Sunday, May 31, 2015

From the OECD Forum 2015: Income Inequality in Figures

Yes poverty rates are higher in the USA than in most developed nations.

Yes income is more unequally distributed in the USA than in most developed countries.

Yes, wealth is less equally distributed in the USA than in other developed countries.

U.S. Founding Fathers and Progress

Voltaire pretty well killed the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds in Candide!

In 1776, the founding fathers demonstrated that they did not believe that they then lived in the best of all world by revolting against their British government. The founding fathers created the Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union to make things better, and soon thereafter created the Constitution recognizing that the Articles did not make this the best of all possible nations. President Lincoln took office realizing that slavery was not a condition compatible with the best of all possible worlds, but that Civil War was even worse than slavery. All the presidential candidates -- Democrat, Republican and Bull Moose -- in the election of 1912 ran on platforms that they could make things better, and then the world got into World War I, which was not better. FDR took office early in the Depression, realizing that his job was to make things better. At the end of World War II, people all over the world recognized that they had not been living in the best of all possible worlds, and sought means to make the world better. In my lifetime, people who got the USA out of Vietnam, who promoted civil rights, women's rights, and the rights of the disabled helped make the country better.

Of course, change can be for the worse, and society needs conservatives to see we don't throw out the good with the bad. Still, we all live better, happier lives than did the founding fathers because so many people have tried so hard to make things better!

Saturday, May 30, 2015

The Scramble for Africa

I just finished reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. (Read my posts of January 14th, February 11th, and May 24th.) This is a long book, but a very good one that told me a lot about African history that I should already have known.

The Scramble Was Recent (in Historical Terms)

There were no colonies of the European imperial powers in Africa in 1876 except on the edges of the continent (although the Ottoman empire had a significant holding in North Africa). As the maps in my February 11th post show, by the beginning of World War I, with the exception of Ethiopia and Liberia, all of Africa was under the control of these European empires. As a result of World War I, the victors took some of the colonies from the losers, notably the British and French took over the German colonies. Thus the colonization of Africa came after the European empires took Asian territories (e.g. British India, Dutch Indonesia, French Indo-China). Great Britain and France made short work to gobble up a huge area of the African continent. Maps lead us to underestimate how large that territory really is, given that lands at the Equator are foreshortened compared to those at European latitudes.

The Scramble Was Brutal

The European powers had modern weapons and powered, metal boats. During this period they built railroads in parts of Africa and telegraph lines. They used their technological superiority to conquer African tribes that sought to resist being incorporated in empires or sought to rebel against their imperial masters.

African nations were tribal, poorly armed as compared with European technology, and with poor infrastructure. Tribes often had long-standing enemies among neighboring tribes. Thus, African troops were armed to do most of the fighting under European officers as the European empires conquered territories. The book even describes the sometimes use of cannibal troops as part of imperial military units -- cannibals who butchered the enemies that they killed, smoked their body parts and thus solved the logistic problem of providing protein to troops in protein poor environments.

In theory, the colonization of Africa was carried out in part to abolish the Muslim trade that captured African natives and sold them in the Middle East and Asia; however, in practice the Christian, European. colonial administrators and colonists were often racists. The book shows how frequently Africans were forced to work without pay by racist government and corporate bosses. Africans during the scramble might be forced to live where their labor was needed, they might be beaten as part of the "supervision of their labor"; in the Congo Africans were mutilated, and crimes -- including murder -- were committed against them by whites who were not punished.

A slogan of "Commerce, Christianity, and Civilization" was used to justify the colonization to Europen publics, and indeed Protestant and Catholic missionaries vied to convert Africans. However, the Christianity was often sectarian and has left an ugly divide in Africa. (See my reviews of The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line between Christianity and Islam by Eliza Griswold of June 8, 2012 and June 15, 2012.) As far as I can see, there was very little "civilization" that went with colonization, and few Africans were educated to European standards. When Africa was decolonized after World War II, few of the newly empowered African leaders were prepared to run modern nation states.

The European powers were interested in commerce, but mostly to appropriate all the profits from African commerce into their European capitals. Belgian King Leopold seems to have been the embodiment of greed, but businessmen exploiting African resources for their own enrichment lobbied their governments to assure that their greed could continue to work at length. While there were European advocates for the use of African wealth to benefit African peoples, their European governments seems not to attend to those voices during the Scramble.

The Colonization of Africa Was Not the Same for All Imperial Powers

The Portuguese (coastal) colonies predated the Scramble (to the time of the slave trade to Brazil, and are not covered in the book. The German colonization was later than the British and French (and ended as a result of the German loss in World War I). King Leopold's forces colonized the Congo as part of a private land grab, and were not transferred to the Belgian state until 1908. Italian colonization was less successful than British and French efforts, as well as later. The Boer settlers in southern Africa were not British, although the region that the inhabited eventually became part of South Africa, and thus a portion of the British empire. The French colonies tended to be located in the north west of Africa, and included lands of the Sahara Desert and its fringes -- lands that were less productive than the colonies of other countries. Britain appears to have been the most successful in establishing colonies and influence, eventually holding a string of land from the Cape of Good Hope to the Egyptian Mediterranean. And of course, the Ottoman empire lost its African territories to others during the Scramble and its immediate aftermath.

