percent per year, achieved through innovation and investment, with three percent per year inflation, the nominal value of the GDP would be doubled in 12 years. If that could be accomplished with no growth in the nominal value of the debt, the debt to GDP ratio would be cut in half to an acceptable level.

I lived in Chile at a time when its inflation was running above 20 percent per year. That level of inflation is very destructive. One aspect is that it becomes difficult if not impossible to find investments that yield enough to beat the inflation. Money goes abroad, people consume more, or they hoard.

It turns out to be hard to measure inflation. Different goods and services go up in price at different rates (especially as governments intervene to impose price controls on things absolutely required by the poor). So the inflation rate is an average of actual rates. Since it is not possible to measure the rates of inflation of everything, governments use "market baskets" of goods and services. In Chile, there were adjustments in pensions, salaries and other values in accord with the measured rates of inflation. Thus the adjustments depend on the choice of the market basket used. At our time there, newspapers would have articles on the composition of the market basket and average people would discuss that economic minutia in some detail.

"Scale and Innovation in Today’s Economy"
(T)he link between scale and innovation, positive or negative, depends on the economic environment. In this policy memo, we will suggest that the current U.S. economy is dealing with a particular set of conditions that will make scale a positive influence on innovation. First, economic and job growth today are increasingly driven by large-scale innovation ecosystems, such as the ones surrounding the iPhone, Android, and the introduction of 4G mobile networks. These ecosystems require management by a core company or companies with the resources and scale to provide leadership and technological direction. This task typically cannot be handled by a small company or startup.

Second, globalization puts more of a premium on size than ever before. A company that looks large in the context of the domestic economy may be relatively small in the context of the global economy. In order to capture the fruits of innovation, U.S. companies have to have the resources to stand against foreign competition, much of which may be state supported.

Finally, the U.S. faces a set of enormous challenges in reforming large-scale integrated systems such as health, energy, and education. Conventional venture-backed startups don’t have the resources to tackle these mammoth problems. Only large firms have the staying power and the scale to potentially implement systemic innovations in these industries.
 There is a difference between innovation and invention. Companies can innovate by inventing a new product or process and then commercializing it, but they can also obtain the rights to a new product or process from outside the firm and then commercialize it.

Indeed, large companies almost always combine both strategies. They have internal research and development programs, but they adopt new things from outside as well. Big firms buy small firms for their technology or their technological expertise all the time. Indeed, the American economy seems to work well by having a vibrant sector of small firms based on invention and large firms based on commercialization of innovations. Firms also license technology from other firms and steal innovations. Think about generic pharmaceutical firms that begin to manufacture new drugs as soon as they come out of the patent protection afforded to their inventors.

"Innovation by Acquisition: New Dynamics of High-tech Competition" (with Diana G. Carew)
Right now policymakers are grappling with the implications of slow economic growth in the United States and the rest of the industrialized world. One response is austerity—cutting back on spending, accepting reduced living standards, and slowly digging out from the mess.

A better option, though, is innovation, which accelerates growth, creates new jobs, and makes U.S. products and services more competitive world-wide.  Innovation has the potential for raising incomes, an especially important task given that real median household incomes have fallen more than 10 percent since the beginning of the recession.
While innovation can come from any industry, the technology sector is particularly important, as it has been the main source of growth and innovation in the economy for the past 35 years.
This article points out that while there is little that government can do to stimulate invention in the short run, it can stimulate innovation by doing things such as revising anti-trust policy to allow firms to more easily acquire technology by acquisitions.

The authors would no doubt be the first to insist that since governments can really only promote invention by long term policies, they should begin those long term policies promoting technological education and fundamental research and development as soon as possible.

So too, the authors would probably agree that while the technology sector is especially important, we should not neglect innovation in other industries.

I would add to the prescription, seeking technology transfer from abroad. That is a major route for innovations in developing nations, including by creating co-ventures with firms owning the intellectual property rights. I suspect U.S. corporations have done too little scanning of foreign technologies and aquisition of technologies from abroad, and the government could indeed help in that scanning and in promoting approaches to acquisitions.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Thougts about thinking on reading The Economist

I quote from The Economist:
Every week seems to yield a new discovery about how bad people are at making decisions. Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free. 

The sudden ubiquity of this research has rendered Homo economicus a straw man.
I have used the phrase that "we think with our brains, not our minds" repeatedly in this blog, but it of course is wrong. We think with our genes and our bodies as well as our brains. Increasingly there is information that suggests genetic bases to the ways in which thinking goes.

If you have ever had a high fever and experienced "fever dreams" you know that you think differently, your brain operates differently if its temperature is not controlled within very tight limits. If you are really hungry or really thirsty, you think about food or water a lot. If the nerves communicating from the rest of your body to the brain demand attention, they tend to get it.

I guess the point is that we may be conscious, but we are not conscious of all that we think, much less the causes of what we think. We often rationalize what our brains have produced rather than think rationally.

It is also clear that the way we think is the cumulative response of the body's and especially the brain's history. People who have had major injuries to their brains obviously think differently after than before those injuries. Kids who are deprived of food, or whose bodies make demands on nutrients due to illness, or who are deprived of needed stimulation have their brains develop in ways that we think of as deprived. On the other hand, kids who are exposed to lots of music over their entire formative period actually have brains more attuned to music than their less musical peers.

