Friday, March 30, 2012

Election in the Maryland 6th Congressional District

Source: The Herald Mail

We have an opportunity this year to elect someone who will be willing to negotiate and compromise. The current Representative of the 6th Congressional District, Roscoe Bartlett, it a Tea Party conservative and the Tea Party people have shown an unwillingness to do so. Following the 2010 census, the districts in Maryland were redrawn; the sixth which was in the last decade almost completely rural now includes Frederick and parts of the Maryland suburbs of Washington DC. My precinct was moved into the district in 2011.

As a new Democratic voter in the district, my first priority was to find the strongest candidate from my party for the November election. I also wanted to find a person who could represent the very varied population of this district if elected. Our district, shown above, includes people who live closer to Pittsburgh Pennsylvania than they do to me in Maryland. It includes people in the most rural areas of the State as well as in Frederick, a mid size city, and the suburbs of Washington, DC.

I came to the conclusion that Rob Garagiola fit that bill. Having spent a decade in the Maryland State Senate and risen to Senate Majority Leader, he should have developed a good understanding of the whole state. He seems to be one of the 99 percent, not one of the very rich. His experience as a state legislator and as a Congressional aid should have prepared him with knowledge of how to represent his constituents if elected. His many endorsements suggest that key Maryland Democratic leaders agree with that assessment. His background in health care legislation should be especially useful.

The next Congress is going to have to deal with the economic crisis that we face. It will have to cut federal expenses, raise tax income (in part by getting rid of tax breaks), and support economic growth and development (especially employment generation). In doing so it is going to have to make reforms in the big budget items -- military spending, medicare and medicaid, and social security. If, as seems likely, the Supreme Court does damage to the Affordable Care Act, the Congress will have to revisit health care legislation in that context. The next Congress will have to do a lot better than this one has done to meet the challenge. Rob Garagiola, would seem to be a strong candidate for that Congress.

It is my hope that the Republicans in the Sixth Congressional District of Maryland agree with my diagnosis of the situation, and that they vote for the Republican candidate in the primary who will best represent our District and negotiate and compromise as needed to get legislative progress at last.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

CNN Says the Economy of Brazil bigger than UK, Russia

Check out the interesting interactive site.

I can't vouch for these figures, but they are attributed to the IMF, which seems reasonable. Who would have thought that Brazil, which continues to grow rapidly, has a greater GDP than the UK, Italy and Russia.

Of course, this data is of total GDP, not per capita GDP. Were we to go to per capita income, the order would be much different. Moreover, were we to look at the international importance of different countries, we might better look at imports and exports. For many purposes I suspect the European Union would be the more relevant economy than any of its constituent country economies, and the EU economy ranks right up there with that of the United States.

Is the Affordable Care Act Constitutional?

Our founding documents are the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union, and the Constitution.

I quote from the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,
I quote from the Constitution:
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
I agree with Martin Luther King, who used the following central metaphor in his "I have a dream" speech:
When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The first right is the right to life. Other countries do better in securing this right for their citizens; indeed the United States ranks 36th among the nations of the world in life expectancy. The very purpose of the Constitution is to perfect the union by better promoting the general welfare. The Affordable Care Act will not bring life expectancy in the United States up to that of Japan, China or Australia, but it would be a partial payment on promissory note of our founding documents. While a stronger role for the federal government in our largest industry may be new, it can hardly be unconstitutional.

If you doubt that this is a civil rights issue, look at the map of the 26 states that are challenging the law. Who are the adults in those states who now don't have access to Medicaid, and why are their governments opposed to providing those people with medical insurance, insurance that will be largely paid for by the federal government?

Monday, March 26, 2012

Did increasing disparities in wealth lead to the economic crisis?

I quote from The Economist:
IN THE search for the villain behind the global financial crisis, some have pointed to inequality as a culprit. In his 2010 book “Fault Lines”, Raghuram Rajan of the University of Chicago argued that inequality was a cause of the crisis, and that the American government served as a willing accomplice. From the early 1980s the wages of working Americans with little or no university education fell ever farther behind those with university qualifications, he pointed out. Under pressure to respond to the problem of stagnating incomes, successive presidents and Congresses opened a flood of mortgage credit.
The article goes on to summarize ideas put forth in several papers:

I suspect that these all should be regarded as exploratory or expository models, seeking to clarify the role of the increasing inequality in causing the crisis rather than as a detailed, scientific explanation of those causes. Still, my intuition agrees with that of the authors that there is something in the hypothesis.

I also suspect that the authors are right when they suggest that the differences in European and American cultures affect the ways the increasing inequality work out are different in the two regions. In the United States I can see that our political institutions have allowed the very rich to influence the political system so as to allow the rich to get rich faster. In our consumer society, I can see that conspicuous consumption trickles down. I suspect that the rich influenced politicians to make credit easier to obtain, and lower income consumers faced by aspirations to consume rising faster than their income, went into more and more debt. And thus the American crisis.

I suspect that the way in which disparities in wealth, income and power hindered economic growth and development in Latin American may be quite different.


The greatest enemy of any one of our truths may be the rest of our truths.
William James

Why Republicans Deny Some Scientific Evidence

Chris Mooney writes in "How Do You Build a Scientific Republican?":

Remember that over the past several decades, there has been an active smearing of the scientific community on this issue. Trust  in scientists was clearly driven down among Republican by events like “ClimateGate,” and how they were seized upon; and doubt about a scientific consensus on global warming was deliberately and consciously sown. 
In this context, the new data suggest that, had there not been such a concerted attempt to create doubt about global warming by conservative think tanks and their corporate sponsors—and, by Fox—we might never have had a problem. Perhaps Republican individualism, information satisfaction, and all the rest would have gone and found some other issue to attach themselves too.
 Bill Press in his talk about his book, The Obama Hate Machine: The Lies, Distortions, and Personal Attacks on the President---and Who Is Behind Them, describes the heavy funding commitment of Charles and David Koch and other wealthy conservatives of conservative think tanks and the media that support their views. This may be as or more important as the better known Fox News drumbeat of attacks on Democrats and opposition to aspects of scientific finding that are opposed by conservatives.