The Book is Very Good on the Complexity of Governance

Author Thomas Pakenham (8th Earl of Longford) is very good on the complexity of governance. Perhaps his aristocratic position provided him with the necessary understanding. In any case, in his hands, the cabinet members of imperial governments differ among themselves on what should be done, and sometimes one will act without the approval or even the knowledge of the others. Governments change, with the new sweeping out the old government's policies. Governments in London or Paris are trying not only to make decisions for African colonies in terms of the impact of those decisions on other African colonies, but also on other regions of the world and on the relationship with other imperial powers. African colonial administrators take actions not approved by their imperial masters, and indeed sometimes in opposition to those governments. the politics are of concern, newspapers count, as do advocacy groups. Business executives bring pressures to bear on governments, sometimes using the press; sometimes the businesses themselves take actions in Africa that affect imperial policies. Decisions are made (in European capitals or by newly assigned colonial administrators) with only poor understanding of the local conditions in Africa, and one assumes often with the most partial exploration of alternative options. Africans are not consulted at all. The financial problems of the day, the competing demands for troops, and changing world markets all come into play. Governance is hard! Africans pay for the errors made.

The Book Helps One Understand World War I

France and Britain negotiated the Entente Cordiale as part of a deal allocating colonies in Africa; since the French also had an Alliance with Russia there also came to be an Anglo-Russian Entente; thus the three key allies of World War I were obligated to support each other in part do to their scramble for African colonies. The German Kaiser was not pleased, but it too was scrambling for African colonies and had thus competed with Great Britain.

Germany was allied with Austria. Belgium, with its dismal colonial record in the Congo, may not have been as innocent as the British and French claimed at the outbreak of the war. (Britain went to war after Germany invaded Belgium on its way to France.) The replacement of the Ottoman Empire by Britain, France and Italy in Egypt, Sudan and Tunisia was at least a signal to Balkan nationalists that they might rise against the Ottomans, and it was the assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand by Serbian nationalists that triggered the start of World War I.

Austria declared war on Serbia, the Russians came to the aid of Serbia, and the Germans to the aid of Austria; France was obligated to support Russia, and Germany sought to invade France by marching through Belgium; Great Britain joined with France and Russia against Germany and Austria; Italy joined the the war against Austria, and the Ottoman Empire found itself fighting against Russia, Great Britain and France; Italy joined the allies and went to war against Austria When the dust cleared, the Austrian and Ottoman Empires were gone, Yugoslavia (the nation of the Southern Slaves) was created, Germany had lost its colonies, etc. The War was crucial to the development of world in the 20th century, but it can not fully be understood if one does not recognize some of its roots in the scramble for Africa.

Final Comment

This 670 page book took me a while to read, as I was also obligated to read other history books for the book club to which I belong; however, it was well worth the effort. I think Africa is finally developing rapidly economically, and it is wracked by civil war and insurgencies. Thus we should understand the historical roots of its current situation, and this book seems a very worthwhile means of gaining that understanding.

The graph is from the current edition of The Economist. I quote:
Africa’s economy is growing steadily. Last year average growth was 3.9% and it is set to accelerate this year, according to a report by the African Development Bank. Foreign direct investment (FDI) is helping to spur growth. It is expected to reach $55 billion in 2015, 20% higher than in 2010. Inflows of capital are increasingly focused on less resource-rich countries, as investors target the continent’s booming middle classes. The amount of investment into technology, retail and business services increased by 17 percentage points between 2007 and 2013. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

A thought about decision making

The best lack all conviction, while the worstAre full of passionate intensity.THE SECOND COMINGWilliam Butler Yeats

Of course, the best do not lack all conviction. They are as convinced as you and I of the current color of the sky or of their own identity. I think the best recognize two classes of situations:

  • "Hard Problems" in which either there are no outstandingly suitable solutions, or a great deal of work remains to be done to find such a solution;
  • Crises, in which the full set of options have not yet become visible and/or adequate information is not yet available to select the best option.
In such circumstances, the best decision makers would seldom if ever "bet the bank" on a guess. Lacking conviction is often the best means of coming to a good resolution of a situation that one would categorize as a hard problems or a crisis. Indeed, in such situations the best practice is sometimes:
  • To estimate if some action is required immediately:
    • If so, take a modest action, ideally one that can be retracted if it proves important to do;
    • If not, spend some time and effort gaining more information, identifying more options, considering more incremental steps, and evaluating those steps.
Unfortunately, this (which seems to me the best approach) is often termed "muddling through", a term which to many suggests weakness.

Talking heads on television often seems full of passionate intensity, secure in the knowledge that they have the unique understanding of the issues and recognize the best of all responses to the question at hand. These folk may make for good television, but it seems to me that:
  • TV broadcasters find it relatively easy to find two or more people full of passionate intensity who differ radically on their understanding 
  • If you watch for a few years, you begin to understand that the talking heads are often wrong, that situations are often more complex than they realized, that they lacked key items of information, or that they had failed to think about options that eventually proved important and useful.
I note, following Michael Bohn, that presidents in crisis seem to lack all conviction when they make good decisions in crisis situations, but presidential candidates seem full of passionate intensity when they advocate positions or criticize their opponents. Good decision making seems to benefit from listening to all points of view, being open to new information and new options, and deferring decisions until it is worse to do than to act prudently.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Arghhh! Why Don't Americans Know More Science?

