Tuesday, October 30, 2012

If you want to help in disaster relief, donate money!

Some years ago I asked people involved in disaster relief about donated supplies. The answer was very negative.

Think about a warehouse in a city that has been hit hard by a disaster. It might get tons of donated materials. Unfortunately, the stuff would come in without any inventory. It would not be organized. I talked to people who had seen such warehouses where people were invited to come in and take whatever they wanted. People walked out with wheelbarrows of stuff, drove out with vans of stuff. Neither the recipient nor the managers of the warehouse knew what was being taken.

What kind of stuff? A lot of people, of course, donate things that they feel will be needed. Unfortunately, most of us don't really know what will be most needed in an emergency situation, nor do we have supplies of those goods to spare. So people send old cloths or spare canned goods.

On the other hand, it turns out that a lot of people take advantage of campaigns to collect such goods to get tax write offs for useless stuff. People told me about tons of pharmaceuticals arriving at relief warehouses, unsorted, and many of them expired. Of course, there was no way that those drugs could be properly dispensed.

Think then about the people trying to organize useful relief. They will need to purchase the supplies that are really needed, They will need to find ways to deliver the needed supplies to the places that were hit by the disaster -- not always easy due to the damage done by the disaster. They will need to develop the details of delivery of the stuff that is really needed to the individuals and families that need them. Add to that huge problem the need to deal with hundreds of tons of donated materials simply complicates their job.

That is why organizations such as the Red Cross encourage people who want to help to send money, not goods.

Even more important, that is why we need government disaster relief organizations. Unfortunately there are disasters every year, and there is a need for permanent organizations to plan for and organize for rapid response. A government can stockpile potable water, staple foods, blankets and other supplies that are frequently needed. It can develop the capacity to describe the disaster and its victims quickly and accurately, to communicate when phones are out of order, to provide emergency electric power, and the computers and software to manage the relief effort.

Mitt Romney and his campaign staff should understand this reality. The proposal to privatize disaster relief seems simply to be foolish, or worse a cynical effort to pander to the uninformed prejudice of a faction of the electorate. The fact that Romney is using the problems created by Hurricane Sandy to gain publicity, supposedly by collecting donations for the victims, is despicable.

I recall President Bush telling his direct of FEMA after he had booted the Katrina relief, "Heckofa Job, Brownie". It is nice to see President Obama on the job, and nice to hear from the Republican Governor of New Jersey that FEMA is doing a good job preparing for, during and after Sandy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

A thought on the growth of health care in the federal budget

There has been considerable comment about the Bush administration's choice of spending huge amounts on two wars while cutting taxes, leading to large deficits.

Health care spending now represents approximately one quarter of the federal budget, comparable to pensions and defense spending. It has grown to that size over a period of slightly more than 40 years. Yet no one seems concerned that it has been allowed to grow without the government creating corresponding revenues.

During this period, health care spending has increased greatly as a portion of the U.S. GDP. KaiserEDU.org suggests:
While there is broad agreement that the rise in costs must be controlled, there is disagreement over the driving factors.  Some of the major factors that have been discussed in cost growth are:
  • Technology and prescription drugs– For several years, spending on prescription drugs and new medical technologies has been cited as a primary contributor to the increase in overall health spending; however, in recent years, the rate of spending on prescription drugs has decelerated.[1]  Nonetheless, some analysts state that the availability of more expensive, state-of-the-art medical technologies and drugs fuels health care spending for development costs and because they generate demand for more intense, costly services even if they are not necessarily cost-effective. [6]
  • Rise in chronic diseases – Longer life spans and greater prevalence of chronic illnesses has placed tremendous demands on the health care system.  It is estimated that health care costs for chronic disease treatment account for over 75% of national health expenditures. [7]  In particular, there has been tremendous focus on the rise in rates of overweight and obesity and their contribution to chronic illnesses and health care spending.  The changing nature of illness has sparked a renewed interest in the possible role for prevention to help control costs. 
  • Administrative costs – At least 7% of health care expenditures are estimated to go toward for the administrative costs of government health care programs and the net cost of private insurance (e.g. administrative costs, reserves, taxes, profits/losses).[1] Some argue that the mixed public-private system creates overhead costs and large profits that are fueling health care spending.[8]
Another of the many reasons is inflation. The demand for health services is determined in part by what doctors prescribe.

During my time as a health planner in Latin American I asked doctors what they would do if a private patient could not afford the course of diagnosis, treatment and care that the doctor thought most appropriate. The answer was that the doctor would seek to identify an alternative course that would benefit the patient and yet still be useful to that patient. So, in part one may assume that doctor's prescriptions are determined by the ability to pay.

Economists inform us that when demand exceeds supply, prices increase. There are a number of constraints on the supply of health services, such as limitations on the supply of doctors and nurses and limits on the financing of public hospital construction. On the other hand, government funding of health care greatly increased demand. Thus I conclude that there has been a lot of inflation over time. In support of this idea, here is a quote from the blog, Carpe Diem:
Physicians in the U.S. made an average of about $200,000 in 1996, which was between 2 and 5 times as much as doctors made in European countries and Japan (see chart above). The median physician salary in the U.S. is now closer to $275,000.
Government can control inflation through various actions. It could of course, ration health services, as has been done in some countries. It can also impose rules and regulations that prevent practitioners from prescribing less cost-effective treatments -- as my health maintenance organization does through the use of formularies and emphasis on preventive interventions. Or it can impose price controls.

One of the unusual aspects of the health care cost situation is that since the society agrees that adequate health care is a right, the costs have to be paid from some source. In the United States a considerable portion has been paid out of pocket by patients, another portion by employees and employers through health insurance plans, some by charity, and some by government. The transfer of responsibility for a portion of the bill to government has been accomplished without the government devising adequate means to finance the costs, and without the tax payers shouldering the burden of needed income.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Schooling the World

I saw the film Schooling the world: the white man's last burden on Wednesday. It presents a critique of foreign assistance to promote schooling, suggesting that too often schooling results in loss of cultural values and environmental degradation. Schooling also often encourages students in poor countries to develop aspirations that can not possible be fulfilled, leading to unhappiness in those students and their families. It is a thought provoking film.