And of course, schooling influences the way we think, as does exposure to media and self education. The Flynn effect is that there is, in many parts of the world, an increase in whatever it is that IQ tests test for over the last century. Intelligence and the way people think is malleable.

Sociologists also help us to understand that the societies (and local strata of those societies) in which we have been brought up and in which we live influence the way we behave, the way we think, who we are. Thus, these factors influence not only the way one talks, but what one talks about. We know that poverty is a predictor of criminality, and that there are differences among cultures in the average reported happiness of their members.

Another article in The Economist indicates that some rather complex appearing human behavior is eerily predictable:
From big events such as the London Olympics to the design of new railway stations, engineering firms now routinely simulate the movement of people to try to spot areas where crowding is likely to occur.

A typical project involves using off-the-shelf software programs to identify potential bottlenecks in a particular environment, such as a stadium or a Tube station. These models specify the entry and exit points at a location and then use “routing algorithms” that send people to their destinations. Even a one-off event like the Olympics has plenty of data on pedestrian movement to draw on, from past games to other set-piece gatherings such as, say, city-centre carnivals, which enable some basic assumptions about how people will flow.

Once potential points of congestion are identified, more sophisticated models can then be used to go down to a finer level of detail. This second stage allows planners to change architectural designs for new locations and identify when to intervene in existing ones. “There should be many fewer crowd disasters given what we now know and can simulate,” says Mr Helbing.

The Economist has a review this week of Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain by Michael Gazzaniga. Even the title leads to a lot of ideas.

The whole idea of social and economic development suggests an idea of "progress", that the way we think and behave can be changed. Foreign aid is based on the perception that financial and technical assistance from the outside can promote social and economic development. My long term interest in UNESCO is based on the hope and belief that it can help to develop a culture of peace, help to build the defenses of peace in the minds of men.

Equally, we see that some people as not having the capacity to adequately control themselves and make good choices -- children, the mentally impaired -- and excuse them from criminal liability for their actions.

"Free will" seems to be at least in part a myth or a superstition.The question is whether it is a useful one. We know that Newtonian physics is only an approximation to modeling the movement of objects, and that Einsteinian physics is more accurate, but we also know that Newtonian physics is useful and plenty good enough for many practical purposes. Is the "free will" model of human behavior similarly "good enough" for many practical purposes, albeit a model we may see is only approximate. Clearly so.

The question might be, where is the boundary at which we should not assume free will, but rather go to other models and consequently other approaches. I would suggest that dealing with addition is one such area. Criminal treatment of addicts to illegal drugs would seem to be based on the assumption that they freely choose their behavior; it might be better to recognize that addiction diminishes freedom of choice, and that dealing with addition as a medical or social problem might be more appropriate. That the limitation of freedom of choice to use or not use suggests that a model other the "free will" would be more appropriate.

A Thought About Mitt Romney

I just listened to Mitt Romney give a simplistic statement that people who go into public service are not the only ones who build America, and that businessmen do so also. He suggested that the CEO working to build his company, together with his many counterparts building their own companies help to build America.

Image source
Of course businesses are important to America and the country needs businessmen. Government is also important to America and the country needs government workers. Indeed, the United States more than other countries has developed through the action of civil society and the country needs people to work in foundations and civil society organizations.

There are certainly people in business who are out for themselves and don't care much if at all about the public wellbeing. So to there are people in government and civil society who just wanted jobs as there are in business, and there are people in these sectors who are focused on their personal ambitions and not on the health of society. Think about the exorbitant salaries of some NGO executives, or the people who steal from their "do-gooder" non-profits.

Perhaps more important, there are business leaders who are deeply concerned with doing good. There are probably even more people who go into government and non-profit organizations accepting financial sacrifice for the chance to serve the public.

What Romney fails to mention is that it is important to get the incentives right. American business has created huge financial incentives for business executives who lead companies into short term profits (or worse, the appearance of high profitability for a year or two even if that appearance is hollow). We fail to impose sanctions on those who hurt the public, and indeed often don't even shame them. And we don't always honor the folk who do the most for society.

Romney points with pride at his career which includes leading the organization planning and managing the 2002 Winter Olympics, heading a consulting firm and a private equity firm, serving one term as Governor of Massachusetts, and headed a section of the Mormon Church in Massachusetts. This is a distinguished career.

I wonder whether it is a presidential career. The United States Government is much, much, much bigger and more complex than anything that Romney has ever run. The President of the world's greatest economic and military power not only has responsibilities to the people of the United States but has to be deeply aware of the impact of American actions globally. Does Romney understand foreign economic and foreign security policy well enough to entrust him with the future of the nation? Can he run the biggest enterprise in the world well? Indeed, does he have the team to draw upon to do so?

Naive statements about the benefits of business leaders doing their thing for the whole economy (especially as we are digging our way out of the financial hole that some of those business leaders dug out of greed and ignorance) makes me even wonder whether he has the intellectual chops for the job of president of these United States.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Why we have the laws we do!

