Monday, September 30, 2013

Progress In assuring children the right to at least primary education.

This graph is from a good website provided by The Guardian newspaper.

The Millennium Development Goals were set by the United Nations in 2000. Targets were set for 2015, and while most will not be achieved, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called the goals “the most successful global anti-poverty push in history”.

The education goals should be understood in relation to the Education for All movement headed by UNESCO. Net enrollment rates for primary education have increased globally from 83 percent in 2000 to 90 percent in 2011.

Of course, the heavy lifting in getting kids to school has been done by the people in the countries themselves, led by a massive effort by the governments of poor countries and supported by the global donor community. UNESCO's roll has been to monitor progress in Education for All, to make that progress well known internationally, and to provide forums for educational leaders to diagnose problems and re-energize their ambitions. Perhaps more important, UNESCO and UNICEF provided rallying points for the global community of educators and people supporting education for all, helping them to mobilize for the effort.

Why Are American Health Care Costs So High?

In which John discusses the complicated reasons why the United States spends so much more on health care than any other country in the world, and along the way reveals some surprising information, including that Americans spend more of their tax dollars on public health care than people in Canada, the UK, or Australia. Who's at fault? Insurance companies? Drug companies? Malpractice lawyers? Hospitals? Or is it more complicated than a simple blame game? (Hint: It's that one.) 
For a much more thorough examination of health care expenses in America, I recommend this series at The Incidental Economist: The Commonwealth Fund's Study of Health Care Prices in the US: Some of the stats in this video also come from this New York Times story: This is the first part in what will be a periodic series on health care costs and reforms leading up to the introduction of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, in 2014.
So why don't we have a single payer system, and why doesn't the government negotiate prices with providers? You know the answer. Our politicians are more committed to the current system than to the welfare of the people. Could that be because companies like the control that their provision of health insurance to their employees provides, especially since they can charge it off to their customers? Could it be because the companies hire lobbyists and provide campaign contributions?

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Economist on Today's Slow Pandemic

I quote the article in its entirety:
No news is often good news. AIDS has dropped out of the headlines in recent years, and that is because, in the battle between virus and people, people are winning. 
This year’s report by UNAIDS, the United Nations agency charged with combating the disease, confirms that optimistic picture. Though AIDS is not beaten (it still kills 1.6m people a year), this number is down from a peak of 2.3m in 2005. And the number of new infections per year has fallen by a third, to 2.3m, since 2001. Paradoxically, the number of those infected is rising. But this is because they are living longer. These trends are mostly the result of the spread of antiretroviral drugs, which are now taken by almost 10m people. They are paid for by a rise in the money spent on AIDS in poor and middle-income countries, to $18.9 billion in 2012. 
Africa’s men (and Africa is still the seat of the epidemic, with 70% of cases) have also responded enthusiastically to the discovery that circumcision vastly reduces the risk of infection. Some 1.7m a year of them are now having their foreskins snipped off in 14 countries looked at by UNAIDS.
We still don't know how to cure HIV infection. We still don't have an HIV vaccine. The reason the prevalence is going up is because more people are being infected with HIV each year than are dying with their HIV infection.  35 million infected people, 10 million dependent on expensive drugs for the rest of their lives for survival, and almost two million new infections a year doesn't sound like good news to me!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Monday, September 23, 2013