This is really disturbing that moneyed interests can sway a major political party to distrust and ignore scientific results in policy making in areas such as energy policy and education simply by providing visible sources of disinformation. The success is in part due to the the so-called “smart idiot” effect that Mooney has written on and the "Republicans’ strongly individualistic system of values—basically, a go-it-alone sense that government is the problem, and markets the solution—and even, perhaps, some aspects of their personalities or psychologies."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Visit to Great Smokey Mountains National Park

Elk grazing with the farm museum in the background
My wife and I spent several days last week visiting the Great Smokey Mountains National Park which lies across the North Carolina-Tennessee border in the south-eastern United States. With more than a half million acres, this is the most visited national park in the USA. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is also a keystone of the Southern Appalachian Biosphere Reserve, one of UNESCO's World Network of Biosphere Reserves.

Vies of the forested mountains shrouded by the mist that give the Park its smokey look.
The Park lies south of the furthest extension of the ice sheets that covered much of North America in the last ice age. As a result, the Park has an exceptional biodiversity, including more than 3,500 plant species, including almost as many trees (130 natural species) as in all of Europe. Many endangered animal species are also found there, including what is probably the greatest variety of salamanders in the world.

Much of the Park is off road, and indeed off trail, essentially out of reach of human visitors. Those areas that we could visit offered mile after mile of forest, with considerable diversity of forest types. The Park includes large areas of old growth forest. My wife and I saw elk, deer and wild turkeys in the Park, animals so protected that they were unafraid to stand in the open and be seen by visiting humans.

We stayed in Cherokee, a town on the Cherokee reservation that borders on the Park. Cherokees have lived in the region for a thousand years; a core population successfully resisted efforts in the 19th century to remove them to Oklahoma and their descendants continue to live in the region. Parts of the Park were occupied by European-American settlers for a long period, and while people were removed from the Park at its founding, it still retains sites where visitors can learn how they lived. The descendants of those settlers are also to be found in the region surrounding the Park.

It is important to recognize that the Park was created in the 20th century, in part to reclaim lands that were being ruined by over-exploitation. Railroads had penetrated the region and made clear-cut lumber extraction possible and profitable. Large areas of what is now the Park were clear cut, their soils left unprotected against erosion from the relatively heavy rainfall of the region, and unable to support the plant and animal communities that now exist. It is more than 70 years that the Park has been protected by the National Park Service, and in that time the forest has begun its recovery. Still, the 400 year old trees that grace the old growth forest are absent from much of the current Park.

The Park is not yet safe. I quote from The Daily Green:

The Great Smoky Mountains are indeed smoky... but, smoggy too.
The Smokies are the most visited of the national parks, and in one sense they are being loved to death. 
Smog comes primarily from two sources: smokestacks and tailpipes. Both are a problem in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, as the pollution from distant coal-fired power plants and factories, and the nearby pollution from millions of vehicles enjoying the park's scenic drives mingle with heat and sunlight to form smog. 
The Great Smoky Mountains take their name from a fine blue mist visible rising from valleys. Don't mistake it for the obscuring white haze of smog, which is more common today. It's a goal of federal officials to decrease smog overall, and particularly where it obscures the view from national parks. Still, with increasing car traffic, vehicles have been contributing more, not less, to the problem.
There are also problems with imported diseases and pests. I quote again, this time from the Park Service:
Sixty years ago, the most common Park tree was American Chestnut. About 30% of the Park was chestnut forest. Due to a disease, chestnut blight, every adult chestnut in the eastern United States died. Loss of the chestnut heavily impacted animals depending on the nuts for winter fat. Scientists continue to work search for hybrid chestnut species that can resist this disease.

The southern spruce-fir ecosystem is also threatened. The Park, in North Carolina and Tennessee contains about 75% of all southern spruce-fir ecosystems. I quote from Wikipedia:
Since the invasion of the balsam woolly adelgid, discovered in 1957, Fraser fir mortality rates have been 90-99%. Although some areas are being regenerated by young firs, there is much change in understory composition, including invasion by both woody and herbaceous species. Red Spruce, the spruce component of the spruce fir ecosystem, has also been suffering declines. Some researchers attribute these declines to damage from wind, which is usually blocked by the firs. Balsam woolly adelgids have destroyed about 95% of the Fraser firs in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, creating "ghost forests".
"Ghost" Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome, Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The danger to this National Park's ecology suggests that the people of the United States and the United States Government owe more and better stewardship of the site which UNESCO has recognized as of global importance. Let us hope that the failure of the Congress to honor the responsibility of the United States to pay its dues to UNESCO will not be paralleled by a failure to protect our World Heritage sites or to play our appropriate role in the global scientific network studying bioreserves.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Agenda 21 is not new and not dangerous

Lake Fontana in Great Smokey Mountains National Park
On my recent trip to the Great Smokey Mountains National Park I was stopped by a local resident who seemed very concerned about  Agenda 21, which he ascribed to President Obama. A little searching on the Internet led to a number of links filled with misinformation. I doubt that I can do much to reassure those concerned with potential threats of Agenda 21 to rural America, but I will try to explain in the following paragraphs why they should not be worried.

Southern Appalachian timber harvest in the 1900s
Americans should be worried about environmental problems. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park was in fact created to restore a greatly depleted region of the southern Appalachians and to preserve what little was left of its pre-Colombian native forest. It is a beautiful place, but the American Chestnut trees that represented some 60 percent of the Park's forests 60 years ago are now gone, killed by a chestnut blight introduced from abroad. The Fraser Firs in the Park are now threatened by an introduced insect. Air pollution is increasing and acid rain is causing problems in the Park. If we want our children and our grandchildren to have the Park to enjoy in relatively pristine state, we have to act to protect it.

Agenda 21 is "a comprehensive plan of action to be taken globally, nationally and locally by organizations of the United Nations System, Governments, and Major Groups in every area in which human impacts on the environment." It, together with the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, and the Statement of principles for the Sustainable Management of Forests, was adopted by more than 178 Governments at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) held in Rio de Janerio, Brazil, 3 to 14 June 1992. UNCED, also known as the Earth Summit, was  held during the period in which George H. W. Bush was president of the United States.

"Ghost" Fraser Firs killed by the Balsam woolly adelgid on Clingmans Dome,
Great Smoky Mountain National Park
The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established by the UN General Assembly in December 1992 to ensure effective follow-up of the Earth Summit. Indeed, Agenda 21 can be seen as the benchmark for the addition of environmental concerns to the global agenda that had once focused on economic growth and the reduction of poverty.