Direct Source of Chart
From a recent survey done by the National Science Foundation (from this article):
  • “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” 1 in 4 believed that the Sun orbits the earth.
  • 61% refute the Big Bang, answering “false” when asked if “The universe began with a huge explosion,”
  • 52% oppose evolution, denying that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,”
  • 70% felt government funding for science was adequate or too generous.
Where Creationism Is Taught as Science in the USA

It is no wonder that half the senators get away with voting that Climate Change is not caused by human action, or why the Congress gets away with cutting budgets for research and development, even though our future competitiveness depends on the pump priming of our technological engine by fundamental R&D that has to be supported by government.

The very old are not as poor as once they were, but children are still poor in rich countries

Interesting data for OECD countries from the OECD Secretariat via The Economist
In the 1980s the richest 10% of the population of OECD countries earned seven times more than the poorest decile. Today they earn ten times more. The poor are also more likely to be young. Poverty rates are now highest among 18- to 25-year-olds, having dropped drastically among those aged over 65. This shift reflects both the financial support offered by pension systems in the developed world and the disproportionate effect of the recession on young people. Wealth is far more concentrated than income, with the poorest 40% of people in OECD countries holding just 3% of the wealth.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Crowd sourcing as an aid to medical diagnosis

There is an interesting article in The Economist describing CrowdMed, a website that uses crowd sourcing to help diagnose rare diseases.
The need for a “crowdsourced” service like this comes from the number of rare diseases around. The National Institutes of Health, America’s medical agency, recognises 7,000—defined as those that each affect fewer than 200,000 people. A general practitioner cannot possibly recognise all of these. Moreover, it may not be clear to him, even when he knows he cannot help, what sort of specialist the patient should be referred to. Research published in 2013, in the Journal of Rare Disorders, says about 8% of Americans—some 25m people—are affected by rare diseases, and that it takes an average of 7½ years to get a diagnosis. Even in Britain, with all the resources of the country’s National Health Service at a GP’s disposal, rare-disease diagnosis takes an average of 5½ years. Also, doctors often get it wrong. A survey of eight rare diseases in Europe found that around 40% of patients received an erroneous diagnosis at first. This is something that can lead to life-threatening complications.
My wife last year went through the process of getting a diagnosis for a rare set of symptoms, and it took a while, involved many tests, and ultimately a referral to a specialist. I am impressed by the problem of diagnosis for such conditions, and I think crowd sourcing could be useful in the right hands.

I would caution that it could be dangerous as well. I think that one should use CrowdMed only under the care of a physician, and should discuss possible diagnoses with the physician.

Still, I find the idea of a website providing an alternative source of ideas to be discussed with one's doctor to be very interesting.

The Backwards Brain Bicycle

Everyone can ride a bike! Or so you thought! A simple change in the bike made it impossible for this man to ride. Moreover, it was much easier for his young son to learn to ride the bike than it was for the adult to do so.

I post this just to point out that a lot of the things we know how to do, we don't consciously know how to do. The brain, and indeed the nervous system is more complex that our conscious mind seems to understand.

Incidentally, the video is a good example of a situation in which our intuition is wildly inaccurate. He thought he could make the obvious adjustment needed to ride the bike instantaneously, and it took eight months for him to do so, at which point he could no longer ride a normal bike!

German History Pre World War II

I have been reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. (See my first and second posts on the book.)

Specifically, I have been reading about the German war against tribes in German South West Africa in the first decade of the 20th century. An estimated 100,000 members of the tribes revolted against the Germans, pushed too far by a regime of murder, rape and forced labor by the settlers. Troops from Germany, under "extermination orders" attacked the tribes, drove them into deserts, blocked reentry and told them to cross the deserts to other countries. Of course, tribe members realized that was impossible. The Germans eventually took the remaining survivors of the tribes into concentration camps, An estimated 20,000 survived the policy.

In the first decade of the 20th century, there was also a revolt against the Germans in their East African colony (Tanzania), apparently due to forced labor demands that were so high as to prevent tribal members from working their fields enough to feed themselves and their families. The Germans decided that famine was a more practical means to put down the revolt tham military action, especially since the German military were already involved executing the "extermination order" in West Africa. So crops were burned to deliberately create a famine. It is estimated that a quarter million to 300,000 people died -- half of one tribe, more than half of another, and 3/4th of a third tribe that had participated in the revolt.

There were less numerically significant atrocities that also should have alerted the world to the perils of German governance. For example, a lieutenant sent to negotiate a treaty with a native village, instead had his men shoot all the men and women in the village and the 54 children that had survived were put in a basket and drowned.

Yesterday I heard a book talk on TV by Diana Preston about her book A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare. Preston said that the German strategy in World War I had  been based on the belief that Germany could quickly win the war on the Western Front, before the British, French and Russian Empires could fully mobilize their forces (and while the United States remained neutral). She said that when the Western Front quickly stabilized, the German political leadership and high command looked for ways to advance the war more quickly.

Rules of war had been promulgated in the previous decade prohibiting the use of poison gas as a weapon of war and prohibiting the bombing of civilian populations in the cities of an enemy nation. A long standing rule had been that a war ship might stop a commercial ship serving the enemy and inspect it for contraband (e.g. weapons or munitions); if such were found, the ship could be sunk, but only after civilian passengers and crew were allowed to escape. In six weeks of 1915 the Germans broke all three rules, using chlorine gas against Canadian and French troops on the Western Front, bombing London (using zeppelins to deliver the bombs) and sinking the Lusitania by an unanounced attack by a submarine which killed more than 1100 passengers and crew.

