Sunday, August 31, 2014

With hunger a huge problem, don't spread false information on farming.

I am really annoyed by this article in The Guardian. I quote:
Kumar, a shy young farmer in Nalanda district of India's poorest state Bihar, had – using only farmyard manure and without any herbicides – grown an astonishing 22.4 tonnes of rice on one hectare of land. This was a world record and with rice the staple food of more than half the world's population of seven billion, big news 
It beat not just the 19.4 tonnes achieved by the "father of rice", the Chinese agricultural scientist Yuan Longping, but the World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, and anything achieved by the biggest European and American seed and GM companies. And it was not just Sumant Kumar. Krishna, Nitish, Sanjay and Bijay, his friends and rivals in Darveshpura, all recorded over 17 tonnes, and many others in the villages around claimed to have more than doubled their usual yields........ 
That might have been the end of the story had Sumant's friend Nitish not smashed the world record for growing potatoes six months later. Shortly after Ravindra Kumar, a small farmer from a nearby Bihari village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat.
I suggest you watch this video from The Guardian which shows one of the farmers described in the article. It shows what seems to be a simple man proud of his accomplishments as a farmer.

This story got picked up by others. Here is a quote from one such follower:
Another Bihar farmer broke India’s wheat-growing record the same year. They accomplished all this without GMOs or advanced seed hybrids, artificial fertilizer or herbicide. Instead, they used a technique called System of Rice [or root] Intensification (SRI). It’s a technique developed in Madagascar in the 1980s by a French Jesuit and then identified and promulgated by Cornell political scientist and international development specialist Norman Uphoff.
Do you really believe that application of the farming system developed for growing rice could be used to grow wheat, and the result would be record yields? The article even suggests that it improved potato yields for another farmer.

Here is a report from a world leader in agricultural research, Achim Dobermann. I quote:
The Guardian article suggests that Mr. Kumar and other farmers achieved something beyond what can be achieved by scientists and GMO companies, and that they used only farmyard manure and no herbicides. The much more detailed article in Agriculture Today shows almost the opposite. No GM rice is grown anywhere yet. However, all five record farmers grew commercial rice hybrids from Bayer or Syngenta; their seed was fungicide-treated (carbendazim); they used intensive tillage (two deep plowings plus two puddling operations); they applied green manure, farmyard manure, mineral fertilizer (N, P, K), and other nutrient input products (poultry manure, vermicompost, phosphorus-solubilizing bacteria, micronutrient foliar spray of zinc sulfate); and some also used herbicide (2,4-D) for additional weed control. These are in fact very intensive input management practices, perhaps not something that many poor, small farmers could afford.
Here is the link to the Agriculture Today article mentioned.

I believe Dobermann and not the Guardian -- that the farmers used hybrid seed, both artificial and processed natural fertilizers, and chemical inputs.

Scientists from the International Rice Research Institute and from China doubted the accuracy of the yield reports.  Here is what Dr. Dobermann says in the article cited:
In summary, given what we know about the upper limits of nutrient supply from soils in that region, I conclude again that the actual yield may have been in the 10–12 t/ha range at best. Japanese researchers studying SRI fields in Madagascar have shown a clear linear relationship between nutrient supply (enhanced by deep plowing as also done in Bihar) and rice yield, irrespective of other SRI management practices, but also not exceeding yields of about 10 t/ha.
And this from an article quoting a distinguished Chinese scientist:
China’s most renowned agricultural scientist has described as “120 per cent fake” claims that farmers in Bihar harvested a world record 22.4 tonnes of rice from one hectare of land without using herbicides or genetically modified (GM) seeds last year. A national icon, Yuan Longping is known here as “the father of hybrid rice” for developing varieties that enabled China to transform its grain output. His rice varieties were subsequently introduced widely in the world, and marked a record yield of 19.4 tonnes a hectare.
OK, a few farmers in Bihar claimed huge yields in various crops. The claims were picked up and shared by politicians, newspapers, and various factions opposed to modern agricultural techniques. The farmers got famous, and at least one of them got prize money from the government. Clearly most of the people who picked up on the story spread false information.

This is not a critique of Oxfam and its Indian collaborating organization that provided extension services to the farmers promoting good farming practice. It is important in growing rice when you transplant, what density you plant at, how you irrigate your crop, how you treat the soil, how well you control weeds, what fertilizer you use, and how you deal with pests and diseases.

People should also recognize that improved crop varieties have been responsible for huge increases in crop yields. Among other things, varieties have been developed to provide resistance to diseases and pests and to utilize water and nutrients more effectively.

As the Indian farmers and extension workers recognize, there is an appropriate place for water and chemical inputs. As all recognize, good farming practice counts. Smart farmers use all the tools that they can get to efficiently increase the yield of their crops.

Scientific breeding has produced improved cultivars and they are important. Since the first domestication of crops, crop variety improvements have been sought, and they always come from genetic changes in the crops grown. Ancient practice was random and very slow. For most of the 20th century, scientific breeding was more directed by knowledge and faster than in the distant past; the development of hybrid varieties for some crops greatly improved the effectiveness of breeding of those crops. We have been dependent on hybrid corn (and chickens) for many decades. New techniques of biotechnology utilize even more knowledge, are still faster, and make fewer genetic changes to improve a variety; they are safer in part because the new varieties are so extensively safety tested.

As the world population moves to 11 billion by the end of the century, and as climate change increases and increases the challenges faced by farmers, lets not spread false information and fear about the science we need to feed people.

What you believe doesn't make is so!

Saturday, August 30, 2014

A thought about quality in painting

Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini Wedding Portrait

Detail from the same painting

I found myself in a discussion about art a few days ago. I was facing someone who felt there was no valid standard other than whether one liked a picture. She maintained that the paintings in her house were of equal quality of those in the National Gallery of Art, since she had purchased only those paintings she liked very much.

I buy pictures based on a number of criteria. Of course, I would not buy a picture that I did not find interesting and well done; that would be a combination of the craft of the artist, the colors, the composition, the subject, and the degree that the artist achieved his/her purpose. I also buy pictures by artists whose body of work I admire (at least from that which I have seen). These days; I also tend to buy because I also want to support an artist who seems to merit and need encouragement or a venue (such as a craft fair) that I want to support.