 I find it hard to imagine people really concerned with the concept of "sustainable development". "Development" is intended to mean both social and economic development, and in the context in which the word is used internationally, to imply a broad process of social and economic development, including the reduction of poverty, the improvement of health and wellbeing, and the increase of participation in political processes.

Haiti-Dominican Republic border from the air, showing Haitian deforestation
Global warming, deforestation, desertification, loss of biodiversity, water pollution, loss of top soil, air pollution, depletion of water resources, coastal zone degradation, destruction of fisheries, depletion of oil resources and the list goes on. The depletion of natural resources, which after all form a significant portion of the capital that countries use for economic development, has been a problem in the past in now developed countries, and is today an increasingly visible problem in developing nations. These problems seem to most gravely affect the poor, both rural and urban, in the poorest countries.

There is also an increasing understanding that there may well be problems of resource depletion arising at a global level that may in a few generations create development problems on a global scale. The Earth Summit resulted in a consensus of the nations of the world that there is a responsibility now to take reasonable measures to assure that the rapid development that we have enjoyed for so many decades can be sustained into the indefinite future. The intent of Agenda 21 was to begin that process of assuring sustainable development.

There have been follow up meetings to the Earth Summit and another major meeting is scheduled for this year, Rio +20, marking the 20th anniversary of the initial UN conference. Of course, the United States Government will send a delegation to this important event, and of course the United States Government is planning its positions for the conference now, including developing a set of initiatives to announce in Rio (where Rio +20 will be held).

It would seem that the Obama administration's decision to create a White House Rural Council has been linked in the minds of some with Agenda 21. The mandate for that Council seems to make clear that the purpose of the Council is to improve coordination among federal government agencies in order to improve the cost-effectiveness of government programs in rural areas and "to promote economic prosperity and quality of life in rural America".

Friday, March 23, 2012

Kinds of ignorance

The state of thoroughly conscious ignorance which is the prelude to every advance in knowledge.James Clark Maxwell
Common ignorance is simply not having learned (or having forgotten) that which is known by others.

There is a pernicious ignorance which is found where someone not only fails to realize that he does not know, but mistakenly believes he knows something which is not true.

There is normal scientific ignorance, as each new scientific finding tends to raise new questions in effect adding new areas of proximate ignorance to be explored.

I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.Isaac Newton
Then there is Newtonian ignorance, all that not only don't we know but that we can not yet imagine as being knowable.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Thinking about Seabiscuit

The Horse: Seabiscuit was a grandson of Man of War, a great horse. When he was bought by Charles Howard in 1936 he had been trained by Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, thought to be the best trainer in America. Then a three year old, he had raced 42 times. He had failed to win in his first 17 races. Although as a two year old he had won five races and come in second seven times, these races were generally against poor competition. He had run in a claiming race in which he could have been bought for $2,500. He was described as undersized, knobby-kneed, with a strange gait  and given to sleeping and eating for long periods. In 1940 he suffered an injury that veterinarians thought would end his career, but came back for a few races in 1941.

Seabiscuit with jockey Red Pollard

The Trainer: Tom Smith, who had been a cowboy and foreman for many years, had been brought low in the depression. He had at one time been the trainer of a single horse, so poor that he had to sleep in the stables on a cot. His training methods were thought to be unusual when he was hired by Howard to train Seabiscuit.

The Jockeys: Red Pollard, Seabiscuit's principle jockey, with a seventh grade education had been struggling for rides, and was winning only six percent of his races when hired by Smith to ride Seabiscuit. He had been blinded in one eye in an earlier race, an injury he kept secret since it would have ended his career. In 1938 Pollard was very seriously injured when a horse fell on him. After a long recovery, he returned to racing, but was seriously injured again suffering multiple fractures of his leg when a horse he was exercising ran away; this injury was thought to end his career but after a long recovery, Pollard returned to ride Seabiscuit in his final races.

George Wolfe, while a jockey of great talent, suffered from Type I Diabetes. Like most jockeys, he was forced into extreme dieting and other techniques to maintain low weight, practices which made control of his diabetes extremely difficult. He died in 1946 as the result of injuries when he fell from a horse during a race.

The Success. Seabiscuit was taken to California by his team, and won his last two races there in 1936. In 1937, Seabiscuit won eleven of his fifteen races in 1938and was the year's leading money winner in the United States. Perhaps his most famous race was a match race in 1938 with War Admiral, another great house that had won the triple crown in 1937; he was named horse of the year as a result. In his final race in 1940, Seabiscuit won the Santa Anita Handicap, and its $121,000 prize before 78,000 paying spectators (perhaps the largest crowd in U.S. racing history). Seabiscuit was at the time getting more newspaper coverage than President Roosevelt or any other person in the world. Seabiscuit is one of the few horses that is still widely known from the first half of the 20th century.

Why I posted this: Handicapping is an expert field. Men spend their lives learning to predict the outcome of horse races. Millions depend on their accuracy. A handicapper who makes too many errors quickly loses his job. Yet almost without exception, the horse racing world dismissed Seabiscuit when Howard bought him as a second rater. If those experts, having seen the horse in 42 races made that mistake, how much faith are you going to put into school grades for kids?

There was a second chance for Seabiscuit, Smith, and Pollard and it paid off in one of the most successful partnerships horse racing has ever seen. It may be worth remembering that fact as we judge others.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Maryland Sixth Congressional Democratic Primary

Map of Maryland's Sixth Congressional District with changes in 2011
Source: The Washington Post
An article in today's Washington Post describes the Democratic primary as between state Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Garagiola and financier John Delaney. The current incumbent, Republican Roscoe G. Bartlett, at 84 would appear unlikely to win against a strong Democratic candidate in the newly Democratic majority district.