As the movie points out (somewhat disapprovingly), people all over the world want schools in their communities. I am not surprised. Schools which allow people good at sharing knowledge, skills and values to interact with groups of children have been around for a very long time. They are used in different ways by different cultures, but the meme of the school seems very likely to be accepted in most societies.

There are some easy answers to the critique of foreign assistance to build school capacity:
  • Over many decades, we have learned a lot on how to deliver foreign assistance, and foreign aid to school capacity development in particular. The best practices learned should always be used in new education programs and projects.
  • We should encourage the development of good schools, with well targeted curricula, good teaching methods, well trained and motivated teachers, and good teaching materials.
  • The content of education should be "right" - the best justified information, the most relevant skills, etc.
of course, it is a lot easier to say that people should learn the lessons of the past and do the right thing, than actually to learn those lessons and to do the right think in difficult circumstances.

The movie makes an implicit comparison between the education provided to children in a Buddhist monastery (in the mountains of north India)  focused on spiritual growth, that which would be provided in a rural village to prepare the youth to life successfully in that rural culture, and that which would seek to prepare students to compete in a global community (and probably result in their leaving rural communities. TI suppose that the issue is what future do the people of the community want for their children. I would note that all three of these objectives are more acceptable than say a community in the tribal areas of Pakistan that might want its children to be educated to act as terrorists in a religious jihad.

A foreign donor may help people in such a community to better appreciate the implications of the alternative choices available to them. Such a donor might indeed help to create schools either to help people provide schooling of some kinds, stay out of development of schooling that the donor feels is best left to other sources, or indeed to oppose the development of schools that it perceived as dangerous.

The film makes a very valid point that the American schooling system is leaving a lot of kids out in the cold. We certainly should be humble in sharing what we know about schools with other societies. I also think we would be well advised to seek to learn from others how their schools work and whether they have approaches that would benefit U.S. schools.

I think a key aspect of culture is that culture changes. If you believe in freedom, then you should believe that people within a culture should choose the direction of change (with some exceptions, such as Hitler in Germany), Often the choice is implicit. One of the problems is that the choices should be made according to the values of the community, but the values of the children of the changes will be different than the values of the older and wiser members of the community that guide the change. Development ain't for sissies!

Politicians may be afraid to act, but the public knows global warming is happening.

A Thought About Education.

Children are born totally dependent. Their parents take on the responsibility for their education. Indeed, it is not until children reach "the age of reason" that we feel they can make responsible decisions for their own education.

A common African proverb, famously used by Hilary Clinton as the title of a book, it "it takes a village to raise a child".  That includes educating the child. It seems obvious that a community as a whole benefits from the education of all its children. It is not simply the child or the child's nuclear family that benefit from the child's education. There are spill overs to the rest of the community. A community has many people playing different roles in its economy and society, with each member serving many others.

Similarly, the United States has a tradition of control of schools by local school boards. While home schooling has become somewhat common recently, the vast majority of kids go to schools here to study a curriculum, use textbooks, and study under teachers chosen by the local school board. Moreover, the public schools are supported by local taxes, not only on the families with children but all the property owners.

In the United States we have begun to use national tests of educational accomplishments. There is increasing concern that some states are not meeting the educational standards of the country as a whole. If there are significant numbers of high school drop outs, kids who don't realize their whole potential, the nation as a whole will fail to achieve its economic potential. Indeed, one hope for an electorate that is educated and thoughtful. Moreover, the social fabric is served by well educated, employed citizens.

At the end of World War II, the allies created UNESCO. Part of the reason it did so was that Nazi Germany had used its schools to inculcate hate for minorities and other attitudes supportive of war in its students. It was recognized that England, France, the United States and other nations had suffered as a result of the educational policies in Germany. Equally, we now must realize that the European Union is a single economy -- any country that fails to educate its children to play their full role in that economy is damaging the economy as a whole and thus the other nations of the EU.

Ultimately, we all lose if the world loses another Einstein, or another Steve Jobs, or another Dahai lama because his community fails to provide the education that is needed to develop his full capacity.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

It is important to understand the economy if you want to understand policy.

I quote from an article in The Economist:
America has around 197,000 medium-sized firms, defined as those with annual revenues between $10m and $1 billion, according to data from the National Centre for the Middle Market at Ohio State University. Together, they employ over 40m people in the country and account for around one-third of private-sector GDP (equivalent to the economies of India and Russia combined). 
Some 82% of medium-sized firms survived the dark years of 2007-10, compared with 57% of small firms. And although the survival rate among the 2,100 big firms (with revenue over $1 billion) was 97%, these giants shed 3.7m jobs during those years. Mid-sized companies, by contrast, added 2.2m jobs. This trend has continued as the economy has struggled back to its feet. In 2010-11, medium-sized firms increased employment by 3.8%, compared with growth of 2.5% by small firms and 0.8% by big business.
You would never suspect that there is a network of medium size enterprises listening to our politicians, much less that they are the job creators. 

The image says it all!

Source: The Economist

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Thinking about the candidates foreign policy expertise.

There is an old saying: "Where you stand depends on where you sit."

Here is a new one: "What you see depends on where you stand."

And: "What you understand depends on who you are."

Source: The Daily Beast

I got to think of that on watching the Foreign Policy Debate last night. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney see the world differently. A part of the difference comes from their differences in experience.

Obama famously is the son of a Kenyan exchange student who lived in Indonesia during his childhood. He is also the son of a woman who made a career in development assistance, raised largely by a grandfather who served in World War II and a grandmother who worked in a plant building bombers during the war. Obama grew up in Hawaii, America's most ethnically diverse state, and is supposed to have associated with foreign students during his college years. He served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Homeland Security Committee for four years and of course has been president for four years.