However, I appreciate many pictures that I will not buy, indeed many that are not for sale and that I could never afford to buy even if they were for sale. The painting shown above, by Jan van Eyck in 1434, is one that I like very much. In part, I like it because I know something about it. (Check out the Wikipedia entry on the painting.)

Van Eyck's painting is clearly crafted with great skill and care. However, van Eyck was inventing new techniques when he made the painting. I admire that ability to make inventions (such as oil painting), mastering the technique in the process, and setting a standard for the craft that has influenced painters for six centuries.

The picture tells a story, and tells it well. Since that was clearly an intent of the artist, his success in that effort is worthy of at least respect and I would say admiration. Clearly the picture documents a relationship between husband and wife. The contemporaries of the artist would have understood more from the persons, the pose, the clothing, etc. It also demonstrates the status of a well off merchant couple, based on the quality of the clothing and furnishings. That must have been a purpose of the artist demanded by the patron for the picture. The picture is also clearly located in time and place by the light, the fruit on the tree, the war the room is furnished and the couple is dressed. That took a lot of thought and skill, and was done with mastery.

The artist has included complex symbolism -- the dog, the placement of the hands, the candle lit in the candelabra, the scenes in the mirror frame. Van Eyck has composed the picture both using the symbols to convey information and to decorate the scene.

The mirror is I suppose the thing that brings the picture even higher in my estimation. It appears realistic, but of course it is not. It shows not only the two subjects of the picture in another view, but a third figure -- a witness to the scene. Who he is and what his presence means have interested art historians for generations, and I suppose that is part of van Eyck's intent. The idea of adding the mirror and painting the scene was brilliant. The skill to do it well, breathtaking.

Of course, the picture -- which is in the National Gallery in London -- is pretty to look at. It is historically interesting in that it has interested so many other artists over the centuries and since so many students of art and art history have devoted time and effort to its study. It is also interesting in the innovations created by van Eyck and their impact on the artists who followed. It rewards the viewer for looking at it and trying better to understand what is says and how it makes its statement. These are all aspects of the "quality" of the picture.

A question for media talking heads and politicians

What is wrong with this syllogism:
  • Anything I don't like in the international situation is a problem
  • All problems can be solved.
  • America can solve problems.
  • America should fix any international situation I don't like.

The History of Knowledge Loss

I was working on the analysis of a huge survey in the 1970s when an earthquake hit the country where the data was kept (on punched cards). The cabinets in which the cards were stored fell over and many of the drawers fell open and spilled out their contents. The storage room was on the ground floor and the floor above was devoted to a chemical laboratory. During the earthquake, many of the bottles of chemicals and solvents broke in the lab, spilling their contents. Of course, the building caught on fire (lots of gas in the labs). The fire department came and put the fires out (eventually) with their hoses. The water not only soaked the punched cards, but it washed the chemicals from the labs above into the cards. Eventually, in the clean up, the cards were bulldozed into the institution's courtyard and burned. Of course, the data was not backup up. Years of work was lost with only the most partial results published.

I remember watching a bitter discussion in another country after another earthquake. It seems that the government computer center had been badly damaged in the quake. The income tax records for the country had been destroyed, and it was discovered that a major portion of them had not been backed up off line.

It is not only through the destruction of libraries that knowledge is destroyed.

I believe that knowledge depreciates. The value of the knowledge of how to make buggy whips is not nearly as valuable now as it was when horses were the advanced transportation technology. But not all knowledge is outdated, even when it is old.

Is your computer backed up in the cloud?

Friday, August 29, 2014

A Map of Every Device in the World That's Connected to the Internet

Not surprising that Internet connectivity is concentrated in the USA and Europe, with secondary centers in Brazil/Argentina, Australia, and parts of Asia.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

On institutions and their sclerosis

There is a long, but interesting article in Foreign Affairs by Francis Fukuyama titled "America in Decay: The Sources of Political Dysfunction". I want to quote some sections:
Institutions are “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior,” as Huntington put it, the most important function of which is to facilitate collective action. Without some set of clear and relatively stable rules, human beings would have to renegotiate their interactions at every turn. Such rules are often culturally determined and vary across different societies and eras, but the capacity to create and adhere to them is genetically hard-wired into the human brain. A natural tendency to conformism helps give institutions inertia and is what has allowed human societies to achieve levels of social cooperation unmatched by any other animal species....... 
Institutions are created to meet the demands of specific circumstances, but then circumstances change and institutions fail to adapt. One reason is cognitive: people develop mental models of how the world works and tend to stick to them, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Another reason is group interest: institutions create favored classes of insiders who develop a stake in the status quo and resist pressures to reform........ 
Political decay thus occurs when institutions fail to adapt to changing external circumstances, either out of intellectual rigidities or because of the power of incumbent elites to protect their positions and block change. Decay can afflict any type of political system, authoritarian or democratic.
Of course, some institutions are formal, and indeed some have structures and rules defined by law, not by tradition nor by managerial decisions. I am not sure which are harder to change -- those which are explicit but defined by outside power, or those that are implicit and often unconscious.

Fukuyama goes on to consider the state (as the executive institution in government), the legislature (as the democratic institution in government) and the judiciary (as the institution responsible for assuring the rule of law in government).

