Saturday, September 29, 2012

Robert Reich's two minute primer on economics of public policy

The former Secretary of Labor and current Professor at UC Berkeley, economist Robert Reich tells it like it is.

What happened when American food crops got to China

In his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann devotes a chapter to the transfer of crops from the Americas to China and their impact. Tobacco was one of the crops transferred, and as the smoking habit swept China, more and more of its good land was diverted from food production to tobacco production.

Fortunately (or unfortunately) sweet potatos, maize, peanuts, potatoes, chili peppers, pineapples, cashews and cassava also came to China -- and many of these could be grown in areas not suited for rice and wheat, China's traditional food grain crops.

People who could not get land in the fertile low lands moved to the hills to grow these new crops. The population boomed, taking advantage of the flood of calories produced by the need food crops. People moved into less populated lands in the west of China.

Unfortunately, in clearing the hill sides and planting new crops, the Chinese increased water runoffs and erosion. For some time it was possible to move to new hillside areas when farmers exhausted the soil of their current lands. That alternative became increasingly difficult as population continued to increase and the area of land that could no longer support crops increased.

Flooding of the lowlands became much more common. Not only did the floods destroy irrigation infrastructure needed for rice culture, but it also left deposits of silt on the rice fields that decreased their productivity. Thus the pressure to grow still more food crops in fragile lands increased.

The result was a viscous cycle that has continued into modern times. Mao's Great Leap Forward resulted in massive use of labor to bring fragile lands into agricultural production, and then to massive environmental damage.

I was more familiar with the flow of new crops to Europe -- potatoes to Ireland and tomatoes to Italy -- and had not been aware that China is the world's greatest producer of sweet potatoes and second in the production of maize.

The fundamental point of the discussion is that the Colombian Exchange of plant species to China changed the physical environment, the size of the Chinese population, and ultimately the culture and the political institutions of China. Moreover, the plants made it to China as a side effect of the commerce that grew from the production of silver in the Americas that could be traded for silk, porcelain, spices and other Asian products in demand in Europe (and in Hispanic America).

Previous posts related to 1493:

Friday, September 28, 2012

Why You Need To Pass Science 101 Before Being Appointed To The Congressional Science CommitteeMov

The Silver Trade after 1493

In 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, author Charles C. Mann devotes a chapter to the flow of silver from the Americas to Europe and Asia. It is an interesting story, and one that I only knew part of before reading his treatment.

"As rich as Potosi" was for many years a common saying. A huge silver deposit was found there (and mercury deposits close by that could be used to refine the silver ore). A city grew up around the mines, located at 13,000 feet elevation. Mann describes the exploitation of the Indians to mine and refine the silver, and the heavy toll in sickness, injury and death that they suffered in the process. He does not mention that silver deposits in Mexico that were similarly exploited, nor the gold that was taken from the Americas. (Remember the room full of gold vessels and ornaments that was used to ransom Atahualpa, the Inca, and melted to make ingots to ship to Spain.)

The gold and silver that flooded into Spain allowed the Spanish royal government to hire soldiers and to conduct wars of conquest in Europe, not to mention to fund the conquest and exploitation of the Americas.

Mann points out that a large portion of the Spanish silver from the Americas wound up in Asia. Some passed to Asia from Europe, but there was a large scale traffic in Spanish ships that traveled from Mexico to the Philippines, where there was a large scale trade with Chinese merchants. Chinese silk clothing purchased in the Philippines with silver from Potosi was sold in Spain for less than comparable products of Spanish manufacture; the silver from South America was shipped to Asia via Mexico, and the Chinese trade goods were shipped to Europe again via Mexico.

There is a hidden story there. The relative values of silver and silk were different in China, the Philippines and Spain. Silver sent from Potosi was used to buy silk from China that had been bought with silver from Potosi -- and the cost of shipping the silk across two oceans was less that the difference in prices of silk in silver in Spain and China.

Ultimately, the flood of silver (and gold) into China and into Spain resulted in inflation. Silver coins were available in such numbers that more and more were needed to pay for the same products. In both cases, governments taxed in fixed amounts of silver, and consequently saw the value of their tax income decline. In both cases, they failed to adjust their expenditures and went broke.

I am tempted to believe that the foolish monetary policies of the Spanish and Chinese kings were the results of lack of economic knowledge. On the other hand, the United States has over the past thirty years seen a huge debt accumulated by a government that continued to spend more than it took in in tax income. Our economists know a lot more now about monetary and fiscal policy than did anyone did centuries ago. Apparently many of our politicians don't listen to the economists.

Previous posts related to 1493:

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thoughts on Romney's speech on Religion in America

I've listened to Mitt Romney's 2007 speech on religion in America a couple of times. I suspect that it was an important speech, comparable to Obama's in the same campaign, making the case that Romney's Mormon religion should not be a cause for voting against him for President. Not surprisingly, the speech seemed carefully crafted and well delivered. However, there were a couple of points that bother me.

Romney says "our forebearers came here from England seeking freedom of religion." He seemed to be thinking of the Pilgrims, but surely the people who founded the Jamestown colony were not seeking freedom of religion; they were seeking wealth.

Those of us who had slaves or indentured servants as our forebearers certainly do not descend from people who came here for freedom of religion. How about the Chinese who came to build the railroads (before the Chinese exclusion acts)?

The Indians didn't come to the United States at all, they were here before there was a United States. So too were Hispanics in place before the United States took Texas, California, and the area in between from Mexico, and took Puerto Rico from Spain. Those people in fact suffered prejudice for their religions after becoming Americans that they had not experienced before. How about the Inuit in Alaska and the native Hawaiians?

Immigrants in Ellis Island waiting room.
How about the millions who immigrated from Catholic countries into the United States in the "Know Nothing" time  -- Irish, Poles, Italians, and Germans -- who came from countries where their religion was the majority to a country where they experienced religious prejudice.  They came for economic opportunity. Millions of people have come here more recently from Spanish speaking countries, again mostly Catholic, and while some have come for sanctuary from violence in their original country, most if not all have come for economic opportunity.  I am the son of immigrants, and my parents came here for economic opportunity from places in which they had perfect freedom of religion already.