Romney famously is the son of a U.S. auto executive, governor and presidential candidate who was born in Mexico of American parents. George Romney lived in a Mormon colony in Mexico from birth in 1907 to the return of his parents to the United States in 1912. Mitt Romney was a Mormon missionary in France for two and a half years and has had a number of increasingly senior positions in his church. He was a businessman managing investments abroad. He spent three years managing the planning for the Winter Olympic Games of 2002. He served one term as Governor of Massachusetts.

As U.S. Senator on the Foreign Relations Committee and as the President of the United States Obama had a superb position to learn about U.S. foreign policy. If it takes seven years to develop expertise, Obama must have done so by now.

The view of the world of a missionary and religious leader is presumably quite different than that of someone making national policy. So too is the view of a businessman looking for investment opportunities or consulting with international firms. So too is the view of a sporting event organizer. Governors have some limited responsibilities for international policy relating to the foreign interests of constituents. Thus Romney had a different and more limited exposure to international affairs.

Senators and especially presidents have unequaled opportunities to meet and get to know foreign governmental leaders. So too, they have unequaled opportunities to meet and learn from U.S. foreign policy experts.

I suspect that Barack Obama understands the world in a very different way than does Mitt Romney because they are very different people, formed by very different life experiences and very different associations over their lifetimes.

A great deal of knowledge of foreign policy is tacit rather than explicit. As such it is very difficult for voters to identify and study. While a debate will indicate something about a candidates command of facts, it will do little to convey his understanding of situations, causes and their effects. That tacit knowledge and understanding is developed over time and with experience -- it can not be picked up from books.

If foreigners could vote, the election would be a walk in for Obama

Source: BBC News
If you have any doubt which candidate is a better bet to conduct a successful foreign policy, this should end it.

Sometimes algorithms work better than money.

The 2012 Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded jointly to Alvin E. Roth and Lloyd S. Shapley "for the theory of stable allocations and the practice of market design". The Economist devotes an article to their work. I quote:
Money is not essential to a market. After all, economics is about maximising welfare, not GDP. But the absence of a price to allocate supply and demand makes it harder to know whether welfare is being maximised. This year’s Nobel prize in economics went to two scholars—Alvin Roth, who has just joined the economics department at Stanford University, and Lloyd Shapley, a retired mathematician at the University of California, Los Angeles—who have grappled with that very problem.
The term "market" is used here in the sense of an institution that matches individuals for transactions. Our monetary markets use price signals to match buyers and sellers. There is of course a long literature on the conditions under which markets result maximize welfare. In theory and in practice, there are situations in which the use of monetary signals will not work, yet we still wish to institutionalize systems to organize transactions so as to maximize welfare.

Roth and Shapely pioneered in the use of computer programs to match pairs of people for transactions in the absence of monetary signals. Programs of this kind are now used in matching donors and recipients for organ transplants, matching students with educational and training opportunities, and newly minted lawyers with opportunities to clerk with judges.

Here are the sources identified by The Economist:

Our Immigration Policy Should No Longer Be Overshadowed by 9/11.

The Economist has a review of The Immigrant Exodus: Why America Is Losing the Global Race to Capture Entrepreneurial Talent by Vivek Wadhwa. The review makes the point that since 9/11 the United States immigration policy has kept out the most important immigrants that the nation must attract -- those who would contribute to our economy, providing necessary skills and creating new enterprises.
Life in immigration limbo is wretched. Immigrants on H1-B visas, which are issued to skilled workers, must be sponsored by a specific employer. They cannot change jobs without imperilling their application. Their careers stagnate. They do not know whether they will be deported, so they hesitate to put down roots, buy a house or start a company. Sometimes their spouses are barred from working. In some states their spouses cannot even obtain a driving licence, as if they were female and living in Saudi Arabia. Fewer and fewer talented people are prepared to put up with such treatment, and they have plenty of other options. They know that Canada, Australia and Singapore hand out visas swiftly and without fuss. If they are from a poor country, they know that there are opportunities back home....... 
Since no nationality may receive more than 7% of employment-based green cards, Chinese and Indian applicants are treated more harshly than citizens of less populous nations. The time they must spend in limbo has shot up. If they have a great idea for a new company, they can go home and start it straight away. In America, if they quit their day job, they may be deported. 
In a survey, Mr Wadhwa found that most Indian and Chinese students in America expect problems in obtaining a work visa when they graduate, regardless of the demand for their skills. An unprecedented number now plan to go home.

Immigration reform is overdue. We are living with the hangover from the excessively fearful reaction to the 2001 terrorist attack. Moreover, the United States has a long history of racist immigration policies that shames the nation. 36 percent of the world's population live in China and India, yet these huge countries are limited to 7 percent each of our green cards. This is in spite of the fact that Asian immigrants show up very well on all our statistics.

As I focus in this blog on knowledge for development, and especially the economic potentials of the developing knowledge economy, let me emphasize the importance of attracting highly educated, innovative and entrepreneurial immigrants from where ever they may be, including Asia.

U.S. Interests in the Middle East are Not Identical to Israel's.

Israel owes its existence to the support of the United States. The United States recognized the state of Israel within minutes of its founding. We have provided the military aid that made Israel strong enough to win wars against the combined forces of its neighbor states. We have provided financial aid and opened markets to Israel that allowed the development of its economy. Our government has used its influence to bring peace between Israel and its neighbor states. And Israel remains a strong ally safe under an American military umbrella.

But the United States is the world's indispensable nation. Our most important partner in foreign policy is Europe. We have historic alliances with the United Kingdom and France, huge populations who trace their ancestry back to England, Germany, Italy, Ireland and other European nations. NATO is our most important military alliance. The European Union is hugely important in the economic stability of the world, and our partner in seeking to preserve that stability. They fought with us in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it should be clear that our European allies have huge stakes in North Africa and the Middle East that we must help them protect. For those who did not notice, France, Italy and the United Kingdom played leadership roles in Libya because they had important interests in Libyan stability that they felt the need to protect.