In 2010, according to the United States census, the population of the nine largest states was 157.219,737 and that of the 50 states was 308,143,815. Thus just over half the population in the nine largest states have 18 senators while just under half the population in the 41 smallest states have 82 senators.

The three largest states -- California, Texas, and New York -- have a combined population of 81,777,619 people and 6 senators. The 30 smallest states have a population of 80,339,105 and 60 senators.

Montana has 999,243 people per representative in the House of Representatives, and Wyoming has  563,626.

There are some 4.8 million people in the United States and its territories who do not have representation.

It is time for the Constitution to be changed -- past time. We would probably need a new Constitutional Convention because the Congress and the states would never ratify changes that would deprive the small states of their power in the Congress.

Data are from Wikipedia.

Average margin of victory in presidential elections 1992-2008

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The World it is a Changing

It is obvious that globalization continues to progress together with radical changes in the technological infrastructure of all societies. In prehistory, when a tiny world population was supporting itself in hunting-gathering societies, cultural change may have occurred slowly if at all. Today, cultural change is occurring very rapidly.

It seems obvious that change can be positive or it can be negative. Indeed, some aspects of cultural change can be positive while others at the same time can be negative. We can see changes in health related behavior leading to better health, and changes in work leading to more comfortable lives, while other changes lead to more and more destructive wars.

It seems self evident that good neighbors would seek to promote positive cultural changes that would help their neighbors, and that they would seek to discourage cultural changes that would hurt their neighbors and/or threaten themselves.

Of course, there are a couple of big issues:
  • Cultures are complex, and changing one aspect of a culture may have many difficult to predict cultural repercussions. Thus it isn't always clear what cultural changes will result in overall patterns of change that will be on the whole more positive than negative.
  • It seems that many aspects of culture (e.g. music, dance, foods) are much loved by the people within the culture and unlikely to have much positive nor negative impact on the wellbeing of people other than their enjoyment of "cultural life".
  • Some means of promoting cultural change seem popular and unproductive. I think for example of invading a foreign country to promote democratic institutions in the country.
I rather like the UNESCO approach, seeking to promote a culture of peace, seeking to strengthen educational, scientific, cultural and communications institutions, while emphasizing the preservation of world cultural heritage. Doing this in a multinational organization often offers benefits to the United States over seeking to do so through bilateral relations and programs. UNESCO does have a program in the Management of Social Transitions, bringing social science expertise to these questions. I only wish it was stronger. And I worry that the U.S. decision to withhold contributions from UNESCO will weaken the Organization, and be contrary to the long term interests of the United States.

Two Videos from UNESCO on Palestine

The United States is withholding funding from UNESCO because UNESCO has admitted Palestine to membership. In the 1970s the United States withheld funding from UNESCO because UNESCO denied membership to Israel. Apparently that tactic worked, and Israel was restored to membership after a couple of years. Palestine has been an observer at UNESCO, with voice if not vote in UNESCO forums. The ability for Arabs and Israelis to discuss issues with relative civility in those forums appears to have been fairly useful, and I hope that Palestine and Israel will find joint membership in UNESCO useful for peaceful solution of issues, now that it is a fact. Certainly, my heart goes out to the Palestinian people who have suffered so long. The second of these videos illustrates a modest but useful UNESCO program to help the Palestinians.

The Bipartisam Foreign Policy has Worked, yet remains controversial

I have been reading The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis. He describes the situation marked by little hope for the world as we know it at the end of World War II. Communists believed Marxist-Leninist theory that Capitalist society would end in class warfare.

The West had experienced World War I, fought among the most advanced Capitalist countries. The Great Depression had caused great suffering as the worst of the periodic economic crashes that had marked Capitalism for generations. It had also spawned authoritarian governments in Spain, Italy and Germany, which in turn had led to World War II. World War II had not only left the Communist Soviet Union a super power, with a cluster of satellite states in Europe, but had left Communist movements in China, France, Italy, Greece and other countries that had been strengthened by their effective resistance against the Axis powers.

The United States, by far the strongest economy in the world, had a population that had been moved from its traditional isolationism, awakened by Pearl Harbor and the declaration of war on the United States by the Axis powers to the realization that the oceans separating the United States from aggressive foreign powers no longer sufficed for defense.

These conditions led American political leaders to the decision to intervene to develop a network of intergovernmental institutions, including not only the IMF, World Bank and United Nations (with its specialized agencies) but also NATO and SEATO. It also led to their realization that strong economies not only in the Allied nations but also in the defeated Axis nations were necessary to protect capitalism against the challenge of Communism; thus the United States began the Marshall Plan, the Point Four program, and supported a program of economic development for restoration of the economies damaged by war. Gaddis suggests that the emphasis on building democracy may have been in part a more acceptable rationale than a reinforcement of Capitalism.

Given the extraordinary success of the activist foreign policy, leading to unprecedented economic prosperity in the West and to the fall of Communism almost everywhere, I find it surprising that there remains such a strong support in the United States for isolationism, or at least a foreign policy that focuses on military might rather than support for the economic health of our allies. Moreover, the multinational approaches have worked well, but there remains quite a strong anti-multinational sentiment in parts of the American political system.