Garagiola clearly has lots of legislative experience and endorsements of unions and progressive organizations, scores of members of the General Assembly, Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown and Rep. Steny H. Hoyer. Garagiola also recently picked up the backing of the liberal grass-roots group

Delaney, who is worth an estimated $50 million, is buying lots of radio and television adds and his campaign has been touting recent endorsements, including from former president Bill Clinton and state Comptroller Peter Franchot.
Each man has sought to project a positive agenda. Garagiola has emphasized his experience on health-care issues and work for middle-class families, while Delaney is in the midst of releasing one detailed policy paper a day for five days.
I suppose the Democrats first priority will be to select the candidate who has the greatest likelihood of beating Rep. Bartlett, and then the most likely to understand the problems and opportunities of the people in this newly configured and very large Congressional district. My guess is that that person would be Rob Garagiola, and that view is only somewhat influenced by my distaste for the robo-calls we have been receiving from the Delaney campaign.

We need a strategy for peace in East Africa

Source of map
South Sudan is in the news again. Apparently the Sudanese government continues to bomb the South. There are rumors of a new Darfur genocide. There has been an uproar over Joseph Kony and the LRA; the LRA reportedly has been forced out of northern Uganda and is now operating in the Congo. The BBC has just published an article titled "Why is Uganda Fighting in 'Hellish' Somalia?"  Rwandan Hutu rebels have also been fighting in the Congo after having been expelled from Rwanda in its civil war; the Congo of  course has been in turmoil for years.  The International Criminal Court has just convicted a warlord from the Central African Republic for crimes including kidnapping children and turning them into soldiers in that country's civil conflict. Kenya is also experiencing increased violence, apparently especially near the border with Somalia. My memory goes back far enough to recall genocide in Rwanda (1995) and Burundi (1972, 1993), the disastrous administrations of Idi Amin and Milton Obote in Uganda (1960s thru 1980s), the Eritrean-Ethiopian war (1998-2000) and decades of civil strife in Ethiopia.

Warren and other members of TARP oversight protest tax breaks

This is outside my areas of expertise, but I an sufficiently annoyed to share this.

According to the Los Angeles Times:
American International Group Inc.'s recent $20 billion quarterly profit was almost entirely because of an inappropriate tax break the government-owned insurance company continues to receive, according to four former members of the watchdog panel that oversaw the financial crisis bailouts. 
The break allows AIG to count its past net operating losses against future taxes. That amounts to a "stealth bailout" of a company that received about $125 billion in taxpayer money, said the former appointees to the Congressional Oversight Panel for the $700 billion Troubled Asset Relief Program..... 
Warren, who is running as a Democrat for the U.S. Senate in Massachusetts, was joined by former panel members Damon Silvers, Mark McWatters and Kenneth Troske in saying the tax break gives the illusion of significant profitability at the company. 
The profits benefit AIG's private stockholders and allow the company to pay higher executive compensation, the TARP panel members said.
A second report by Andrew Ross Sorkin states:
The tax benefit is notable for more than simply its size. It is the result of a rule that the Treasury unilaterally bent for A.I.G. and several other hobbled companies in 2008 that has largely been overlooked. This rule-twisting could deprive the government of tens of billions of dollars, assuming the firm remains profitable..... 
(A)ccording to longstanding tax laws, if a company files for bankruptcy or is taken over, it loses the ability to use its net operating losses. A.I.G. would fit that profile perfectly: on the verge of bankruptcy, the federal government took control of A.I.G., exchanging its bailout billions for shares in the company. The government — taxpayers — still own 77 percent of the company, down from 92 percent three years ago..... 
(T)he government — desperate to increase revenues — is missing an easy stream of guaranteed taxes from a company that taxpayers bailed out. Sure, the tax bill might hurt the price of A.I.G.’s stock price in the short term, but if Mr. Benmosche does his job right, the company won’t have to post fantasy profits.
Clearly AIG followed a high risk investment strategy in the past, and clearly the result was a massive crash. Apparently now the Obama administration is bending tax rules in ways that will result in larger bonuses for the managers of AIG and that will lead to higher prices for AIG stock, thus benefiting its private stockholders. Don't such increased financial returns tend to encourage the same excess risk taking that got us into this problem in the first place?

Apparently the tax benefits will also extend to General Motors and other companies that were bailed out after the 2008 crash.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Thoughts on The Great Gamble

My book club met this evening to discuss The Great Gamble: The Soviet War in Afghanistan by Gregory Feifer. The book focuses only on the role of the Soviet Union during its military adventure in Afghanistan. I came out of the meeting with the feeling that there were some similarities and some differences between the U.S. role in Afghanistan now and that of the Soviets from 1979 to 1989.


Decision making in the Kremlin and decision making in the White House were probably done by people who failed to mine the knowledge in their countries on Afghanistan and as a result who sent troops on missions which would prove far more difficult than originally imagined.

War in Afghanistan was not in the critical national interest of either the Soviet Union nor the United States.

In both cases the world power came to support a client government, with the intent of modernizing Afghan society (schools, women's rights, roads, etc.), assuming that the Afghan people would easily accept the ideology of the world power (Communism for the Soviets, Democracy for the Americans), and in both cases the reforming Afghan government had less support than supposed.

In both cases, the world power underestimated the willingness of other (typically bordering) nations to support insurgents. Since the most important ethnic groups (Turkmen, Uzbeks, Tajiks, Pashtuns, Baluchis, Hazara) all have links crossing borders with related ethnic groups, this failure of imagination seems strange.

And of course, in both cases the world power found itself pulling out of military involvement in Afghanistan after a decade, in part due to its own domestic economic problems.


The Soviet Union included Turkmen, Uzbeks and Tajiks, and troops from those republics were initially sent to Afghanistan under the (apparently misguided) assumption that they would be more acceptable to the Afghans.

The military forces were quite different. The Soviet military was based on conscription while the American army was all volunteer; thus the American soldier is often older than his Soviet counterpart was, and often more extensively trained. American soldiers often had multiple tours in war zones, especially in the later years, while the Soviet conscripts typically had only a single tour. The Soviet military was very poorly supplied while the the American military was lavishly supplied. The American military has a strong cadre of non-commissioned officers which the Soviet military lacked.

Bottom Line

While some of the club members disliked the book before the meeting, the discussion seemed to change their minds and to result in a rather positive judgement on the book's merit.

The mission assigned to the U.S. military changed over time from overthrowing the Taliban government and destroying the threat posed to the United State by Al Qaeda to supporting the institutionalization of the Karzai government so that it could sustain power. The club members wished that the Bush White House decision makers had read this book before making that mission change.