The article begins citing the creation of the Forest Service, an agency of the executive branch that represented a pioneering reform of the Progressive Era:
Prior to the passage of the Pendleton Act in 1883, public offices in the United States had been allocated by political parties on the basis of patronage. The Forest Service, in contrast, was the prototype of a new model of merit-based bureaucracy. It was staffed with university-educated agronomists and foresters chosen on the basis of competence and technical expertise, and its defining struggle was the successful effort by its initial leader, Gifford Pinchot, to secure bureaucratic autonomy and escape routine interference by Congress. At the time, the idea that forestry professionals, rather than politicians, should manage public lands and handle the department’s staffing was revolutionary, but it was vindicated by the service’s impressive performance. Several major academic studies have treated its early decades as a classic case of successful public administration.
Institutions change over time. Taking the Forest Service as an example:

  • The real world changes, as the American forests changed over the last 100 years. Over time, while the forest service successfully suppressed fires, dead wood built up in the forests and the composition of the forest changed.
  • Society changes, as the American lumber industry changed over the last 100 years. Lumber production became much less important for the U.S. economy.
  • Our understanding changes. Scientists learned about forest ecology and realized that forests had evolved with occasional forest fires, and that some trees even needed fire for their seed to germinate; thus eliminating forest fires changed the forest ecosystem.
  • There is mission creep. The Forest Service was asked to focus on environmental conservation more than on providing a sustainable resource for the lumber industry; it was called upon to provide employment for demobilized soldiers.
Moreover, institutions don't function in isolation. Changes in other institutions can induce changes in an institution of interest. As the map at the head of this post shows, there were few people in the west at the time that the Forest Service was created (fewer still in Alaska, not shown); the Congress was dominated by representatives of the populous areas in the east. Today the representatives of the western states with extensive forests seem likely to have more power. Fukuyama also suggests that some areas the courts have become responsible for making policy in areas that were once under legislative control. Such changes can change the charter of the Forest Service.

Returning to Fukuyama's own words:

The Forest Service’s performance deteriorated, in short, because it lost the autonomy it had gained under Pinchot. The problem began with the displacement of a single departmental mission by multiple and potentially conflicting ones. In the middle decades of the twentieth century, firefighting began to displace timber exploitation, but then firefighting itself became controversial and was displaced by conservation. None of the old missions was discarded, however, and each attracted outside interest groups that supported different departmental factions: consumers of timber, homeowners, real estate developers, environmentalists, aspiring firefighters, and so forth. Congress, meanwhile, which had been excluded from the micromanagement of land sales under Pinchot, reinserted itself by issuing various legislative mandates, forcing the Forest Service to pursue several different goals, some of them at odds with one another. 
Thus, the small, cohesive agency created by Pinchot and celebrated by scholars slowly evolved into a large, Balkanized one. It became subject to many of the maladies affecting government agencies more generally: its officials came to be more interested in protecting their budgets and jobs than in the efficient performance of their mission. And they clung to old mandates even when both science and the society around them were changing. 
The story of the U.S. Forest Service is not an isolated case but representative of a broader trend of political decay; public administration specialists have documented a steady deterioration in the overall quality of American government for more than a generation. In many ways, the U.S. bureaucracy has moved away from the Weberian ideal of an energetic and efficient organization staffed by people chosen for their ability and technical knowledge. The system as a whole is less merit-based: rather than coming from top schools, 45 percent of recent new hires to the federal service are veterans, as mandated by Congress. And a number of surveys of the federal work force paint a depressing picture. According to the scholar Paul Light, “Federal employees appear to be more motivated by compensation than mission, ensnared in careers that cannot compete with business and nonprofits, troubled by the lack of resources to do their jobs, dissatisfied with the rewards for a job well done and the lack of consequences for a job done poorly, and unwilling to trust their own organizations.”
The scenario appears to be a frightening one in that it may be generalized to many other institutions in many other societies. A new institution is created to solve a specific problem. Over the years, the problem itself changes and new problems are added to the institution's responsibilities. In spite of institutional rigidities, the institution changes; some of the changes are adaptive, some less so. Eventually the institution is seen to be dysfunctional and must be revolutionized or replaced. Or perhaps, if one has confidence on the power to revitalize institutions by revolution or to create new and better institutions, the scenario is optimistic.

"whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching"

Very interesting statistic from an article in the Wall Street Journal:
(I)n Rialto, Calif., where an entire police force is wearing so-called body-mounted cameras, no bigger than pagers, that record everything that transpires between officers and citizens. In the first year after the cameras' introduction, the use of force by officers declined 60%, and citizen complaints against police fell 88%. 
It isn't known how many police departments are making regular use of cameras, though it is being considered as a way of perhaps altering the course of events in places such as Ferguson, Mo., where an officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager. 
What happens when police wear cameras isn't simply that tamper-proof recording devices provide an objective record of an encounter—though some of the reduction in complaints is apparently because of citizens declining to contest video evidence of their behavior—but a modification of the psychology of everyone involved. 
The effect of third-party observers on behavior has long been known: Thomas Jefferson once advised that "whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching." Psychologists have confirmed this intuition, showing that something as primitive as a poster with a pair of glaring eyes can make test subjects behave better, and even reduce theft in an area.
This technology seems to be used in some Maryland police departments. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Did you know how concentrated religions are geographically?

While Islam is still associated with the Middle East and North Africa in the minds of many Americans, only 20% of the world’s Muslims live in the region. Egypt is the only Middle Eastern-North African country that ranks among the six largest Muslim populations (Indonesia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria and Egypt). Those nations together account for 53% of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims. Egypt is also the only country in the group where Arabic is an official language. While these six countries have a majority of all Muslims, they comprise only 30% of the world’s population.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Two Maps That Illuminate the Geography of Global Poverty

Global Hunger

These two maps (from this article) show how poverty and hunger are concentrated in Africa and Asia. Americans are richer than those in other countries, but Europe is also doing well.

A Map That Can Help Explain Excess Child Mortality

In Africa and Asia a lot of children die from preventable causes. Some of those causes are diseases that can be prevented by simple immunization. But as a Nobel Prize Winner once explained, "you have to put the vaccine in the kids to protect them".
This map by Benjamin Hennig reveals that the problem of unvaccinated children is largely concentrated in India and Africa with India a particularly striking case of a country where economic growth has not yet delivered much in the way of public health gains. But though the numbers of the unvaccinated in countries like the United States are much lower, in a way that reveals a much more troubling policy failure. Here the resources to vaccinate everyone are clearly present. Vaccination doesn't happen, when it doesn't happen, because of misinformation about the risks and public policy that indulges that misinformation.