The Cold War is often seen as an East West conflict, but much of it was located in the post-colonial world of Africa, Asia and Latin America, and there it was fiercely fought in economic terms and was not always "cold". As we see emerging economies, all based on market Capitalism, coming to be comparable in GDP to the economies of North America and Europe, there would seem to be a considerable threat of conflict in the future. It would seem that an activist foreign policy which combines development of multinational institutions promoting peace and prosperity with appropriate economic assistance where appropriate and military preparedness would continue in order to protect our economic and security interests. Yet there seems to be a faction in American politics that continues to doubt the efficacy of this policy approach that has served so well for two generations.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Thougths on reading about Attila

A few more comments on The End of Empire: Attila the Hun and the Fall of Rome by Christopher Kelly.

The history we have of the Huns was not written by the Huns themselves but by the Romans. The Romans didn't think much of the Huns because they were not upper class Romans. We are conditioned to appreciate the products of Roman imperialism, but I don't like the idea of linking church and state to use the power of religion to support an emperor in office. Indeed, the display of a coercive state seems quite unattractive to me. I suspect that I would rather have preferred the Huns to the Romans.

I had earlier read The Comanche Empire by Pekka Hämäläinen and used the Comanche tribal structure to help understand the Huns. Both were horse cultures, based on grasslands. Both were raiding cultures that also left neighboring communities in place for trade. Both, I think, lived in smaller groups but could be brought together for military purposes; a great leader such as Attila could gather a large force, but without such a leader the bands within the tribe would not all unite to wage war.

One of the most interesting things in the book was the suggestion that even a Roman writer who had visited the Huns and observed them closely would write about the experience drawing on the work of earlier authors (who may have been quite wrong), using literary allusions. The Roman approach may have been more like that of the scholastics rather than modern scientists, but I suspect it was still different, with more of an erudite raconteur seeking to show of while entertaining an audience.

Thinking about this, I began to wonder how much we lose in modern scientific reporting in which authors also show their mastery of previous literature and allude to other authors in explaining their own observations. I wonder if some future culture will be bemused by how much of reality we lost in that process.

This map shows that while much of north Africa is desert (red), there is a band of warm, Mediterranean climate (yellow) between the Atlas Mountains and the sea, including parts of what is now Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. There are smaller areas in yellow around what are now Tripoli and Benghazi. Note that they are separated from Egypt's rich Nile Delta by long arid zones even on the coast.

Phoenicians built ports along the North African coast, and their descendants, the Carthaginians centered their nation around what is now Tunis. The Romans occupied this yellow area when they defeated the Carthaginians, and the Vandals took it and occupied the area when they defeated the Romans. Eventually the area was conquered by the Arabs. Apparently Berbers lived in the area at least since Roman times. Arabs and Berbers used this area as the base for the Conquest of much of the Iberian peninsula, as the Vandals had used the Iberian peninsula as the base for the conquest of a large area of north Africa.

The Vandals, originally a Germanic tribe, conquered this area in the fifth century, later invading Sicily and then sacking Rome. They like the Huns and Goths destroyed the Western Roman empire.

Was there a bread basket land corresponding to that colored yellow in the Magreb that played an important role in history? I assume that there were some aspects of cultural continuity that withstood the various invasions, and there was a large element of common Mediterranean culture that developed over many centuries of seafaring Mediterranean peoples.

I also note that while the western Roman empire's government fell in the fifth century, the eastern empire morphed into the Byzantine Empire, lasting another millennium. Moreover, the Latin continued to be the language of religion, higher education and diplomacy in Europe for many centuries even as it was being replaced by the Romance languages of Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Romanian, Catalan, Rumantsch, etc. The Catholic Church continued as a European heritage of Rome, as did much of the legal structure of the empire.

I note that the government institutions of Germany, Italy and Japan were radically changed after the Axis lost World War II, but we don't talk about the fall of Germany, Italy and France. The people who took over from the Romans still looked pretty much like Romans to me.

Prejudice about vaccines is killing kids

I quote from an editorial in Nature, one of the two most important general scientific journals in the world:

In 2009 and 2010, fewer than half of all US states reported that the proportion of children aged five to six who were properly vaccinated against measles before they entered school had reached the desired 95%. In parts of the country, the rate of refusal of mandatory childhood vaccinations for non-medical reasons stands at 25%. And as-yet-unpublished data show that this rate in continuing to increase.

The results of vaccine refusal are already evident in Europe. France reported 4,937 cases of measles in the first three months of this year — nearly as many as in all of 2010. In total, 30 countries in the World Health Organization's European region reported a marked increase in measles cases early this year. At some point, the herd immunity that protects the unvaccinated and the immunosuppressed could be lost.

Against this backdrop, it is vital that public debates on vaccination stick to the facts — and that politicians who make science-supported decisions be applauded. Unfortunately, it was Michele Bachmann who received the applause at the Republican presidential candidates' debate earlier this month. The Minnesota congresswoman had attacked rival candidate Rick Perry for his failed attempt in 2007, as Texas governor, to mandate vaccination against human papilloma virus (HPV) for 11- and 12-year-old schoolgirls, as recommended by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia.
The hysteria over vaccines is another example of the failure to appreciate scientific information, preferring anecdotal information passed on by politicians. Incidentally, don't give Perry too much credit, for the editorial goes on:
Perhaps Perry did the right thing for the wrong reasons: he has close ties to pharmaceutical company Merck, a generous donor to his campaigns and the only maker of an HPV vaccine at the time of his attempt.