It probably would have been easier to reduce the threat posed to Americans by Al Qaeda to acceptable levels by directly attacking Al Qaeda than by installing a sustainable government in Afghanistan that would not tolerate Al Qaeda presence on its soil.


I am not sure that we fully explored the reasons that Pakistan and Iran have for their policies toward Afghanistan. For example, Pakistan's water resources come largely from Afghanistan so it is important to Pakistan to have a government in Afghanistan with which it can work on water resource management.

We probably should have given more thought to the misery of the Soviet soldiers assigned to Afghanistan, and the even greater, longer lasting misery of the Afghan people beset by seemingly endless war.

The Pakistan Army, which is very influential in Pakistani policy, has large numbers of Pashtuns, Punjabi Pathans, and Baluchis.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Nuclear energy is part of the toolbox we need to slow global warming

I quote from the final section of a Special Report on Nuclear Energy from The Economist:

No technology can solve the climate problem on its own. Even in combination, today’s remedies—renewables, nuclear and energy efficiency—hardly seem up to the job. To have a reasonable chance of keeping down the rise in temperature to less than 2°C, industrial economies need to reduce emissions by 80% by 2050. The true scale of this challenge is not widely understood. A thorough study of options for such cuts in California, long a leader in energy efficiency, concluded that with today’s technology and plausible extrapolations of it, 60% was the best that could be done. If California can’t do better than that, says Jane Long, of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who led the study, “neither can anyone else”. 
Even getting close to such goals, though, is easier with more technologies than fewer. Even if nuclear can make only a small contribution, it could be worth having. The IEA’s 2011 World Energy Outlook calculates that, between now and 2035, an emissions path that keeps the 2°C limit plausible would cost $1.5 trillion more if OECD countries were to stop building nuclear plants and other countries halved their nuclear ambition, largely because much more would have to be spent on renewables.
It seems to me that it is worth spending money designing a new (fourth) generation of nuclear reactors and on figuring better ways to store spent fuels. Indeed, I still hold hope for fusion reactors, although I remember when the experimental reactor was fired up in a neighboring building about 1960. At that time there were predicting commercial fusion in a decade or two.

Maybe we should have let them secede

From the report of new survey results in Alabama and Mississippi:
  • There's considerable skepticism about evolution among GOP voters in both Alabama and Mississippi. In Alabama only 26% of voters believe in it, while 60% do not. In Mississippi just 22% believe in it, while 66% do not. 
  • Alabama's pretty much on board with interracial marriage, with 67% of voters thinking it should be legal to 21% who think it should not be. There's still some skepticism in Mississippi though- only 54% of voters think it should be legal, while 29% believe it should be illegal. 
  • Rush Limbaugh's damaged his brand over the last few weeks. His favorability is only slightly over 50% in these two states where the Republican electorate is incredibly conservative- he's at 53/33 in Alabama and 51/30 in Mississippi. 
  • There's considerable skepticism about Barack Obama's religion with Republican voters in them. In Mississippi only 12% of voters think Obama's a Christian to 52% who think he's a Muslim and 36% who are not sure. In Alabama just 14% think Obama's a Christian to 45% who think he's a Muslim and 41% who aren't sure.

A lot of college students would approve

"It is disgusting to notice the increase in the quantity of coffee used by my subjects, and the like amount of money that goes out of the country in consequence. My people must drink beer. His Majesty was brought up on beer, and so were his ancestors."
Frederick the Great in 1777.
Source: The Financial Times

More from Lane Kenworthy: It is Worse than you thought

The previous post showed that the median income in the United States grew more slowly than the average income during the Reagan administration and the two Bush administrations, breaking the trend of equal rates of growth from 1950 to 1980.

The graph above shows that the median income for households headed by someone age 25 to 34 was essentially the same in 2010 as was the median income for households of the same age in 1980.

The apparent increase in median family income was due to the aging of the population. Basically, the income of people in their 50s is higher than for people in their 30s for reasons we all understand -- seniority, income from savings, experience, etc.

Source: Zillow Blog

There is a long term trend towards smaller households, so that even when the median household doesn't grow, the median per capita income may be growing.

Source: Census bureau via this site

Moreover, single parent households are increasing and households with married couples decreasing as percentage of all households with children. Single adult households, in a society which has so many two earner married couples, are likely to have lower household incomes.

Thus one might with a jaundiced eye suggest that the rich are appropriating a larger portion of our economic growth at the expense of a subset of our children.

The rich grew richer faster after Reagan than did the rest of us.

My friend Julianne alerted me to this graph from Lane Kenworthy's blog, Consider the Evidence. It provides another way of showing what happened in the U.S. economy since Ronald Reagan was elected. The top lines show how the average income has evolved in the United States since 1950 and the lower lines show how the median income has evolved. From 1950 to 1980, the two increased in step -- increases in the productivity of the economy as a whole were shared in such a way as not to make the distribution of income more unequal.

After 1980, the median and the average income levels diverged. The median income continued to grow, but more slowly than the average income. What that means is that the rate of growth of high incomes was greater than the rate of growth of low incomes; the higher income people appropriated more of the growth of the economy for themselves than the poor or than they had previously.

Incidentally, during a period that roughly corresponds to the Clinton administation, the median and average incomes increased at the same rate. The divergence occurred primarily in the Reagan and two Bush administrations -- which of course lasted for 20 years.

Emotional Styles

Prefrontal cortex - implicated by research in emotional styles
Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports research suggesting that humans have emotional styles, which are comprised of six different components.

  • Resilience, which is how quickly or slowly you recover from negative emotions. For example, some people can hold onto fears or grudges for years, while others may let things go after only a day.
  • Outlook, which is the duration of your positive emotions. For example, some people may experience positive feelings like joy to be very fleeting, while others tend to sustain these feelings much longer.
  • Context, which is the degree to which you modulate your emotional responses in a context-appropriate way. For example, you probably won’t talk to your boss about the same things as you would when you talk to your spouse or child. In the same way, we often modulate our emotional responses differently depending on the person we are talking to and the setting we are in.
  • Social Intuition, which is your sensitivity to social cues, including facial expressions and verbal expressions. This part of your emotional style refers to your ability to understand and empathize with other people’s emotional worlds.
  • Self Awareness, which is the extent to which you are aware of emotional signals within your own body and mind. The more aware you aware of your own emotions, the better you’ll be able to manage them. Most people respond to their emotions without ever stopping to reflect on them.
  • Attention, which is how focused or scattered your mind is. Are you able to focus your attention on one thing at a time, or do you find yourself being easily distracted? Davidson’s research shows attention plays a key role in emotional regulation.
He has brain scan results that show actions, especially in the prefrontal cortex, that correlate with subjects viewing images.