Two Maps That Help Demonstrate Globalization

World shipping routes

These two maps (from this article) show the complexity of world shipping routes and the location of the world's largest container ports. Container shipping greatly reduced the time needed to load and unload ships, and the development of large container ships also contributed to increasing the efficiency of international and intercontinental shipping.

A lot of interesting ideas in this!

I like the ideas that economic growth in a capitalistic economy comes from solving people's problems. It is innovations in technology and enterprises that commercialize those innovations that provide new solutions to new problems and better solutions to old problems. By assuring opportunities for education and upward mobility for all, we maximize the rate of production of people who can and do solve problems, and thus we maximize the wellbeing of people, and we see the economy grow.

Trickle down doesn't work. The plutocrats don't innovate, and their acquisitiveness tends to be at the expense of the majority, tamping down upward mobility for the majority, and thus reducing growth. If the majority have less money, not only will they buy less, but the total purchasing in the economy will go down. Then employment will go down and society is in a viscous cycle.

Government policies can intervene and help, or can intervene and contribute to the problem. In a democracy the choice should be ours.

If this man lived in a country with upward mobility, he would probably be rich!

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Irish founding father Michael Collins on Development

"Our object in building up the country economically must not be lost sight of. That object is not to be able to boast of enormous wealth or of a great volume of trade for their own sake. It is not to see our country covered with smoking chimneys and factories. It is not to show a great national balance sheet, nor to point to a people producing wealth with the self-obliteration of a hive of bees. The real riches of the Irish nation will be the men and women of the Irish nation the extent to which they are rich in body and mind and character."
Michael Collins

The burden of disease is not only early death.

The Economist this week presents this graph. It reflects not only early mortality, but the loss of quality of life and productivity due to disability.

Note that while cardiovascular diseases and cancers are the major causes of when you take disability into account other chronic conditions become comparably important. The article focuses on mental diseases, and while people with those diseases also have much lowered life expectancy, they also live a lot of their life disabled.

Did you know this about life expectancy?

This graph is from an article in The Economist which says:

Despite fears that obesity and global warming would reverse the trend, life expectancy in rich countries has grown steadily, by about 2.5 years a decade, or 15 minutes every hour (see chart).
We expect life expectancy to increase as child survival improves, maternal mortality drops and as the medical profession learns to prolong life for those suffering from one disease after another. Remember, life expectancy is based on mortality rates at the moment of estimation. So it is not surprising that in 1970 experts predicted that life expectancy would increase from its value at the time in a relatively linear fashion to more than 72 years by 2000. (They were far too conservative.)

In subsequent years, starting from the year in which each estimate was made, that estimate continued to project improvements in life expectancy. Of course, the starting points of the annual estimates tracked the actual increases in life expectancy.

The data in the United States are similar to those in Britain (although not as good) and other developed nations. The fact that life expectancy has improved by 2.5 years per decade for a century is both amazing and wonderful. I think that can not continue indefinitely; the graphs agree with me that the rate of extension of life expectancy tends to trail off in the out years.

More on global warming

The current issue of The Economist has an article summarizing new research results. The research indicates that global average deep sea temperatures have been rising even more rapidly in this century than they had been since 1970. This would seem to explain the pause in the increase in global average air temperature. Clearly it takes a lot of energy to raise the temperature of a layer of the world/s oceans. The graphs above show the global average, and also that the Atlantic Ocean seems to have had a more rapid increase for several years starting in 2000.

Interesting Map -- Green is the Vegetable Intensive Diet.

Source: The Washington Post

If you grow corn, you can produce corn for human food, corn for animal feed, or corn for alcohol fuel. Presumably:
  • If people eat the corn grown of the farm, all the calories go to people. 
  • If animals eat the corn, how much of the corn goes to nourish people depends on which animals. If you feed the corn to a pet, none gets to people; if you feed it to chickens, it that corn produces a considerable amount of protein for people's nourishment; if you feed it to cows, less protein gets to people per bushel of corn.
  • If the corn is used to produce alcohol to be added to gasoline, it may help to get corn, beef, eggs, milk and chicken to market, but it doesn't do much for nutrition.
In poor countries, people eat a lot of plant food and little meat; the meat that they do eat is likely to be from animals that produce relatively more protein for humans per pound of feed. Thus they get a lot more calories out of the crops that they grow than we do.

Of course, food that gets to the food system does not all get to be eaten. There are a lot of losses from the farm to the table. (And not all the food that is eaten is used efficiently by sick people.)

If the world population keeps growing (and it is predicted to hit 11 billion by 22000, it may be appropriate to switch away from meat and get more of our protein from vegetables. That is probably a good idea for health anyway. Homo sapiens evolved as omnivores, not carnivores. The heavy meat diet that many Americans eat takes a tole on their health.

On Donating to Charity


An article makes the good point that people often donate money to charities, missing opportunities to donate to other charities where it might both better meet their objectives and do more real good.  Some charities are not good bets -- they spend too much of the money that they collect raising still more money, of which they will again spend to large a portion on fund raising. Other charities are poorly managed, and don't get much bang for the buck. Still other charities focus on programs that are less cos-effective than other available programs with the same objective. I quote from a portion of the article:
There are also tools that can inform your decisions. Charity Watch, for example, measures the effectiveness of non-profits. They look at the ratio of spending on actual programs to administrative costs. According their website: "Rather than merely repeat charities' self-reported finances using simplistic or automated formulas, we delve deep to find the real story of how efficiently charities use your donations to fund the programs you want to support." 
Instead of focusing on financials, GiveWell has earned a reputation for scouring the globe to find charities that are most likely to touch the lives of the maximum number of people per dollar spent. As they put it, they conduct "in-depth research aiming to determine how much good a given program accomplishes (in terms of lives saved, lives improved, etc.) per dollar spent." 
Charity Navigator, meanwhile, is another well-respected watchdog that looks at the overhead-to-program spending ratio of various non-profits, though they say they're moving toward a more robust calculus that will track how well charities are solving the problems they set out to tackle. For now, they offer a list of tips for savvy donors here.
If you want to donate money to save lives, as the quote at the top of this post suggests, you probably will save more lives focusing on health services in poor countries. The mortality is higher there, and a large fraction of the deaths in developing countries are from preventable causes. Simple interventions such as immunizations can save lives. Improving hygiene, reducing exposure to the vectors of vector borne diseases, and improving nutrition can save lives. Moreover, the costs for providing those services can be very low in developing countries, as pay rates are low and sine many organizations effectively use unpaid volunteers.

