Monday, April 30, 2012

Apparently U.S. Courts Accept the Palestinian Authority as a Sovereign State

I quote from the Supreme Court Decision in the case MOHAMAD, INDIVIDUALLY AND FOR ESTATE OF RAHIM, DECEASED, ET AL. v. PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY ET AL. decided April 18, 2012:
While visiting the West Bank, Azzam Rahim, a naturalized UnitedStates citizen, allegedly was arrested by Palestinian Authority intelligence officers, imprisoned, tortured, and ultimately killed. Rahim’s relatives, petitioners here, sued the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization under the Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA), which authorizes a cause of action against “[a]n individual” for acts of torture and extrajudicial killing committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation. 106 Stat. 73, note following 28 U. S. C. §1350. The District Court dismissed the suit, concluding, as relevant here, that the TVPA’s authorization of suit against “[a]n individual” extended liability only to natural persons. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed.
And further:
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR delivered the opinion of the Court.
The Torture Victim Protection Act of 1991 (TVPA orAct), 106 Stat. 73, note following 28 U. S. C. §1350, authorizes a cause of action against “[a]n individual” for actsof torture and extrajudicial killing committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation. We hold that the term “individual” as used in the Act encompasses only natural persons. Consequently, the Act does not imposeliability against organizations.
And still further:
The legislative history of the statute, however, makes up for whatever interpretive inadequacies remain after considering language alone. See, e.g., ante, at 9 (describing markup session in which one of the bill’s sponsors proposed an amendment containing the word “individual” to “make it clear” that the statute applied to “individualsand not to corporations”); Hearing on S. 1629 et al. before the Subcommittee on Immigration and Refugee Affairsof the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, 101st Cong., 2d Sess., 65 (1990) (witness explaining to committee that there would be a “problem” with suing an “independent entity or a series of entities that are not governments,” such as the Palestine Liberation Organization); id., at 75 (allaying concerns that there will be a flood of lawsuits“ because of the requirement [in the statute] that an individual has to identify his or her precise torture[r] and theyhave to be both in the United States”); see also ante, at 8– 9 (making clear that petitioners’ citations to the legislative history “do not help their cause”).
So the law applies to acts of torture and extrajudicial "committed under authority or color of law of any foreign nation." The suit was brought against the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization. The decision specifically refers to the fact that the Palestine Liberation Organization is not a foreign nation. It rejects the application on the basis that the suit is not against an individual. It does not reject the case on the basis that the Palestinian Authority is not a sovereign nation.

I found this case based on an article in The Economist which states:
The Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act usually crops up in very different cases. On April 18th, for example, the Supreme Court blocked a Palestinian family in America from using American courts to seek redress from the Palestinian Authority for torture and murder.
If the United States Supreme Court accepts the Palestinian Authority as a sovereign state, may we not conclude that it meets the internationally recognized attributes of statehood? But the United States is withholding funds from UNESCO, which admitted Palestine as governed by the Palestinian Authority as a member state, on the basis of a part of the foreign relations appropriations act which states "The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution - "(1) to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood." It seems to me that withholding the funds is not justified by the terms of the law.

See also this post.

A thought about world news

I have been listening to Barrie Dunsmore talking about his book, There and Back: Commentary by a former Foreign Correspondent. He seems to be concerned with the weakening of the foreign coverage of American TV network news and American newspapers, and on the weakening of the knowledge of the American public of both current events and the background needed to understand current events. He does note the quality of the PBS news.

I have on my television, in addition to the three major U.S. networks and the U.S. news networks, access to BBC World News, France 24, Deutsche Welle, NHK and importantly Al Jazeera. I also have CSPAN for authors presenting their non-fiction works.

I still subscribe to my local newspaper, The Washington Post, which is one of the better papers in the United States. I get The New York Times email newsletter. I also subscribe to The Economist. But via the Internet I can easily see the Irish Times, the Guardian, and other papers. While I read four languages, I find that using Google News and Google Translate I can find and read other languages. I regularly download articles from All Africa, Time of India and other foreign sources.

And of course, I get news via Facebook, Twitter, and Linked In.

It occurred to me that Barrie Dunsmore is from a generation that wanted its foreign news from American foreign correspondents reporting from abroad, while I tend to prefer my foreign news from reporters reporting from their own countries. I also find it interesting to find reports from several international news services of important stories.

My basic point is that more and better news coverage is available to the average American today than ever before.

I agree with Dunsmore that such riches demand that Americans be more information literate than they were in the past. In the golden days of American major network news, the networks seemed to do a better job than they do now of editing the news to select the important, challenge the false, and put things in context. Today Americans need certain skills to find the best available coverage, and to evaluate alternative sources of a single story.

I read some of the same polls that show that the average American is less knowledgeable of the world and its history than he/she should be, and that the schools are not doing the job that they should be in teaching civics, geography and history. Nor do they seem to be doing a good job in imbuing young people with an interest in news and a desire to learn about the world.

I wish I had a solution that would help. We have a gourmet banquet of news available to news bulimics.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

We need quantitative indicators of fog and friction in organizations

Though a lengthy, difficult read, On War has nevertheless had a profound impact military thought. Perhaps most famous for introducing the notions of “fog” and “friction.” Fog refers to the uncertainty of war and the difficulty of gathering reliable information. Friction is more complex, and refers to how difficult it is to actually execute military plans—unforeseen problems inevitably pop up, and combine to thwart plans, delay movements, and turn the tide of battles.
Beyond the Border: Fog and Friction
Carl von Clausewitz introduced the concepts of fog of war and friction in a military context, but I would suggest that it can be generalized to any large organization. Top executives in a business and civilian government also face uncertainty in their work and difficulties in gathering good information. So too, every business and government finds unexpected problems popping up in the implementation of policies and plans.

However the amount of fog and the degree of friction probably changes from organization to organization and from time to time. For example, when Lehman Brothers crashed in 2008, top executives in the Federal Reserve and Treasury Department faced considerable fog in the financial sector; the outlook was considerably clearer during most of the long economic expansion from 1993 to 2001. I suppose that the Chicago Board of Trade Volatility Index (VIX) is an indicator of market fog.

Source: Understanding the Chicago Board Options Exchange VIX Market Volatility Index
The graph shows that VIX was quite low in the early 1990s, rising as the long term expansion was coming to an end; VIX peaked during the 2008 financial crisis. According to Wikipedia, VIX "represents one measure of the market's expectation of stock market volatility over the next 30 day period." If investors can clearly see the future values of stocks, that information should be incorporated in the current values and volatility should be low; if the are very uncertain as to future values, volatility should be high.