I am especially interested in his comment that he finds sections of the brain involved both in emotional style and decision making. He suggests that some decisions are made combining logic and emotion.

We think with our brains and not our minds. Emotions count.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Can we make scientific reporting better?

Last year Carl Zimmer published an article in the New York Times Sunday Review describing why published scientific results are sometimes wrong and uncorrected. Scientists would rather do their own work than replicate the experiments of others, it takes time and resources to replicate those experiments, and Journals often refuse to publish reports of replications (months or years after the original study was done), preferring new and surprising results to challenges to earlier studies that support the ideas that those studies challenged.

His point is quite good. While scientific consensus does have epistemological value, published scientific results are not always right. Moreover, it takes time (and work) for the system to function well.

Interestingly, in the online version of Zimmer's article there is a note that the text has been changed to correct a factual error in the original. That suggests that scientific papers should always be published online, that the definitive version should be the online one, and that the online papers should be updated with corrections and linked to subsequent papers that replicate, support or challenge their results.

Another American Myth -- Small Businesses Create Most Jobs

I quote from an article by Alan D. Viard and Amy Roden from AEI Online (references excluded):

The most common argument for preferential treatment of small business--its uniquely powerful role in job creation--does not stand up under scrutiny. To begin, the statement that small firms create the majority of jobs does not imply that they play a unique role in job creation. No matter how jobs are distributed across firm sizes, one can always find some threshold size such that firms smaller than that size account for a majority of jobs. 
Careful statistical studies do not assign any special role to small firms. Instead, such studies have largely reaffirmed Gibrat's Law, formulated by Robert Gibrat in 1931, which holds that there is no relationship between a firm's employment size and its growth rate of employment. As Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland economists Ben R. Craig and James B. Thomson and University of North Carolina professor William E. Jackson III noted in 2004, "economic studies find little evidence to support" the claim that small businesses are an important source of employment growth. In their authoritative book on job creation and destruction, Steven J. Davis of the University of Chicago and AEI, John C. Haltiwanger of the University of Maryland, and Scott Schuh of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston dismiss what they call the "small business job-creation myth," concluding that "conventional wisdom about the job-creating prowess of small businesses rests on statistical fallacies and misleading interpretations of the data." 
Davis, Haltiwanger, and Schuh, along with other authors, emphasize the "regression fallacy" that arises from temporary changes in firm employment. Most of the studies computing job gains between two dates classify firms as big or small based on their size at the earlier date, a practice that inflates job gains at small firms. When a firm that has temporarily become small due to a recent setback regains its former position, a job gain for a small firm is recorded; when a firm that has temporarily become large due to a recent expansion falls back to its prior position, a job loss at a large firm is recorded. Opposite results are obtained if the firms are classified as large or small based on their employment at the later date.
It is also important to look at net, rather than gross, job gains. For any category of firms and time period, gross job creation is the sum of job gains at those firms that added jobs during the period. Conversely, gross job destruction is the sum of job losses at those firms that reduced jobs during the period. Net job creation is equal to gross job creation minus gross job destruction. As Davis, Haltiwanger, and Schuh--and others--document, smaller firms have proportionately higher rates of gross job creation than larger firms. Unfortunately, small firms' high gross job creation is offset by high gross job destruction. Davis, Haltiwanger, and Schuh conclude that "[i]n a nutshell, net job creation in the U.S. manufacturing sector exhibits no strong or simple relationship to employer size."
Another issue of importance in measuring net job gains is churn. When the mom-and-pop shop in the local strip mall goes out of business, it is often replaced by another mom-and-pop shop with the same number of employees. There is an obvious bias if one only records the job creation in the new company and fails to record the job loss from the failed company. It is great that the number of jobs in the neighborhood does not go down if the empty space in the strip mall is filled, but the employment effect is churn rather than job creation.

A lot of political hyperbole is focused on the merits of small companies and almost none on the merits of large companies. Moreover, many government policies are designed to give small firms breaks, either tax financing or actual government funding.

Some such breaks make sense to me. It makes sense as Justin Lin suggests in his book, New Structural Economics, to provide government incentives to firms that are struggling to create new competitive advantages for a country (with an open, free market economy with a supportive government); some of those companies will be small, but some will be large (e.g. Apple, Google, Amazon). It may also make sense to provide aid for small firms in hard times since they are likely not to have the deep pockets of large firms.

I suspect that much of the answer to our pro small business policies lies in the effectiveness of small business lobbies that espouse very conservative policies. The National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) and local Chambers of Commerce are very influential in Washington, both very conservative, and can reasonably argue that they represent small business owners who tend to oppose taxes, minimum wage increases and mandatory health care insurance for employees. According to the Boston Review:
While NFIB is relatively small—600,000 members compared to AARP’s 38 million—it is remarkably powerful. Fortune has frequently named it the most powerful business lobby in Washington, and in 2005 Republican members of Congress identified it as the most powerful congressional lobby.
While, based on my last post we can not expect Republicans to read the literature and change their views, perhaps the Democrats and Independents will.

Buy the book -- The Republican Brain

Chris Mooney has an article based on his forthcoming book The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science—and Reality. He cites a 2008 Pew Research Center Report which produced the following graph:

The striking feature of the graph is Republican college grads are less likely than Republican non-college grads to believe in anthropogenic global warming, while more educated independents and Democrats are more likely to accept the scientific consensus. This is an example of what Mooney has come to "call the 'smart idiots' effect: The fact that politically sophisticated or knowledgeable people are often more biased, and less persuadable, than the ignorant."