Institution Building for Sustainable development

Jeffrey Sachs has an article in The Economist in which he states:
CLIMATE science tells us unequivocally that we need to “decarbonise” much of the energy system by the middle of this century. Yet advanced techniques for extracting fossil fuels—fracking, new deep-ocean drilling and the like—dominate today’s economic and political discussion. These measures may temporarily boost the economy but they would end up crowding out investments in low-carbon technologies. A boomlet in fossil fuels is bound to be a dead end. Short-term priorities and long-term needs are at odds. 
This disconnect also exists in the realm of jobs policy. Youth unemployment is stuck in the stratosphere in part because conventional jobs have succumbed to advances in information technology, robotics and outsourcing, leading to lower employment and a decline in earnings among unskilled youth in particular. In response economists obsess about policies to manage demand. But that will not address these structural changes. New strategies in education and training, and in smoothing the tricky school-to-work transition, are also needed. 
These examples illustrate the difference between mainstream economics and the policies that are needed to deliver sustainable development. Standard economic policies aim for growth, full stop. Sustainable development aims for growth that is broadly shared across the income scale and that is also environmentally sound. Mainstream economics divorces the short term from the long term. There may be big problems ahead—climate change, food scarcity, demographic shifts and poorly trained young people—but macroeconomists prefer to improvise today and worry about the future later. That approach also suits politicians, aligning the policy cycle with the electoral cycle. But it is not a recipe for producing robust, inclusive growth.
As the United Nations approaches the topic of "Sustainable Development Goals" for the next few decades, Sachs recommends "overhauling our technological systems" using a system that consists of:

  • "backcasting" from desired end goals to identify the steps needed to achieve each goal;
  • "road-mapping" to map out the way to accomplish each step toward the goal achievement; and
  • "global cooperation" to actually follow the road map and achieve the goals.
He is modelling his approach after that which was used to first put a man on the moon and to plot the human genome. Of course, that approach has value and is useful in many applications. In the ones identified, where money was available, the institutional problems were relatively simple. I fear the institutional problems in achieving sustainable development over the long term are more intractable.

Think about restoring economic growth to the United States. Here are some of the issues I see before us:
  • We will have to tame the influence of the greedy one percent. Over decades we have moved to a point in which a tiny group of the super rich is appropriating all the increases in productivity of our economy. It is clear from history that "trickle down" is not a sustainable economic growth strategy, but the super rich have achieved such influence over our political policy makers that trickle down is institutionalized as our development policy.
  • We will have to reverse the thinning of the middle class. We believe that a robust middle class is the key to robust, sustainable economic growth, but the median real income of the middle class is decreasing. Other countries have shown that it is possible to institutionalize policies that preserve the middle class, but doing so seems to be out of our reach.
  • We are a consumer society. We would rather let the government borrow and spend rather than pay the taxes or forego government services, so the public debt increases. We would rather import more than we export so that we can enjoy cheap imported goods, and are seeing our nation's debt to other countries increase. As individuals we have for decades spent more than we earn, building a huge consumer debt. As a result, we are not accumulating capital needed to rejuvenate our infrastructure, build productive capacity, and innovate technologically at a rapid enough rate. How do we institutionalize an society that invests adequately in its own future?
  • When my son studied in Ireland a couple of decades ago he was struck by the attitude of the Irish students who were studying not so much the things that most interested them as the things that were most likely to lead to productive professional careers. In the United States we have millions unemployed who need jobs and a million jobs for which we can not find qualified applicants. Part of the problem is that our education and training system is not producing people with the right skills, and part is that our culture is not demanding enough of that service from the education system. How do we institutionalize a system that produces the workforce needed for a dynamic economy?
  • We are a prejudiced society. Women in the workforce still face a glass ceiling. So too do our minorities. Blacks and Hispanics face discrimination. Worse, too many young blacks and Hispanics are on the streets or in jails, rather than in schools or in entry jobs that will lead to careers as productive citizens. How do we institutionalize a more fair and just society in which we waste none of our human potential?
Sustainable development over the 21st century will require major institution building that will be far more difficult than building NASA or the Human Genome Project. Jeff Sachs prescription is useful, but falls short of the mark.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Lets make a lot of mistakes, but lets learn from them.