How about the Jews who came here to escape from the Nazis during the Holocaust? Oh, we don't need to think about them, since they are not here; they were denied entry by a prejudiced government of a prejudiced people.

The words inscribed on the Statue of Liberty don't say send me people seeking religious liberty.
"Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
Were Romney to have been accurate he would have talked not about the few descendants of the Pilgrims, but the many more descendants of people who experienced prejudice against their religions (and their race). He might justly have spoken of the search for better lives of those ancestors, and of how the nation is failing their descendants today. But he tends not to see his campaign as serving those people who are now poor, nor those in the middle class who are suffering a loss in welbeing.

In the speech Romney also cites the words from Mathew:
"For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink."
But I have heard him disparage the 47 percent (who will vote for Obama), and I don't believe he thinks the government has a responsibility to feed the hungry or to give the thirsty drink. I don't think he realizes that this country was built by people -- poor people, often enslaved people -- who were looking for a better life for themselves and if not for themselves for their children and their descendants. It is probably hard to relate to the real aspirations of most people if you are born with a silver spoon in your mouth. The man who could see the way Chinese workers were treated in their factories and still invest in them, exporting American jobs to China, is not someone who naturally empathizes with most Americans.

In the speech Romney also uses the term "secular" while spending much of the time implying that Judeo-Christian religious beliefs should dominate public life. I believe that one of the great achievements of American democracy is that we treat some things as secular and some as religious. We permit freedom in the realm of religion, but keep our public schools and our government secular. This is true of domestic policy and of foreign policy. We are no more supportive of Jewish than Muslim countries, at least not because of their religion. Nor do we distinguish in foreign policy between Sunni and Shiite, between Muslim and Hindu or Buddhist. Romney may have inadvertently biased his treatment to deny the secular in American life and government, but what if he were elected and let such inadvertent biases influence his decisions as president.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A disturbing report from the National Science Board

Source: The Boston Globe
I quote from a Boston Globe article by Justin Pope:

(A) new report argues the mission of the country’s 101 major public research universities is imperiled by budget cuts amounting to one-fifth of their state funding over the past decade. 
State support for public research universities fell 20 percent between 2002 and 2010, after accounting for inflation and increased enrollment of about 320,000 students nationally, according to the report published Tuesday by the National Science Board. The organization provides independent advice to the federal government and oversees the National Science Foundation. 
Ten states saw support fall 30 percent or more and in two — Colorado and Rhode Island — the drop was nearly 50 percent. Only seven states increased support.
The long term health of the U.S. economy depends on continuing innovation in our industry. While we have some 4,500 institutions of higher education in the United States, there are only a few hundred research intensive universities -- among the largest and strongest of these are the public research intensive universities.

Research intensive universities conduct a very substantial part of the fundamental research done in the United States (and indeed in the world) -- research from which will eventually come discoveries that fuel applied research and development, and eventually the economy. The research intensive universities are also the training institutions not only for their own future faculties but also for the faculties of other higher education institutions, and the technical staffs of high technology firms.

Research intensive universities have been drawing the top scientists in the world to their faculties, greatly enriching the intellectual resources of the country. They draw graduate students in great numbers from around the world. Many of those graduate students remain in the United States when they complete their training, also enriching the intellectual resources of the country (and it coffers). Those who leave create important scientific and technological linkages between the United States and the rest of the world -- indeed cultural and even political linkages.

If we let the public research intensive universities languish, our children and their children will suffer the effects.

A thought on diplomacy

Source: The Polity IV Project
One of the important global trends has been towards democracy and away from autocracy. It occurs to me that that trend should require a change in diplomatic practice. In dealing with an autocratic government, "realist" approaches might work well -- bargaining to advance important interests. In dealing with democracies, the feelings of the people count more. Public diplomacy that advances mutual understanding between peoples should play a larger role. Indeed, the people in a democracy tend to dislike it when their government bargains with foreign dictators, making deals that strengthen their dictatorial powers.

In dealing with anocracies -- weak states with competing (often armed) internal forces -- public diplomacy might also be important.

While the world is probably a safer place, given that it seems that democratic nations seldom if ever go to war against each other, it should not be assumed that democratic peoples will always have good feelings for each other. There remain cultural and religious differences among peoples that create barriers to understanding, and conflicting economic interests among nations.  While public diplomacy by a national government can achieve much, there will be increasing need for diplomacy in multilateral agencies; the United Nations, the IMF, the World Trade Organization and other intergovernmental organizations can serve as neutral brokers and as safe forums for international discussion. 

I still hope for peace between Israel and Palestine

A friend and I got to talking about whether we could expect peace between Israel and Palestine. Mitt Romney had trashed the two state solution in a talk that had been put on video and went viral. I am no expert on the topic, but did some thinking and searching. I thought to share what I found on this blog.

Source: University of Texas Library
Jewish immigration to what is now Israel began with the Zionist movement in the 19th century, continued between World War I and World War II when there was a British mandate in control, and expanded due to the Holocaust and disruption of World War II. The state of Israel was proclaimed in 1948 and since that time there has been a massive immigration of Jews to Israel. The population of Israel today is about 7.5 million, three-fourths of whom are Jews.

Many of the Palestinian population were displaced by this process. Today the population of the West Bank and Gaza is about 2.6 million, three-quarters of whom are Muslim and 17 percent Jewish (the rest Christian). There is also a Palestinian Diaspera, some living to this day in refugee camps, and many others living in nearby Arab countries.

At Israeli independence, a civil war between Jewish and Palestinian forces escalated into the first Arab-Israeli war in which Jordan, Egypt and Syria combined forces with support from Iraq, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. That war ended in armistices in 1949. That was followed by a war of Israel against Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Iraq in 1967 and a war of Egypt and Syria against Egypt in 1973.

A peace treaty was signed between Israel and Egypt 1979. In 1994 a peace treaty was signed between Jordan and Israel. At the end of the Clinton administration the Israelis withdrew troops from Lebanon. The Lebanese had never attacked across the Blue Line.

There have been a number of steps in pursuit of peace, including those in Madrid, Oslo and Camp David. In 2002, the "quartet" of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia outlined the principles of a "road map" for peace, including an independent Palestinian state. The United States, which is recognized as a key participant in the search for peace, has bipartisan support for a two state solution (Romney's campaign staff have affirmed his support in spite of the unfortunate video recently released).