If you wish to save lives, as the visual aid above suggests, there is some justification for donating to charities that address diseases that kill lots of people. Of course, you might prefer to donate to charities that help people live better, rather than helping them to live longer. Funding a program that provides schooling to kids who would not otherwise get a primary school education makes sense in this way (although educating a girl may save her children's lives when that girl grows up and has children).

It is not the case that a dollar donated to a charity focusing on heart disease or cancer will contribute more to saving lives than one donated to preventing a less prevalent disease. Donating to a program that is in great need of funds, but that uses those funds very effectively to combat a neglected disease might do more good. Lots of children in developing countries die as a result of dehydration resulting from diarrhea; a mother can save the life of such a child by adding a low cost packet of salts to a bottle of boiled water and giving it to the child to drink. A non-governmental organization might teach mothers in a poor village this technique and save lives are a very low cost per life saved.

The best choice for your money may also depend on your time frame. Donating to a research program to develop a malaria vaccine, for example, will save no lives in the near future. However, malaria is a major killer and if a vaccine can be developed it will save many lives per year for many years. If you want results now, perhaps you should fund a project that promotes bed net use in Africa. If you are thinking about deaths averted in this century, perhaps you should consider donating to research on vaccines.

The article that triggered this post was occasioned by the campaign to promote donations to ALS charities that focused on the "ice water challenge". The article suggest that the dumpees may not be getting the best value for the money that they donate. Perhaps, would they have donated money to any charity instead of the ALS Foundation, had there not been this challenge? Certainly the cost of the 60,000 emails sent to the mailing list of the Foundation was used very effectively since at essentially zero cost, it has generated tens of millions of dollars of donations.

Friday, August 22, 2014

World Humanitarian Day -- August 19, 2014

Did the Cold War have Roots in World War I?

Americans tend to think about the Cold War as lasting from about 1947 to 1991. We see it as a contest pitting the USA and NATO allies representing democracy and capitalism versus the Communist USSR, Warsaw Pact countries, and -- after 1950 -- China.

It was a "cold" war since the major powers never declared war against each other, and it did not erupt in a feared World War III. We think of the USSR and China being allied with the USA and the British and French empires in World War II against the Axis forces, and thus we see the Cold War as starting with the breakdown of that alliance. If you think about it, though the dates assigned to the cold war are arbitrary and indeed the designation of a title to a period in which a complex set of forces resulted in events all over the world for more than a generation is itself arbitrary.

I wonder if the Communist leaders shared that understanding of the origins of the antipathy between the USA and the USSR and Communist China. Perhaps they trace the conflict back to the first world war, and actions of the United States under the Woodrow Wilson administration at the end of the war.

The U.S. Intervention in Russia

I draw from an article in Wikipedia on the west's involvement in northern Russia. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia in October 1917 and established the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic. Five months later, they signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with Germany, which among other things formally ended the war on the Eastern Front.

In response to Bolshevik actions, the British and French governments decided that a military intervention was needed in north Russia, with three objectives:
  • prevent the Allied war materiel stockpiles in Arkhangelsk from falling into German or Bolshevik hands,
  • mount an offensive to rescue the Czechoslovak Legion, which was stranded along the Trans-Siberian Railroad and
  • resurrect the Eastern Front by defeating the Bolshevik army with the assistance of the Czechoslovak Legion and an expanded anti-communist force drawn from the local citizenry.
In July 1918, against the advice of the U.S. War Department, President Woodrow Wilson agreed to a limited participation in the Campaign by a contingent of United_States_Army soldiers. Apparently some 8,000 American troops took part in the campaign that lasted from late 1918. Those troops became involved in support of White Russians fighting the Bolsheviks. The last significant battle fought by the Americans before their departure took place from March 31 through April 4, 1919.

The American Expeditionary Force Siberia (AEF Siberia) was a United States Army force that was involved in the Russian Civil War in Vladivostok, in the far eastern part of Russia, during the end of World War I after the October Revolution, from 1918 to 1920. The AEF Siberia eventually totaled 7,950 officers and enlisted men.

An article from Critical Inquiry states:
It may also be argued that this incursion into the fledgling Soviet Union (then called the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic) by Allied forces set the stage for later Soviet fear of attack from the West. Certainly the intervention of foreign troops and their action against the new communist regime was a useful propaganda tool. It could be used to justify fear of capitalist states, the later creation of the eastern European Soviet bloc (as a buffer against invasion), and even the extermination of Soviet soldiers who came into contact with non-Soviet governments and military agencies.
In a recent talk on American History TV, Graydon Tunstall said that in one of his speeches, Stalin had dated the start of the cold war to American troops landing in Archangel and Vladivostok (about 18 minutes into the video).