“If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks,” Debbie Millman counseled“Make New Mistakes. Make glorious, amazing mistakes. Make mistakes nobody’s ever made before,” Neil Gailman advised young creators. In Intuition Pumps And Other Tools for Thinking (public library), the inimitable Daniel Dennett, one of our greatest living philosophers, offers a set of thinking tools — “handy prosthetic imagination-extenders and focus holders” — that allow us to “think reliably and even gracefully about really hard questions” — to enhance your cognitive toolkit. He calls these tools “intuition pumps” — thought experiments designed to stir “a heartfelt, table-thumping intuition” (which we know is a pillar of even the most “rational” of science) about the question at hand, a kind of persuasion tool the reverse-engineering of which enables us to think better about thinking itself. Intuition, of course, is a domain-specific ability that relies on honed critical thinking rather than a mystical quality bestowed by the gods — but that’s precisely Dennett’s point, and his task is to help us hone it."Intuition Pumps: Daniel Dennett on the Dignity and Art-Science of Making Mistakes" by Maria Popova in Brain Pickings

Without comment

Update from The Economist magazine

A barrage of new statistics on American living standards offers some grounds for optimism. A typical American household's income has stopped falling for the first time in five years, and the poverty rate has stopped rising. At last, it seems, the expansion is strong enough at least to stabilise ordinary people's incomes. But the main message is a grim one

Did you know?

Congress fiddling while the economy burns: "Ben Bernanke highlighted three reasons why policy makers had decided to hold off scaling back its bond purchasing. Those were: the low labour force participation rate, drags on economic growth due to congressional wrangling over a looming budget deadline, and the recent rise in mortgage rates." BBC News

Saturday, September 21, 2013

International Peace Day - 21 September

Visualizing the early spread of Arab Islam.

Historical Evolution of the (Western) Roman Empire
Source: Wikipedia Fall of the Western Roman Empire

Historical Evolution of the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire
Source: Wikipedia Decline of the Byzantine Empire
This may seem obvious, but I was just struck by the fact that the expansion of the Arabs and the related early expansion of Islam was related to the decline of Rome.

In 632, the year Mohammed died, the Arabian peninsula was united and Muslim.

The Roman empire was at its largest extent around the end of the 1st century CE. In the beginning of the 5th century CE the Roman empire was divided into a Western and an Eastern empire, and by the end of that century the Western empire had fallen.

The Sassanian Empire which arose in Persia in the 3rd century CE expanded until it was in conflict with Rome. There was a destructive Byzantine-Sassinid war from 602 to 628 which weakened both sides, and a civil war in the Sassanian Empire in the following decade. I assume that the Arab conquest of the Sassanian Empire from 632 to 634 was facilitated by the weakening of the Sassanians. So too, the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs would have been facilitated by the weakening of the Byzantine Empire. The spread of Arab control to the west in north Africa and into the Spanish peninsula would have been relatively easy in the turmoil after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, and indeed some of that turmoil had preceded the fall and helped lead to it.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Montgomery Planning Board advances master plan for White Oak Science Gateway

Source: The Washington Post
The Montgomery County Planning Board approved a land-use blueprint Thursday that officials hope will eventually transform the long-neglected White Oak section of the eastern part of the county into a “new Silicon Valley” for medical and life sciences research. 
The five-member board voted unanimously to send the White Oak Science Gateway Master Plan to the County Council and County Executive Isiah Leggett for review. The project’s anchor would be LifeSci Village, a joint venture of the county government and Percontee, a private developer.
 This is a great place for life science research, with the NIH headquarters, a number of existing firms, and access to a number of universities. The initiative should provide good jobs in the county and add to the tax base! It may also help people through research findings and help the national economy.

Conservative lobbyist kills plan to encourage kids to study science!

From Inside Higher Ed:
The U.S. House of Representatives was set to vote last week on a bill that would create the position of "science laureate" -- a national title to honor an accomplished scientist and promote science, akin to the U.S. poet laureate. But backlash from a conservative group led lawmakers to pull the proposal from the floor. 
The legislation, co-sponsored by Democratic Rep. Zoe Lofgren of California and Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, would have allowed the president to appoint up to three science laureates who would serve for one or two years, as decided by the president, and allowed for their reappointment.,,,,,,,,,,,
But concerns from Larry Hart, director of governmental relations at the American Conservative Union, about the bill’s journey through Congress and its contents delayed the voting process. 
Since the vast majority of scientists believe that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, new science laureates would almost surely also believe that the data show that to be true. That might add to the pressure to do something about greenhouse gas emissions, and what companies would possibly object to that?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

So far, so good!