I quote a recent article in The Guardian:
The Palestinian Liberation Organisation, acknowledged as the "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, recognises the right of Israel "to exist in peace and security". The Palestinian leadership is committed to a negotiated solution and opposes armed struggle. Talks have been in abeyance for the past two years, but many diplomats and observers say Israel's continued settlement growth is the main obstacle rather than Palestinian intransigence. 
The official founding charter of Hamas, the Islamist faction that rules the tiny Gaza Strip, still calls for historic (ie pre-1948) Palestine to be liberated. However, its leaders have repeatedly indicated, albeit sometimes opaquely, that they can live with a Palestinian state within 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.
According to Wikipedia, "Almost every Israeli prime minister has called for peace talks with moderate Arab leaders over the years."

Surveys have indicated that a majority of the people in Israel and in Palestine favor a two state solution.

Of course, there are many different views among Israelis and among Palestinians about the conflict. IN each case, different parties hold differing views relevant to the peace process. Both the government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority must seek to promote the safety and welfare of their citizens, while dealing with the domestic political pressures, and the pressures of foreign nations. Any negotiation between the two parties would be marked by conflicting interests, not to mention mutual distrust.

Today, clearly, the situation is complicated by the civil war in Syria and the changes in Arab governments following the Arab Spring.

Still, the long term trend has been towards a peace. The alternatives to a two state solution are hard to imagine, and any serious attempt at a one state solution would draw global condemnation and sanctions on the offending party. It may be that today's leaders are unwilling or unable to negotiate a peace, but leaders change. Indeed, some of the major steps toward peace in the past came from leaders who themselves seemed a priori to be unlikely peacemakers.


Tuesday, September 25, 2012

This is the kind of thought that occurs to me when I can't sleep.

Image source
If I recall correctly Sir Paul Nurse, who is a Nobel Prize laureate and the current President of the Royal Society, has a most unusual family. His biological mother became pregnant with him when she was quite young and unmarried. Consequently her parents raised him as their own and he grew up thinking of his mother as his older sister.

Most strangely, his biological grandmother too was the child of an unwed mother, and was raised by her grandparents thinking her biological mother was her older sister. The same was true of his biological grandfather, the man he thought of as his father.

Thus the women he once thought of as his mother's sister and his father's sister would have been his great grandmothers. The people he once thought of as his grandparents would have been four of his 16 actual great, great grandparents.

And you think your family tree is complicated.

A thought about contests

I was thinking of Broadway or Bust, the PBS special made about the National High School Musical Theater Awards of 2012. 50,000 high school students ranging in age from 15 to 18 took part in the contest. The winning boy and the winning girl from each of 30 regional contests went to New York to compete in the final. From these 60 kids, three boys and three girls were judged to have performed best in the preliminaries, and from them the winning boy and the winning girl were chosen.

U.S. News this year ranked 22,000 high schools in the United States, noting that they did not have data on schools in one state and that the data was not complete for the states for which they did have data. For simplicity, lets assume that there are about 25,000 high schools in the United States. That means that on average, each high school had two students enter the contest. Magnet schools for the performing arts may have entered a number of students while other high schools may not have had any students enter.

There were nearly 15 million high school students this year. Thus on the average, a high school had about 600 students. Think about the musical put on in your high school each year. How talented were the best performers in that musical? Pretty talented I bet. The odds against the best performer in a high school musical winning one of the 30 regional contests were greater than 800 to 1! The odds of winning the contest over all were 12,500 to 1. All of the 60 participants in the Broadway part of the contest were fantastically talented -- many with almost professional training on arrival.

Of course, the 15 year olds probably have not developed their performance skills as well as they will have at age 18. Moreover, the kids have chosen things to perform, based on those that they have performed previously; there is luck in the draw in terms of its impact on the judges. Moreover, there is chance in how well the rehearsals and actual performances went, and chance in the accuracy of the judge's evaluation of the performances. The likelihood that the most talented kid would actually win seems very small to me -- better than one chance in 12,500 but how much better?

This is borne out by the fact that Joshua Grosso, who was one of the two winners, did not win his regional contest. He came in second in the regional, and got to New York when the regional winner was unable to make the trip.

This is not to take anything away from the achievement of the winners, who managed to perform at a fantastic peak repeatedly, and did that which most impressed the judges on the day.

Monday, September 24, 2012

President Obama's Decision Making

The Romney campaign has claimed that President Obama has been skipping intelligence briefings. The Washington Post Fact Checker gives this claim three Pinocchios.
"Obama reads his PDB every day, but he does not always require an in-person briefing every day. The White House argument is that this is how Obama structured his White House operation, so it is specious to say he has “skipped” a meeting that was not actually scheduled........

"Our colleague Walter Pincus earlier this year examined how Obama has handled his morning foreign-policy discussions:
Obama reads the PDB ahead of time and comes to the morning meeting with questions. Intelligence briefers are there to answer those questions, expand on a point or raise a new issue. [National Intelligence Director James] Clapper may be present once or twice a week, but most often one of his deputies is in attendance in case an intelligence community issue arises.
"When Pincus refers to the 'morning meeting,' he is describing a regular national security meeting that is held every day at 9:30 a.m. with the president’s top advisers.........

"Clearly, different presidents have structured their daily briefing from the CIA to fit their unique personal styles. Many did not have an oral briefing, while three – two of whom are named Bush – preferred to deal directly with a CIA official. Obama appears to have opted for a melding of the two approaches, in which he receives oral briefings, but not as frequently as his predecessor."

Obama Decision Making

John Dean published a discussion of President Obama's decision making several years ago in FindLaw. I quote extensively:
Jonathan Alter's Study of Obama as Decisionmaker: A Deductive Thinker with a Vertical Mind ......
Jonathan Alter has written the first important examination of the Obama presidency -- The Promise: President Obama, Year One -- and in chronicling Obama's first year in office, Alter looked closely at the new president's decision-making style.