U.S. Interests in Israel's Neighbor States

It is critical for Israel that Egypt honor their peace treaty and protect the southern border of Israel and Gaza from terrorist or militant incursions. Egypt, with the largest population of any Arab state and a traditional intellectual leadership among Arabs, it a critical partner for the United States in maintaining the stability of the region. Its control of the Suez Canal is critical to the economy and energy supplies of our European allies.

Similarly, Israel is concerned that Jordan remain an ally protecting its borders with the Palestinian West Bank from incursions antithetical to Israel's security. Jordan is important to the United States as a demonstration of progress and stability in the Arab world, as well as due to its long borders with Iraq and its role as a safe harbor for refugees from other countries in the region.

Syria too is not only of interest to the United States because of its border with Israel, but also because of its border with Iraq and indeed its border with Turkey. Our role in Syria is complicated by its diplomatic ties to both Iran and Russia, key targets for our foreign policy; the United States must consider the effect of our actions in Syria on our larger interests with Russia, and indeed with our efforts to contain the potential for conflict between Persian, Shiite Iran and its Arab, Sunni neighbors.

Lebanon has long and important ties with France and the United Kingdom, and those U.S. allies share our concern with the stability of Lebanon. We remain concerned with the stability of the Israeli-Lebanese border for the sake of Israel and Lebanon, but also with the stability of the Syrian-Lebanese border for Lebanon's sake.

It is some 20 years ago that Netanyahu first said that Iran would obtain nuclear weapons within five years. His time estimates of the danger from Iran are not reliable. The sanctions are causing grave harm to the Iranian economy, but so too are the economic policies of the Iranian government. One can hope that changes will enable our government to negotiate an agreement that would guarantee that Iran does not obtain nuclear weapons and means of delivering them in the region; at the least, it would seem possible to allow some time for such negotiations to take place.

As President Obama has pointed out, Asia is increasingly important to U.S. foreign policy. Japan has been an important partner for decades; China and India are increasingly important players in the global economy. Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers with a common border and a historical enmity. Pakistan is the indispensable ally in dealing with Afghanistan. Asia depends on European markets and Middle Eastern oil, and thus on the stability of the region. Our interests in that stability coincide importantly with Asia's.

Israel as a small country under terrorist threats concentrates on its own security. The United States as the world's largest military power, with international economic interests deep into the global economy, and with a global network of allies and diplomatic responsibilities has more complex interests at play.

Monday, October 22, 2012

What is the Source of Human Rights

From the Virginia Declaration of Rights (June 12, 1776):

Section 1. That all men are by nature equally free and independent and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety. 
Section 2. That all power is vested in, and consequently derived from, the people; that magistrates are their trustees and servants and at all times amenable to them. 
Section 3. That government is, or ought to be, instituted for the common benefit, protection, and security of the people, nation, or community; of all the various modes and forms of government, that is best which is capable of producing the greatest degree of happiness and safety and is most effectually secured against the danger of maladministration. And that, when any government shall be found inadequate or contrary to these purposes, a majority of the community has an indubitable, inalienable, and indefeasible right to reform, alter, or abolish it, in such manner as shall be judged most conducive to the public weal.
From the Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.--That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed
What is the definition of "unalienable":
"Unalienable: incapable of being alienated, that is, sold and transferred." Black's Law Dictionary, Sixth Edition, page 1523:
From the Bill of Rights (March 4, 1789):
THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
From the French Declaration of the Rights of Man (August 26, 1789):
The representatives of the French people, organized as a National Assembly, believing that the ignorance, neglect, or contempt of the rights of man are the sole cause of public calamities and of the corruption of governments, have determined to set forth in a solemn declaration the natural, unalienable, and sacred rights of man, in order that this declaration, being constantly before all the members of the Social body, shall remind them continually of their rights and duties; in order that the acts of the legislative power, as well as those of the executive power, may be compared at any moment with the objects and purposes of all political institutions and may thus be more respected, and, lastly, in order that the grievances of the citizens, based hereafter upon simple and incontestable principles, shall tend to the maintenance of the constitution and redound to the happiness of all.

From Franklin D. Roosevelt's Address to Congress (January 6, 1941):

In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms. 
The first is freedom of speech and expression -- everywhere in the world. 
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way -- everywhere in the world. 
The third is freedom from want -- which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants -- everywhere in the world. 
The fourth is freedom from fear -- which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbor-- anywhere in the world.
From  the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (December 10, 1948):

Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world, 
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, 
Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law, 
Whereas it is essential to promote the development of friendly relations between nations,
Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom, 
Whereas Member States have pledged themselves to achieve, in co-operation with the United Nations, the promotion of universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms, 
Whereas a common understanding of these rights and freedoms is of the greatest importance for the full realization of this pledge, 
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS as a common standard of achievement for all peoples and all nations, to the end that every individual and every organ of society, keeping this Declaration constantly in mind, shall strive by teaching and education to promote respect for these rights and freedoms and by progressive measures, national and international, to secure their universal and effective recognition and observance, both among the peoples of Member States themselves and among the peoples of territories under their jurisdiction.
 Definition of "inalienable":
incapable of being alienated, surrendered, or transferred
The Declaration of Independence considers rights as given by the "Creator". The Virginia Declaration of Rights and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man as "natural" and in the case of the French, "sacred".

The Bill of Rights simply indicates that the people who defined the Constitution sought to limit government by defining rights that it might not infringe upon.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights fixes rights as a matter of international law (especially in the conventions implementing various aspect of the Declaration).

It would seem, however, that in all cases documents are used to specify which rights are to be protected or not infringed upon by government. It seems to me that we can enshrine in that portfolio a right to health care or, as FDR did,  a right to freedom from want.

Teleological Thinking May Be Hard Wired in Our Brains.