Perhaps commercial institutions are needed to improve farming in developing countries

I have been reading The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter. He describes a long process of the commercial development of agriculture in the United States. In the early history of the country, pioneers cleared land and started small subsistence farms (of course, there were also plantations in the mid-Atlantic and southern states).

As the urban areas in the nation developed, and as there were more people working in services and manufacturing, markets developed for food and fiber; farmers increasingly were producing for and selling into town and city markets.

Hofstadter suggest that the farmers tended to be anit-scientific. While the Land Grant College Act was passed in 1862 leading to the development of agricultural field stations in the colleges, I would suppose that it took time to establish the agricultural colleges and to develop knowledge appropriate for application in local areas. Hofstadter suggests that it was only after the recovery from the financial panic of 1893 that U.S. farmers entered into a long period of increasingly productive commercial agriculture.

Illinois farm combine and farmer

He outlines a complex process in which bankers made farm loans contingent on improved farming practice, farm productivity, and more businesslike commercial farming. Farm journals helped, as did agricultural extension services conducted by experts graduated from the agricultural colleges. Farmers were encouraged to start keeping books, calculating profits and losses from their "farming businesses". Farm machinery manufacturers also pushed farmers to mechanize, thereby increasing labor efficiency on the farms (and not incidentally, improving sales of farm machinery). Later of course, there was an introduction of commercial distribution of improved seeds and pesticides. Thus there was a combination of educational institutions and businesses providing modern inputs to farmers that helped increase farm productivity and the commercial agriculture needed to provide food and fiber to a large urban population from a relatively small farm population.

An Oklahoma farm operation

I recently read that half the population of China and 70 percent of the population of India live in rural areas. If these countries are to develop (at least in the pattern followed by the United States and Europe), they will see a continuing rapid urbanization and will experience a need the people left farming to produce the food surplus needed to feed the cities, and to develop the food distribution system for that purpose. The need for urbanization and commercial agriculture should be comparably large if Africa is to develop economically in the 21st century.

Perhaps agricultural development too should focus more on the development of private sector approaches, both for the development of the commercial intermediaries and institutions needed to process and move agricultural products to urban markets, and the businesses and commercial institutions needed to produce the inputs that the commercial farmers will need. The development of the educational institutions, the extension services, the agricultural science and technology and other public sector inputs would also be necessary, but perhaps easier to achieve if commercial farming produced a demand for those services.

Hofstadter points out that the owners of commercial farms increasingly felt distanced from the farm laborers; the early alliance between "mechanics" and farmers as people who worked with their hands dissolved. Successful commercial farm owners became a conservative, monied class. They developed political institutions capable of powerful influence on legislation. Indeed, due to eccentricities of the U.S. Constitutional system, the farm lobby was so powerful in the latter part of the 20th century that the United States was more conservative than it might have been. Perhaps with attention to the American history, developing countries will be able to avoid excessive power accumulating to a decreasing number of farm families.

American will not achieve if we continue to accept an underclass!

I quote from the Associated Press:

About 97.3 million Americans fall into a low-income category, commonly defined as those earning between 100 and 199 percent of the poverty level, based on a new supplemental measure by the Census Bureau that is designed to provide a fuller picture of poverty. Together with the 49.1 million who fall below the poverty line and are counted as poor, they number 146.4 million, or 48 percent of the U.S. population.
It seems pretty clear that the route to economic prosperity in the United States is full employment in remunerative occupations. Some Americans can work in non-tradable jobs such as cooks and waiters, gardeners, and beauticians but if the per capita GDP is to be high, lots of people are going to have to work in jobs that draw high pay. Generally people can draw high pay in their jobs because their jobs are supported by high levels of investment -- either in equipment or in skills. Indeed, jobs supported by costly equipment tend also to require high levels of "human capital investment", jobs that require a lot of smarts, education and training.

I suspect that the poor and near poor kids are not going to be ready for those jobs in the future, much less the jobs as inventors or entrepreneurs that the economy will need. Remember, the Wrights, Edisons and Fords who created the inventions that made America rich did not come from wealthy or even middle class families; the genetics that underlie those talents are rare, but can arise anywhere. But they will too often not develop nor be exercised in a country that fails to grant opportunity to all.

The poor in the United States include lots of Blacks, Hispanics, Indians, and indeed a white underclass. These groups are held down by prejudice. They live in crime ridden neighborhoods that challenge their kids in another way. We don't give them the schools that we need to give them. Their kids nutrition is too often based on fast food that is "soft, sweet and gooey".

We maintain that one of the reasons that Islamic countries don't progress as fast as they might is that they don't offer adequate economic opportunities to girls and women, and while we in the United States are doing much better in that way than we once were, women here still face a "glass ceiling". But we probably have a much bigger problem in that almost half the country is too poor and too discriminated against to give their kids the opportunities that those kids need and deserve.