Alter, a Newsweek editor and author, has covered Washington and the presidency for years. As a U.S. Senator, Obama had read and admired Alter's last work, The Defining Moment: FDR's Hundred Days and the Triumph of Hope (2007), and President Obama granted Alter full access to his White House, an opportunity which Alter did not waste. This bestseller takes readers inside the Obama White House for a look at the players and how they work.......

Given the attention that Obama's decision-making received during the campaign, it is not surprising to find that, as president, he is making decisions in a very similar fashion. While Obama has had no serious executive experience, he is something of a natural, with his decision process following a pattern that he first developed as a law student when he headed the Harvard Law Review. The approaches to decision-making that Alter found in the White House are not very different from the approaches Obama developed during the campaign, and which were reported by PBS.

For purposes of comparison, however, Alter looks at the style of other presidents as well. Alter finds that Obama's decision-making style falls "somewhere between [President Bill] Clinton's deep if gauzy discussions and Bush's snap judgments based on instinct." "Clinton was volcanic and discursive; Obama [is] cool and focused," Alter reports. 
Alter continues, "Clinton was an inductive thinker with a horizontal mind. He talked to people in wide-ranging college bull sessions (or late at night on the phone) to establish a broad array of policy and political options, then looked at them in context and fashioned a synthetic and often brilliant political approach out of the tangled strands of analysis." By comparison, Alter concludes, "Obama [is] a deductive thinker with a vertical mind." Obama thinks "deeply about a subject, [and] organiz[es] it lucidly into point-by-point arguments." Obama favors "decision memos that include options but contain clear policy recommendations." Obama places "more faith in logic than imagination," and insists "on a process that [is] tidy without being inflexible." Clinton constantly second-guessed his decisions; Obama makes a decision and moves on, unless new and compelling evidence arises.
Alter describes, and gives context and perspective to, President Obama's remarkable "cool" -- his self-confident demeanor, his striking calmness during crisis and troubles, and his highly-focused mind. With Obama, there are no Clinton "purple fits" or tantrums; and no Bush emotional "go with the gut" reactions, says Alter.

Yet Obama understands, apparently, that being too cool is not good. Nonetheless, Obama has often been compared to the overly-composed, emotionless and highly rational Mr. Spock from the Star Trek series, because of the way he too relies on reason rather than emotion, and uses logic to enter the minds of other people. Alter reports that the president has a good sense of humor about all this, and indeed, when a new Star Trek movie was released in early 2009, the president had it screened at the White House. For several days thereafter, President Obama "got a kick out of flashing the Vulcan salute" to his staff. The conclusion that Alter draws from Obama's unflappable nature and "no-drama" White House is that it is an "asset in decision-making.".......
This much is clear: While Vulcans may make great decisions without emotions, humans do not do so very well. The key is striking the right balance, and if Jonathan Alter has it right, and Obama's style is somewhere between that of Bill Clinton and George Bush, we may have one of the better decision-makers currently residing in the White House.

Others have noted that Obama holds discussions with his staff including some second tier staffers. He will take different sides in a discussion himself, thereby disguising his personal preference (if he has one), in order to get all opinions on the table. He will sometimes specifically ask lower ranking people at the table for their opinions, occasionally thus eliciting views different from their bosses'.

It has been suggested that in the early days of dealing with the financial crisis, when he put together a team of all star economists to advise him, he spent too much time listening to clashing opinions and got too many views, but that he has now learned the lesson of that experience.

More on Obama's Decision Making

Felix Salmon notes in an opinion piece on Reuters that:

"Michael Lewis has a big profile of Barack Obama in the latest Vanity Fair, and Obama tells Lewis something very interesting:
Nothing comes to my desk that is perfectly solvable,” Obama tells Lewis. “Otherwise, someone else would have solved it. So you wind up dealing with probabilities. Any given decision you make you’ll wind up with a 30 to 40 percent chance that it isn’t going to work. You have to own that and feel comfortable with the way you made the decision. You can’t be paralyzed by the fact that it might not work out.”
Salmon interprets this as a misuse of ideas from probability in Obama's decision making. I take the quotation at face value -- that the president of the United States heading a huge administrative bureaucracy, is asked to make only those decisions that ought not be delegated to others. A president should be surrounded by senior staff who understand his policies and philosophy so well that many decisions for the administration can be delegated to them. Decisions percolate up to the president if and only if there is no clear solution to the posed problem . A decision memorandum will define several alternatives and the arguments in favor of and opposed to each. If the staff work has been done well, each of the alternatives will be real, and the potential benefits and risks of each will balance. A recommendation will be made, but in full understanding that the president may justly choose another alternative, or indeed ask for more staff work.

Moreover, it will not be clear what will happen if the president chooses any of the alternatives. Congress may not legislate the means to implement the decision, or not in the form that had been contemplated. The economy may not evolve in the way that economists have predicted, and fewer or more resources may be available to implement the policy that had been assumed. Opponents may define counter actions to respond to the decision in unforeseen ways. Acts of God may intervene. I read President Obama as saying in the quote above not only that he knows that his decisions may not work out has he had thought likely, but that there is a pretty good chance of surprises along the way.

I leave it to historians to decide whether Obama's decision making was good, bad or indifferent. I personally like the process as described.

Conscious deliberation or going by the gut?

In a think piece in the Boston Globe during the last election season, Jonah Lehrer summarized a lot of information being developed in the psychological literature on decision making. He notes that recent Republican presidents -- Reagan and Bush -- have tended to emphasize a "going with the gut" instinctive approach, while recent Democratic presidents -- Carter, Clinton (and now Obama) -- have tended to emphasize a more cerebral style. Both styles in their pure state are flawed. Intuition can be accurate, but can lead to really bad decisions. It is also prone to a number of unconscious biases. The analytic style can lead to losing site of important information or indecisiveness.

Lehrer suggests that decision problems with a limited number of variables are best suited for deliberative processes, while more complex problems often benefit from the processing powers of the unconscious. He suggests that the best decision making comes not just from the application of one or the other of these styles, but from an examination of the process itself in order to draw appropriately on both styles.

A president benefits from surrounding himself by a number of advisers with differing points of view, and encouraging open and frank discussion of the issues. Those advisers can also be helpful in offering comments on the decision process.

I rather like the idea of a deliberative process involving advisers, followed by a time to let the ideas percolate in the unconscious, before coming to a decision.