Chris Mooney, one of my favorite science writers, provides a summary of a new research result in an article in Psychology Today. He writes about an experiment in which four groups of subjects were asked to judge false statements of the form:
"Trees produce oxygen so that animals can breathe," and "Germs mutate in order to become drug resistant."
Endorsing such a statement implies that the person making the judgement is assuming conscious purpose where no such purpose exists. Clearly trees are not producing oxigen with the intent of helping animals to breath, nor are germs deliberating and deciding to mutate for a purpose of their progeny surviving antibiotic use by their hosts. The fallacy here is assuming teleology -- assuming design and purpose analogous to that found in human actions -- in non-reasoning entities.

All four groups sometimes responded indicated the false assumption of teleology. People trained in science and the humanities made fewer teleological assumptions than did college undergraduates (College in the graph above) or college graduates without post graduate degrees (Community). The interpretation is that the advanced training enables those with graduate degrees to make better decisions about intentionality.

When required to respond quickly the probability of erroneous answers increased in all groups. The interpretation is that the brain's initial response to such suggestions is to assume intentionality, but that people who have learned to avoid that assumption can with time make more rational judgments. Lacking time, they are more likely to produce the teleological response.

This is of course a warning to us all not to assume too much. I myself tend to conclude that when things go wrong, the problem is more often one of incompetence or bad luck, rather than malice. This is still another example that we often think with our brain, not necessarily with our conscious (rational) mind.

A Thought About Public Admiration

Compare these results from last December's poll to determine the most admired people in the United States.
Source: Gallup Poll
With this result from a 2009 survey:
Source: "Scientists and Doctors Are Tops, Say Americans"
It appears that  people from the most admired occupations don't show up on the list of most admired individuals. The most admired individuals seem to be primarily those most visible in the media.

One may also wonder why individuals are admired. Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama may be admired in part for achieving so much from such apparently disadvantaged beginnings as well as for their attempts to do good in their current positions.

I perceive a problem. Albert Einstein was justly celebrated as a scientist of surpassing genius in the media. He was very famous as a result. Today the doctors and scientists most worthy of admiration for their accomplishments would not be well known to the public. The professions are very much admired, and perhaps on a one to one basis so too are their members, but the public at large does not know the great figures of these fields. Consequently, kids don't have role models of great scientists or great doctors.

A Moral Dimension

  • Good: Buddha, Baha'u'llah, Dalai Lama, Jesus Christ, Moses, Mother Teresa, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King and Mohandas Gandhi. 
  • Evil: Tomas de Torquemada, Vlad the Impaler, Adolph Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, Adolph Eichmann, Pol Pot, Mao Tse-tung, Idi Amin, Joseph Stalin, Genghis Khan, H. H. Holmes and Gilles de Rais.

Where would the most admired on the Gallup list show up on the continuum between the best of the best and the worst of the worst? I suspect they might well be lumped in with the great majority of us somewhere in the middle.

However, look at the following longitudinal results from the series of Gallup polls:

Source: Gallup Poll
Now, in addition to the predicted political leaders and famous people one finds religious leaders Mother Teresa, Billy Graham and John Paul II. One also finds Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela known more for their efforts to promote peace and human rights than for their political careers. I would suggest that these people are included on the list because they are perceived as very good, not simply because they are very famous.

I tried searching using Google for the wisest people in America, with no luck. One would think that wise people should be famous for the quality of the advice that they can offer. The Pickover "good list" seems to include people who have provided great guidelines for living.

Of course, Google will give you help on how to get medical, financial or business advice, but where do you go for wise advice on how to live? How about here.

Where do you go for advice on how to achieve peace in the world? Perhaps here.

How we misread the numbers that dominate our politicsS

Source: "How we misread the numbers that dominate our politics"
The graphs above are taken from an article in the Washington Post by Zachary Goldfarb. His point is that Obama and Romney are citing different figures, each accurate in its way, but each seeking to make a point in favor of his own candidacy.

You need some background to understand these figures. The federal government functions on a fiscal year that begins October 1 and ends September 30. The budget for that fiscal year is submitted to the Congress in January, revised by the Congress, and usually appropriated by September 30. Presidents are inaugurated on January 20, after their election the previous November.

Thus Barack Obama was elected in November, 2008 and took office in January 2009. The government continued operating on the budget submitted to Congress by President Bush in January 2008, as modified by the Congress in 2008) until September 2009. The federal government had prepared a budget under President Bush for the period October 1, 2009 to September 2010 but the Obama administration had great influence in the appropriations for that period after it assumed office.

Thus the Obama administration policies took effect in October 2009.

It appears that the catastrophic fall in employment had begun to bottom out before that time, probably as a result of the stimulus package that was put in place under the Bush administration on the basis of a bipartisan agreement. On the other hand, I believe it is legitimate for President Obama to claim credit for the long term growth of employment after October 2009.

Of course, the Republicans took control of the House of Representatives in January 2011. It is clear that that Congress introduced gridlock in the legislative process. The Republican majority in the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate both influenced the federal budget that began to be implemented in October 2011. You will notice that there has been a slowing of growth in employment after that time, with a possible downturn at the end of that fiscal year.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Without comment

What policy promotes economic growth (with equity)?

The Republicans seem to be arguing that if the rich get richer faster, everyone will benefit -- the trickle down theory.

At one time a large portion of Americans believed that progress for the working class was the key to economic growth.