I suspect that if the United States falls to be a second rate power in a generation or two, that will be the national problem and not just a family problem of poor and minority families.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Lets get rid of the only Republican on the Maryland Congressional Delegation

Two-thirds of Americans want most members of Congress to be removed in the 2012 election. I am one of them. I intend to work against the reelection of my Representative, Roscoe Bartlett, an 85 year old Tea Party Republican.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

On the Congressional Debacle

I see the Republicans are trying to take the money needed to stimulate the economy, not out of the pockets of millionaires, but rather from the pay of our troops, the Veterans Administration people trying to heal the wounded soldiers, the air traffic controllers, the public health offices of the Center for Disease Control, and postal workers. They seem willing to shut down the government this weekend if they don't get their way. I hope you don't need your social security payment for Christmas shopping!

I read that "A Reuters/Ipsos poll on Wednesday found Obama dramatically expanding his advantage over Mitt Romney to 8 percentage points, up from a 1-point deficit in early November, and leading Republican frontrunner Newt Gingrich by 13 points." Do you wonder why?

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Paul Romer's radical idea: Charter cities

I think there are two ideas here. The first is that "changing the rules" in order to permit more and better innovation can be a path to more rapid economic development. The second is that charter cities offer a path of developed-developing country partnerships to change the rules. Romer is a path breaking economist whose earlier ideas have been very influential. This seems quite a reasonable talk.

Spence on Development

I quote from Science magazine's review of The Next Convergence The Future of Economic Growth in a Multispeed World. This is a 2011 publication by Michael Spence:
Spence emphasizes that economic growth is tied fundamentally to innovation and knowledge. Openness to international trade and globalization is one of the strongest correlates of economic growth in the data because it facilitates access to knowledge. Imagine the standard of living in any single country if it had never encountered ideas invented elsewhere in the world.
That's what I have been saying for years in this blog. Of course, the Nobel Prize winning economist who chaired the Commission on Growth and Development and dean of Stanford University's business school, is a more credible witness to this theory.

The review also states:
Spence highlights a well-known association between urbanization and economic growth. He describes China as needing to build a new Los Angeles every year to accommodate its annual flow of 15 million people from the countryside. Yet despite three decades of such movements, more than 50 percent of China's population remains rural. The number in India is even higher, around 70 percent, and Spence suggests that India will likely experience massive urbanization in the next two decades. Echoing a point that Paul Romer has explored creatively in recent years, urban infrastructure appears to be a crucial ingredient to sustained growth.

Monday, December 12, 2011

News Gingrich on the Palestinian People

In order to understand this interview, you have to realize that the Americans are also an "invented people" as Newt defines the term. The colonies were part of the British Empire. The American people are part of a larger language group that speaks the English language, including the peoples of the British Isles and Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and hundreds of millions in other countries of the British Commonwealth. A tiny minority of Americans are descended entirely from the pre-1492 occupants of North America, and the rest of us are descendants of people who came here from all over Europe, Africa, Asia, or Latin America. This is the great melting pot of a nation that has sought to meld people from many nations into one, ethnically diverse nation.

Newt knows all this as well as I do -- probably better since he is smarter than I am and knows more about American history. He knows that the largest invasion force mounted by the English before World War II came to deny American independence in the Revolutionary War, and that the English remained an enemy or a potential enemy for more than a century. And he would be the first to insist that our motley nation fight to protect our borders and be at war with any people who sought to deny our self invention as a people.

So Newt must be supporting the Palestinian people and their right to fight for and hold their land against Israeli pressure, mustn't he?

Good neighbors don't refuse to work together in the name of sovereignty!

I try to keep this blog focused on topics for which I have some serious background. I will depart from that practice here to make a comment on the current deliberations in Europe.

I have just started reading The Cold War: A New History by John Lewis Gaddis. Gaddis points out that Stalin in the 1940s believed that the capitalist countries could not collaborate to maintain the peace, and that consequently the United States and western European states would fall to squabbling among themselves and Europe would fall to communism. The Truman administration confounded his expectations by helping the other capitalist democracies to recover economically, and the United States was rewarded not only by the triumph of capitalism over communism, but also by decades of economic growth and stability.

The European Union was created in the belief that the countries of Europe would be more likely to keep the peace if they were more interdependent. The common market also had the benefit that the larger markets it provided stimulated economic growth. The EU went to a common currency, but the member nations could not agree to give up sovereignty to the extent necessary to assure that all the Euro zone countries maintained economic policies that prevented debt accumulation and financial crises. Crises have occurred and a contagion is threatened. The question now is can the member states of the EU find a way of muddling through the current threat of a Europe wide crisis and move toward a system to assure coordinated economic policies to keep the Euro sound in the future.