Mooney goes on to state:
Republicans or conservatives who say they know more about the topic, or are more educated, are shown to be more in denial, and often more sure of themselves as well—and are confident they don’t need any more information on the issue. 
Tea Party members appear to be the worst of all. In a recent survey by Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, they rejected the science of global warming even more strongly than average Republicans did.......Most strikingly, the Tea Party members were very sure of themselves—they considered themselves “very well-informed” about global warming and were more likely than other groups to say they “do not need any more information” to make up their minds on the issue.
Mooney says the effect is found in other controversial issues in which there is factual evidence relevant to the validity of the alternative positions. Moreover, he cites a study indicating that more scientific knowledge and greater mathematical ability makes Republicans more dogmatic in rejecting scientific evidence that conflicts with their political positions.
(T)here is even research suggesting that the most rigid and inflexible breed of conservatives—so-called authoritarians—do not really become their ideological selves until they actually learn something about politics first.
In contrast, liberals apparently really do like facts and are more likely to modify their opinions if provided with contrary factual information.

This is very disturbing. If conservatives have ideological positions that are contrary to factual evidence, how then is one to reach them with reasoned arguments? Perhaps the only real conclusion is that we need to go to the polls and vote to assure that liberals are in the majority in the Congress and hold the presidency. 

I hope the FAA regulates drones with care and intelligence

The Economist recently had an article on the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) in the private sector.
Drone aircraft are no longer restricted to military use. They are being built and used by hobbyists, activists and estate agents, among others. What are the implications for safety and privacy?
The article cites some applications -- "monitoring traffic, checking electricity cables and pipelines, surveying forestry and crops, taking aerial photographs, patrolling wooded areas for fire". Drones are under development by many firms, some are intended for very low altitude use, some are very small, many are intended to be very simple to launch and to pilot, and some will be sold at very modest prices, much less than the current helicopters.

The Federal Aviation Administration and its counterparts in other countries are trying to figure out how to regulate the drones. Apparently in the United States hobbyists can already fly drones (and model airplanes) and waivers are being granted to developers to test designs and products, but commercial use of drones is still a question.

It seems to me that the regulation should differ according to many factors:

  • Is the drone to be used over urban, rural or wild lands.
  • Is the drone to fly in areas in which it would potentially endanger civil aviation or commercial aviation?
  • What is the use proposed for the drone. In applications where the use could be life saving (such as disaster relief or searching for lost children) more flexibility should be granted.
  • What equipment is carried on the drone, such as detection of other drones or planes or parachutes to allow safe landings in drone engines fail.
  • Pilot licensing, and the qualifications of the agency and pilot of the drone.
It seems to me that regulation is required, but over regulation could slow the use of very valuable tools for many civilian applications not to mention to development of a nice little manufacturing industry for which the United States might have a competitive advantage.

Less Equality in the United States than in Europe

Source: The Economist

The United States used to be known as the "land of opportunity". Now the distribution of income is less egalitarian than in Britain, France or Germany. Note too, that inequality is increasing in the United States (and Germany), but is not doing so in the UK nor France. The increasing inequality of income suggests that the rich are capturing more and more of the income, and thus there is less and less for the poor to acquire to improve their lot. Countries of Latin America were long perceived to grow slowly because their economies were to dominated by the rich, who were conservative to preserve their economic advantages. That may happen in the United States as well.

Good News from the World Bank

I quote from The Economist:
The best estimates for global poverty come from the World Bank’s Development Research Group, which has just updated from 2005 its figures for those living in absolute poverty (not be confused with the relative measure commonly used in rich countries). The new estimates show that in 2008, the first year of the finance-and-food crisis, both the number and share of the population living on less than $1.25 a day (at 2005 prices, the most commonly accepted poverty line) was falling in every part of the world. This was the first instance of declines across the board since the bank started collecting the figures in 1981 (see chart). 
The estimates for 2010 are partial but, says the bank, they show global poverty that year was half its 1990 level. The world reached the UN’s “millennium development goal” of halving world poverty between 1990 and 2015 five years early. This implies that the long-term rate of poverty reduction—slightly over one percentage point a year—continued unabated in 2008-10, despite the dual crisis.
This is very good news indeed. Our confidence should however be tempered by the financial problems in Europe and the United States. I also am concerned that the Asian economies that have been providing a motor for global growth may run into a cul-de-sac caused by rent seeking by the people in power in their societies (see this analysis).

I am a ranchero, I don't know!

Will Ferrell Sings Yo No Se Music Video from Casa de mi Padre, a comedy to be released this month.

Thoughts on reading The Masque of Africa

There is the old story of the four blind men describing an elephant. One feels the side, and says it feels like a wall, the second feels a leg and says it feels like a pillar, the third feels the tail and says if feels like a snake, and the fourth feels the trunk and says it feels like a hose.

What if one blind man is taken to feel a wall, shortly thereafter a pillar, later a snake and finally a hose? Might he not conclude that he then understands the essence of the elephant?

The plural of anecdote is not data.

(Actually, in the hands of a competent professional social scientist, anecdotes can be data, but in the hands of a travel writer-novelist they are more likely to be anecdotes, used for effect.)

In fairness, V. S. Naipaul is interested in exploring the nature of his own conceptions as well as the nature of African beliefs in his book, The Masque of Africa: Glimpses of African Belief.
According to Merrium Webster, a masque is 1: masquerade or 2: a short allegorical dramatic entertainment of the 16th and 17th centuries performed by masked actors.
Source of Naipaul sketch

Generally, the book is written in a clear, easy to understand English. Robert Butler provides us with Naipaul's rules for learning to write:
(1) write sentences of no more than ten to 12 words; (2) make each sentence a clear statement (a series of clear linked statements makes a paragraph); (3) use short words—average no more than five letters; (4) never use a word you don’t know the meaning of; (5) avoid adjectives except for ones of colour, size and number; (6) use concrete words, avoid abstract ones; (7) practise these rules every day for six months.
I note however in his chapter on Gabon, the author describes a young man he meets as a former Peace Corps volunteer now married to a woman for Gabon (the mother of his children). In a later page he says that on a trip to Libreville he "met the woman he would marry. She was his mother's neighbor." Now an American's mother would presumably not have a neighbor Gabonese woman from the Fang tribe; the text is unclear. In his visit to the Ivory Coast, Naipaul twice mentions a soccer game between the national team and that from Malawi at which 69 people died. In the first reference it appears that they may have died as a result of an out-of-control crowd after a part of the stadium had collapsed; in the second that the people died in the collapse of the building. Perhaps not a major problem, but still a lack of exactitude in the prose.