Of course there are many different kinds of fog that afflict organizations, including changes in markets, in external conditions, and technological change. Large organizations may face more complex choices than small ones, but they may have more resources with which to obtain information and to control or respond to events. Multinational organizations may face different levels of fog than national organizations, and national organizations in very volatile countries more fog than those in more mature and sedate countries.


All organizations experience friction in that unforeseen problems inevitably pop up, and combine to thwart plans, delay activities, and turn the tide of the organization's success or failure. However, the amount of friction seems likely to differ from organization to organization and from time to time in the same organization. Large business organizations may have more friction than small businesses. In times of labor unrest, the friction level in an organization may go up. Friction may be a function of whether schools are in or whether the children of staff are on vacation, or how many of the staff themselves are on vacation. An organization which has been functioning well with a long term staff may encounter more friction if many of the staff retire at the same time and new staff are recruited. Currently American local governments are facing grave financial cutbacks, and friction may be increasing as staff try to do the same amount of work with fewer resources.

So What

Clearly fog and friction can be changed. Information and communications technology has helped many organizations cut through fog. Franchise chains have created and diffused organizational approaches that lubricate organizational processes and reduce friction.

There are also ways to deal with the irreducible fog and friction. Top executives, if they realize that conditions are especially foggy, can moderate their decision making correspondingly. Thus they can develop plans with stages allowing plan modification with experience and as situations clarify themselves.

Armies that have well trained junior officers and non-commissioned officers, and that provide them with understanding of objectives and the freedom to adjust tactics to achieve strategic objectives, have less military friction than do old fashion armies that invest authority in senior officers and impose compliance with top down orders by strict discipline. Similar approaches can be used in business and government organizations.

If McDonalds reduces friction by breaking down tasks into simple elements, standardizing, and training fine restaurants reduce friction by hiring expert chefs, waiters and wine stewards.

I suggest. however. that it would be useful to have quantitative indicators that could be used to measure organizational fog and organizational friction. Such indicators would allow management to monitor fog and friction and adjust plans and strategies in accord with changing patterns of these conditions.

A thought about balance in the media

I quote from "Scientists vs farmers? How the media threw the climate ‘debate’ off balance" by Natalie Latter:

In Britain, for example, the BBC has determined that it no longer has to present “both sides of the story” on climate change. It considers the science is settled, and not up for debate. 
But in Australia, the idea persists that “balance” is achieved by giving a large portion of media space to sceptics.
Latter goes on to discuss the need to make policy based on the best information and the problem in Australia that instead of debating the best policy to meet the challenge of greenhouse gas emission people there are instead debating which is the best information -- a question that is really already settled in the most knowledgeable community, that of the scientists.


Here in the United States the media is I fear more like that of Australia than Britain. Informing the public does not require airing the opinions of cranks when they challenge the conventional wisdom, but it does require airing the opinions of experts when they challenge the opinions of cranks. You may ask why cranks get air time, but when they are candidates for major offices or supported by big money, that happens. But when it does happen, the media should correct their misinterpretations of reality.

Perhaps more of a problem is the failure of the media to focus on the important in favor of the entertaining. There are something like 16,000 murders in the United States per year, and in the last decade none by Muslim terrorists. There are some 42,000 deaths in traffic accidents per year. You would never realize the differences in the importance of these problems by attending to the media.

Supposedly we are losing editorial judgment in the rise of the Internet, but I don't see that the editorial input has been as much in disseminating the important as in disseminating candy for the mind that draws audience.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Orangutan and the Hound

I posted this because it made me feel good and I wanted to share it.

Suryia and (now) Roscoe live at The Institute of Greatly Endangered and Rare Species in Myrtle Beach, SC. Which brings me to the point that a new intergovernmental body has just been established to accelerate the global movement towards sustainable management of the world's biodiversity and ecosystems. The new body is the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES). Lacking a better system to manage ecosystems, we will lose biodiversity and there will continue to be a need for centers specializing in the rescue of individuals from greatly endangered (charismatic) species.
The creation of IPBES, just a few weeks away from the Rio+20 Conference, is a strong signal, and I congratulate this significant progress towards the conservation of biodiversity.
Irina Bokova
Director General of UNESCO

Friday, April 27, 2012

A modest proposal on educational funding

What are the facts that justify government investment in higher education? One is that it is a public good. Knowledge generation and organization seem to be obvious public goods from higher education. So too is the investment in service capacity for the (unpaid) services that will be offered to the community.

I would suggest that some of the educational services are also public goods. Public health physicians, engineers and other professionals provide public services with important positive externalities -- those professionals do not appropriate all of the economic benefits that their services generate for the communities that they serve. Indeed, some of the educated people who create and operate enterprises create jobs and values that they do not themselves capture; the more college graduates in a local area, the better the economy seems to be for all "lifting all boats". In all of these cases, governments should support the higher education institutions.

There are also investments in human capital that will be reimbursed by future earnings. Students who can not make such investments out of savings or current earnings (their own or their parents') may borrow to obtain the education, repaying the loans from future earnings. If there are failures in the market for such loans, the government might justifiably step in to correct those market failures or make up for them if they can not be corrected.

We may wish to finance higher education for some students on the basis of leveling the playing field for them. For example, young people from families living below the poverty line or who have high educational costs due to some disability. Those would be public policy choices, and where legislatures make those choices in our name, they should be embodied in the law.

I also support public funding to repay debts under certain circumstances. For example, some students borrow to obtain degrees expecting to go into the private sector and obtain high paying jobs which would allow them to pay off the loans. Instead they go into low paid public service jobs or civil society jobs with significant public benefit. These deserve government stepping in to pay off the loans.

There are government expenditures on higher education that I would oppose. My wife and I are both studying after retirement, not to contribute to the economy but simply to learn. I see no reason for the state to subsidize such education which is pure consumption. So too, there are forms of tertiary education  which students choose on the basis of advertising which tells them falsely that the courses will pay off in future earnings. While some of this can be regulated out of existence, government should not pay for such courses.

So how about government funding by competitive grants to colleges and universities based on economic arguments. Proposals would justify the requests for funding by data showing that the applications were appropriate for public funding and competing on the basis of "bang for the buck" -- public benefits per dollar subsidy. States might make the grants, with partial funding through federal block grants to the states.

A couple of thoughts about diversity

We celebrate diversity, but we should not celebrate diversity; we should celebrate what we do with diversity.
Eric Liu
one of the authors of The Gardens of Democracy: A New American Story of Citizenship, the Economy, and the Role of Government

Almost right Mr. Liu. Diversity exists and diversity often provides opportunities and advantages, but it is not necessarily a good in itself.

I would say that we have to make of our diversity that of which we can and should celbrate. If we accept racial and ethnic prejudice, if we allow an underclass to be perpetuated to make the rest of us feel superior, those things should not be celebrated.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Thinking about the causes of the Civil War

There are many theories as to the cause of the Civil War. Here is another.