Shandong, China


Shandong is a historically, culturally and economically important province in the northern coastal area of China. Quoting from Wikipedia:
During the nineteenth century, China became increasingly exposed to Western influence, and Shandong, a coastal province, was especially affected. Qingdao was leased to Germany in 1897 and Weihai to Britain in 1898. The rest of Shandong was generally considered to be part of the German sphere of influence.
And from a different Wikipedia entry:
During the First World War, China supported the Allies on condition that Germany's concessions on the Shandong peninsula would be returned to China. However in 1915 China agreed to Japan's Twenty-One Demands which acknowledged Japanese control of former German holdings. Britain and France promised Japan it could keep these holdings. In late 1918 China reaffirmed the transfer to Germany and accepted payments from Japan. Article 156 (of the Treaty of Versailles) in 1919 officially transferred the concessions in Shandong to Japan rather than returning sovereign authority to China. 
Despite its formal agreement to Japan's terms (in 1915 and 1918), China at Paris in 1919 now denounced the transfer of German holdings, and won the strong support of President Wilson. The Chinese ambassador to France, Wellington Koo, stated that China could never relinquish Shandong, which was the birthplace of Confucius, the central Chinese philosopher, as much as Christians could not concede Jerusalem. He demanded the promised return of sovereignty over Shandong, to no avail. Japan was adamant and prevailed. Chinese popular outrage over this provision led to demonstrations and a cultural movement known as the May Fourth Movement and influenced Wellington Koo not to sign the treaty.
China's refusal to sign the Versailles Treaty necessitated a separate treaty with Germany in 1921. The Shandong dispute was mediated by the United States in 1922 during the Washington Naval Conference. In a victory for China, the sovereignty of Shandong was returned to China. However Japan maintained its economic dominance of the railway and the province as a whole.
In its article on the May 4th movement, Wikepedia states:
Many in the Chinese intellectual community believed that the United States had done little to convince the imperialist powers (especially Britain, France, and Japan) to adhere to the Fourteen Points, and observed that the United States itself had declined to join the League of Nations; as a result they turned away from the Western liberal democratic model. Marxism began to take hold in Chinese intellectual thought, particularly among those already on the Left. It was during this time that communism was studied seriously by some Chinese intellectuals such as Chen Duxiu and Li Dazhao. 
Some historians have speculated that Chinese history might have taken a different course at this time had the United States taken a stronger position on Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points and self-determination. The United States was not a major imperialist power and was in a relatively strong position to take an anti-imperialist stance; however, it did not do so. As a result, China turned its attention to utilizing other political tools that could potentially resolve many of the nation's issues. These tools subsumed the concepts of Marxism and Leninism.
Also from the Wikipedia article on the May 4th movement is this quote from Mao Zedong:
The May 4th Movement twenty years ago marked a new stage in China's bourgeois-democratic revolution against imperialism and feudalism. The cultural reform movement which grew out of the May 4th Movement was only one of the manifestations of this revolution. With the growth and development of new social forces in that period, a powerful camp made its appearance in the bourgeois-democratic revolution, a camp consisting of the working class, the student masses and the new national bourgeoisie. Around the time of the May 4th Movement, hundreds of thousands of students courageously took their place in the van. In these respects the May 4th Movement went a step beyond the Revolution of 1911.
And from a review of  Bruce A. Elleman's book Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question.
Wilson helped China regain political control of Shandong in 1922, but since the transfer was from Japan and not Germany, the Chinese saw it as a betrayal. Had China signed the Treaty of Versailles, the transfer of the Shandong from Japan to China would have been swifter (p. 130). China, it seems, should have counted its blessings--under the 1898 treaty with Germany there was no legal obligation for Shandong to be returned to China until 1997 (p. 28). Looking for a scapegoat for its mismanaged diplomacy, Beijing blamed Wilson. On July 28, 1919, the Beijing Daily News published an open letter to the U.S. Senate, recommending that it reject the Versailles Treaty. The letter blamed Wilson for allowing imperialists to continue their exploitation of China (p. 128). This letter, argues Elleman, contributed to the Shandong myth, its perception that Wilson had betrayed China, and it helped convince the U.S. Senate to reject America's joining the League of Nations. Perhaps Wilson's ultimate failure was his lack of success in setting the record straight about the Shandong question. 
An important consequence of the Shandong myth is that it "opened the door to Bolshevik propaganda and influence" in China (p. 135), providing the Chinese Communist movement with an issue (pp. 2, 107, 130, 135-154). The 1919 May Fourth Movement, largely a reaction to the Shandong question, turned many Chinese intellectuals away from the West. Wilson was seen as being hypocritical when he spoke in favor of national self-determination. The Soviet Union was able to exploit what happened and thus exert an ideological influence over its neighbor next door. Indeed, the same year that the Treaty of Versailles was signed, the Comintern sent its first operative to China. The Chinese people, believing they were betrayed at Versailles by the United States and its European allies, looked to Soviet Russia for an alternative political model. Elleman writes, "To a large degree the Chinese rejected the American model because they truly believed that Wilson had betrayed China's national interests; by contrast, the Chinese believed that Soviet Russia would treat China fairly" (p. 136). The question as to "who lost China" that certain political conservatives in the United States were asking during the 1950s might have an answer in the Shandong myth (pp. 2, 4, 180-181). According to Elleman," After World War II, the long-term impact of the Shandong question can be seen in the origins of the cold war in Asia" (p. 179).
Final Comment

Woodrow Wilson was a neophyte to foreign affairs when he took office as president of the United States in 1913. Indeed, the United States was only then on the brink of assuming a major role in global affairs, and I doubt that there was a great deal of expertise in the State Department or the Departments of the Army and Navy. Perhaps the U.S. diplomacy at the time lacked a long term perspective that it might later gain.

Wilson's 14 points, represented a transformation of World War I from one of imperial competition for territory to one with a moral justification. People all over the world saw that statement as a guarantee of U.S. support for self-determination. We have to remember, however that Wilson was a racist; his support for self determination did not extend to nations he thought to be unready to rule themselves. Moreover, the British and French allies were not about to sign away their African and East Asian holdings as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

Not surprisingly, American boots on the ground in Russia in support of White Russian armies rankled the USSR leadership for many decades. Apparently, the Shandong problem and the myth of American involvement triggered similar feelings among China's Communist leadership.

Russian distrust of Germany as well as the ideology of a global spread of Communism would have tended to lead to serious differences with democratic and capitalistic societies after World War II. So too, I suppose, would the Chinese anger at European takeover of much of China for centuries before World War II. Still, one wonders it Wilson's government acted differently, would the Cold War have evolved differently. Counter-factual supposition is always dangerous.