This history adds helps one to evaluate the Holocaust created by Nazi Germany in World War II.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Growth suffers when there is inequality between different ethnic groups

I quote from an article in the current issue of The Economist:
ECONOMISTS have long recognised that there is an association between inequality and development. Unequal incomes can impair growth if those with low incomes suffer poor health and low productivity as a result. But in a forthcoming paper* in the Journal of Political Economy, three economists look at the question in a new light. What may matter most for development, they argue, is not inequality in itself, but economic differences between different ethnic groups. 
The authors pinpoint the location of 2,129 ethnic and 7,581 linguistic groups in 173 countries. Then, to estimate their wealth, they use data on night-time light intensity from satellites. (If a given area has more lights, it is likely to be richer.) That allows them to produce an “ethnic Gini index”, a measure of inequality between different ethnic groups within a country. They find that sub-Saharan Africa and East and South Asia are the most ethnically unequal regions, thanks to small but prosperous groups such as Arabs in west Africa. Western Europe, by contrast, is the most ethnically equal. 
The authors show that as a country’s ethnic inequality falls, average GDP per person rises. A one-standard-deviation decline in a country’s ethnic Gini index—the equivalent of moving from the level of Nigeria to that of Namibia—is associated with a 28% increase in GDP per person. It seems likely that ethnic inequality leads to low levels of development, not the other way around. After all, in other tests the authors find that ethnic inequality mostly reflects unequal geographical endowments, such as more fertile land and distance to the coast.
The paper by  Alesina, Alberto, Stelios Michalopoulos, and Elias Papaioannou  (“Ethnic Inequality.” Journal of Political Economy.) notes that there is little ethnic diversity measured in the United States according to the measure that the authors use.

I suspect, however, that we treat Blacks, American Indians and Hispanics as ethnic minorities, and the low investment we as a nation make in human capital (health services, education, etc.) in the neighborhoods where these minorities live significantly reduces our overall economic growth and has done so for many decades. Thus I suspect all Americans are poorer for the prejudice that has been endemic in our society.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Thinking about the nature of national debt

Immediate Source of Graph
Note that the total debt of the United States is not out of line with that of other countries.

Immediate Source of Graph
While there has been a great deal of discussion of the governmental debt, even combining the local, state, and federal government debt and the government sponsored entities, government debt is estimated to be less than household and corporate debt.

The article in The Economist from which the figures are drawn, "Ending the debt addiction: A senseless subsidy", makes a number of good points. One is that government policies can encourage or discourage debt. Thus, making payment of interest on debt tax deductible, but taxing profits (that belong to those holding equity in companies) can encourage firms to use debt financing rather than equity financing; excessive debt to equity can have serious implications in terms of risk. Here is one quote from the article.
Banks, inevitably, took most advantage, gaming the tax rules with devastating results. Most issued “hybrid” securities that were treated as debt by the taxman but as capital by credulous regulators. In the crisis hybrids did not act as a buffer that absorbed losses. About a third of big Western banks’ capital was made up of these instruments. Had they raised equity instead, fewer banks would have wobbled, says Ruud de Mooij of the IMF. 
I think that making mortgage interest tax deductible for small the poor is good policy, in that it helps the poor to build savings and encourages their commitment to their homes, neighborhoods, etc. On the other hand, I think making mortgage interest tax deductible for the rich simply encourages the construction of mansions for display, and encourages the purchase of MacMansions by those who wanabe rich.

Similarly, I like the idea of helping students borrow money to invest in their own education. Of course, borrowing to buy schooling that is of little personal nor social value (as seems to be done so often) is not good policy. Moreover, a lot of education should be publicly funded because the public rather than the student him/herself appropriates much of the benefit from the investment in human capital. Making the student him/herself pay for such investments that benefit the public by borrowing is bad policy.

Monday, May 18, 2015

A Thought on Decision Making in White House Crisis Situations

Michael Bohn recently did a TV book discussion on his new book, Presidents in Crisis: Tough Decisions inside the White House from Truman to Obama. Bohm was the naval officer (i.e. non-political) man in charge of the White House situation room during the Reagan administration. He writes about crisis, in the sense that there arise suddenly, and the president has to decide if the U.S. is to respond, and if so, how. Bohm notes that the decision as to whether to hold meetings to discuss the president's decision in the Oval Office (or presumably the Cabinet Room) or the Situation Room is usually a political one, meant to give a message to the press and the public. Bohn, because of his position running the situation room, got great access to people who participated in 17 discussions treated in the book (including some presidents).

He made a couple of general points that we should all recognize. First, unless you have been there, you have no idea how hard it is to make decisions like how to respond to an invasion by or on an ally. People not actually involved don't know all the ramifications and don't have all of the date, and don't have the responsibility. The party in opposition to the president will have spokespersons trying to make political points when such a situation occurs, but Bohn would not pay attention to their comments. He noted that Reagan, while running for president said he would be bold and active in such decision making, while as president he was at his best when slow and cautious.

Secondly, Bohn said that domestic politics always counted in the 17 decisions he studied (and they counted more in election years). In the last year of President Johnson' term, since he was not running for another term, they counted less.

Bohn notes that there seems always to be a significant lack of information in such crisis decision making ("fog of war"). He strongly recommended incremental decision making -- one small step at a time, allowing the president to step back if necessary. In the time between incremental decisions, new information may become available and new options may develop. He also recommended that serious efforts be made to avoid "group think" by assuring that people with different positions are at the table; I assume that early on, when there is little information and few options, the president might seek people with different general viewpoints (e.g. hawks vs. doves, local expertise vs. general foreign policy overview).

Of course, in foreign policy crises, there are not only domestic viewpoints to be taken into account, but also foreign ones. Consider for example the current situation involving ISIL, Syria and Iraq. There are of course different parties in Syria and Iraq, with different interests, and I suppose different parties within ISIL. Then there are the many neighboring states that feel that they may have important interests in the conflict. Then there are our European and Asian allies and Russia. If one considers the United Nations, the 193 member states may all vote on General Assembly resolutions, and each of them may have different parties with distinct views, even if the member state seems far away and little affected by a war in the Levant.

It occurs to me that there might be a some relevance to chess or other games of strategy. In chess, the game is too complicated for even a computer to calculate all alternative sets of possible moves to chose the best one at each point. Muddling through (see Charles Lindblom's classic "The Science of Muddling Through") involves the strategy advocated by Bohn -- making one move at a time and waiting to see what happens and what others do before committing to the next move. It is the classic approach in chess. Still, a good chess player, when he/she opens the game first, chooses a gambit; his/her opponent will normally recognize the gambit and select an appropriate response gambit. Thus good chess players depend on their experience with the game to have opening moves that hold little surprise for their opponents, but that lead toward known positions that are strong for the middle game. Decision making in crisis situations might well lend themselves to such series of initial moves at least between countries that frequently face each other in such situations.

An important part of crisis decision making is simplifying the situation in such a way that its important aspects are maintained, superfluous issues are ignored, and it becomes possible to move ahead reasonably expeditiously. Doing this well seems very hard to me, yet  it seems to be a critical skill. Thinking of chess again, expert players have developed intuition, based on experience, that allows them to focus on a few alternatives at each step to analyze in depth; they know when to rely on memorized alternatives, when shallow analysis is adequate and they can save time and effort and when to take the time and put in the effort to analyze in depth before making the next move. That intuition is I think based on replying many games by experts, reading analyses by experts of influential games and matches, and playing a lot.

Good decision makers also delegate a lot of the decisions. Thus the political leaders of the Allies in World War II made the policy decisions, but delegated the responsibilities of figuring out how to carry out those policies to military and civilian mobilization leaders. These latter leaders in turn made the strategic decisions on how to implement the policies that they were given, but delegated tactical decisions to their subordinates.

I think, in a well run White House, decision makers fully utilize the structures of government to get information and have it screened and manicured to assist in their incremental decision making. Thus, the State Department has thousands of expert foreign service officers stationed around the world and a world class system to filter their reports and provide a regular synthesis to the Secretary of State and senior staff, who in turn provide that information to the National Security Council and the President. Similar systems exist in the Defense Department, the Department of Commerce, the Treasury Department and the rest of government, according to the charter of each agency.

Government decision making works well not only when the decision makers themselves are capable, but also requires effective agencies to carry out delegated tasks and effective agencies to evaluate results of decisions and obtain new information.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Thoughts About Immigration Policies


The United States implemented a new immigration policy in the 1980s. It provided a path to citizenship for some people who had not fulfilled the administrative rules for entering and staying in the country. The new policy also made crossing the border between Mexico and the USA much more difficult -- high wall were erected, border patrols were increased, and technology was used more aggressively to detect illegal border crossings.

Prior to the new policy of the 80s, people from Latin America often came to the USA to work for a season and then returned to their homes, secure in the knowledge that they could fairly easily reenter the next year or at some future time.

With the new policy, it became so difficult and so dangerous to cross the border that many immigrants who would have returned to their own countries, simply stayed. The number of undocumented workers shot up to the current 11 million or more.

A humanitarian effort by the Obama administration to deal more humanely with undocumented immigrants who were children led to a flood of unaccompanied kids crossing the border in recent years.


The European Union and Illegal Immigrants Crossing the Mediterranean

Last year Europe decreased the 2015 budget to stop ships bringing illegal immigrants from north Africa to Europe. The idea apparently was that if there were fewer resources that could safe immigrants who were in danger at sea, then the number of people making the journey would decrease. We find that the number actually increased, and people have died in large numbers this Spring.

It seems that people escaping from wars and persecution, and people desperate for more economic opportunity, and especially people who have spent all their financial resources and been en route to Europe for long periods of time felt that they had to take the risk, even if they knew it had increased.

Europeans are scrambling to find a new policy.

Mediterranean migrant crisis: May wants some people returned
Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian Policy and the Boat People

People from Myanmar and Bangladesh have for some years sought asylum in Thailand, Malaysia and even Indonesia, fleeing from persecution and poverty in their homeland by boat. This year the Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian governments have apparently instituted severe new policies barring such boats from landing and unloading their human cargoes.

Ships are now at sea that have been denied such landing rights. Some have run out of fuel, food and water. Crews have abandoned the ships and passengers. People are dying.

Stranded Myanmar Rohingya boat migrants desperate


My parents came to the USA as immigrants. My wife's family also came to this country as immigrants some generations back. I have a visceral feeling that immigrants are people too.

Like my wife, my son and my parents, I have lived in three different countries. I have been welcomed in those countries.

I have worked in more than 35 countries, and visited another 15 or so, finding people I liked and respected in all of those countries.

I have come to the conclusion that there are universal human rights, that "all men are endowed with certain rights", and that we ought to extend human rights to even the most humble people seeking asylum by crossing borders.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On the presentation of knowledge and analytic resluts

I just heard Michael Morell, a former Deputy Director of the CIA, on the Charlie Rose Show. (The interview is not yet online.)Morell has a new book out, which was generally a basis for the interview.

Morell described the way the CIA should brief the president, and the rule sounds pretty good: The briefing should include:

  • What is known.
  • How what is known is known.
  • What analysts have concluded from their extrapolations of what is known.
  • How the analysis has been done.
  • What confidence the analysts have in their conclusions.
I might add to a briefing, what added information might be found with more investigation, and the estimated likely costs in time and resources to obtain that information.

Morell stressed that such a briefing should not offer policy advice unless such advice is specifically requested. The role of the neutral source of information and analysis in the policy debate should be to step in when incorrect information is adduced by others, or when statements are made for which the confidence is very low.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Fra Junipero Serra and his Religion

I have been thinking about Junipero Serra: California's Founding Father by Steven M. Hackel. More specifically, I feel my previous review missed an important point. Padre Junipero Serra was a profoundly religious Catholic priest of the 18th century, and his religious life probably should be front and center in any biography. I can barely imagine the religious views that must have been held by a Spanish Franciscan Friar priest in that time, but they must have been powerful and (in our terms) extreme.

He was a Franciscan Friar, who had taken a vow of poverty and lived according to that vow. When he died he had a single robe that he wore every day, and a second used robe that had become too threadbare to wear; that was kept to be cut up to patch his "good" robe. He owned a single pair of sandals when he died, and had one book, a prayer book. He walked, even for long journeys, except when his physical condition did not permit; in that case he rode a mule. He slept on a bed of boards. (I have done so, and it reminds one on a regular basis that the bed is not comfortable.) He had a single blanket, and nights in California or the highlands of Mexico can be chilly. His diet was simple to the extreme. He had made vows of obedience, and clearly accepted the responsibility that they imposed when he must have disagreed strongly with his superiors in the order.

As a member of a Franciscan community nearly all of his life, he would have attended mass almost every day for decades. As a priest, he would have performed the sacraments of communion thousands of times. He taught young men who were studying for the priesthood, conducted meetings for the Catholic public to increase their devotion to the faith, and became a powerful inspirational speaker on matters of faith. He prepared thousands of people for the sacrament of confirmation, instructing them in matters of faith, and actually performed that sacramental act thousands of times in California. He performed the sacraments of baptism and marriage thousands of times. He must have confessed his (few) sins and heard the confessions of others tens of thousands of times, and spend a great deal of time in penitence.

It took time and effort for him to become a missionary Franciscan priest, and he gave up a great deal to do so. Many will not understand the background of that sacrifice on his part. As I understand it, Serra would have believed that an Indian who had not been converted to Catholicism would suffer for all eternity. An Indian child who died after being baptized or an Indian adult, confirmed Catholic, who died in a state of grace would enjoy bliss for all eternity. Thus Serra would have believed that his direct efforts as a missionary in Sierra Gorda and California would have provided tens of thousands of Indians the possibility of a heavenly eternity. His efforts in founding nine missions, developing the system that led to many more missions being founded, and his work inspiring other missionaries would have had leveraged a much greater impact. I suggest he was willing to undergo a huge amount of deprivation and suffering to offer this benefit of religion to others.

We can look at Father Serra through the eyes of others. Serra was seen as a leader among those of his Franciscan order all of his life; some followed him into the missions. He was chosen to instruct others, and to lead the introduction of missions into Alta California. When he died, people divided his few belongings to have things he touched in his life. People prayed to him, and he is now to be canonized as a saint. He seems to have been widely regarded as saintly.

We can guess how Father Serra thought. As a priest, I suspect that each mass he said or attended mass, each time he subjected himself to the sacrament of reconciliation, each confession he heard, each baptism he performed, each marriage he performed, each confirmation he performed, and each time he anointed the sick he dedicated the act to his God. I suspect that each time he felt discomfort as a result of his vow of poverty or some affliction resulting from his duties he tried to consider it an offering to his God in fulfillment of his vow. So too, each time he accepted an order from a superior, he tried to consider his compliance as an offering to his God in fulfillment of his vow of obedience. Each time he considered alternatives for the future, whether it be for the day, the month or the more distant future, he probably thought "which alternative would be the most pleasing to God" and selected that alternative. Serving as a missionary to Indians in the Spanish New World would have been a very hard life, but Serra could well have concluded that it was the alternative most pleasing to his God. From what we can read about the choices he made and the way others describe him, he seems like that kind of a man.

We read biography in part to discover what is was like to be that other person. I don't think we can understand Serra without considering how he as a saintly Spaniard was likely to think in the 18th century. Indeed, I think we lose something in the study of history if we focus only on recorded events, and fail to consider why people did what they did/

Friday, May 08, 2015

The Rate of Change of Public Opinion on Selected Human Rights Issues

Source: The Economist
The graph shows that there were similar rates of change in American public opinion on school desegregation, marriage between blacks and whites, and same-sex marriage, but the public opinion relative to abortion has remained fairly constant at 50 to 60 percent favorable for decades.

I don't know if my opinion means much, but it seems to me that we have separation of church and state. If a religious institution wants to define marriage in its own way, it is free to do so. Civil law marriage seems to me to be about a single act defining a number of conditions simultaneously, some of which could be done by individual legal instruments (wills, powers of attorney, designation of heirs, etc.) and some of which require "marriage" (inheritance under social security, parental rights, etc.) I am with the majority of Americans favoring same-sex marriage, although perhaps it is time to reconsider some of our public policies. Thus I think a same-sex couple raising children is more similar in terms of social security to a male-female couple raising children than it would be to a male-female couple with two earners and no children.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

The Good News About Africa

Thanks to William Easterly for this graph!

Moore’s law turns 50

According to The Economist, signs are multiplying that half a century after it was advanced, Moore's Law is running out of steam.
It is not so much that physical limits are getting in the way—even though producing transistors only 14 nanometres (billionths of a metre) wide, the current state of the art can be quite tricky. Intel says that it can keep the law going for at least another ten years, eventually slimming its transistors down to 5nm, about the thickness of a cell membrane. Other than shrinking circuitry further, it has also started to stack components, in effect building 3D chips.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Growing up in Los Angeles Long Ago

I grew up living in a lower middle class neighborhood in Los Angeles, and I think it was an amazing place for a kid to live at the time.

I moved to Los Angeles in 1945 at the age of eight, and lived there until 1959 when I graduated from UCLA. My father had been transferred from his job in Massachusetts to the new Rexall Drug Company office in Los Angeles. The company would later be renamed Dart Industries. My parents were immigrants, Dad from Ireland and Mom from England. Mom did not work, at least for the first few years in Los Angeles, and Dad was in administrative posts in the company headquarters.

Mom and her sister had come to the USA in the 1920s and worked in the household of Ambrose Clark. He had inherited a fortune made from the Singer Sewing Machine Company. She left that work when she married Dad. Every once and a while she would tell stories about the Clark household -- their traveling in their five privately owned railroad cars from their New York compound to their South Carolina mansion, or their taking the entire first class of an ocean liner to travel from the USA to England so that not only family members but also maids and valets could have first class cabins.

My aunt returned to England, but she and her husband returned the USA after the war; then they worked as English servants in the homes of wealthy families. As I remember, one home was that of Paul Mellon in the Virginia hunt country. In the 1950s they moved to Los Angeles where they worked for movie producer William Goetz and also for the director/producer/writer King Vidor. I remember visiting my aunt and uncle as a kid when the Goetz family was out, wondering around looking at their multi million dollar collection of French impressionist paintings. Normally my aunt and uncle's relationship to the members of the household and guests must have been very correct, but I recall the became friends with Danny Kaye who apparently treated everyone alike.

Mom would occasionally help with catering for a big event at one of the households, and eventually was convinced to work part time at the home of Shepard Mitchell and Ruth Wattis Mitchell. He was a named partner in a Beverly Hills law firm; she was a sculptor, daughter of one of the founders of the Utah Construction Company. I recall that my senior year in college I was a finalist for a fellowship to Cambridge University, but the other finalist won; the Mitchells then offered to pay transportation, living and all other costs for me to get a graduate degree at Cambridge -- nice people! (I went to U.C. Berkeley as a teaching assistant.)

For a part of Dad's working life he was manager of the building occupied by his company's central offices, but also the Screen Actors Guild. As a result he became friendly with George Murphy (later Senator Murphy) and Ronald Reagan. On Reagan's request, Dad helped set up the Los Angeles campaign office for Reagan's first campaign for governor of California. Justin Dart, the president of the company for which Dad worked, became one of the "kitchen cabinet" of advisers to President Reagan. Dad's direct boss and good friend at the company once told me I should look up his old friend since I was working in Washington -- the old friend was Senator Jesse Helms! (I never did.)

Dean Stockwell and Margaret O'Brien
in The Secret Garden (1949)
Our next door neighbors were the Stockwells. There were two sons, Dean and Guy; Dean was about my age and Guy a few years older. Both were child actors, and both went on to have long acting careers as adults. Since Dean and I were friends, I got to meet and play with other child actors such as Margaret O'Brien and Claude Jarmen Jr. I also got to meet a few adult actors, such as Lionel Barrymore and Alan Ladd. The parents were divorces. Guy and Dean's father was Harry Stockwell, a broadway singer/actor who lived in New York. Harry would visit his son's from time to time, and I recall one visit when he discovered my parents had never seen the Broadway musical, Oklahoma. (Harry starred as Curly in the original Broadway production.) So Harry stood in our living room and without instrumental accompaniment sang the libretto for us!

Michael Tilson Thomas, Ingolf's student
conducting works by Ingolf Dahl
One of my friends from primary school on was Anthony Linick. His book, The Lives of Ingolf Dahl, is basically a biography of his stepfather, Ingolf, but it also covers a lot of my Los Angeles childhood since Ingolf served as our leader on many camping and climbing expeditions. Ingolf and his wife had a huge collection of friends from Gertrude Lawrence, to Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein, and Igor Stravinsky to Thomas Mann. But Anthony's mother also had friends of her own, such as her college friend, Ralph Bunche who was the highest ranking U.S. citizen in the United Nations at the time and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

Anthony's father was for a time the director of the script department at MGM -- think of the people he must have known. (Incidentally, Anthony's complicated parental roster included Professor and Dr. Dahl and Dr. and Dr. Linick.) While I didn't meet a lot of Anthony's parents friends, I did get told the story of the Ring Cycle on a camping trip, and great names came up in conversation from time to time.

Primo Carnera
Anthony. in his book, points out that Primo Carnera lived in our neighborhood. The former world heavyweight boxing champ also went to the church my family attended. I remember shaking hands with him and seeing my fairly large hand disappear in his huge mitt. Paul Richards, another friend my age, lived down the block, and his dad was a gold medal Olympic high jumper.