Source: The Economist
As the guy was heard saying as he fell past the 10th floor of the skyscraper on his way to a crash!

For most people, the economy is not growing

Source: Pew Research Center
Median real household income is lower for all four groups since 2000. Asians are doing relatively better economically, not because they get preferences, but because their culture leads them to high levels of education and they work hard.

Note that blacks have less than half the median income of Asians.

I suspect that there is something important that does not come out of median income. Inflation is measured on the basis of a market basket of goods purchased by consumers. It is a general estimate, but in fact the way more affluent people spend their money is different than the way poor people do. Medical costs have been increasing faster than most goods and service costs. Thus people spending more of their income on health services may be seeing their buying power go down faster than average.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Thinking about the future

In an interesting talk, historian Paul Sabin raised the issue of how we should best deal with our environmental future. He contrasted an approach typified by Paul Ehrlich in which population growth (and the growth of per capita consumption) seen as leading to more and more modification (some would say degradation) of the environment, with an approach typified by Julian Simon in which human society adapts to the changing environment (through technological and institutional innovations) to continue to improve human welfare. Sabin suggests that we should add a concern for values -- what kind of world do we want to live in? Are we willing to reduce human population or per capita consumption in order to retain some natural spaces and protect biodiversity? One problem with Sabin's approach is that our values today may be quite different from those of future people who will have to live with the results of our current policies.

I also found myself thinking of the guy who was heard falling past the 19th floor of a sky scraper, saying "so far, so good!" History is replete with societies that grew and progressed in wealth until they crashed. Simon's vision of permanent progress runs the terrible risk of being wrong.

Globalization is not only the process of increasingly global trade patterns, but also a process in which the human footprint is increasingly global. In the past, the crash of a culture in Greenland, or Mohenjo Daro, Rome or the Yucatan peninsula would leave most of the world's people untouched. The crash of a 22nd century civilization might be different in character because of its difference in magnitude.

A Thought on Religions in the World


Muslim world
Countries with more than 5% Muslim population.[4]              Sunni              Shias      Ibadi

The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) was created by the International
Religious Freedom Act of 1998 (IRFA) . It is an entity separate and distinct from the State Department, created as an independent, bipartisan U.S. government advisory body that monitors religious freedom worldwide and makes policy recommendations to the President, Secretary of State, and Congress. In its annual reports, the USCIRF identifies Tier 1 and Tier 2 countries:
  • Tier 1 countries are  those that USCIRF recommends the United States designate as “countries of particular concern” (CPCs) under IRFA for their governments’ engagement in or toleration of particularly severe violations of religious freedom.
  • The designation of Tier 2 countries was created to highlight situations where religious persecution and other violations of religious freedom engaged in or tolerated by the governments are increasing. To be placed on Tier 2, USCIRF must find that the country is on the threshold of CPC status—that the violations engaged in or tolerated by the government are particularly severe and that at least one, but not all three, of the elements of IRFA’s “systematic, ongoing, egregious” standard is met (e.g., the violations are egregious but not systematic or ongoing). 
In the 2013 report, Tier 1 CPC Countries are Burma*, China*, Eritrea*, Iran*, North Korea*, Saudi Arabia*, Sudan*, Uzbekistan*, Egypt, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Vietnam 
(* Countries officially designated as CPCs by the U.S.) Tier 2 countries are Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Cuba, India, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Laos, and Russia.

I quote from a recent report from the Christian press dealing with the flight of Christians from Muslim countries:
"The flight of Christians out of the region is unprecedented and it's increasing year by year," the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom said. In our lifetime alone "Christians might disappear altogether from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Egypt."........ 
Iraq's Christian population was at least one million in 2003. Today, fewer than 400,000 remain the result of an anti-Christian campaign that began with the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Countless Christian churches were bombed and countless Christians killed, including by crucifixion and beheading.  
The same pattern has come to Syria, after the U.S. has shown its support for the jihad on Syria's secular president Bashar al-Assad. Regions and towns where Christians lived for centuries before Islam came into being have now been emptied, as the opposition targets Christians for kidnapping, plundering, and beheadings. 
The last Christian in the Syrian city of Homs, in October of last year -- which previously had a Christian population of some 80,000, was murdered. 
I recently heard that Coptic Christians have been leaving Egypt in large numbers. There is now a possibility that this largest Christian community in the Muslim world will be transferred abroad within a couple of decades.