The U.S. actions at the end of World War I left bad feelings toward this country among communist leaders. The USSR takeover of a swath of countries that became the Warsaw Pact nations and its support of Communist movements in other, Western European countries was clearly going to create a counter reaction in the United States and other countries with democratic governments. Moreover, it seems to me that the anti-Communist feeling was very strong among a large portion U.S. leadership and the U.S. public, that our British and French allies shared that, and that our alliance with Nationalist China put the U.S. at odds with Chinese communists. The Cold War might well have started even had U.S. foreign policy in from 1914 to 1925 been sufficiently prescient to try to avoid antagonizing the Bolsheviks and the Chinese left.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Indicators of Development

I recently read this article proposing the Palma be used instead of the Gini as a measure of inequality of the distribution of income. The Palma is defined as the share of income received by the top 10% of recipients divided by the share received by the bottom 40% of recipients. For the definition of the Gini coefficient see my recent post. I don't know enough about the benefits and costs of the options to have a serious opinion.

I think there is merit in measuring inequality of income distribution. Obviously it matters to people. Most of us don't like living in societies that we regard as unfair, and societies in which the rich get richer, the middle class has little chance to get ahead, and the poor stay poor and suffer seem unfari to most of us. Moreover, there is evidence that great inequality is not conducive to rapid economic growth.

Development aid is focused on poverty alleviation. (Remember the slogan, "don't tax middle class Americans to send money abroad to make rich people in poor countries richer still".) But I remember when the focus was narrowed on "the worst aspects of poverty". Thus there is a school of thought that believes development aid should focus on improving child survival and reducing maternal mortality, reducing world hunger, and providing basic schooling for children and literacy for adults. Increasing the productivity of subsistence farms and reducing unemployment can be defended as achieving all these things simultaneously, especially if the improved income can be directed to women who are known to utilize it better to protect their families.

A Millennial Development Goals Map

I tend to believe that the developers of the Millennium Development Goals were right in their approach of having a number of goals relating to the worst aspects of poverty, with indicators and benchmarks defined for each goal.

Of course, to achieve global development objectives it makes sense to consider instrumental objectives. Increasing the total production of goods and services and assuring the equitable distribution of those goods and services will help to improve health, reduce hunger and educate people. Thus it is useful to measure GDP and some indicator of equity of distribution of income. However, we should not confuse instrumental variables with end objectives.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Relative Costs of Living

Thanks to Mike for identifying this for me.

Obviously states are big diverse places. Check out these figures showing the difference in cost of living in different urban places within the same state. There are differences in cost of living between urban, suburban and rural areas.

Estimates of cost of living are based on a "market basket" of goods and services thought to be purchased by the "average" consumer. Florida has a lot of retired people, and their purchases may well be different than those of a younger working person. Services like health care and schooling vary considerably from person to person. If you are rich, your market basket is likely to have more caviar and less rice and beans than if you are poor.

The quality of life is likely to be more due to the relationship between income and cost of living than on the cost of living per se. Indeed, the cost of living will be lower in places where wages and salaries are lower just because services can be provided at lower cost; the other side of that coin is that the dollar in the smaller paychecks in just those areas will go further.

Still if your working at home by Internet, and your income doesn't depend on where you live, you might want to live in a place with low cost of living. But then you may not have the cultural opportunities that you want in those places.

Monday, August 18, 2014

A thought about causality in history

I have been thinking about World War I, and just read The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark and the wonderful Introduction in The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century by David Reynolds. I have also been interested in the Civil War which the country has been commemorating since 2011. It occurs to me that the two offer a means to say something about causality in history that might be interesting.

Bombardment of Fort Sumter

The Civil War

The "original sin" of the United States was slavery. There was a world wide historical process of abolition of abolition of slavery. It had a variety of causes, including a broadening consensus that slavery was morally wrong, and an increasing consensus that free labor was more productive than slave labor and a better basis for building an economy. The eradication of America's original sin seems to have been part of this historical process.

Some countries abolished slavery in civil war or insurgency (e.g. the United States, Haiti, France) while some did so peacefully (e.g. the British Empire, the former Spanish colonies in the Americas, Brazil). Thus I conclude that the U.S. Civil War was partially caused by the desire to abolish slavery and partially by the failure to find a peaceful way to do so.

The proximate cause of the Civil War was the decision of state governments of southern states to secede from the Union and fire on a Union fort in Charleston harbor, followed by the decision of the Federal government to fight to preserve the Union. My reading of history indicates that the Union was intended from its first government to be perpetual, and that the Union was more populous, richer and more militarily powerful than the Confederacy and very likely to win the war.

I also conclude that the southern leaders made a disastrously bad decision to go to war. Four years later, slavery was abolished, the southern economy was in ruins, and hundreds of thousands of its young men had been killed or wounded. Thus the proximate cause of the Civil War seems to me to have been a disastrous mistake made by the leaders of South Carolina and other states that seceded from the Union. They surely could have found a peaceful path (as was done in other countries) that would have been better for their states, their people and themselves.

Let me suggest then that an intermediate cause was the way political power had been institutionalized in the south. It was the owners of large plantations with large numbers of slaves who were the richest people in the south. They had the time, resources and motivation to control the political institutions, and did so. However, they perhaps tended to put the interests of their class before that of the rest of the people of their states; moreover, the small population from which the leadership was drawn did not produce the quality of leaders needed to deal with the crisis presented by the results of the election of 1860.

Assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand and his Wife
World War I

World War I was a war between coalitions of empires -- Austria-Hungary, Germany and the Ottoman Empire versus Russia, the French, British and Italian Empires, and eventually the United States. Most of these were multi-ethnic empires, held together by a central authority that had monopoly control of naval and military power, transportation and communications within the empire.

The 20th century saw decolonization and destruction of these empires (even the United States gave up the Philippines). Thus there was a historical process which was tending to destroy the imperial institutions of empire. The institutional form appears to have been historically unstable.

Could the empires have been dissolved peacefully? While tzarist Russia was overthrown by revolution, the Soviet Union broke up relatively peacefully. While the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were dismembered when the lost World War I, creation of the British Commonwealth after World War I and decolonization of British colonies in India and Africa after World War II were relatively peaceful. So yes, in principle, empires could have been broken up without the mass violence of two world wars.