A lot of my friends from secondary school went on to get doctorates in one field or another. Special note might be made of Gordon Hughes, the smart kid in our high school class who seems to have gone on to invent the hard drive technology used in this and most other personal computers; read his book. Mark Davis, who lead our ROTC unit and was the best shot on the all city rifle team, went on to head key departments in one of the government research labs.

By the time we got to college, Anthony Linick brought new friends into our circle, notably Don Factor (son of makeup magnet Max Factor), Paul Glass (son of movie producer Gaston Glass), and Fred Myrow (son of composer Josef Myrow). Another friend introduced me to Herb Siegel who became a close friend; Herb's wife was a student of Corita Kent, Peter Voulkos and Richard Diebenkorn. Herb and Sue later introduced me to their friend Harris Wolford (a Kennedy staffer, early Peace Corps official, and eventual U.S. Senator.)

Luana Anders, Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda
in Easy Rider

Of course, there were lots of other actors around. I went to high school with Luana Anders, who was more of a friend of a friend than a close friend of mine. She eventually was in lots of movies (e.g. Easy Rider and Francis Ford Coppola's Dementia 13). Luana starting out got a messenger job, and once convinced a fellow messenger that he ought to go along with her to Jeff Cory's acting class; her messenger friend was Jack Nicholson.

College exposed me to people with different interests, although my closest friend in engineering school, John Fielding, is the son of the man who had his 15 minutes of fame as "Ellsberg's Psychiatrist". Paul Baran, the inventor of packet switching (one of the key technologies underlying the Internet) got his masters degree from UCLA the same year I got my bachelors degree from the same small department in the engineering school. Vint Cerf is a little younger than I, and didn't get to UCLA until after I had left. (I didn't get to know him and Bob Kahn, his co-inventor of the Internet, until much later.) It should be clear that UCLA's computer team in the engineering school was something special at the time. Myron Tribus was one of the professors who made an important impression on me; he was one of the original operations researchers in World War II, went on from UCLA to a position of Assistant Secretary for Science and Technology in the Department of Commerce (serving as the de facto science advisor to the president at the time), and also had important academic administration positions at Dartmouth and MIT. Tom McGrath tried to teach me to write poetry, and in the process made a lasting impression as a man and as a writer. As a student, I also got to meet Linus Pauling, who was nice enough to spend a few hours chatting with me and a friend a couple of times even though I was an undergraduate at another school at the time; Pauling is of course the only may to have won two undivided Nobel Prizes; he almost won a third.

Boelter Hall: an Engineering Building on the UCLA Campus
Dean Boelter, the dean of the engineering school while I was there, was a distinguished engineering educator. I only met him twice during my four years at UCLA. The first time I was a senior, and called into his office. He asked me if I knew why a member of the engineering faculty was always elected "the ugliest man on campus" (i.e. the one who had most money donated to charity in his name). I didn't, and he explained that each year he selected a senior engineering student and gave him the responsibility of fixing the election, and that that year I was the lucky student. (My candidate did win.) The second meeting, he brought three of us graduating seniors into his office and told us about his camping trip to the high sierras the previous summer with his son. I came to the conclusion that he was a lot like everyone else, but more so!

As I look back, I wonder how many kids with immigrant parents who lived in a lower middle class neighborhood had so many creative people in their lives, or at least in the lives of their parents and friends' parents. I suppose that it happens in Washington, D.C. and other "creative cities", but I still think I was very lucky. I came out of Los Angeles knowing that it was possible to be a Nobel Prize winner, a politician successful on a national scale, a movie star, a world class athlete. a musician, writer or poet, an educator, or a significant technological innovator. Of course, I was lucky enough to live in a neighborhood where parents valued schooling and encouraged their kids to study hard. The schools were good, and in California at the time, if you got good grades in secondary school you could go to a great public university essentially free. Many of the folk described above were themselves the product of very upward mobile lives and careers.

Thinking About Immigration Policy

Source: Pew Research Center

What are the concerns that should guide the reform of immigration policy:

  • Legal Rights: The law should not be changed to deprive citizens of legal rights which they already possess.
  • Human Rights: There are human rights that would seem to overlap, but not be exactly equivalent to legal rights. Thus a child brought illegally to the USA, who is educated here (with the full formal and informal indoctrination towards being an American) might have a human right to citizenship but not a legal right.
  • Responsibilities incurred by the government: U.S. military incursions into foreign countries seem always to recruit nationals of those countries to serve the USA; if there are sanctions and retaliations against such people, then perhaps the country has a responsibility to grant them residence or citizenship. How about the people in Mexico and Central America who are threatened by a culture of violence that has developed as a result of U.S. drug and gun policies? Does the USA have responsibilities to protect them? Even to the point of granting U.S. residence or citizenship?
  • National Interests: There are many jobs that can not be filled in the USA due to lack of people living here with the right skills or abilities; it is in the national interest to allow immigration of people who can fill those jobs. So too, it is in the national interest to allow immigration of people who can create good new jobs, such as those who could create new businesses or those who could advance useful technologies.
  • Humanitarian concerns: It is generally conceded that countries should grant amnesty to refugees who are fleeing persecution. So too, there is an argument to grant immigration rights to others, such as those seeking medical attention that is available here but not in their home countries.
Generally, do we not believe that rights trump interests? 

Sunday, May 03, 2015

Today is World Press Freedom Day

From the World Values Survey Association.