The Attack on Fort Sumter April 12-13, 1861

The proximate cause of the Civil War was the attack on Fort Sumter. The states of the deep south had seceded from the Union and decided to attack, knowing that the attack was an act of war. The Union responded by mobilizing a military response. Those actions emerged from complex social and political processes. Both choices can also be seen as causes of the Civil War, as can the processes that led to those choices.

The choice to secede and to begin military action seems to demand explanation since it was so disastrous. Nominally, the choice was intended to preserve the institution of slavery and the way of life that that institution permitted to the whites. In fact, that choice led to the rapid abolition of slavery as well as the death of one quarter of the white men of military age in South Carolina, wounding of even more of its young men, the destruction of the state's economy, occupation by troops from the northern states, and citizenship for the former slaves. Since negotiation could easily have led to conditions more satisfactory to the white power structure of South Carolina, I suggest that a real cause of the Civil War was a very bad choice by South Carolina.

The choice by the south to start the Civil War, bad as it was, is but one of many such bad choices made in world history. Think of the choice by Paraguay in 1864 to enter a war against the Triple Alliance. The loss to Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay led to the death of an estimated 3/5th to 9/10th of the people of Paraguay, leaving the country a basket case for the next century. That was a really bad choice!

The choice by the Union seems at first glance not to require explanation. It was the moral choice to end slavery. It was a choice to respond in kind to an act of war. It was a choice that led to victory in the Civil War, and the Union after the war went on to become the world's richest and most powerful nation. However, just because the choice was right does not mean that it need not be explained. Many countries have made the wrong choice is similar circumstances. I am tempted to compare the Union's right choice to take the hard road of war to the wrong choice made by Britain to appease Hitler at Munich in 1938.

The shape of the Civil War was formed by many choices made in other times and other places. I am especially interested in the choice of Virginia after the attack on Fort Sumter and the beginning of mobilization in the north to secede from the Union and join the Confederacy. That decision was actually a reversal of a slightly earlier choice to remain in the Union. It resulted in much of the actual fighting taking place in Virginia; had Virginia chosen to stay in the Union, the fighting would probably have taken place further south. I suggest that had Virginia stayed in the Union, the war might have been avoided entirely or shortened, the abolition of slavery in Virginia might have taken place more gradually, and the results for the white people of Virginia (who had all the power to influence the choice) would have been much better in terms of human casualties and economic destruction than actually was the case.

Why the Deep South Chose the Wrong Path

South Carolina's white population in 1860 was under 300,000. Since slaves were property rather than citizens, and since women and children did not have the vote, the number of voters would have been about 75 thousand. However, the political power was held by a minority of the whites who were not only slave holders but included the wealthy owners of many slaves each. The exclusion of the slaves, free blacks and women from political participation and the domination of the political process by those who had the most to gain from continuing the institution of slavery clearly must have influenced the choice for war rather than compromise.

It must have been that those people of influence:

  • failed to understand the vigor with which the north would prosecute the war, nor the quality of the northern forces;
  • failed to understand the nature of total war in their time (as those who had fought in Indian wars and the Mexican War such as Sam Houston, Grant and Sherman must have done);
  • failed to understand the economics of maintaining large, well armed forces in the field and a domestic economy that would also support the people at home;
  • failed to understand that the industrial plant of the south would prove inadequate to keep up with the weapons production of the north, and that it would be impossible to continue to import adequate supplies of weapons from abroad;
  • failed to realize that the million white men of military age would not be sufficient to win a war against the 4 million men of military age in the North while simultaneously maintaining productivity in the south;
  • failed to appreciate that the slaves and free blacks would want the south to lose the war, would prove to be a very difficult work force to manage, and that many would desert to the north at the first opportunity, leaving the south with severely limited economic productive capacity;
  • failed to realize that the northern blockade would be so effective, and indeed failed to realize that not only would the blockade stop the export of cotton during the war, but that other sources of cotton would replace southern production for European markets.
  • failed to recognize that European powers would not provide military aid to the Confederacy -- aid that would become politically impossible after the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862,
Thus I would suggest that a radical failure of knowledge and analysis in the deep south which led the vast majority of its influential to assume that the war would be quick, painless and victorious, combined with a deeply flawed political process, were important causes of the Civil War.

Why the North Chose to Fight

The breakdown of the Whig Party and the triumph in the north of the Republican Party in the election of 1860 brought Lincoln to office with a supportive Congress. Lincoln saw his duty to preserve the Union and the bellicose mood of the country evolved into war fever after the attack on Fort Sumter not only allowing but forcing a decision for war. So too, the media supported the initiation of the war on the part of the north. However, most people in the north also failed to appreciate the nature of the total war that would follow. They assumed that Union forces would be far more successful (and Confederate forces far less successful) in the early part of the war than they proved to be. They underestimated the will of the south, and underestimated the magnitude of the total war that would ensue. So it would seem that the choice to fight by the north also was in part the result of a political process that depended on poor information and inadequate analysis.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.
Abraham Lincoln
The Gettysburg Address
The decision by the north to fight was in part to oppose the creation of a new nation cut out of the Union that was specifically conceived on the proposition that all men are not created equal, and dedicated to preservation of an institution that would enslave millions. It was also due to a degree we find hard to understand today to the belief that if secession were to succeed, democratic governance would disappear. Leaders were familiar not only with classical examples of Athens and Rome in which democracy had failed, but also with the failure of democracy after the French Revolution and after the revolutions of 1848 in much of Europe. The more thoughtful of the leaders saw the global importance of the United States of America as a beacon for liberty. They also saw that a weakened Union would face much more serious threats from European imperial powers in achieving imperial domain over the west.

Why Virginia Chose to Fight

The choice of Virginia to join the Confederacy and fight on its side seems especially worthy of consideration. That choice turned out to be comparably disastrous to the choice of South Carolina, leading to heavy casualties in the war for Virginia citizens, the abrupt end of slavery, the destruction of Virginia's economy, occupation by northern troops, and citizenship for its former slaves.

Richmond after the siege
Virginia's convention to consider secession had voted to stay with the Union; it quickly reversed that decision after the conquest of Fort Sumter and the call for troops by President Lincoln. If Virginia had not seceded, the war in the east would not have been fought primarily on Virginia soil, and the devastation of Virginia by the war would have been much less. Virginia's switch would have greatly strengthened the Union forces and weakened those of the Confederacy, probably shortening the war.

Had Virginia not seceded, it is even possible that North Carolina making its decision in the following month would also have stayed with the Union. If both Virginia and North Carolina had opted for the Union, the war would probably have been still more shortened. Indeed, there would have been much more room for negotiations toward outcomes more desired by those in power in Virginia.