"Henry Ford had reasoned that since it was now possible to build inexpensive cars in volume, more of them could be sold if employees could afford to buy them. The $5 day helped better the lot of all American workers and contributed to the emergence of the American middle class. In the process, Henry Ford had changed manufacturing forever." (Source: The Ford Motor Company)
Alternatively today many seem to believe that economic improvement for the middle class is the path to economic growth:
"To challenge trickle-down effectively, progressives should counter with their own story about economic growth. In that story, it isn’t the rich that lead the way to growth and prosperity. Instead, it is a thriving and vibrant middle class that shows us the path. It may not seem intuitive that the concept of “the middle class” is the opposite of trickle-down and an effective counterargument against it. But it is. To understand why, we must first grasp that current thinking and rhetoric about the middle class is backwards. Politicians typically see the middle class as something to create with the gains of economic growth. But in fact, the opposite is the case: The middle class is the source of economic growth. A strong middle class provides a stable consumer base that drives productive investment. Beyond that, a strong middle class is a key factor in encouraging other national and societal conditions that lead to growth. It is a prerequisite for robust entrepreneurship and innovation, a source of trust that greases social interactions and reduces transaction costs, a bastion of civic engagement that produces better governance, and a promoter of education and other long-term investments." (Source: Democracy: A Journal of Ideas)
The people who make these arguments seem to do so, not impervious to evidence, but even uninterested in the possibility of having information to support their arguments.

It seems to me that there is a real question as to the economic climate and its influence on the proper growth strategy. Are we now in an economic climate in which rapid growth is at all possible, or are we required to hold on and ride out an unavoidable period of economic stagnation?

International development agencies have for some time sought to encourage economic growth with "pro poor policies" (e.g. this and this) suggesting that there is some independence between growth strategies and distribution strategies.

I learned about marginal utility long time ago. It seems to me that ideally, economic policy should seek to maximize utility, not GDP. It also seems to me that the marginal utility of 1,000 people below the poverty line receiving $1,000 in additional income is almost certainly greater than that of one billionaire receivingg $1,000,000 in added income.

New Report from ITU shows US improvement

Source: ITU
The new ITU reportMeasuring the Information Society 2012, finds the United States is seventh in ICT Development, up from 14th last year.

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Contribute to development of Ars Magica on Kickstarter

You can contribute to the development of the game and receive something in return by going to this website.

My son is working on the game for the company developing it, Black Chicken.

The Opiate of Exceptionalism

I quote from an opinion piece in the New York Times:

IMAGINE a presidential candidate who spoke with blunt honesty about American problems, dwelling on measures by which the United States lags its economic peers. 
What might this mythical candidate talk about on the stump? He might vow to turn around the dismal statistics on child poverty, declaring it an outrage that of the 35 most economically advanced countries, the United States ranks 34th, edging out only Romania. He might take on educational achievement, noting that this country comes in only 28th in the percentage of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and at the other end of the scale, 14th in the percentage of 25-to-34-year-olds with a higher education. He might hammer on infant mortality, where the United States ranks worse than 48 other countries and territories, or point out that, contrary to fervent popular belief, the United States trails most of Europe, Australia and Canada in social mobility. 
The candidate might try to stir up his audience by flipping a familiar campaign trope: America is indeed No. 1, he might declare — in locking its citizens up, with an incarceration rate far higher than that of the likes of Russia, Cuba, Iran or China; in obesity, easily outweighing second-place Mexico and with nearly 10 times the rate of Japan; in energy use per person, with double the consumption of prosperous Germany.

One of the problems of use of opiates is that their habitues are passive. If we believe the United States is the best of all possible countries, then we may be passive about our very real problems.

Thinking about this election campaign, I suspect the problem we have is that a lot of people are indeed doing very well, and too many of those don't want to extend a helping hand to those of us who need it. Worse, the unwillingness to extend a hand to "the other" is based on prejudice.

Friday, October 19, 2012

The USA's Distribution of Income is Less Equal Than It Was.

Source: The Economist
It is hard to imagine that 421 people alone hold net worth equal to 10.5 percent of what a population of 330 million working together can produce in a year!

According to The Economist:
A survey for the World Economic Forum meeting at Davos pointed to inequality as the most pressing problem of the coming decade (alongside fiscal imbalances). In all sections of society, there is growing agreement that the world is becoming more unequal, and that today’s disparities and their likely trajectory are dangerous.

So much for the land of opportunity!

I quote from The Economist:
Scandinavian societies (are) very mobile. Only around 20% of parents’ relative wealth (or poverty) is passed on to their kids. China, in contrast, is fairly immobile: 60% of income differences persist between generations. The big surprise is the United States, where parental income explains around half of the differences in adult children’s income, much more than in Canada, and more than in any European country except Italy and Britain. According to this measure, social mobility in America now is lower than in most of Europe.

Teddy Roosevelt got it, but Mitt Romney doesn't get it!

Theodore Roosevelt was the leader of the progressive faction of the Republican party in 1910. He got the problem! The U.S. economy has returned to levels of inequality not experienced since his day. The impact will be felt in lack of economic growth and lack of opportunity for most American kids. Mitt Romney is the presidential candidate of the Republican party. He doesn't get the problem!

This is what Republican progressives believed in 1910: "The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows..........At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth." Theodore Roosevelt

Today we find: "Including capital gains, the share of national income going to the richest 1% of Americans has doubled since 1980, from 10% to 20%, roughly where it was a century ago. Even more striking, the share going to the top 0.01%—some 16,000 families with an average income of $24m—has quadrupled, from just over 1% to almost 5%. That is a bigger slice of the national pie than the top 0.01% received 100 years ago." The Economist

What does this imply: "Two Spanish economists, Gustavo Marrer0 and Juan Gabriel Rodríguez, built an index of economic opportunity for individual American states. They found that states’ GDP growth was inversely correlated with their inequality of opportunity, but not with overall inequality. In a forthcoming World Bank working paper, Ezequiel Molina, Jaime Saavedra and Ambar Narayan find that countries with lower educational equality, as measured by the Human Opportunity Index, grow more slowly.