A source on decision making.

Rich Steele, in a review of How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer provides this check list on decision making:

1. Continue to use everything I taught you regarding rational process
  A. In problem solving:
     • Specify the problem, listing both the is and is not’s
     • Look for distinctions and changes
     • Identify and test for true cause
  B. In decision making:
     • List objectives or criteria first, then separate musts from wants and weigh your wants
     • Generate alternatives, screen them through your musts and score them against your weighted wants
     • Then assess risks
  C. In planning:
     • List the steps in your plan and identify potential problems
     • List causes for those potential problems
     • Plan preventive and contingent actions
2. Use the CRM (Cockpit Resource Management) Approach
     • Work big problems and decisions as a team
     • Get input and encourage open communication regarding problem solving and decision making
     • Use the “see it, say it, fix it” methodology
3. Think like an NFL Quarterback, an Airline Pilot or a Surgeon
     • Practice under (simulated) pressure however and whenever you can
     • Debrief and learn from your mistakes (and your successes)
     • Revise and codify your processes from your lessons learned
4. Trust your instincts (especially you Myers Briggs Intuitive “N” types)
     • Your intuition is usually based on past experience or some other reality
     • It isn’t really some mysterious “inner voice”
5. Don’t over think problems or decisions
     • Too much of even a good thing can make us choke
     • Remember Jean Van de Veld in the 1999 British Open
This looks pretty reasonable. Like any checklist, it summarizes rather than explains. Decision making quality contributes to results, but does not determine them; implementation is a determinant but chance and the action of others count. Decision making quality depends not on the checklist, but on how well you carry out the steps.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

More on Roscoe Bartlett

Following the 2010 census, the boundaries of congressional districts were changed in Maryland. My neighborhood was moved into the 6th Congressional District. John Delaney is running against Roscoe Bartlett to represent that district.

I came across this story relevant to Bartlett who represented the district for decades:
U.S. Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett (R) in person is not necessarily the man behind his campaign literature, news releases and ads, according to the congressman, leaving his opponent, John Delaney, to wonder just who he is challenging this fall.
At a recent town hall meeting, a man confronted Bartlett with what he perceived to be a negative campaign on the congressman’s part.......“You said you don’t get negative in your literature, but I checked it out, and it’s all I see,” the man said. 
“I haven’t seen it,” Bartlett said at the Aug. 30 meeting in Frederick....... 
When the man handed Bartlett a campaign flier he’d received in the mail that labeled Delaney a “loan shark,” Bartlett shrugged it off. 
“That wasn’t me; that was the campaign,” he said, handing back the flier and shaking his head.
This is not the first time the 10-term congressman has denied knowledge of negative attacks on his political opponents. 
The weekend before this year’s Republican primary, tapes of 911 calls from 2008 were released recounting the marital discord of Bartlett’s top challenger. 
Bartlett issued a statement denying any role in the release of the information, which surfaced under the name “Victory for Bartlett.” Email links from “Victory for Bartlett,” however, ended up at Bartlett’s campaign website,
David Ferguson, director of the Maryland Republican Party, said the party’s mailings “are not a coordinated effort with Congressman Bartlett.”
Alex Moodey, Chair of the Maryland Republican Party is employed by Bartlett's Congressional office.

Previous posts on the Bartlett candidacy:
Here is a video of Bartlett on Fox News from January 2012. He sounds like a Democrat when he discusses Mitt Romney and expresses his preference for Ron Paul for president.

A Thought About Mosquito Borne Diseases

In his book, 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann describes results of the transfer of the agents of malaria and Yellow Fever to the Western Hemisphere, as well as of the Aedes aegypti vector of Yellow Fever.

Of course, an entire suite of diseases was transferred to the Americas - diseases that had long existed in Europe, Asia and Africa. The epidemics that they caused decimated the indigenous populations, facilitated their conquest by immigrant Europeans, and led to the collapse of Indian land use systems.

Mosquito borne diseases differ in one important way from air borne in an important respect. Mosquito borne diseases seem more easily spread by from supine victims that are easy prey for mosquitoes, while air borne diseases seem more easily spread if the victims are able to move about freely to spread the disease in to people in new places. It has been suggested that as a result, there has been a tendency air borne diseases to evolve to allow victims to be ambulatory and mosquito borne diseases to evolve so that victims are supine.

Mann notes that Malaria and Yellow Fever are diseases that are found most frequently in the tropics, that can persist in temperate zones, but do not become endemic in cold climates. They were terrible in the Caribbean islands and northern South America, bad in the southern United Sates and in a band across South America, and not so much of a problem in the northern American colonies/states. The Mason Dixon line is something of a demarcation between the American malaria zone and the malaria free zone. In South America, these diseases devastated the indigenous population of Amazonia.

Importantly, people from West Africa (have evolved under pressure from these diseases to be) are often immune to one form of malaria and resistant to the other common form. This is not true for the English nor Germans, nor American Indians. Mann suggests that once malaria was endemic to large areas in the Americas, the employment of European indentured servants and/or Indian slaves became less economically advantageous to planters than the employment of Africa chattel slaves, and that this fact helped overcome a British antipathy to slavery.

Mann also mentions the problems that the British forces had with disease in their southern campaign in the U.S. Revolutionary war, when their soldiers who had no resistance to malaria came up against colonial militias formed of locals who had developed such resistance. Malaria may have also played a role in the South during the Civil War.

Today we find it hard to imagine Malaria and Yellow Fever being a problem in the continental United States, but that is certainly true historically. I recall when I lived in Cali, Colombia (1970-73) a physician friend told me that his father, who had also been a physician, had believed that the presumptive diagnosis for any patient that presented with a fever (temperature) was malaria -- the disease was that common even in the 20th century at the 3,000 foot altitude in the Andes.

Previous posts related to 1493:

More on Why Opposition to the Holocaust was too little, too late.

My book club recently discussed 1938: Hitler's Gamble by Giles MacDonogh. I previously posted on the book and on the discussion. One thing we could not understand is why other countries stood by while the Nazis became more and more brutal in the treatment of the Jews (eventually culminating in the Holocaust).