The process by which the choice was made by Virginia must have been much like that of South Carolina, beset by similar failures of perception of the risks and analysis of the situation. It was apparently influenced by public opinion mobilized in support of the Confederacy after President Lincoln called for troops to fight in a Civil War.

Ultimately the course of the war was influenced by those and other failures of information and analysis in flawed decision making institutions comparable to those which had led to the start of the war.

So What

Understanding historical events is of course valuable in and of itself. Still there are some cautionary lessons for us today. It is as important today as it was 150 years ago to understand the implications of important government policy decisions; the experience with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suggest that U.S. government decision makers chose to enter those wars with very inadequate knowledge and analysis. So too, the mistake of leaving decision making in the hands of small minorities with interests that are not those of the majority of our citizens is present today as it was a century and a half ago. So too is the danger of making choices based on the emotional response of the public to specific events rather than on a more dispassionate assessment of circumstances and interests.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

A thought about the last financial crisis.

In retrospect, the people we depend upon to run and regulate our economy should have seen the problems that led to the financial crash and the Great Recession. Even I, not at all an expert on housing, could see that we were in a housing bubble. Newspapers, television and magazines all provided that information.

People buy houses with mortgages. The purchases are leveraged. It should have been obvious that they were highly leveraged, especially in the face of a housing bubble in which prices would eventually come down.

So where was all the credit coming from to finance the housing purchases? Obvious questions would be are down payments sufficient to cover the risk. or are people being screened to assure their credit worthiness for the debt that they were taking on.

Surely the regulators and bankers should have known the the derivatives were making a lot of credit available by laying off the risk. Someone should have been looking to see if there was systemic risk. The people who were making the mortgage loans were unconcerned with the risk per loan since they could lay it off into derivatives, and the people who were buying the derivatives were not evaluating the risks in the individual mortgages.

But our incentive structure paid the executives of the financial services industry huge salaries and bonuses on the basis of short term profits, and the politicians were beholding to the big money paying for their elections and reluctant to impose regulations that they didn't like. And so it went....

I wonder whether we are seeing a similar thing with sovereign debt. Governments are borrowing from other governments in order to bail out governments and banks that have borrowed too much. Is there a systemic risk. The stock market seems to think so.

A thought about median income

Mitt Romney may mislead the public by citing a statistic that many people will misinterpret. He is mentioning the decrease in median household income during the Obama administration.
Source: CATHERINE RAMPELL in Economix Blog
Apparently Mitt Romney has been commenting on the lower median household income in the United States following Obama's assuming office. The data are shown above. Actually the budget for the first year in office of any president is determined by the Congress acting on the budget proposals of his predecessor. The graph shows that median income has in fact being increasing modestly since the Obama programs to mitigate the recession took hold.

Source: Work Exposed The Blog
The second graph, which only tracks employment to 2010, shows that there was a significant drop in employment in the Great Recession, with unemployment beginning to top out in 2010. Unemployment rates of course have been dropping since 2011.

When people lose their jobs, their household income goes down. Thus some households find their income, which had been above the median, falling below that median due to a job loss. Remember, the median is the point in which half of households have more and half have less than the median income. Thus, a household falling below the median means that the median also falls by a tiny amount. Seven million jobs lost means a lot of households falling from above to below the 2007 median, and thus a significant drop in the median household income. Of course, there may have been a drop in the pay received by the folk who kept their jobs, but I would guess that the drop in median household income is mainly due to the high level of unemployment -- a problem that we are slowly overcoming.

Source: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
This third graph shows that there has been very little increase in the family incomes for the poor since the Reagan revolution (started when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981), and indeed, not much increase for the lower middle class. Republican policies have economically benefited mostly the top few percent of the population. Of course, Romney is not going to be showing how bad Republican policies have been for the majority of American voters.

John Cleese on the Origin of Creativity

There is a better post on this great talk than I can produce. Check it out on Deric Bownds' Mindblog. You might also check out the source on Open Culture.

There is a lot of good stuff in the talk, but I especially like the latter part in which Cleese says that knowing whether or not you are good at something requires precisely the same skills you need to be good at it, so people who are horrible at something tend to have no idea they are horrible at all.

It is interesting that he equates "taste" (in the sense as knowing whether something is really good) with a skill, implying that it can be learned and is not simply an innate ability. That is probably why so many Nobel Prizes in science have been won by former students of other Nobel Prize winners; they learn to distinguish really good ideas from not so good ideas at the feet of their masters. They may also learn to work hard following up on the good ideas at what my mother-in-law used to call "the same low joints".

My former Prof's research featured in The Economist

I wanted to share this by Ken Kraemer, my professor from graduate school at UCI, that was published in The Economist.
Researchers for the Personal Computing Industry Centre at the University of California, Irvine, took apart an iPad and worked out where all the various bits inside came from and what it had cost to make and assemble them (see chart 3). They found that a 16-gigabyte 2010 iPad priced at $499 contained $154-worth of materials and parts from American, Japanese, South Korean and European suppliers (Apple has more than 150 suppliers in all, many of which also make or finish their parts in China). The researchers estimated the total worldwide labour costs for the iPad at $33, of which China’s share was just $8. Apple is constantly tweaking its products so the figures shift all the time, but not by much.
The study shows why Apple is so profitable. It also shows how manufacturing in the personal computer industry is so globalized that it is hard to say a product is manufactured in a specific country. We can see, due to the work of the folk at the Personal Computing Industry Center what people in Amazon have known for some time: the corporation's profits can be maximized by developing innovative products that people will want and need, and then planning carefully to take advantage of the best places to manufacture parts and assemble devices wherever those places might be.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Putting manufacturing "decline" in context.

Source: The Economist
This graph shows that as the Chinese and Indians have increased their share of world manufacturing, the shares held by the United States, Japan, Germany and Britain have gone down. Look at the following graph, however:
Source: Project America
Manufacturing in the United States in fact shows a long term trend of increasing contributions to GDP. Thus, American manufactures have been increasing production but Chinese and Indian manufacturers have been increasing theirs more rapidly.

Source: The American
This third graph shows that manufacturing is going down as a percentage of total production of goods and services in the United States and in the world as a whole. Once the change was from primary production (agriculture, forestry, fishing) to manufacturing. Today the change is to increase services, such as medical services, education and entertainment.

You have to be careful to understand what an apparently simple and straight forward graph actually means. It may be easy to lie with statistics, but it is easier still to lie with pictures.

Does this explain why the Republicans call for tax cuts?