The proximate cause of World War I was the declaration of war by Austria-Hungary on Serbia, the subsequent declaration of war by Russia on Austria-Hungary and Germany, which in turn triggered more declarations as countries honored treaty obligations. All of this was a response to the assassination of the Grand Duke and Duchess of Austria-Hungary.

Clearly the war was a disaster for the Habsburg government of Austria-Hungary, the Romanov government of Russia and the Hohenzollern government of Germany, and certainly the assassination did not require the world war, but could have been resolved by other means that would at least have allowed the prime mover governments to survive longer and have time to find a better path to accede to the historical trends of history. Thus, I suggest that the proximate cause of the war was the poor decision by these three governments to go to war rather than to find an alternative course that would have preserved them in power longer and allowed more time to find a solution to the problems cased by the decline of the Ottoman Empire and the radical restructuring of the governance in the Balkans.

An intermediate cause of the war may have been the way governance was institutionalized in these empires. Monarchy could and did put people at the head of state and government who were not able to manage the affairs of large empires well; narrow aristocratic classes from which policy leadership was drawn also proved unequal to the job of running empires and failed in the crisis of 1914.

Final comment

Perhaps it is useful to look for long term historical processes that underlie major events, as the abolition of slavery drove the Civil War and as the abolition of 19th century style multi-ethnic empires dominated by a metropolitan central power and monarchy drove the World Wars of the 20th century.

When a decision leads to major disaster for the people making the decisions (as the decision of South Carolina leaders to start the Civil War and the decision of the Austria-Hungary, Russian and German imperial governments to go to start World War II did), perhaps one should look at failures in decision making as proximate causes. Even these are complex, involving the institutionalization of the governmental decision making, the failure to predict the actions of others, and erroneous perception of the relative capabilities of one's own side and the difficulty of the task being considered.

In the two examples, I have suggested an intermediate cause -- an institution of power structures dominated by narrow elites that fail to recognize and foster the interests of the populations that they rule, and that failed to put leaders in place that could make good decisions in the face of existential crises.

I suppose that in both cases the evolution of the technological infrastructure led to a geographic expansion of the state, a growth in the population of the state, a change in the economic structure of the state and an increase in the pace of change. New economic and political institutions had to be developed to better manage the changed socio-economic environments.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

We are the Global One Percent

Generic Lorenz Curve
The Lorenz Curve is a simple way to show the way income (or wealth) is distributed in a population. The Gini Coefficient, derived from the Lorenz Curve, is the most widely used single figure denoting income (or wealth) distribution.
The Gini coefficient can then be thought of as the ratio of the area that lies between the line of equality and the Lorenz curve (marked A in the diagram) over the total area under the line of equality (marked A and B in the diagram); i.e., G = A / (A + B).
Thus the Gini coefficient in theory varies from zero to one. the larger the value, the more unequal the distribution over the population.

Here is how the Gini Coefficient has evolved in the United States since World War II:


As you can see, the distribution of income became more and more equal after the war, but reversed course and began a long process of becoming less equal from about 1975. As the One Percent appropriated more and more of the income in the United States to themselves, we have seen a rise of Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party.

I suspect that Americans are upset that most Americans are not doing better economically as time goes on, and that their hopes for the next generation will not be fulfilled. On the other hand, there is some anger at the very rich who seem to be using their political and economic power to bias the playing field to further enrich themselves.

Now consider the evolution of the Gini coefficient for the world's entire population:
Global income distribution was relatively stable from 1960 to  1980, with greater inequality than now exists in the United States. It then rose until the beginning of this century, when it began to drop. Still, the current Global Gini coefficient of 0.52 is significantly higher than the U.S. Gini coefficient.

I suspect the wide spread envy and anger of the One Percent in the United States is mirrored by wide spread feelings for the affluent in the United States in the rest of the world.

GDP per capita World Map

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Production of Goods and Services Has Grown Faster than Population for a Century

GDP per capita in the Year 1913
GDP per capita in the Year 1960
GDP per capita in the Year 2008

These maps are from the World Poverty Visualization on the "Our World in Data" website.  The website is produced by Max Roser of Oxford University.

The maps are pretty well self explanatory, and show that per capita GDP growth has happened on all continents, but that there remain wide disparities in the productivity among countries and regions.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Does Development Aid Speed Development?

New research suggests that development aid does foster growth—but at what cost?
An article in The Economist summarizes some of the recent research on the impact of development aid on development. As anyone who has worked in the field must suspect, the relationship is complex, and thus it has been hard for economists to understand. They are pretty good at measuring the amount of development aid (shown in the graph above left) and the GDP per capita in countries (in the graph above right). Separating out the impact of the one variable from the booming, buzzing confusion of the real world is much harder.

I quote from the article:
What the UN sees as a potent weapon against poverty, others consider money down a rat hole. Critics reckon aid hurts its recipients by fostering dependency, propping up oppressive or incompetent regimes and pushing up the value of poor countries’ currencies, thereby undermining the competitiveness of their exports. If aid helped, they say, the poorest countries would have been getting steadily richer for decades, which they have not (see right-hand chart). Those who favour giving aid argue that it could indeed lift people out of poverty, but rich countries simply do not give enough. It is like sending fire engines to combat a wildfire: it only works if you send a lot of them...... 
A study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research has reviewed all peer-reviewed papers on aid and growth published since 2008. It concludes that the evidence that aid boosts growth is itself growing rapidly. 
Whether that extra growth constitutes good value for money is another question. Unfortunately, there have been few studies of the cost-effectiveness of aid. A forthcoming analysis by Chris Doucouliagos of Deakin University and Martin Paldam of Aarhus University of 141 studies published between 1970 and 2011 finds that the average estimated effect of aid on growth is positive and statistically significant, but so small that it may not be terribly meaningful. Advocates of freer trade or more liberal immigration regimes contend that the economic benefits of such measures for poor countries far outweigh those of aid. Supporters of the 0.7% target can take comfort in the growing evidence that aid boosts growth; but they have more work to do to demonstrate that it boosts it by more, and at lower cost, than the alternatives.
Here are the original studies referenced by The Economist: