Thursday, January 29, 2015

What Goals Should the World Set for Itself Next?

The Economist has published a useful article on the efforts to set forth new global goals for development for the period following this year.

The United Nations is developing a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs: 17 have been proposed, with 169 associated targets). These replace the Millennium Development Goals, set forth in 2000 with targets for 2015. I personally wonder about the importance of such goals. Did China and India really need the incentive of targets put forth by the United Nations for their great development success over the past 15 years? Why did states fail, and why did some states that did not fail not achieve the stated targets? Still, the agreement about goals, targets and priorities did give many organizations their marching orders -- orders that were taken seriously.

Action/2015 is a coalition of more than 1000 organizations that have agreed to work together to help the world attain the SDGs.

Post-2015 Consensus is a program of economic analysis that has begun to address anew the question of "What are the smartest targets for the post-2015 development agenda?"

The Sustainable Development Solutions Network is still another network, one that worked to help the United Nations Secretariat to develop its Sustainable Development Goals and related indicators and measurements so that goal achievement could be monitored and tested against the defined targets.

More on Comparative Wealth Reports

Source: The Economist
I recently posted on the interpretation of stories on the distribution of global wealth. The Economist magazine has published an article on the same subject, from which I drew the above graphs. Oxfam, a charity, recently published that the world’s wealthiest 1% will soon hold more net wealth than the other 99% put together.
Oxfam’s projection (see left-hand chart) should be treated with caution. The charity uses a straight-line projection of the trend in wealth shares in 2010-14 to forecast that just 50m adults will hold the majority of the world’s household wealth by next year. That is both too simplistic and arbitrary. If Oxfam had based its forecast on the trend in 2000-14, then the crossover point would have been 2035. 
Measuring wealth is in any case problematic. Oxfam’s numbers piggyback on Credit Suisse’s “Global Wealth Report”, published in October, which found that 48% of the world’s $263 trillion in net household wealth (ie, after subtracting debts) is in the hands of the richest 1% of its citizens. The Swiss bank’s report is fairly well-regarded but data on household wealth across the globe are sketchy. And measuring net wealth leads to some very odd outcomes: the owners of the 5.1m underwater homes in America will count among the world’s poorest.
 I have not looked into the Credit Suisse methods, but I would bet that it does not measure human capital -- the investment that has been made in the education, health, and culture of citizens of different nations.

I suspect that it also fails to attribute public capital to households. I live in a home that has concrete sidewalks, a well maintained road in front, good piped potable water, functioning sewerage, electrical power, and fiber optics telecommunications. There is a bus that stops at the corner, and it takes me to a metro with good, fast trains to all parts of the city, which in turn is connected by high speed highways, railroad and airlines to the rest of the country and even the rest of the world.  I live in a community similarly served, and the businesses in which my neighbors work are the beneficiaries of even greater public capital investments allowing those neighbors to earn good incomes.

The Economist correctly points out that other economic indices may be more accurately measured. Of course, one is better informed taking many such indicators into account rather than focusing on a single one.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Public Funding of Education

"Those persons whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and … they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth, or other accidental condition or circumstance."
—Thomas Jefferson, A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, 1779
I just read an article about the change in U.S. policy toward the public funding of higher education. The article suggests that a critical date in that change was 1967 when then Governor Ronald Reagan of California assured his constituents he would do nothing to undermine the excellence of the higher education system in California. That promise looks pretty hollow today. I was a beneficiary of the earlier system. I was a full time student in the University of California system from 1955 to 1962 and from 1968 to 1970, and a non-resident student while I worked on thesis and dissertation for several more years; I worked for the system for most of those years as a student; there was no tuition fee when I started, and costs were minimal when I finished. I saved money while a college student!

I do believe that all countries owe their young people a right to education. That right is limited by what a country can afford, in the sense that countries with high per capita GDPs provide more schooling for their people than do countries with low per capita GDPs.

How is the schooling assured? In part they do so by the provision of public schools that provide schooling free or for minimal costs (e.g. supplies). However, countries may allow for private schooling, religiously based schooling, or home schooling, simply imposing the requirements on families that they assure adequate schooling for those that prefer these alternatives to public schools.

Another issue is whether the right to education is a right to attend school for a certain amount of time, a right achieve some level of proficiency, or the right to fully develop some special gift (as the quotation above from Thomas Jefferson would suggest). In the USA we seem to veer among those ideas. We recognize that children develop at different speeds, emphasizing different aspects of development, and make some allowances -- providing specialized schooling to meet some of the special needs of different children. We also provide for a test to allow students to demonstrate proficiency comparable to that of a high school graduate; some secondary school students are allowed (encouraged) to attend university courses.

Countries also invest in education, not only in the assurance that the rights to schooling being provided (which of course yields national benefits in productivity, citizenship, and domestic life), but also investing in the education and training of people for specific roles in the society. As I consider the creation of new nations in Africa, clearly their development was limited by lack of professional engineers, public health physicians, skilled and ethical political leaders, business entrepreneurs, etc. These countries had to invest in the development of adequate cadres of such experts, and that required schooling for the few far beyond "the rights to education" of the majority. In part, the justification for public funding for the education of these folk is that they do not (or at least should not) recapture the cost of their education in remuneration during their careers. The benefits that they provide to society are much greater than those that the professionals should appropriate through their remuneration for their services. If the public benefits from the advanced education of certain people, then it seems only right that the public should invest in their education.

Of course, a problem is just which people should receive what education at public expense. It may be that some philosophers are needed in any country, but if so, how many and which people should be granted public support for the study of philosophy? Somehow it seems that the decision should not be left to teen age students, with the government willing funding as much schooling in French romantic poetry, ancient history, electrical engineering, or nursing as the students freely choose to study. (If parents wish to subsidize any kind of education and have the resources to do so, perhaps that is fine. But there is also a point that the rich are successful in assuring the prosperity of their children by providing them with superior education, but diminishing economic mobility for children of the poor and middle class.)

I wish I had answers, but sometimes it is useful to raise the questions.

Added Comment:

I just read an article about Yitang Zhang, a Chinese American mathematician, and was reminded how much new knowledge we probably lose by not educating potential geniuses around the world to fully achieve their potential. Yitang Zhang in 2014 published a paper making a major advance in number theory, an advance that has been honored by several major prizes. He was 49 at the time, and had only published one significant paper previously.

He had been caught as a child in the political upheavals in China; he and his mother were sent to the countryside as farm workers, separated from his father. His efforts to study mathematics on his own were discouraged by ideologues who believed mathematics was unimportant. He was unable to enter the university until the age of 23, and on graduation was made a part of a team working on an area of math that was of more interest to his professor than to himself. Fortuitously he was recruited to enter graduate school at Purdue in 1985 by a professor visiting China, and managed to obtain his PhD in mathematics there at the end of 1991. However, he could not immediately get an academic job and had to take work in a market. It was not until 1999 that he got a non-tenure track position teaching calculus at the University of New Hampshire.

We were fortunate at several points in his life that his persistence was rewarded by an opportunity to advance his career as a mathematician. Had any of them failed to materialize, he would probably not have been able to continue his mathematical career. The study of large prime numbers, once a field of mathematics that was considered to have no applications, has become important with a number of practical applications.

I am reminded of Ramanujan:
an Indian mathematician and autodidact who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, (who) made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Ramanujan initially developed his own mathematical research in isolation...........When his skills became apparent to the wider mathematical community, centered in Europe at the time, he began a famous partnership with the English mathematician G. H. Hardy. He rediscovered previously known theorems in addition to producing new work. Ramanujan was said to be a natural genius, in the same league as mathematicians such as Euler and Gauss.
Ramanujan wrote to Hardy from India presenting him with some of the theorems he had proved in isolation in India, and Hardy was interested enough to follow up, and eventually invited Ramanujan to England. But here too was a man who contributed significantly to global knowledge who might have died unknown and unrecognized but for the insight of one man.

How many more potential geniuses are born today who will never achieve their potential due to lack of opportunity? I suspect that there are many!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

About communication of disease -- Measles

I think some mathematical intuition is helpful if you want to understand communicable disease transmission.

The basic thing to think about is how many people each infected person in turn infects.

  • If the number is less than one, as the infected people get better or die, the number of infected goes down;
  • If the number is exactly one, then as each infected person leaves the pool of those communicating the disease, another replaces him/her; the disease becomes endemic;
  • If the number is greater than one, the number of infectious people (those communicating the disease to others) grows; the disease becomes epidemic.
There is another, actually common situation, in which the number of new infections per infectious person varies over time. When it is greater than one, the number of infected grows; when it is less than one, the number of infected decreases.

The transmission of the disease depends on the contact rate and the portion of the population that is immune to the disease. 
  • The contact rate can change; kids are sometimes in school, with a high contact rate with others with "childhood diseases" and sometimes out of school when that contact rate tends to be less.
  • The immunity in the population can also change; for example, for many communicable diseases, people who have had the disease and recover are then immune.
When an epidemic starts, public health officials seek to stop it by encouraging people to avoid crowds or by immunizing people with vaccines. In a disease like flu, in which the virus is often communicated by contaminating a hand which then carries the virus to the mouth or nose where it can actually infect the person, hand washing can reduce the actual "contact rate".

We know that the current measles epidemic in the USA was started by a foreign visitor to Disneyland. Measles was essentially eliminated from the United States by massive immunization with a long-lasting immunity from a safe vaccine. However, there are parts of the world where it remains a common disease -- either endemic as new generations of vulnerable kids get the disease, or subject to occasional epidemics. Thus, even after the disease has been eradicated once, if the immunity level is allowed to increase, an infected visitor can start a new epidemic.

In the United States some people are now refusing to allow their children to be immunized against measles. Some do so for religious reasons; some for (unjustified) fear of side effects of the vaccine. While the immunity level in the USA as a whole is high enough that we do not need now to fear a measles pandemic, the vulnerable kids tend to live in the same small communities. One measles is introduced into such a community it may experience a local epidemic of the disease. For an infected child, measles can be a very serious disease!

And of course, a family traveling from a measles free country to one where measles is common, exposes itself to the disease. If that family's children are not immunized, the family is asking for heartbreak!

People who have been infected with HIV tend to live a long time with the infection; indeed, life expectancy of an infected person has increased greatly since effective drugs were developed to help fight the disease.

The curve above shows a rapid increase in the number of infected adults (the prevalence of HIV infection in adults) by continent. That number was increasing rapidly in the 1990s; the rate of increase trailed off in the following decade as public health efforts became more effective.

Canada: Number of New Infections Per Year (estimates)
The Canadian data shows how public health measures dramatically reduced the spread of infections in that country among men who had sex with men (MSM) in the 1980s. The rise in infection among intravenous drug users (IDU) was interrupted in the 1980s. The MSM incidence rebounded in the 2000s; the IDU incidence remained more or less constant during that period.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

What do those comparative wealth news reports really mean.

Credit Suisse's Research department regularly publishes a report on world wealth. (Here is the website of the one for 2014.)
Credit Suisse's 2014 Global Wealth Report reveals a rise of 20.1 trillion US dollars in world wealth in the past year, bringing total wealth to 263 trillion. The United States has seen particularly strong wealth creation, where financial crisis losses were trumped in a single year. Watch the video to find out more.
This is the source for news reports, such as:

Of course, the basic point is clear -- lots of people are poor and some people are very poor. However, the specific meaning is often lost for the sake of a headline.

It is often a very good idea to borrow money. It is a good idea if you can invest that borrowed money in a way to earn enough to pay it back, pay the interest, and take a good profit on the transaction. The people who borrow in this way tend to be those whose capital is greater than their debt -- who have a positive net worth.

On the other hand, debt bondage is a huge burden for many of the world's poor; these are the folk who are in debt and spend years or their whole lives scrimping from their tiny earnings to try to avoid falling deeper into debt. The people who borrow this way tend to have more debt than capital -- who have negative net worth.

Think about listing all the people in the world in increasing order of net worth, starting with those with the most negative net worth. If you were to sum down the list accumulating a cumulative value, that cumulative value would become more and more negative until you finally got to those with zero net worth; you would have to go considerably further -- summing as you went -- before the cumulative value would reach zero. Thus a large portion of the people on earth taken together own no more than they owe.  This is the fact behind the headlines.

A relatively few extremely rich people -- Bill Gates, Carlos Slim and their peers in affluence -- have net worth in the tens of billions of dollars. You have to go a long way down the list described in the previous paragraph to get a sum of net worth equal to the net worth of the richest 80.

There are more than 7 billion people on earth. Thus the one percent includes 70 million. If you look at the total net worth of the 70 million people who have the greatest net worth, that is a huge sum. It is sometimes estimated to equal the total net worth of the other 99 percent of the earth's people.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Measles cases needlessly increasing in the USA

Measles is a deadly disease.

A child can be immunized against measles by a vaccine. The vaccine is safe.

People who deny the safety and efficacy of the vaccine, and thus fail to have their children immunized tend to cluster in the same communities.

If one child in such a community comes down with measles, it is much more likely that that child will infect others than if a child in a community with high levels of protection gets the measles.

I think children deserve protection against bad decisions by their parents, but they especially deserve protection against bad decisions by others (such as the parents of other children in their schools or churches). 

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Countries resized by population

Thanks for sharing this Wayan Vota.

How the U.S. Employment Pattern Changed Since the Crash of 2008

There are fewer government workers, and more caregivers, servers and temps.

Did You Know This About the U.S. Congress?

The U.S. Constitution was a compromise. Originally the members of the House of Representatives were to be popularly elected, while the members of the Senate were to be appointed by state governments. Later senators came to be elected by the citizens of their states. State governments have considerable leeway in the way that they define the districts from which individual representatives are elected.
gerrymander: to manipulate the boundaries of (an electoral constituency) so as to favor one party or class.
How does this work out in practice. I draw from this article from The Nation:

In 2014, Republicans received about 52 percent of  votes cast for the House of Representatives. However, they now hold about 57 percent of the seats in the House. Why do they hold a greater portion of seats than the portion of votes that they received? Because in districts in which Democrats won, they tended to win big and in districts in where Republicans won, they tended to gain narrow victories. Why? I suggest that Republican state legislatures were by and large more successful in gerrymandering their states so that Democrats were packed in highly Democratic districts.

"In 2012, Republicans won a lopsided majority of seats despite securing only 48 percent of the vote." Same reason.

A further reason for the imbalance: In the most recent election, 96 percent of running incumbents won reelection. Once a party gains a significantly large majority in the House of Representatives, since the incumbents tend to be reelected (and since they tend not to retire at any reasonable age), that party tends to stay in the majority.

Remember that the Congress, with its Republican majority in the House of Representatives, enjoyed a 9 percent approval rating in November 2014, when the Republicans increased their majority.

Thus in spite of an all time low approval rating of the Congress, the Republicans managed not only to retain their majority, but to increase it.

An Example of Reform

California, in 2008, passed a plebiscite, the Voters FIRST Act. I quote from Wikipedia:
It removed from the California Legislature the responsibility for drawing the state's congressional districts, and gave the responsibility instead to a 14 member Citizens Commission. It also required that the districts drawn up (1) comply with the federal Voting Rights Act; (2) make districts contiguous; (3) respect, to the extent possible, the integrity of cities, counties, neighborhoods and "communities of interest"; and (4) to the extent possible, make districts compact. Several of these terms are not defined in law...... 
The California Citizens Redistricting Commission certified final district maps on August 15, 2011, and they took effect with the 2012 election. The new districts are described as more "purple" than "red" or "blue" - that is, more mixed in electoral composition compared to the mostly "safe" districts of the previous decade, where incumbents were almost guaranteed re-election. An interactive map comparing the old districts with the new ones is available via the Los Angeles Times.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

A thought about education

I saw a news broadcast the other day about a school in California that had a special program which it described as life preparation. High school age kids from a poor neighborhood were taking a course preparing them for jobs in the health service industry. They had a lot of on site training for entry level jobs.

On the one hand, I think it is great that these kids, who come from families where parents may not have finished high school and certainly did not go to college, are likely to get jobs right out of high school -- jobs other than flipping burgers in fast food restaurants.

On the other hand, I wonder if they are not being shifted off into a side track that is going to be a dead end. Will they be able to get more education later, shift into higher paying jobs, and have careers that will offer real upward social and economic mobility.

My Dad finished high school but my mother did not. Most of my close friends similarly had parents who had not gone to college. But my did wanted me to go to schools that had good academic preparation and chose to buy a house in the catchment area for such schools. A lot of my fellow students did have parents with college educations, and a lot of them expected to at least graduate from college -- many planned careers that would involve graduate degrees.

So my close friends and I rather naturally adopted the aspirations of the majority of our fellow students. Moreover, we all went on not only to graduate from college, but to get graduate degrees; I got a Ph.D. Dick was the exception -- he got two doctorates.

We tended to change careers, and the educational preparation helped us to do so. It also helped the country -- one of my high school friends went on to invent the computer hard drive.

In a globalized economy, where America competes with low income countries, people with relatively little education may be competing with people in those low income countries on the basis of pay -- dooming the yanks to low pay. The folk with little education are also likely to be challenged by automation of their jobs. While people with hands-on service jobs may see their incomes rise somewhat with the rise of the general economy, they may also face more competition for those jobs with people who have not received the necessary education to get jobs in creative industries, especially as others in their boat have lost their jobs to automation.

Speaks for Itself!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Forms of Energy and How The Are Used in the USA

Source: The Economist
The figure above is from a Special Report on Energy and Technology in the current issue of The Economist.

The figure suggests that the USA is heavily dependent on fossil fuels -- oil, natural gas and coal. Fortunately, U.S. energy consumption is little increased since 1990, and has actually decreased since 2000. However, it is estimated that we still waste more than half of the energy we burn!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Community Concern for a Proposal of the Montgomery County Public Schools

I attended a community meeting last week in which several hundred residents of my community came together to discuss proposals from the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) to:
The community meeting suggested alternative measures:
Here is a map showing some relevant school locations.

The members of the community offered reasons that I found convincing that their alternative was superior to that of the MCPS.

Better for the Students

The Blair Ewing Center is currently operating successfully for its population of those middle school and high school students who require alternative education. Its physical structure allows the middle school students to be separated from the older high school students, and it has a number of rooms designed for enrichment programs. Moving the students to the smaller and older facility with fewer specialized facilities -- a facility that was designed for primary school students -- would not serve the older students well; there would be less separation of the middle school students from the older high school students.

The Barnsley School is now serving both magnet students and students from the local community; it has more than twice the student population for which it was designed. Moving half the students to a reopened English Manor school would be better for both the remainning Barnsley and the new English Manor students.

Moving the School Bus Depot to Avery Road Is a Bad Idea

Currently 400 school buses are based at the current depot in Crabb's Branch Way (see map). That facility will be closed. 700 cars owned by drivers and employees of the depot are parked at the Crabb's Branch daily. Even demolishing the Blair Ewing Center and using the existing park paid for by the City of Rockville as a parking lot, the Avery Rd. site (see map) is not large enough to house the School Bus Depot.

The MCPS proposal would add significantly to congestion on Route 28, which is already one of the most congested roads in the county. 400 school buses would leave from and return to Avery Rd. during morning rush hour, and the same 400 school buses would leave from and returning  to Avery Rd. during the afternoon; 700 cars would arrive at Avery Rd. in the morning hour and leave in the evening rush hour  

Parking 1100 vehicles at the Avery Rd. site on a daily basis, as well as the other operations of a School Bus Depot would appear likely to pollute Rock Creek, which is quite nearby. Millions of dollars have been spent to assure the creek water is clean. The creek (and its related walking trail and park) runs all the way into Washington DC. At least an environmental impact study would appear to be required before such an action were taken. It was suggested that the  Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission be involved in any decision involving a potential threat to the Rock Creek environment.