I am now reading The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler's Germany, 1941-1945 by Michael Beschloss. A part of the book discusses the way that Roosevelt and his administration dealt with the problem, and in passing with some of the other allied powers with which the Americans were negotiating. Stalin's USSR seemed totally uninterested, perhaps not surprising in a regime that would sacrifice millions of its own people in gaining and holding political power, restructuring its agriculture, and fighting the German invasion. The British seemed divided over the issue.

Beschloss recognizes that antisemitism was pervasive in the United States, and that it was difficult for Americans to recognize that the Nazis would embark on an unprecedented crime against humanity. Leaders of the American Jewish community worked to gain administration support to save European Jews, but ran into apathy and other priorities.

The book portrays Henry Morgenthau, Roosevelt's Secretary of the Treasury, as a secular Jew (reluctant to be seen by his Christian colleagues as "too Jewish:) who was slow to raise the issue with FDR, perhaps in fear of weakening his personal relationship with the president. It was Christian subordinates of Morganthau who became seized with the horror of the Holocaust and convinced Morganthau to go to the president and call for action. That intervention resulted in a new program in 1944, too late but still a program credited with saving some 200,000 lives.

General Eisenhower and Secretary of War Stimson are pictured as not wanting to divert military resources into dealing with civilian refugees (a position that mirrors that of Northern generals in the Civil War). John McCloy, Assistant Secretary of War, noted that there had been stories of German excesses during World War I which eventually proved to be false; he wondered if the stories of Nazi atrocities were similarly inflated.

Breckenridge Long, an Assistant Secretary of State, is depicted as opposed to immigration, especially of Jews; he is portrayed as deliberately slowing the flow of visas, money and assistance to the European Jews. Cordell Hull is portrayed as backing up his subordinate, having delegated the relevant authorities to him.

Roosevelt is depicted as having a laser-like focus on winning the war through military means. He failed to order bombing of the railroad tracks used to transport Jews to extermination camps, and to bomb the camps themselves to destroy the gas chambers (and thus save those who would be killed in them later in the war). He was insistent (as was Stalin) of unconditional surrender by the Germans, feeling that World War II grew out of the negotiated peace that ended World War I (as well as the harsh treatment of the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles). It was only in 1944 that he began to warn Europeans that there would be war crime trials and approved the creation of the War Refugee Board.

I would note that Roosevelt faced elections in 1940 and 1944. The 1940 election was for an unprecedented third term, at a time when the United States was still suffering from the Depression and was unprepared for a war that Roosevelt felt must be won. In 1944, the nation was fully committed to the war and there was "light at the end of the tunnel". In both elections, Roosevelt wanted Jewish support but wished to avoid loss of support from antisemitic and anti-immigration voters.

The Globalization of Trade in Psychoactive Substances

In his book 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created, Charles C. Mann describes the globalization of tobacco. Found in the Western Hemisphere, tobacco was one of the first successful exports from North American and Caribbean colonies to Europe. Smoking releases Nicotine, a mild stimulant, and is addictive. The practice of smoking spread quickly worldwide, as eventually did the the agricultural production of tobacco and the industrial production of cigarettes and other tobacco products.

I got to thinking about the history of globalization of psychoactive drugs through commerce.

I assume that alcoholic drinks, tea and coffee, as well as chocolate all spread worldwide in part because they make you feel good because the alcohol, caffeine and theobromine they contain, relatively mild drugs, make you feel good. Of course, alcohol in a beverage may make it safer to drink, as does boiling water for tea of coffee -- an important consideration before safe, potable water supplies were commonly available. Moreover, alcoholic beverages travel better than fresh foods, as do the dried tea leaves, coffee beans and roasted cacao beans. All of these have become the bases of global industries.

Opium has been used since ancient times; its use is documented in the Sumerian, Assyrian, Egyptian, Indian, Minoan, Greek, Roman, Persian and Arab Empires. However, I think of the British commercializing the production of opium in India to sell into China, or the Dutch commercializing the opium industry in Indonesia. Opium is simply a drug, with no redeeming social value. In both cases, the imperial power used coercive force to protect the commercial sales of opium against prohibition by the governments of the consumers. Of course, with the transformation of opium into heroin the global trade in opiates has been largely criminalized. Still, in some sense the trade in opium, heroin and morphine is a global industry.

Marijuana and Cocaine similarly have become global trade items in criminal industries based on agricultural products that were once products used by small populations of indigenous peoples. More recently, of course, we see globalization of man made drugs.

In all cases there is a lot of money to be made catering to people's willingness to ingest psychotropic chemical substances, even though they have no nutritional nor medicinal benefits and indeed may do great harm. In all cases modern industries have developed to make profits catering to markets, even when doing so requires the enterprises to be criminal. How odd!

Of course, the Virginia planters who began the commercial production of tobacco and the the British merchants who organized the transport to and sale of tobacco in England did not begin to understand the dangers of smoking. One assumes that the people who first started commercial distribution of opium also failed to understand the damage from that trade. It is only later that enterprises run be people who simply didn't care about the damage they did became criminal multinationals.

Previous post mentioning 1493.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

What makes people sometimes willing to put "We" ahead of "Me?"

My friend Julianne pointed me to an interesting article in Science Daily on the choice between cooperation and self-interest. Harvard scientists have shown that people's first response is to cooperate and that stopping to think encourages selfishness. Two scientists have published new findings in the September 20 issue of Nature.
They recruited thousands of participants to play a "public goods game" in which it's "Me" vs. "Us." Subjects were put into small groups and faced with a choice: Keep the money you've been given, or contribute it into a common pool that grows and benefits the whole group. Hold onto the money and you come out ahead, but the group does best when everyone contributes. 
The researchers wanted to know whether people's first impulse is cooperative or selfish. To find out, they started by looking at how quickly different people made their choices, and found that faster deciders were more likely to contribute to the common good. 
Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Faster deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less. 
Next they forced people to go fast or to stop and think, and found the same thing: Faster deciders tended to be more cooperative, and the people who had to stop and think gave less. 
Finally, the researchers tested their hypothesis by manipulating people's mindsets. They asked some people to think about the benefits of intuition before choosing how much to contribute. Others were asked to think about the virtues of careful reasoning. Once again, intuition promoted cooperation, and deliberation did the opposite.

I recently posted on experiments using the Trolley Problem that suggested that the brain generates two possible solutions to that ethical problem: one that came more quickly and seemed instinctive and one that came more slowly and seemed to be more reasoned. The result reported above would seem to be a similar example of two brain systems, one generating a rapid response (perhaps more instinctive) for cooperation, and the other a slower, more contemplative response to promote self interest. Again, we think with our brains, not just our (conscious) minds.

The article goes on to state:

While some might interpret the results as suggesting that cooperation is "innate" or "hard-wired," if anything they highlight the role of experience. People who had better opinions of those around them in everyday life showed more cooperative impulses in these experiments, and previous experience with these kinds of studies eroded those impulses. 
"In daily life, it's generally in your interest to be cooperative," Rand said. "So we internalize cooperation as the right way to behave. Then when we come into unusual environments, where incentives like reputation and sanctions are removed, our first response is to keep behaving the way we do in normal life. When we think about it, however, we realize that this is one of those rare situations where we can be selfish and get away with it."

This of course is an alternative interpretation of the observation -- fast responses are from habit (not instinct) while slower responses (as I suggested) are more the product of logical thought. Science works by observation. There might be alternative hypotheses as to why the things observed happen, and a scientist would normally propose new experiments to discredit one or the other hypothesis.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Edith Piaf - Non, je ne regrette rien

Non... rien de rien
Non je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien... qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal, tout ça m'est bien égale...

Non... rien de rien
Non... je ne regrette rien
C'est payé, balayé, oublié
Je me fous du passé...

Avec mes souvenirs
J'ai allumé le feu
Mes chagrins, mes plaisirs
Je n'ai plus besoin d'eux

Balayées les amours
Avec leurs trémolos
Balayés pour toujours
Je repars à zéro

Non... rien de rien
Non... je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien, qu'on m'a fait
Ni le mal, tout ça m'est bien égale

Non, rien de rien
Non... je ne regrette rien
Car ma vie... car mes joies...
Aujourd'hui... ça commence avec toi...,_Je_Ne_Regrette_Rien

Jacques Brel - Dans Le Port d'Amsterdam

Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui chantent
Les rêves qui les hantent
Au large d'Amsterdam
Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dorment
Comme des oriflammes
Le long des berges mornes
Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui meurent
Pleins de bière et de drames
Aux premières lueurs
Mais dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui naissent
Dans la chaleur épaisse
Des langueurs océanes

Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui mangent
Sur des nappes trop blanches
Des poissons ruisselants
Ils vous montrent des dents
A croquer la fortune
A décroisser la lune
A bouffer des haubans
Et ça sent la morue
Jusque dans le coeur des frites
Que leurs grosses mains invitent
A revenir en plus
Puis se lèvent en riant
Dans un bruit de tempête
Referment leur braguette
Et sortent en rotant

Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui dansent
En se frottant la panse
Sur la panse des femmes
Et ils tournent et ils dansent
Comme des soleils crachés
Dans le son déchiré
D'un accordéon rance
Ils se tordent le cou
Pour mieux s'entendre rire
Jusqu'à ce que tout à coup
L'accordéon expire
Alors le geste grave
Alors le regard fier
Ils ramènent leur batave
Jusqu'en pleine lumière

Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Y a des marins qui boivent
Et qui boivent et reboivent
Et qui reboivent encore
Ils boivent à la santé
Des putains d'Amsterdam
De Hambourg ou d'ailleurs
Enfin ils boivent aux dames
Qui leur donnent leur joli corps
Qui leur donnent leur vertu
Pour une pièce en or
Et quand ils ont bien bu
Se plantent le nez au ciel
Se mouchent dans les étoiles
Et ils pissent comme je pleure
Sur les femmes infidèles
Dans le port d'Amsterdam
Dans le port d'Amsterdam.


How should the global community define new educational goals?

Number of primary-school-age children
not in school, by region (2006)
The other night I sat in on Laura Engel's UNESCO seminar. There was a most interesting discussion about education policy for developing countries. Timely too. The Education for All (EfA) initiative dates back to 1990, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) to 2000, and both set benchmarks for 2015. We have a few years to consider new goals and initiatives for after 2015.

It is clear that schooling, at least at the primary school level has been greatly expanded over the past two decades. Of course a lot of the credit goes to people in many, many countries who feel that education is important and who have worked to make it more available and better at the local, national and/or international level. I know that there are criticisms of both EfA and the MDGs, but I feel that they have made a contribution to the improvement of school systems. On the other hand, there is still a lot to be done to get all kids to school for a reasonable number of years. Therefore it makes sense to me to create a new multinational initiative with its own goals.

Primary School Completion Rate by Country
Source: Gapminder
I found myself in the discussion arguing that the rate of change in developing countries is greater than that in developed nations. The majority of people living in developing nations in Asia and Africa are experiencing rates of economic growth several times those experienced in European or other developed nations. Their industries are experiencing the "creative-destruction" of capitalist economies at a faster rate than ours, the balance between cost of capital and cost of labor is changing quickly, and workers are having to learn new techniques at a high rate.

Similarly, developing countries are experiencing high rates of social change. The rate of rural to urban migration alone is staggering, and the changes someone moving from a rural community to a city are very great. Global media are intruding into traditional societies, bringing all sorts of new ideas. Political institutions are changing. Foreign firms are entering local markets in developing countries, bringing new products, new ways of doing things, and new ideas with them.

If I am right, people in developing countries face even greater challenges learning to live successfully in their changing societies than do people in developed nations. The will have to learn fast and learn continuously over their lifetimes.

Mean Years in School (Women 25 years and older) by Country
Source: Gapminder
Educational systems in developing countries, which are generally starved for resources and already failing to serve many of the people they should serve, face huge challenges helping people to learn that which they will need to learn to live successfully in their changing societies. Note that I am talking about primary, secondary and tertiary schools, but also about other institutions and systems that provide learning opportunities, from libraries and publishers to radio and television, and beyond.

We had an interesting discussion on educational content. How important is training to equip students with the skills to find immediate employment? How important is it to provide continuing opportunities for training through peoples lifetimes to help them adapt to changing work environments and challenges? How does an educational system organize to provide the society with all the different workers it needs for rapid progress?