I have a thought experiment for you. Assume that you are visited by someone from another planet with his interpreter. The interpreter tells you that the alien has heard you are a Catholic (substitute your own religion) and wants you to tell him about being a Catholic. At least three things would be involved:
  • Religion is not only complex, but much is implicit. You might not be able to articulate what it is to be a Catholic.
  • Articulating religion to yourself is one thing, communicating that to someone else is a far different and even more complex undertaking.
  • You might want to examine closely what you wanted to communicate and why. What perception did you want to leave? What would be the threats and the opportunities in the communication.
Naipaul,  an Indo-Trinidadian-British Nobel Laureate writer, is pretty alien to the average African, and says that he discovered on an earlier trip to Africa that directly questioning tribal practitioners didn't work. So in this book, Naipaul combines visits to African religious sites, information from more cosmopolitan people (Africans who have considerable contact abroad or foreigners who have lived long in Africa), and reading. As his subtitle describes, the book provides only glimpses of African beliefs.

Naipaul has lived in many places and visited more. He is not shocked by Africa. I too have lived in several places and visited some 50 countries but I did not go to sub-Saharan Africa until late in my career, and I found it different than Latin America, the Middle East, or Asia, and much different than North America or Europe. Some of the responses of Naipaul to these differences come through the text. He appears distressed by the destruction of forests, the expansion of slum filled cities, and the seeming indifference of Africans to rubbish piled in the streets. He  also seems disturbed by the willingness of the Africans to eat any kind of meat, including dogs, cats, elephants, and bats. (One wonders if there was less protein malnutrition and more affordable sources of protein whether Africans too might prefer other meats.) He seems to regret the decay of things built by European colonists in the days of empire, without celebrating the independence of the indigenous population and their successes (improved health, improved access to education, etc.)

Naipaul is not your average tourist. He is escorted by diplomats from Trinidad or contacts of his publisher; in Gabon he is accompanied by officials assigned by the Minister of Defense. He interviews presidential candidates and ex presidents as well as top tribal religious leaders. He stays in the best hotels. His is not the grass roots experience of the anthropologist nor the long term immersion of the Peace Corps volunteer, although he can relate what he sees and hears to his early life in Trinidad.

The book is in part a travel log but rather an unusual one. The author devotes chapters to visits to Uganda, Nigeria, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Gabon and South Africa. Naipaul provides sketches of the places he visits or passes through, but I am reminded of the painted backdrops used in theater rather than detailed information for the traveler. He seems to write as often of this problems as a traveler (getting through the airport in Lagos, lodging or finding an address) as he does on "the glimpses of belief".

The narrative voice is usually detached, sometimes expressing frustration or even fear, but seldom pleasure nor joy. He describes kissing off visits to sites that other people had taken pains to arrange. I don't think I would enjoy traveling with V. S. Naipaul.

Taxonomy: Naipaul is primarily interested in this book in "indigenous African religious beliefs". This is not a book about political, economic, governmental, aesthetic or other kinds of beliefs. Nor is it a book about varieties of Christian or Islamic beliefs that exist in Africa. It does include beliefs about supernatural spirits, some sources of illness and some treatment of illnesses, sites of spiritual power, and leaders of religious institutions. It does not deal with the African who perceives he has a fever and that the cause is best diagnosed and treated by a doctor or health center. It seems obvious to me that the class of things of interest to Naipaul  in this book is not necessarily a class that would be recognized by most Africans as homogeneous -- of things to be linked under a single category. Rather the category derives from European thought, and I suspect from imperial attitudes towards the people of African colonies.

In this blog I have often described my preference for scientific knowledge. Comparing the knowledge developed over centuries of science of the causes and treatment of disease with that developed by other more traditional institutions in Africa, I think there is a clear superiority for the former. Indeed, I suspect that most Africans would go to a doctor rather than a traditional practitioner for many conditions were the modern doctor available and affordable. Of course, there are health conditions which modern doctors can't cure. Indeed, many conditions are treated by modern medicine based on traditional practices (aspirin, quinine, etc.).

What would "The Masque of America" read like. How many beliefs of Americans would appear to be odd or false to someone following Naipaul's investigative technique? There would of course be sections on haunted houses, faith healers, herbalists, cult leaders, and sites believed to be invested with spiritual power by New Agers. I suspect there would also be sections that would offend the most modern and logical Americans regarding some of their closely held "scientifically based" beliefs as quaint or simply false. There might also be beliefs thrown into the mix (manifest destiny, American exceptionalism?) that most Americans would not see as related to the others listed above.

The past is another country and we can be foreign observers of our own nations as they were in the past. In America it is not so long ago that we sterilized people of low IQ to improve the race, we did lobotomies to cure mental disease, we believed Blacks, Irish, Italians, and Asians to be inferior races, many of us believed slavery was a divinely inspired institution needed to improve the lives of blacks. We will be another country for our descendants, and they no doubt will find some of our beliefs today to be equally strange as those I cite from the past seem to us.

I came away from the book with the feeling that Naipaul chose to study a class of beliefs in Africa that would tend to be deprecated by his readers in the global book-buying public. I have not read his other books, and it may be that his books on Christianity and Islam similarly trigger his skepticism. It may be however, that this book is an allegory for our beliefs, and that he is indirectly deprecating of the beliefs of Americans and Europeans. Indeed, that might be the point he is trying to bring us to understand in this book.

On the other hand, the book seems to chronicle a change in Obama's own views towards a greater appreciation for beliefs that draw more from nature and the forest than from society and the city. Perhaps more fundamentally, the book is a chronicle of the failure of European colonization of Africa and the work that lies before the world in finding a way to forward out of the mess left by the clash of African and failed colonial cultures.

Naipaul ends this book with a discussion of the parable at the end of Rian Malan's book, My Traitor's Heart: A South African Exile Returns to Face His Country, His Tribe, and His Conscience. In that discussion he writes that a book which combines autobiography and reportage must also meet the narrative needs imposed on any book, and must conclude with some kind of resolution. In his final pages, Naipaul includes this quote from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness:
Their talk, however, was the talk of sordid buccaneers: it was reckless without hardihood, greedy without audacity, and cruel without courage; there was not an atom of fore-sight or of serious intention in the whole batch of them, and they did not seem aware these things are wanted for the work of the world.