As the top map above shows, the major religions of the world are divided geographically. This is a result of their historical development. The map of Christian populations indicates that in many countries, Christians are the vast majority. This is the result of historical replacement of earlier religions by Christian sects. Now many Muslim countries seem to be expelling Christians (having already expelled Jews and others). I had hoped we were beyond that "religious cleansing". The trend does not bode well for relations between the West and the Muslim world.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Apparently you are in more danger walking than from terrorist attacks!

According to the Washington Post Wonkblog:
In the last five years, the odds of an American being killed in a terrorist attack have been about 1 in 20 million (that's including both domestic attacks and overseas attacks). As the chart above from the Economist shows, that's considerably smaller than the risk of dying from many other things, from post-surgery complications to ordinary gun violence to lightning.
Source: The Economist

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

James Madison

I just finished reading James Madison by Richard Brookhiser. I think Brookhiser makes an interesting case that James Madison's genius was for politics.

Madison has been termed the father of the Constitution. He helped create and participated in the Annapolis meeting that called for the Constitutional Convention, and participated in that Convention, speaking frequently. He was one of the authors of the Federalist Papers that explained the Constitution to the public and played an important part in convincing the state conventions to ratify the Constitution. He helped the people of Virginia more directly to ratify. Of course, many people participated in the creation of the Constitution, and it must be seen as a compromise achieved among those may participants and their many ideas and objectives. I see politics as the art of such successful compromise, and Madison was a consummate politician at a time when we must assume that there were few such men. He also kept the best notes of the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention (which were held in closed meetings) and had them published only after his death.

Madison was the fourth president of the United States, the middle president between Jefferson and Monroe, who together led the nation for 24 years. Adding the fourth Virginian -- Washington -- men from that state led the nation for 32 of the first 36 years under the Constitution. He, with Jefferson, founded the Anti-Federalist party, that became the Republican Party (America's first successful party) and is now the Democratic Party.

Madison is credited as the first to perceive that a large democratic republic might be more successful than small republics (which had always failed) because the diversity of interests in a large nation would protect against the tyranny of the majority in a small democracy. He was a lifetime defender of freedom of religion. He believed deeply in the importance of an informed electorate in a democracy, and defended freedom of the press as a vehicle to insure that the electorate was informed.

This is not to say that he was always right. He failed to recognize that the future of the United States was as a manufacturing nation deeply involved in commerce. He opposed Alexander Hamilton's Federalist ideas such as a national bank and a federal role promoting manufacturing. He was a slave owning plantation owner who never accepted the need for the United States to eventually end slavery. He even led the nation into the War of 1812, apparently overestimating U.S. capabilities and underestimating those of the British.

I greatly enjoyed the book. Brookhiser writes an elegant prose and constructs paragraphs, chapters and a thesis that hold together and demand the readers attention.

Incidentally, at this moment as President Obama has called for the advise and consent of the Congress for military action against the Syrian Government's use of chemical weapons, Brookhiser reminds us that the Congress is frequently wrong. In 1812, the Congress declared war on the world's greatest naval power without either an adequate army or navy, having crippled the nation's ability to finance war through misguided economic and financial policies.

Brookhiser doesn't go into other wars, but the Congress failed to understand what it was undertaking in the Civil War. it was bamboozled into the Spanish American War, it failed to prepare the nation for the First World War and World War II, and it was bamboozled into the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. Even in the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress failed to find the finances to support the American Army. Good luck President Obama with this Congress, which certainly seems no wiser than those of the past.

Why do people work?

There is an article on the Harvard Business Review Blog that contrasts two views of economic activity:

  • "In economics, consumption is the sole end of production,"
  • "[T]here are many people who live in order to work, who consume in order to produce."
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer. I am not sure that either view covers those like most PCVs who produce not so much as for consumption nor for the work per se, but rather to do good. There have been more than 210,000 PCVs, and they are only a small portion of the people who work for civil society organizations.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How did America produce technologically advanced farmers?

There is an interesting column in the new Economist magazine about American agriculture. I quote:
Rivals in other lands have sniffy theories about why America, a rich country, is so good at producing cheap food. They paint American farmers as pawns of giant agri-corporations, bullied by market forces to produce genetically modified Frankenfoods......... 
Foreign rivals are right about the power of market forces in America, but wrong to see its farmers as passive victims. Americans have thought differently about agriculture for a long time—and not by accident. Settled in a rush of migration, peaking in the 1880s, Nebraska’s prairies were parcelled out to German, Czech, Danish, Swedish and even Luxemburgish pioneers. From the start the plan was to convert Old World homesteaders to the scientific ways of the New World. As the system developed, Congress sent county agents from universities to teach menfolk modern farming and their wives such skills as tomato-canning. In the 1920s educational trains trundled through the prairies, pulling boxcars of animals and demonstration crops. At each stop, hundreds would gather for public lectures. 
Especially interesting is the role of children in disseminating new knowledge, attitudes and practices, as well as being prepared themselves as future farmers:
4-H was born to spread hard science as well as to shape character. Some 2m children attend the group’s clubs and camps, while millions more follow 4-H programmes in schools.

Monday, September 09, 2013


“When men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas — that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.”
Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., Abrams v. United States

Saturday, September 07, 2013



I just finished reading Cluny: In Search of God's Lost Empire by Edwin Mullins. Did you know that the biggest church in the world was once that serving the monastery at Cluny in the late middle ages, not surpassed until the rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome? Establishing the Romanesque style, when the roof fell in the rebuilding used flying buttresses, pioneering the architectural innovation that made Gothic cathedrals possible.

The Cluny abbey was founded in 910 with the gift of land and buildings, and a charter that allowed the monks to elect their own abbot and made the abbot responsible only to the Pope. That relative autonomy freed the abbey from many of the threats created by local bishops and local aristocrats. Led by a string of remarkable abbots, Cluny developed a network of 1500 to 2000 linked facilities in an Order of Cluny, following a Cluniac system. More than 10,000 monks ulimately were affiliated with Cluniac institutions in a network that spread from the Levant to the British Isles.

How did Cluny's influence grow so great so fast?

The late middle ages saw pretty good weather in Europe, and the population was growing. Agriculture was improving, in part because of the technological innovation of the monastic centers and its dissemination. Christianity was recapturing lands that had been lost to the Muslims; the Crusades brought wealth and power to the Cluniac monasteries as did the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela when Christians had reconquered the north of the Spanish peninsula.

Benedict had created the Benedictine Rule in the abbey at Monte Cassino in the early 6th century. The Rule called for monks to divide their time among prayer, manual labor and study. By the 10th century, Benedictine monasteries were to be found in many parts of Europe, but by Cluny was seen as reforming the Benedictine order.  Many Benedictine monasteries were brought under Cluny's control in the hope of reforming them, while others were created as subsidiaries of Cluny in the hope that they would be administered well.

Sculptures from the Cluny Museum
Cluny monasteries recruited monks (and nuns) from the aristocratic classes who brought property with them. The Cluniac system grew during a time in which the Papacy was in crisis, and in which feudal kings and barons frequently needed to call upon the diplomatic services of the church. Cluny became the most respected peace negotiator of its time, and gained prestige and wealth in the process.

Over time, the monks in the Cluny monasteries devoted more an more effort to liturgy in more and more impressive churches, especially the mother church at Cluny itself.  This was possible because the monasteries employed lay brothers and peasants to carry out the work on their increasingly extensive properties. The people of the time believed that indulgences earned in religious acts could guarantee eternal life in heaven, as could the prayers of the monks. They often preferred the Cluniac monasteries and endowed monasteries on pilgrimages and to support their prayers. Many aristocrats would enter monasteries or convents late in life for the care of their bodies and souls; they too often  would endow the monasteries.

Author Mullins writes that Cluny reached the apogee of its influence in the early 12th century.

Later in that century, a new reform movement arose in the creation and expansion of the network of Cistercian monasteries. Bernard of Clairvaux, the leader of the Cistercians, and Peter the Veneerable, Abbot of Cluny, are cited as illuminating the differences in the two systems. Bernard's Cistercians deliberately sought out wastelands for their monasteries, reclaiming them through hard labor, creating a revolution in agricultural technology. The Cistertians returned to the Benedictine practice of working every day as well as praying and studying. Bernard distrusted the philosophy that that was emerging from the new universities and the translation of Arab versions of the Greek and Roman texts as well as Arab mathematics and science. Bernard's sermons are credited with stimulating the (disastrous) second Crusades. Peter, on the other hand, was a serious scholar, and Cluny had an important library with copies of many of the newly available texts. Interestingly, the two had a long correspondence airing their differences, and retained mutual respect in spite of the different ideologies.

Mullins adduces the story of Heloise and Abelard to show the differences. Abelard, the leading French scholar and religious teacher of his time, seduced his student Heloise, who had an out of wedlock child. Abelard was castrated for having impregnated Heloise. While they eventually married, they separated, Heloise joining a convent and Abelard a monastery. Abelard used his mastery of Aristotelian logic in an effort to distinguish those aspects of Christian theology that were logically consistent versus those which were not. This drew an outraged response from the church hierarchy and from Bernard; Peter offered refuge to Abelard, according to Mullins due to Peters emphasis on caritas -- love and charity as a guiding principle.

A chapter of the book deals with the influence of the Cluniac system in England, and the support of the 12th century English monarchy for Cluny.

The Cluniac system continued for centuries. Although with decreasing wealth and a smaller network of monasteries. Unfortunately Cluny itself was looted by the Huguenots in the 16th century, and became a source of income for Parisian courtiers in the 18th century. In the French Revolution the Cluny church and monastery were destroyed, and the ruins were sold to developers to mine for building materials. Today there is little left of the grandeur that was the world's largest Christian church for half a millennium.

The book devotes considerable space to describing the architecture, sculpture, and painting, and mentions the illuminated books and music produced in the monasteries. Unfortunately, there are few illustrations and no so sound. I have tried to supplement the book in this post.

I learned a lot from this short, easy to read book!

Monday, September 02, 2013

More on Hispanic Voting.

Source: "Mapping the Latino Population, By State, County and City"
In my previous post I showed that Hispanic American voting participation is low. Surprise, surprise, Hispanic Americans are concentrated in in states that border Mexico as well as Florida.

I quote from the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project:
More than four-in-ten (44%) Hispanics in Texas are eligible to vote, ranking Texas 17th nationwide in the share of the Hispanic population that is eligible to vote. By contrast, more than three-quarters (78%) of the state’s white population is eligible to vote.
 Perhaps we need another Voting Rights Act to enfranchise Hispanic Americans.

Hispanic and Asian Americans are not getting to the polls in adequate numbers.

Source: "Ten charts show how the U.S. has changed for the better since MLK’s speech"
I am not sure that the decrease in white voter turnout would have made MLK very happy. Black voter turnout in the two Obama elections might not define a long term trend.

What does seem clear is that Hispanic and Asian American voter turnout is far too low for us to take satisfaction that voter rights are being respected.

A thought about new institutions,

Author Packer focuses on the deterioration of American institutions. Think also about the creation of institutions.

Perhaps the most obvious kind of institution is the formal organization. There are quite a few new ones since World War II, such as Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon, etc.

Institutions organizing international affairs have also been created, such as the United Nations system of organizations and the Breton Woods system including the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and other international financial institutions, and an increasingly complex system of international conventions such as the Geneva Convention and the conventions implementing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We are seeing gay marriage institutionalized before our very eyes, as states legalize gay marriage, the Supreme Court finds for gay marriage, and the federal government defines policy to provide federal benefits for married couples to gay couples. Perhaps we might also consider the huge increases in single parent households, unmarried heterosexual households and extramarital sex as related to the evolution of new "familial" institutions.

Markets are institutions, and we see online markets growing and replacing face-to-face markets. Examples are EBay, the online book market, etc,

How about the Wikis, such as Wikipedia and Wikileaks?

I would suggest that the social media are new institutions for interpersonal interaction.

Institution building is a key element of international development. We often consider the function of foreign aid projects as supporting the development of institutions, such as legislative institutions, judicial institutions, agricultural extension systems, public school systems, public health systems, the different organizations of the executive branch of government, etc. Perhaps more attention should be directed to the building of new kinds of institutions such as those mentioned above.

Sunday, September 01, 2013

I assume that this is about the time of Columbus' voyage.

We have representative government for a reason.

We teach children in our schools to have and express opinions. We don't seem to teach them to defer to people who have better knowledge and understanding when decisions have to be made. Indeed our media also (perhaps inadvertently)  present talking heads who we are to listen to because of their ability to express their opinions forcefully rather than because of their deep knowledge and understanding of the issues under discussion (and of related factors and issues).

I was involved in sector analysis to improve USAID loans for a number of years. Generally we took a small team working for several months to provide knowledge and understanding on which to base a loan. We did so for loans in the health sector and for science and technology. I also was responsible for the sector analysis program in the Latin American Bureau of USAID which was doing longer range analyses in agriculture, education and health sectors. I was involved in the creation of health and science and technology policies for the World Bank, and in international health and international hunget policies for the United States working out of the White House.

The teams I worked with in these exercises were trained to the doctorate or post doctorate level, with many years of experience. Usually they were multinational. Indeed, I was fortunate enough to put together international teams to work with comparably experienced national teams in some circumstances. Thus we could bring insights from abroad to the "feel" and understanding of nationals. (I have observed that sometimes outsiders can recognize sources of blindness in insiders.)

I think there is a fair degree of wisdom in the phrase "you don't know what you don't know/" Often development assistance projects created out of inadequate knowledge and understanding run into problems that were unforeseen, but could have been predicted with a little more knowledge and understanding. I know of situations in which projects were successful because they avoided such traps.

I thought about the need to defer to the expert in making important decisions because President Obama has just deferred action in Syria to obtain the advice and consent of the Congress. Ours is a representative democracy. We elect representatives to make complex public policy decisions in our name, and provide them with the resources to obtain knowledge and understanding to do, and to obtain advice from experts.

While it is incumbent upon our legislators to attend to public opinion, they should be better informed and more thoughtful about the issues before they vote on issues of public policy than is the average citizen responding to a public opinion poll or writing to his/her Congressional Representative.

The average citizen, unfortunately, knows almost nothing about Syria and the civil war there -- understands almost nothing. Unfortunately, the same is true of many of the members of our House of Representatives and our Senate. I hope that before the debate and voting in the Congress, our representatives will take the time and make the effort to inform themselves, especially of expert opinion. The President at least has the advice of the Departments of State and Defense and the professional intelligence community, based on evidence much of which is not available to the rest of us. Opposition to his informed opinion by people in Congress should be tempered by a willingness to defer if the representative is not well enough informed to debate the decision.

The votes of our Congressmen and Senators on Syria will be recorded for posterity within  a couple of weeks. If they oppose intervention and are wrong, and the vote leads to North Korea, Iran, or other countries using poison gas, or the vote leads to governments providing poison gas to terrorists, then we can and should vote them out of office. If they support intervention and are wrong, and the limited action proposed by President Obama drags us into more and more involvement in military action in Syria, then we can and should vote them out of office.

But lets demand that our representatives vote on the basis of knowledge and understanding, and defer our relatively uninformed opinions to their better informed votes. That is what representative government means.