"This line of research is in its early stages, but a second strand of evidence, which examines the link between inequality and social mobility, is more developed. There are now plenty of studies which use the inter-generational elasticity of income to measure social mobility in different countries. Miles Corak, a Canadian economist, first plotted the results of these studies on a single graph. It is known as the “Great Gatsby Curve” (see chart 4), and suggests that countries with higher Gini coefficients tend to have lower inter-generational social mobility." The Economist

Source: The Economist
 From an interview with Mitt Romney:
QUESTIONER: When you said that we already have a leader who divides us with the bitter politics of envy, I’m curious about the word envy. Did you suggest that anyone who questions the policies and practices of Wall Street and financial institutions, anyone who has questions about the distribution of wealth and power in this country, is envious? Is it about jealousy, or fairness?
ROMNEY: You know, I think it’s about envy. I think it’s about class warfare. When you have a president encouraging the idea of dividing America based on 99 percent versus one percent, and those people who have been most successful will be in the one percent, you have opened up a wave of approach in this country which is entirely inconsistent with the concept of one nation under God. The American people, I believe in the final analysis, will reject it.
QUESTIONER: Are there no fair questions about the distribution of wealth without it being seen as envy, though?
ROMNEY: I think it’s fine to talk about those things in quiet rooms and discussions about tax policy and the like. But the President has made it part of his campaign rally. Everywhere he goes we hear him talking about millionaires and billionaires and executives and Wall Street. It’s a very envy-oriented, attack-oriented approach and I think it will fail

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Thinking back on university unrest in the 60s and 70s.

I wonder how many younger people understand the turmoil in universities in the 1960s and 1970s.

I got my MSEE degree from UC Berkeley in 1962, slightly before the Free Speech movement started there. The picture above is from one of the rallies that occurred in the university plaza during that movement. Even when I was at Berkeley some called it "the little red schoolhouse" alluding to the radical attitude of students. For years there seemed to be a floating manifestation in the plaza, but also a serious occupation of the administration building.

I was a Peace Corps volunteer from 1965 to 1967, assigned to a private engineering college there. For a year of that time the students were on strike, locked out of the campus. While the student protests were relatively peaceful, a policeman was seriously injured in one.

On my return I entered UC Irvine to study for my PhD. While I was there the building in which my Graduate School of Administration was housed was fire bombed. This in perhaps the most conservative county in the United States; business students are not known for their radical views either.

I was in Colombia from 1970 to 1973, during which time I had an adjunct appointment at one of the regional universities. Again, for a year of that time the students were on strike. The strike quickly turned violent. More than a dozen students were killed, something like 25,000 people were arrested and held in the city's stadium, and marshal law was imposed city wide.

Of course, there were only my personal experiences, but student unrest occurred all over the world, leading to major student demonstrations in many countries.

Not surprisingly, the situation influenced policy. For example, the university in which I served in Chile after the strike combined with other schools to create an off campus computer center -- one that would continue to operate even in the event of student unrest. In Colombia, a new university campus was built outside the city, in part at least to assure that it could be isolated from the city proper were there to be student demonstrations on campus.

Without Comment

Source: Gallup Economy
"U.S. unemployment, as measured by Gallup without seasonal adjustment, is 7.3% in mid-October, down considerably from 7.9% at the end of September and at a new low since Gallup began collecting employment data in January 2010. Gallup's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 7.7%, also down from September. October's adjusted mid-month measure is also more than a percentage point lower than October 2011."

Without Comment

Without comment

A Thought About Goal Setting

In tonight's UNESCO seminar, Frank Method spoke to the students about the formulation of the Education for All Goals. Frank is the most thoughtful education policy expert that I know. As part of his presentation he described the BHAG approach to goal setting. BHAG is an acronym for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

We can look to "rocket science" for examples. The Germans during World War II set a goal of using unguided missiles to bomb England from the European mainland. When they did so, no one knew how to build such a missile, or indeed whether it would be possible in wartime conditions before the end of the war. (A similar BHAG might be the Manhattan Project to build atomic bombs during World War II.) There was a theoretical possibility. However, in order to achieve the goal one would have to build a team capable of doing so, build the manufacturing capability to produce the parts and the final system, test it, and deliver it.

When President Kennedy set the goal of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade of the 1970s, it was also a BHAG. The defining characteristic of such a goal is that one could not simply follow existing approaches, but would rather have to rethink the entire approach. The goal of a man on the moon in a decade was big, in the sense that one would have to organize a huge effort in order to do so. It was hairy in the sense that no one quite knew how to manage such an effort, and indeed entirely new management systems had to be invented, utilizing the newly available capacity of computers, to manage the effort. It was audacious; while no one knew whether the goal could be accomplished when it was set, but the prestige of the presidency and of the nation had been attached to the program and failure would have been a serious blow to those reputations.

The song Follow the Drinking Gourd, here performed by Bill Schustik, was very popular during the folk music fad about the time of the Apollo space program, It suggests a different kind of goal. Slaves seeking freedom would more toward the North Star. They would of course never reach the star, but with good luck and hard work they would have a decent chance at attaining freedom.

I advance this as an example of a goal set not to be achieved, but to guide an effort that would result in more and better progress than might otherwise be achieved. I suggest that their may be real advantage in such goals.

The Education for All goal can be regarded as a goal of achieving a human right to basic education by 2015. That was reinterpreted as serving all the children in the world with at least primary school education by that date. Frank pointed out that even in the United States, there are a few children who don't complete primary school -- children with disabilities, illegal migrants, children in inadequate home schooling, etc. For many developing nations, the goal is still a distant dream.

Students should realize that there was considerable debate on what the goal should be, notably in two world meetings, one in 1990 and the other in 2000. It is possible, indeed probable, that more progress was made toward universal primary schooling as a result of the EfA process than would have been otherwise made. EfA mobilized efforts of developing nations and of donor agencies. It resulted in a system in which progress was measured and people held responsible for that progress.

On the other hand, in a world of limited resources, allocation of resources to primary schooling may have made them unavailable for other purposes. Would more vocational training have allowed industry to develop faster in developing nations? Would more university training of professionals allowed faster progress in the development of infrastructure, agriculture and industry, or better public health programs? We will, of course, never know.