David Cameron announces that he will not commit the United Kingdom to the best compromise that the EU officials could come up with last week because to do so would reduce British sovereignty. That seems like a huge mistake.
These guys transferred sovereignty from mad King George and the English Parliament
to the people of the United States and their elected representatives. We have since moved
sovereignty among branches of government and between state and national government.
United States history has numerous instances in which states have sought to nullify the laws of the federal government. A great Civil War was fought to defend the principle that the the United States is a single nation with sovereignty of the states largely surrendered to the federal government. Indeed, we perhaps need to surrender more sovereignty from states to the central government -- state governments seem to run economic policies that run counter both to federal policy and the country needs; when the economy needs stimulus, states often reduce their expenditures; when jobs must be created, states lay off employees; when inflation is the problem, state governments contribute still more to inflation. Yet overall, the transfer of sovereignty from the 50 states to a continent wide federal government serving 300 million people has served those people well. It should serve as a model to be considered by Europe.

Metaphors are dangerous, including neighborhood metaphors for groups of states, but they can also be useful. The United States had a "good neighbor policy" with Latin America. Focus on the nuclear family is important, each seeking to foster its own security and welfare. Still it seems foolish not to help a neighbor to fight a fire which, out of control might spread to one's own home. Neighbors working together can improve schools and health services serving all, benefiting all from the cooperation. Indeed, there is something seriously wrong with a neighborhood where one neighbor will not go to the aid of another who is in trouble, out of simple humanity.

Indian tribes did quite well ignoring Europe before 1492, but once sea lanes opened between the hemispheres they could not do so. The changes in transportation and information technologies, and the consequent huge increase in trade and migration mean that once distant nations are now neighbors. We now see China'a and India's economies rising toward equality with that of North America. It seems likely that Europe is going to find the ability to speak with one voice increasingly important in the future.

Politicians of European countries may be making mistakes that will drag the world into a great depression. Politicians in the United States may be making mistakes that will drag the United States into grave economic problems. In each case, politicians should focus not only on the narrow interests of their local constituencies and more on the need to protect the global economy from contagion leading to another great recession or worse.

While I am at it, the leaders of the OECD countries in the aftermath of World War II chose to transfer some sovereign powers to the United Nations and the Bretton Woods financial institutions. That decision has served our nations well.

We in the United States made a great choice in my opinion in withdrawing sovereignty from a king and investing it in the people, shared with their democratically chosen representatives in government. In the United States we have done well shifting sovereignty between state and federal government, and indeed from the legislative to the executive branch as needed. The United Nations has successfully played a role in preventing war, and the IMF in keeping the world economy on a more even keel than it might have experienced. The question of where sovereignty should be placed to achieve the most good seems to me to be quite complex. Thoughtless insistence that sovereignty should always remain in the place it was found in our youth seems likely to sacrifice much.

I would hate to see Stalin's prediction proved true by the fall of democratic and capitalistic society of the west due to the inability of its leaders to overcome their greed and collaborate to solve common problems. 

Kids should learn why scientific consensus is worthy of credence

There is something of a parallel between the attitudes in the United States about African American slavery two centuries ago and the attitudes here towards climate change today. In both cases people were concerned that there was a situation which could lead to serious problems in the somewhat distant future. In both cases there was divided opinion about the nature of the problem, its seriousness and what to do about it.

Two hundred years ago there was wide spread agreement, at least among whites, that blacks were intellectually and morally inferior to whites. From that belief and the recognition that a large part of the U.S. economy depended on slave labor, and the increasing pressure for abolition abroad and within the United States led to the concerns as to what to do.

Today there is a wide spread agreement that the releases of greenhouse gases has increased and is continuing to increase. From that belief, and the recognition that a large part of the U.S. economy is geared to produce those greenhouse gases, and the increasing pressure for control of emissions abroad and within the United States there are concerns as to what to do.

 There is also a fundamental difference. The belief that blacks were inferior was not scientific (and indeed science was not sufficiently developed to tackle such questions adequately two centuries ago) while the belief that the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere affects the temperature is based on science. There were no scientific findings as to what would happen if slavery were not to be abolished, while there are scientific findings as to what will happen if greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow as they have been doing. (And of course, our ancestors were wrong to think that the blacks were racially inferior and it is very, very probable that if we keep emitting greenhouse gases in increasing amounts, we will see global warming, sea level rises that will wipe out coastal zones, and major local climate changes over most of the globe.)

In both cases, intellectual leaders of the time make pronouncements whether or not their knowledge is of a credible kind. The general public had then little ability to judge the quality of the knowledge of the opinion makers, and a large part of the general public today has little ability to judge the quality of the knowledge of those who would make opinion today.

I suggest that scientific knowledge is generally credible. I do so because scientific knowledge is based on controlled observation, based on efforts to challenge hypotheses based on theory, replicated by others in other places, and subjected to peer review. I have been fortunate enough to observe peer review on thousands of occasions and have come to appreciate the qualifications and seriousness that scientists bring to the process. I do not suggest that the wide spread scientific consensus that greenhouse gas emissions will lead to levels of climate change that will be damaging to our global society is to be believed as fact, but that it is quite likely to be fairly accurate, and thus more credible than non-science based opinions of the changes to expect in the global climate.