What more should the educational system take on? Does it have a responsibility to prepare people for their roles as parents, as citizens, as conservators of the environment? Should it seek to build character so that people will help their neighbors, battle against corruption, and/or sacrifice for their children and families? How in the world does one educate to build strong character?

How important are the economic versus other objectives of the educational system?

One of the criticisms of the current multinational education initiatives and goals is that they are largely the product of only four agencies -- UNESCO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the UNDP -- and that the member nations of these agencies were not sufficiently involved in developing the goals that they, the national governments, would be expected to fulfill.

How then should the international community go about developing a new initiative and new benchmarks for education? What would be the best way? What kind of impact can such an exercise have, and how can that impact be directed to do the most good? What is the most feasible way to develop an adequate initiative and benchmarks? How could a plan be developed that best enlists the enthusiastic participation of the many stakeholders in carrying out the plan?

It would seem a first step would be an assessment of the current situation and a review of the progress, success and failure of EfA and the MDGs. Many elements exist that would contribute to such an assessment, and the major intergovernmental organizations involved in international education might usefully develop (jointly or individually) position papers.

The audience for a new multinational statement of purpose and benchmarks would be national governments, especially their education ministries, the international agencies mentioned above, as well as other civil society and private sector agencies involved in education policy. The audience includes both donors of foreign aid and recipients of that aid. How would one go about development of the policy to make it most intelligible and useful to this broad audience?

Who are the ultimate beneficiaries? I would say they are the learners in developing nations, and the nations themselves. That is, the policy should take into account not only the needs and desires of the learners who would be the ultimate beneficiaries of the educational system, but also the role of the educational system in nation building (economic, political, cultural. etc.). Perhaps it would be useful to use some approach to survey the demands of learners. Perhaps is would also be useful to survey governments to discover their aspirations for the contributions of their educational systems to national development.

Presumably the new initiative and benchmarks will be approved by the United Nations. Would the debate in that forum provide adequate input for the national governments? One approach that has been used in the past has been for the nations themselves to develop national plans, and to integrate these into a global plan. Would such an approach work?

Of course, one can not answer such questions in any adequate way in a two hour class discussion. Still I think it is useful to consider the questions themselves, both in class and at length. In fact, people talking to students in this seminar will have participated in making such plans in the past, and students who think about these questions will be in a better position to appreciate those informants.

This appears a useful tool for thinking about tough problems.

Richards J. Heuer, Jr. in his book, Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, recommends the following
analytic tool.

Step-by-Step Outline of Analysis of Competing Hypotheses 
1. Identify the possible hypotheses to be considered. Use a group of analysts with different perspectives to brainstorm the possibilities. 
2. Make a list of significant evidence and arguments for and against each hypothesis. 
3. Prepare a matrix with hypotheses across the top and evidence down the side. Analyze the "diagnosticity" of the evidence and arguments--that is, identify which items are most helpful in judging the relative likelihood of the hypotheses. 
4. Refine the matrix. Reconsider the hypotheses and delete evidence and arguments that have no diagnostic value. 
5. Draw tentative conclusions about the relative likelihood of each hypothesis. Proceed by trying to disprove the hypotheses rather than prove them. 
6. Analyze how sensitive your conclusion is to a few critical items of evidence. Consider the consequences for your analysis if that evidence were wrong, misleading, or subject to a different interpretation. 
7. Report conclusions. Discuss the relative likelihood of all the hypotheses, not just the most likely one. 
8. Identify milestones for future observation that may indicate events are taking a different course than expected.
Click here for detail on the tool.

Voters should analyze and vote on the non-partisan items on their ballots.

A White Lab Coat Is Not An Adequate Symbol of Authority

The trolley problem is one used by psychologists to study ethical decision making. Experimental subjects are given a scenario in which a trolley is moving down its tracks and continuing it will run over five people and kill them all. The subject is given one of two alternatives:

  1. The subject can switch the trolley onto a different track, but if he does so it will kill someone on that track.
  2. The subject is on a bridge over the track with a fat person, and pushing that person off the bridge in front of the trolley will kill the falling person but save the five down the tracks.

Obviously the two situations have in common that one person is killed or five people are killed. Most people respond in the first alternative that they would switch the trolley onto the new track. Most people respond in the second alternative that they would not push someone off the bridge to a certain death even to save five other people. The theory is that in the first case, the part of the brain that makes logical analysis of ethical issues dominates the decision making, but in the second case, it is the part of the brain that makes instinctive ethical decisions that dominates. (A continuing theme of this blog is that we think with our brains, not our minds.)

A new fillip to the research suggests that people who think in words tend more often to use the engine for making logical ethical decisions, and those who think in pictures more often use the engine for making instinctive ethical decisions.

I Reject the Trolley Problem!

There are always more than two alternatives in a situation. If you are fortunate enough to be asked to be a subject in a trolley problem experiment of the second kind, I suggest you do one of the following:
  • Imagine that you are an 80 year old, humanitarian hermit with terminal cancer and the other person on the bridge is a 30 year old widow who is the sole support of her widowed invalid mother and her five orphaned children. Then it will be easy to imagine throwing yourself off the bridge to stop the trolley and save those five people.
  • Imaging that the kid in the white lab coat is on the bridge with you. Tell her its her responsibility and you are washing your hands of the whole problem. If she objects, tell her its your imagination and her white coat doesn't give her any right to control your mind.*
Let me know what happens in a comment on this blog post. When enough comments have accumulated, we can write a paper ourselves on the results and publish it in Psychology Today.

* Note: See the Milgram Experiment

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Without comment: Homer Simpson votes for Mitt Romney

Household Income and Unemployment

The grey bars on the graph represent the months of decreasing GNP during the U.S. recessions of 2001 and 2007. Unemployment increased during each of the recessions. Mean household income decreased for years after each recession. The Great Recession of 2007 was longer, had a much more severe increase in joblessness, and a much more profound drop in mean household income. According to the graphs, both mean household income and employment appear to have turned around and started to recover. Moreover, the delay from the start of the decline to the beginning of the recovery seem to have been shorter under the Obama administration (which faced the much greater recession) than under the Bush administration.