How Does This Work Out in the Bureaucracy?

Development agencies use variants of the Logical Framework Approach. Projects are designed, managed, monitored and evaluated according to a framework in which defined inputs are used in an effort to produce specified outputs which in turn are expected to achieve specified purposes leading to defined goals.

I think that often the agency officer who designs a project -- setting its longer range purposes and goals in the design document  -- does not administer the project through to completion, and is not held responsible in its final evaluation for the achievement of those purposes and goals.

On the other hand, that officer is frequently involved for some time in the project implementation and is held responsible during monitoring for the timely delivery of project inputs and production of their specified outputs, at least for a few years. Perhaps the most important input from the point of view of the donor agency is money. The outputs, in education for example, might be teachers trained, educational materials produced, schools built, etc.

Would bureaucratic success come from defining a project with modest input and output levels, ones that could surely be achieved, Would it come more fully from defining levels that would challenge the donor and the implementing agency to work to the utmost?

This brings us to the fundamental question of how should a project be specified so that it does the most good? The corresponding problem is how should people be evaluated on the basis of project performance. Should project schedules be reasonable and attainable and people held to meeting them? Might it be better to set ambitious goals that would motivate people to rise to new levels of performance, and people rewarded if they do indeed reach such higher levels? Indeed, when if ever are BHAG approaches appropriate?

I suspect that the wary bureaucrat will frequently design projects that will easily meet their monitoring targets, making the bureaucrat look good in the monitoring reports while he/she is still involved. In doing so, I suspect that projects often achieve less than they might. A system in which bureaucrats progress up the career ladder quickly by playing it save, but not by taking risks to achieve all that can be achieved, is likely not to produce as much as did our efforts in rocket science.

A Final Comment

Lifelong learning for all might be a "drinking gourd" goal. Would a eutopian society limit its concern for education to a few years of schooling? Would it not utilize many institutions in addition to schools to enable its members to realize their full potential at all stages of their lives.

There is little chance that we would achieve the full potential of lifelong learning in any society in the lifetime of anyone now alive. However, it might be useful to keep that in view as a guide star for our efforts in education. By doing so, we might reach better place than by any other approach to education.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

U.S. Job Creation by President/Political Party

Truthful Politics provides a useful discussion of job creation under presidents of each party, including the graph shown above.
(T)he average amount of private sector jobs created during Democratic Presidential terms is 1,463,220 and the average amount during Republican Presidential terms is 642,000.
Note that the average would have been even higher for Democrats except for the first year of the Obama administration when the workforce was hemorrhaging jobs. That loss of course was not due to anything that the Obama administration had done, but to the crash that occurred at the end of the Bush Republican administration.

Note that the larger the economy and the larger the population, the more jobs should be created. Still it is notable how many jobs were created during the Carter and Clinton administrations.

Cities are the motor of economic growth

The Economist has an article this issue which states:
Differences in metropolitan populations may help explain gaps in productivity and incomes. Western Europe’s per-person GDP is 72% of America’s, on a purchasing-power-parity basis. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute, the consultancy’s research arm, reckons that some three-quarters of this gap can be chalked up to Europe’s relatively diminutive cities. More Americans than Europeans live in big cities: there is a particular divergence in the size of each region’s “middleweight” cities, those that teem just a little less than the likes of New York and Paris (see chart). And the premium earned by Americans in large cities relative to those in the countryside is larger than that earned by urban Europeans........ 
Cities today have a productivity advantage........to do with ideas rather than costs. When one firm in a city comes up with a new technique, product or design, nearby firms may quickly build on it or hire its creator. One firm’s innovation boosts its own productivity but also spills over to other businesses. Companies that prefer seclusion cut themselves off from these “knowledge spillovers”.
 It made me wonder. The 50 largest cities in the United States are primarily responsible for the economic progress of the nation, and they vote Democratic. Most indeed are in blue states. Yet the largely rural red states have disproportionate power in the Senate and in electing the president. What does that mean for government support of the policies needed to develop our new industries and keep the nation economically strong?

Mitt Romney seems not to realize that our manufacturing industry is still strong, but it is strong in spite of paying good wages because we continue to increase worker productivity:

Source: Advanced Manufacturing Portal
The United States still leads in high technology manufacturing, but we also do well in services and our motors of innovation are increasingly in those related to the knowledge economy. And these are concentrated in urban areas!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Get ready for the next pandemic of an emerging disease

An article in The Economist points out that "zoonotic infections, those that pass from animals to humans...........make up nearly two-thirds of all human infectious diseases, including rabies, Ebola and malaria. The three most recent outbreaks—of SARS, bird flu and swine flu—indicate that the next pandemic is likely to be zoonotic in origin." The implication is that one-third of infectious diseases arose in humans (or that the animal origin has not been identified).

It seems logical that as the number of humans increases and humans occupy more of the earth's surface, there will be more opportunities for diseases of animals to pass to humans. The more such events take place, the greater the chance that one of these infections will prove to be pandemic, or will be transformed in humans to be pandemic. Flu pandemics have emerged every few decades as a new strain emerges that is easily transmitted, quite infectious, and for which there is not much resistance in the population. If the strain is virulent, lots of people die.

Infectious diseases need to circulate in the human population. Many infections that enter the human population infect a few (or many) people and then disappear when no new people are infected. This may happen when the human population is sparse or when a the people where the disease emerged are not connected with other people. The greater the population, the denser it is; the better the communications, the less likely a group is to be isolated from others.

It therefore stands to reason that more pandemics will occur. In the last century we saw several flu pandemics, including "the Spanish flu" which is estimated to have killed 50 million people or more and the HIV pandemic which is on its way to causing similar human mortality.

We need a strong international surveillance system. We also need to keep biomedical research going to have more tools available to the medical profession to prevent infection and treat the infected. We also need to keep our public health toolbox (containing our ability to use such interventions as quarantine, isolation of the infected, and even reduction of person to person contacts).