Source: The Economist

Republicans propose unjustified tax cuts

Source: The Economist
The national debt peaked as the United States fought World War II, and was largely paid off by FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and LBJ, Nixon and Carter. Then came the Reagan-Bush I revolution which cut taxes (as shown above) and started a huge rise in the national debt. Clinton started to cut the debt, but then came Bush II and his wars. Since Bush II failed to pay for his wars insisting on low taxes instead, the debt started up again and then rose very rapidly. Obama, trying to end two Bush wars, while dealing with the Great Recession, and a Republican House of Representatives that blocks tax increases, is seeing a continuing increase in national debt.

The Obama proposed return to slightly higher taxes would be consistent with continued economic growth (especially if combined with Obama's proposals to fund education, infrastructure and science and technology), and would still be much lower than the traditional tax rates in most of the second part of the 20th century. I would prefer still more progressive taxes, but surely let us avoid the Republican proposed giveaways! Their arguments that tax cuts for the wealthy create employment are flawed -- experience shows that they only create employment for Republican politicians in the long run.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

From the USDA Food Environment Atlas

Poverty Map of the United States

Adult Obesity Map of the United States

Adult Diabetes Map of the United States

These maps are taken from the USDA Food Environment Atlas. That is a great website, displaying this and a great deal more information!

The rates shown are by county. (Counties are bigger in the west.) These maps show that, as expected, adult obesity is highly predictive of adult diabetes. They also show that poverty rates predict both obesity and thus diabetes.

Black Population Map for the United States

American Indian or Alaskan Native Population Map
for the United States

The Black population map is highly predictive of poverty, obesity and diabetes in the deep South, and the Indian population map is highly predictive of poverty, obesity and diabetes in the West.

The fundamental message of these maps is that the prejudice in the United States is very much alive and that it is causing poverty and leading to poor health in the groups experiencing the prejudice. If we want to survive economically in a globalized economy, we should probably find a way to get over these prejudices and bring all of our citizens to full participation in that economy.

There is a great deal of evidence that economic status predicts many health conditions, so the information conveyed in these maps is not new. I present them in the context of this blog to show that it is important not only to have the data, but to present that data in such a way that the interpretation is direct. Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. These images show that the deep South has still not escaped the legacy of slavery nor has the West escaped the legacy of prejudice against Indians from out history. Of course, poverty is not limited to Blacks and American Indians, and there is also a White underclass that experiences excess poverty and its sequelae. poverty is the enemy. The American myth is that this is a nation of opportunity for all. The maps suggest otherwise.

Where do values come from?

MoralFoundations.Org "proposes that six (or more) innate and universally available psychological systems are the foundations of 'intuitive ethics.' Each culture then constructs virtues, narratives, and institutions on top of these foundations, thereby creating the unique moralities we see around the world, and conflicting within nations too. The foundations are:

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.
2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]
3) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.
4) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it's "one for all, and all for one."
5) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.
6) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions)."
This theory is based on considerable recent research from the behavioral sciences, and has been used by the authors of the theory to explain the values based "culture wars" between American liberals and conservatives. It seems that the taxonomy is still in flux, but it seems most interesting.

I would be happier if there was some neurobiology supporting these. Indeed, were there some developmental background. How are liberals supposed to have developed only the first two capabilities while conservatives have developed all five, with both living in the same society.

Still, I have long suspected that tigers would have quite different moral values than people, or more accurately, that ethical argument that denies intuition will be hard to sell. It may be that our intuition comes from our evolution as a species (especially through kin selection and group selection processes), or through the more rapid evolution of social systems (which probably don't last long if their members can not be instilled with a lot of these values), but talk to college kids and they exhibit a lot of these values in conversations about ethics.

As we get more and more evidence for motivated reasoning, the values that underlie the motivations become interesting. Perhaps by understanding the motivation, we can find ways to get people to accept more positions supported by strong evidence, good theory and strong epistemological institutions.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012


"Forced to surrender their life`s chances before they even know their life`s choices because the poor have no powerful lobby, no political clout, and no good cards in a deck stacked against them already. In America today, we don`t just have a poverty of jobs, we have a poverty of affirmation, a poverty of opportunity, a poverty of optimism and a poverty of hope,”
Travis Smiley
I very much like this quote. In a sense, it reminds me of Amartya Sen's idea of Development as Freedom,
that income poverty should not be the single most important factor in determining development. Sen argues that in spite of a world of sheer abundance, there simultaneously exist populations living in a state of 'unfreedom', unable to realise their capabilities.
I see a lack of political power, even as a part of poverty. Providing food stamps may reduce hunger (and hunger is surely a part of poverty), but it does not restore political power.

In American society, not having a job is not simply not having a source of money, or a means of obtaining health insurance and thus affordable health services, but also not having the a valued role in society, and for many people not having the self respect that comes from work.

Poverty of affirmation is really interesting. How many of us really affirm the value of people as people when they are out of work, when their income falls below the poverty line, when they belong to an underclass with the values of that underclass?

Poverty of opportunity seems to be what Sen was getting at -- the lack of opportunity to get ahead in life, no matter how one defines "getting ahead".

Poverty of optimism is not restricted to those who have little monetary income, but it must be very hard to be optimistic if you don't have a job, don't have health insurance, don't have a decent place to live, and have been in that situation for a long time.

Poverty of hope -- hope of things getting better, hope of a better life for your kids -- is all to common today.

I read Smiley as saying that these conditions are all too often found together, a poverty syndrome if you wish.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Are Think Tanks Abandoning an Important Role?

As they become more political, however, think tanks — especially the newer and more advocacy-oriented institutions founded in the past decade or so — risk becoming both more conventional and less valuable. At a moment when we have too much noise in politics and too few constructive ideas, these institutions may simply become part of the intellectual echo chamber of our politics, rather than providing alternative sources of policy analysis and intellectual innovation.
Tevi Troy
Th' newspaper does ivrything f'r us. It runs th' polis foorce an' th' banks, commands th' milishy, controls th' ligislachure, baptizes th' young, marries th' foolish, comforts th' afflicted, afflicts th' comfortable, buries th' dead an' roasts thim aftherward.
Finley Peter Dunne"Newspaper Publicity" in Observations by Mr. Dooley
I ran across a couple of interesting articles on think tanks. Justin Logan provides an article in Foreign Policy magazine seeking support to keep the Cato Institute safe from a takeover by the Koch brothers, billionaires who have funded many very conservative civil society organizations. Logan sees Cato as a libertarian think tank that has been an important source of libertarian ideas and analysis. He fears that Koch representatives on the Cato board would make it more of a source of materials that endorse standard conservative positions, and less of a place for serious study and debate to analyze alternatives and produce innovative ideas.

Tevi Troy in an article in National Affairs suggests that while Washington Think Tanks have "come to play a central role in policy development" since World War II, in recent years they have been much more involved in political combat. We know that most people, including many policy makers, have a tendency to seek out things supportive of their beliefs rather than to seek the best independent evidence, whether that evidence challenges or supports their beliefs; people are more likely to seek arguments to bolster their preconceptions than to accept arguments that challenge their ideologically based positions.

Scientific institutions, in contrast, seek experimental evidence that tests their hypotheses, demand replication of observations and "double blinds" to assure that preference does not affect observation, and demand peer review (preferably by peers with a number of viewpoints) to challenge their beliefs. The greatest prestige in science goes to those who successfully overturn a paradigm. Think tanks should institutionalize similar approaches to policy analysis. They should not serve as script writers for politicians, developing arguments to support the position of the day. (There are enough places doing that already.)

On the other hand, scientists are notoriously ineffective in communicating science to the public and to their governments. Such failure to communicate would seem to be deadly for think tanks which are intended to influence policy.

The issue is how to combine strong policy analysis with strong communication, and to do that communication in ways that will influence the minds of policy makers. Not an easy challenge to which to rise.

Monday, April 16, 2012

A thought about development theory

Two stages of emergence characterize termite evolution, and may characterize economic development. What would that mean for development theory?

Source of image
Termite species in the dry savannas of Africa, Australia and South America build huge mound nests such as the one shown above. These nests provide an interior environment in which the termite colonies can successfully live and reproduce.

Termites are tiny, with quite simple nervous systems. The construction and maintenance of such a nest, huge with respect to the individual insects that build them. is not the result of conscious planning. Rather certain conditions elicit certain behaviors from the colony from which emerge the mounds. Mound building is an emergent behavior of the simple behavioral repertoire of the species. Importantly, one would not suspect examining the behavior of a single termite that the colony would construct such an edifice.

Not there are some 4,000 species of termites. Not all build huge mounds, but the mounds are found in species widely separated geographically. Mound building therefore must be a colony behavior that is within the repertoire of the termite gene pool, and under certain conditions a species evolves that builds large mound nests. This too is an emergent behavior of the gene pool, since it would be hard to predict looking at the genes that they had the potential to evolve termites that would behave so that mounds would emerge from the behavior. Indeed, scientists are still working to unravel the complex process of individual, kin and group selection that leads to such evolutionary species emergence.

Thus mound building may be a double emergence, species evolving from the gene pool and huge constructions emerging from the simple behaviors of the species.

From the behavior of the many individuals in some societies have emerged structures of institutions and policies that produce economic prosperity and political freedom for the members of those societies. Not all societies have done so. Yet all human beings are genetically very similar, and people by the hundreds of millions have gone from one to another society, integrating well into the social behaviors of the new society.

In humans, culture seems to be a second channel for the determination of behavior. It would seem that some cultures have emerged that foster social and economic development, while others have not emerged those features necessary for social and economic development. Perhaps we should consider socio-economic development also as a double emergence -- the emergence of a development culture from which emerges the socio-economic structure of prosperity and freedom.

In studying termites it would be futile to seek to understand the conditions under which a species that has not evolved to build mounds would build mounds. Such an effort would be focusing on the wrong emergence process. Might it be that seeking to understand socio-economic development in a culture that has not evolved the capacity for such development is equally misguided?

"A property of a complex system is said to be emergent just in case, although it arises out of the properties and relations characterizing its simpler constituents, it is neither predictable from, nor reducible to, these lower-level characteristics."
Prof. Jaegwon Kim, Oxford Companion to Philosophy

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Big Data needs trained statisticians

In a news article in Science, Jeffrey Mervis writes:
John Holdren, the president's science adviser, wasn't exaggerating when he said last week that “big data is indeed a big deal.” About 1.2 zettabytes (a zettabyte is 10 to the 21st power) of electronic data are generated each year by everything from underground physics experiments and telescopes to retail transactions and Twitter posts...... 
Last week's event gave half a dozen agencies a chance to showcase what Holdren described as “$200 million in new commitments.”
The same issue has an editorial by Marie Davidian1 and Thomas A. Louis2 which states:
A dramatic increase in the number of statisticians is required to fill the nation's needs for expertise in data science. A 2011 report by a private consulting firm projected a necessary increase of nearly 200,000 professionals (a 50% increase) by 2018.
Of course these figures should be taken with a lot of caution, but they illustrate the huge flood of data that is beginning to flood into our computers and the huge job that is before society to try to make sense of it all. Does anyone doubt that a part of the digital divide is related to the relative inability of poor people and poor countries to take advantage of the increasing technological ability to generate data, both because of their lack of technology infrastructure and the difficulties that they will have in training and keeping experts capable of extracting meaning from the data and getting it disseminated and used?

We think smarter together than individually

Douglas S. Massey has a very useful review in Science magazine of Great American City Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect by Robert J. Sampson. He writes:

Cognitive science reveals that human rationality is not simply constrained by information and resources; it is not even rational in the deductive sense. Instead, it is structured by characteristic shortcuts known as heuristics that lead us to think in categorical rather than Boolean terms. 
At the same time, neuroscience indicates that our highly imperfect “rationality” is itself strongly conditioned by powerful emotions emanating from a parallel and interconnected but substantially independent processing system rooted in the mammalian brain. As a result, our “reasoned” actions often serve emotionally grounded motivations of which we are only dimly aware. They are often prejudiced rather than rational. 
Lastly, sociological studies have demonstrated that the social contexts in which people make decisions are not unstructured but segmented in complex ways at a variety of organizational levels. The resulting social structures are connected to one another in ways that tend to reproduce and reinforce the status quo over time and strongly shape individual choices and outcomes.
Apparently Sampson's book extends this understanding showing that geographic location is one of the factors that structures social interactions and thus decision making.

In the same issue of Science Stephen M. Fiore reviews Reinventing Discovery The New Era of Networked Science by Michael Nielsen.
In the book's first half, “Amplifying Collective Intelligence,” Nielsen describes the benefits to cognition that can emerge from collaboration and through the use of technological scaffolds...... 
Nielsen opens the book's second half, “Networked Science,” with the case for a more concerted effort to develop a “scientific information commons,” making data freely available and easily accessible.
It kind of makes you wonder if we are going to see a quantum leap in technologically augmented social networking for assessment, analysis and decision making. And wouldn't it be nice if we take advantage of the opportunity and do it well, since surely here as everywhere, there is a "dark side to the force."

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Thought about public spending

Source: The Economist
If more health care is included in public spending in European countries than in the United States because their people use public health services and many of ours use private services, then the lines in the graph above don't really measure the same thing. Moreover, since life expectancy of people in many of the  European countries is greater than that in the United States, they may be buying more or better health services. On the other hand, the United States is clearly buying more military goods and services as a percentage of GDP than our European allies. The graph compares different "market baskets" in different countries.

The data is also government spending as a portion of GDP. The Great Recession, global in scale, both required government stimulus spending in 2007-8 and reduced GDP in those years.

The question is when does the spending as a portion of GDP go down in the United States -- when does our priority shift from stimulus to retiring debt?

African Democracy Ratings

Angola to Sudan to Somalia has a horseshoe of authoritarian regimes. The hole is pointed south, and a horseshoe pointed down is supposed to mean bad luck. This one clearly means bad luck for a lot of people in those countries.

Is the US required by law to withhold funds from the World Bank and the IMF?

The law which now requires the United States to withhold funding from UNESCO might also require withholding funds from other agencies. It should be revised to give waiver power to the president.

Following the vote last October of the General Conference of UNESCO to admit Palestine as a member state, the United States Government has been withholding funds from UNESCO. It has done so because of two clauses of U.S. law (US Code - Title 22: Foreign Relations and Intercourse / 22 USC 287 - Sec. 287e. Authorization of appropriations; payment of expenses):

  • Pub. L. 101-246, title IV, Sec. 414, Feb. 16, 1990, 104 Stat. 70, provided that: "(a) Prohibition. - No funds authorized to be appropriated by this Act or any other Act shall be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof which accords the Palestine Liberation Organization the same standing as member states. "(b) Transfer or Reprogramming. - Funds subject to the prohibition contained in subsection (a) which would be available for the United Nations or any specialized agency thereof (but for that prohibition) are authorized to remain available until expended and may be reprogrammed or transferred to any other account of the Department of State or the Agency for International Development to carry out the general purposes for which such funds were authorized." 
  • Pub. L. 103-236, title IV, Sec. 410, Apr. 30, 1994, 108 Stat. 454, provided that: "The United States shall not make any voluntary or assessed contribution - "(1) to any affiliated organization of the United Nations which grants full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, or "(2) to the United Nations, if the United Nations grants full membership as a state in the United Nations to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood, during any period in which such membership is effective."
What does the term "affiliated organization of the United Nations" mean. The United Nations lists as "Specialized Agencies" among others: UNESCO, the World Bank Group, and the International Monetary Fund. Presumably then the United States Government is required to withhold funds from the World Bank and the IMF were they to grant "full membership as a state to any organization or group that does not have the internationally recognized attributes of statehood."

According to Wikipedia, the internationally recognized attributes of statehood are as follows:
The state as a person of international law should possess the following qualifications: (a) a permanent population; (b) a defined territory; (c) government; and (d) capacity to enter into relations with the other states.
Consider Somalia. Somalia is a member country of the World Bank. It is also a member of the IMF. According to Wikipedia, "since the outbreak of the Somali Civil War in 1991 there has been no central government control over most of the country's territory." Thus Somalia does not seem to have more of the internationally recognized attributes of statehood than does Palestine which Wikipedia reports is recognized by 130 other countries..

Consider Kosovo. It is also a member country of the World Bank and the IMF. According to Wikipedia
"the partially recognised Republic of Kosovo, a self-declared independent state, has de facto control over most of the territory,[ while North Kosovo, the largest Kosovo Serb enclave, is under the control of institutions of the Republic of Serbia. Serbia does not recognise the unilateral secession of Kosovo and considers it a UN-governed entity within its sovereign territory." It too seems not to have more of the internationally recognized attributes of statehood than does Palestine.

It would seem that the United States must therefore withhold funding not only from UNESCO but also from the World Bank Group and the International Monetary Fund. In this time of global economic uncertainty, any indication of U.S. withdrawal of funding from the IMF would of course be very dangerous. The U.S. Government has nominated a candidate for President of the World Bank, and that nomination would also be endangered by a threat of U.S. withdrawal of funding from the World Bank.

The Obama administration is requesting a change in the legislation which would give the President the power to waive the provision if necessary to advance U.S. global interests. Such a waiver would provide flexibility to move quickly to avoid cuts in funding of the World Bank, the IMF or any other body of affiliated with the United Nations should that become important.

Causal Models and the Causes of the Civil War

Thinking About Causality

When we think about causality, we divide causes into those which involve choice and those which do not. That is, some causes can be attributed to a conscious being making a choice, while others are attributed to things controlled by natural law.

Many, perhaps most events have multiple causes. The Fukushima nuclear disaster occurred when a earthquake caused a tsunami that struck the nuclear plant. The earthquake and tsunami we see as natural. The plant was located by people, designed by people, and operated by people, their conscious choices also contributed to the disaster. The disaster would not have happened had the tsunami not happened, but it would also not have happened had the power plant been located on high ground or designed to better resist the tsunami.

Knowledge plays a part. The destruction of Pompeii by Vesuvius could not have been predicted by the Romans with the information available to them at the time, while the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear disaster might have been predicted had scientific findings been mobilized by those responsible for the plant. Thus it seems there is more responsibility for the people making decisions with respect to the location of Fukushima in our time than for the people making decisions on the location of Pompeii in Roman times.

Some knowledge is seen a probabilistic. Thus we may not know the high water mark for the Mississippi river next year, but we can say than only one year out of 100 the water level will exceed such and such a value, that one year out of ten it will exceed another, lower value, etc.

We can also attach a credibility to knowledge. Thus, knowledge claims from authoritative sources backed by theory and data are more credible than knowledge claims from members of the general public or from marginal sources.

Consider climate change. If greenhouse gas emissions continue to grow and major global warming  takes place with the accompanying damage to human welfare, then more responsibility will be attributed to those who failed to credit the opinion and evidence now being adduced by the scientific community -- those refusing to act to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Intention also plays a part. We strongly distinguish between someone who made decisions resulting in risk to others if the decisions are made for reasons which we find acceptable versus for reasons which we do not find to be ethically acceptable.

As humans, we tend to want to infer agency and intentionality. An earthquake or a tsunami is termed "an act of God". We seek to reify the result of an institutional process as if it were the result of a single intelligent persons intentions. Indeed, we tend to assume accidental results of a persons actions are intentional.

We can structure causes of an event. Some causes are proximate, some are more distant. Some causes are necessary, some are sufficient, some are both necessary and sufficient, some are neither.

More Recent Models

"Chaos Theory" is a title given to recognition that arises from mathematics that seemingly chaotic behavior of some dynamic systems can be explained. Perhaps the prototypical example comes from meteorology. The weather is notoriously unpredictable. Yet the physics of weather seem rather simple. In fact, as data collection on the atmosphere and as computers have become more powerful, models used to predict the weather have become more accurate. Still weather forecasts are still termed in probabilities and we are still sometimes surprised. One cause is the so called "butterfly effect": very small variations in initial conditions can be amplified over time to produce large changes in the predicted weather at later times. Thus is some dynamic systems, while causality is clear, prediction of outcomes can be very challenging. In these systems even though ultimate causes of ourcomes exist, backtracking to identify those ultimate causes can be effectively impossible.

Homeostasis is a phenomenon in which a system maintains a stable state in the face of external changes. Thus a modern home is maintained at constant temperature whatever the outdoors temperature; we set the desired temperature on the thermostat and it turns on air conditioner or furnace as needed to maintain the current temperature. If suddenly the house gets hot in the summer or gets cold in the winter, we attribute the proximate cause to the failure of the air conditioner, furnace or thermostat.

Emergence has been recognized as a process by which a relatively unpredictable outcome can result from  very simple causes. A prototypical example is the construction of very large ant hills by ant, which obviously do not plan the construction; very simple behaviors by individual ant when replicated by all the ants in a large colony can build a very large anthill (and control the temperature within very effectively). In some areas, one can see "cities" of ant "skyscrapers".

Ant hills in Australia

The Causes of the Civil War

It is a century and a half since the Civil War was fought and there is even more interest in the causes of the war than usual.

Clearly the proximate cause was the secession of southern states and their creation of the Confederacy, the decision by South Carolinian leaders to attack Fort Sumter, and the decision by the remaining states of the Union to go to war rather than allow the secession.

The Big Determinants

In our time it seems clear not only that slavery was an evil institution, but that it was on its way out globally by the time of the Civil War. European imperial powers were clearly in the process of abolishing slavery, serfdom, and peonage by the middle of the 19th century. Not only had slavery been abolished by northern states of the United States, but also by Hispanic America. Brazil began a gradual process of abolition of slavery in 1871. Indeed, we are convinced that free labor is a more productive economic system than any based on involuntary servitude, and that slavery is economically unwise as well as a denial of human rights. By 1860, the United States was left with more slaves than any other country. Southern leadership felt that the institution could be saved and continued.

It seems clear that the southern secession was intended to preserve a way of life dependent on the institution of slavery. It seems equally clear that the north was strongly in favor of free labor.

Many in the United States had been disturbed by the conservative backlash that had suppressed the democratic movements in Europe in 1848. European imperialism was triumphant in much of the world, and most of the population of the United States was east of the Mississippi. When Lincoln said in the Gettysburg address that the great war was to determine whether this nation or any nation conceived in liberty and justice for all could long survive, he expressed a widely shared perception. The North was fighting a war to assure "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

More Distant Causes of the antebellum American institutions

So why were southern institutions built on slavery? Clearly there are long causal chains that include the southern suitability for growing cotton, the industrial revolution that made cotton cheap and in heavy demand by the cloth industry, racism, colonialism, etc.

Why were northern institutions built on free labor and why were they democratic. There two there are long causal chains, that include the northern climate, the wealth of natural resources in the American continent, enlightenment thought, and the dynamics of British colonization of distant America.

Decision Making

If the proximate cause of the Civil War were the action by some states to secede and by others to contest the secession by arms, then one is faced by the need to explain why those actions occurred.

I have argued that the decision by the government of South Carolina to secede from the Union and the later decision  of the government of Virginia to secede were very bad decisions if only considered from the point of view that following those decisions those states not only failed to achieve the objectives but began a process that led to the four horsemen of the apocalypse riding over their lands. This was not a decision like that of the Spartans at Thermopylae to fight a rear guard action to the death for a larger purpose; one must assume that the decision was taken in the belief that it would in fact save a way of life. South Carolinian and Virginian many, perhaps most, influential leaders simply failed to accurately predict the consequences of secession.

The way a path of action emerges from a political process is complex and I would suggest that it is not properly understood. We tend to simplify the process in our explanations. We say a legislative body voted, or we say that Lincoln as Commander in Chief decided. However, the selection of a course leading to the Civil War involves decision making by individuals, the election processes that chose those individuals, the actual processes within the branches of government and among them, as well as the pressures that were brought to bear, and indeed the reasons behind those pressures.

Virtually everyone had opinions about the situation in 1860 and 1861 and opinions were declared in newspapers, political meetings, marches, and all sorts of other ways. Ministers thundered from the pulpit. Ambassadors presented their governments' positions. Politicians attended to the press and their constituents. The ambitious calculated their chances under different options; those fearing for their loved ones, calculated different chances. The actions of the various states were predicted, observed and debated.

All of this took place within a cultural matrix. Which path would  be honorable, which shameful? Did one's loyalties lie with the city (New York's mayor proposed that the city secede), with the state or with the Federated or Confederated states? Did the family decide as one, or as individuals? Did the community act as one or did it divide? What did religion have to say on the right behavior in the situation? And of course, the 800 pound gorilla in the room, slavery itself.

While the American population was relatively literate for the time, the average level of formal education would have been quite low. Few people perhaps would have had the breadth of historical knowledge and the experience in military analysis to fully understand the paths that lay before the country, nor to judge well which to prefer.

We might best understand the proximate cause of the Civil War as a failure of homeostasis. For generations the political system of the United States had been able to maintain the peace, effectively dealing with the challenges to domestic tranquility that arose from debates over slavery by compromise over compromise. In 1861, that process failed and civil war ensued. Alternatively we can see the Civil War as an emergent property of the the free press, freedom of religion and democratic process as they dealt with fundamentally irreconcilable institutions (slavery in the South and free labor in the North).

So What

I don't know what caused the societies of the South to choose to try to continue slavery over emancipation, nor to choose war rather than compromise. Still it makes sense to think about that in case we might learn something to avoid the next Iraq, the next Viet Nam, or some even more serious mistake.

Some of the causes of war can not be changed, other can only be somewhat changed and with difficulty, and so are relatively easily changed.

One way to look at the Civil War is that it occurred because the people of the South lived with an evil institution, accepting that slaves were not only a powerless underclass but were less than human, people who could not become citizens, who counted as 3/5ths of a person for the census but could not vote at all. Indeed, many of their "men of God" defended the evil institution as divinely inspired, and those preachers were not expelled from their churches. Maybe Google is right -- "Don't be evil".

It did not help that the South had allowed itself to be ruled by a plutocracy, people whose wealth came from the slaves that they owned, people who naturally  enough used their political power to preserve the institution that had made them wealthy and that preserved their wealth.

If Steven Pinker's book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, is right, society is learning to avoid violence including war. Perhaps we are somewhat less likely to make mistakes like those that brought the Civil War. But in my lifetime the United States has fought major wars: World War II, the Korean War, the was in Viet Nam, the Afghan War, and the War in Iraq. And that list does not include the minor invasions, police actions, and governments that were overthrown by covert action. Perhaps we need to do a lot better.