Why should people who do not understand the scientific method and scientific institutions for the vetting of knowledge claims, and who do not have the ability (nor interest) to read the research results themselves, give credence to those public intellectuals informed by the science as opposed to those who would deny the science? Of course, one can look for interests that might influence people's pronouncements; those who own oil companies might be loath to promote policies to reduce the consumption of oil. But scepticism about the claims of those who profit from the belief of others in those claims is not sufficient. Nor is belief in the accuracy of movie stars nor the credibility of business men when they speak about things outside their areas of expertise.
Image Source

We need political leaders who are scientifically literate, at least in the sense that they recognize the utility of being informed as to the scientific consensus (where one exists) on issues that inform the policy issues on which they are working. We need political leaders who are constrained to base their public statements on the best available information. We will get such leaders only if we reject politicians who fail those tests, and that in turn demands an informed electorate.

It seems to me that the real answer is that schools should take on a long term effort to explain to students how science works, and how scientists vet knowledge claims. Increasingly we need to teach students information literacy -- the ability to judge the quality of information that they obtain. One aspect of information literacy is the ability to understand whether a scientific claim is widely supported within the scientific institutions or whether it is an outlier. Of course the great advances in science are first offered by individuals and appear as outliers, but they are few and far between. When 95 percent of a large and mature scientific community agree on one thing, while one-in-20 suggest another thing to be true, the 95 percent deserve more credence from the public. They may not be right, but they are more likely to be right than the minority.

The physical sciences differ from the social sciences. The physical sciences offer much greater possibilities for experimental tests of hypotheses. Indeed, they are more easily translated into engineering. We can see if out understanding of physics leads to the design and construction of bridges and buildings that stand up and last more easily than we can check whether our understanding of economics leads to economic policy interventions that work. The social sciences still offer a useful discipline of organized theory, careful taxonomy, and disciplined observation. They offer the institutionalized system for training and certification of new scientists, for networking among social scientists for the development (and rejection) of consensus on theory and the meaning of observations, and importantly for peer review. The unthinking rejection of the advice of economists because that advice conflicts with our prejudice is a very dangerous tactic, one that we should oppose in our politicians.

Thus HIV probably does cause AIDS, evolution probably does explain why the great chain of being  exists, the earth probably is roughly spherical, and the earth probably does orbit the sun. And we are probably facing serious economic problems on a global scale if national leaders across the globe do not take advice from the economists on policies to promote economic growth and constrain willingness either to sacrifice future welfare for current consumption or to fail to work together to deal with mutual problems.
Image source
As difficult it is to move toward systems for vetting policy relevant knowledge and basing policy on the best available knowledge in developed nations (developed in the sense of nations with relatively strong scientific communities, relatively well educated electorates, relatively strong systems for public information, and relatively strong democratic institutions), the problems are greater still in less developed countries.

I have been reading The Age of Reform by Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter points out that while the Land Grant College Act was passed in the United States in 1862 to develop national institutions which could strengthen the application of agricultural science to farming, the major impact of scientific farming (and commercial agriculture) was not much felt until a period starting in the late 1890s. The application of scientific approaches to agriculture of course continued through the 20th century, fueling the Green Revolution, and continues today to improve and maintain the productivity of farms.

The point is that the application of better scientific knowledge (and the development of that knowledge) to practical purposes is likely to be a very long term effort.

Remember that the way to create a lawn like that of the great European estates is to use very good seed, and then tend the lawn carefully for 300 years of so. Those who would create such lawns need to start as soon as possible because the effort requires such long term dedication. So too, those who would see the best knowledge applied to development in poor countries better start working as soon as possible because it will take a long time to build the institutions and see their impact diffuse through the society.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thinking about Western Civilization

Niall Ferguson in his book, Civilization: The West and the Rest, uses the metaphor of the "killer app" for six cultural inventions which he claims account for the rise of the West, differentiating western culture from the rest of the world.
1) competition, both among and within the European states; 2) science, beginning with the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries; 3) the rule of law and representative government, based on the rights of private property and representation in elected legislatures; 4) modern medicine; 5) the consumer society that resulted from the Industrial Revolution; and 6) the work ethic. 
He apparently intended the word "killer" to imply the dark side of the forces of Western Imperialism.

I heard an interview in which Ferguson argued that imperialism was not one of those inventions. Of course he was right that the imperial powers of the last half millennium did not invent imperialism nor did they monopolize imperialism.

One can challenge others of these assertions. I would find it hard to deny that Mongol states had not shown competition within or between themselves. Modern medicine came quite late in history, and it has been suggested that it was well into the 20th century before a patient was more likely to be helped than harmed by  a physicians care. Some people in poor countries have worked very hard; others find it hard to work because they are so often debilitated by poor nutrition and bad health.

Many have sought to explain the rise of the imperial powers by their ability to appropriate the natural resources from and the fruits of the labor of other peoples. Would England have been as rich as it became without exploiting India and Africa? Would the United States be as rich as it is if it were confined to a narrow band on the east coast of North America with the rest of the continent dominated by Indians, Mexico and Canada? How about Spain and Portugal at their peak of power were they not to have had colonies in Latin America?

Clearly the imperial powers were able to extend their empires and appropriate the wealth of other lands because of their technological advances (weapons, transportation, communications) and their institutions of governance (maintenance of armies, navies, and control over distance). It may be that some of the cultural inventions of the West were complementary to the imperial impulse, making imperialism so enormously profitable, and that without imperialism the economic growth of the West would not have been nearly as great.