The Local Community Has Not Been Adequately Involved in the Decision Process

The families of the students of the Blair Ewing Center are deeply concerned with the welfare of the children who would be moved under the MCPS proposal. 

The MCPS proposal would greatly increase vehicle traffic into the English Manor neighborhood. It also raises safety concerns for the residents of the neighborhood.

The community proposal to reduce crowding at Barnsley Elementary School and reopen English Manor Elementary school would be beneficial to the students of both schools and their families, as well as to many residents of the neighborhoods surrounding those schools.

A large number of Montgomery Country residents would be negatively affected by an increase in congestion on Route 28, and a large number of residents would be affected by any deterioration of the Rock Creek environment.

Property values would be affected, perhaps quite negatively in some cases, with implications for the property taxes raised by the county. The economic impact on county residents of the MCPS proposals should at least be considered.

The Aspen Hill Civic Association representatives were informed of the MCPS plan three days before the Board of Education held its hearing to consider that plan; residents along Avery Rd. and in other concerned areas learned of the plan only much later than that meeting and than the vote of the Board approving the plan. Thus county residents have had inadequate opportunity to properly evaluate the plans, much less to respond to the Board of Education and the County Council.

The Board of Directors of the Aspen Hill Civic Association voted unanimously against the MCPS plan, and a large majority of the members of the Association expressed opposition in a poll that was taken. Other local Civic Associations are only now taking up the issue.

For more information I suggest you check out:

Global Mapping of an Unusual Health Indicator

The data comes from the Global Burden of Disease study.

Years of lost life is an alternative index of disease to the more traditional mortality rate. It recognizes that when a disease kills a child rather than an old person, more years of life are probably lost. Thus when a child dies of diarrhea, pneumonia or malaria, more years are lost than when an old person dies of heart disease or stroke. Thus you can infer from the map above that survival rates are better in more affluent countries than in Africa -- something that we already knew. The map does suggest where public health programs might most usefully focus in different countries.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Thanks to UNESCO for the information and for trying to protect journalists

The #CharlieHebdo attack highlights the urgency of to defending freedom of expression, and particularly, #pressfreedom today. Globally, 9 of 10 crimes against #socialmediaproducers & journalists go unpunished. What if your opinions on Facebook got you arrested?

For your InformationL USAID Expenditures in 2014

Thanks to Wayan Vota for pointing this out to me.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

The Scramble for Africa

I am about half way through reading The Scramble for Africa: White Man's Conquest of the Dark Continent from 1876 to 1912 by Thomas Pakenham. I am finding it really useful. It fills a gaping hole in my knowledge of Africa and also a hole in my recent readings on World War I.

We tend to think of North Africa as part of the Mediterranean lands. With the construction of the Suez Canal, making access to the rich colonies of the European imperial powers easier, Egypt became an important strategic area for those powers. England and France used their growing economic power to bring Egypt under their influence.

While Europeans had sailed around the coast of Africa for centuries, and established coastal trading posts and posts to supply ships sailing around the continent, most of the center of Africa remained unknown to Europe and thus uncolonized. In the late 19th century, however, the interest in Africa was raised by European explorers and missionaries, and by the anti-slavery movement. 

I recently read The Sultan's Shadow: One Family's Rule at the Crossroads of East and West by Christiane Bird. (See the relevant post in this blog.) It deals primarily with the Arab control of part of East Africa before and during the early years of the scramble. I am also familiar with King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by Adam Hochschild. I have also worked for a few months in Egypt and in Uganda, and visited Morocco, Senegal and Ghana. I have also read a little about the countries that were formed from former British colonies of Africa (in conjunction with consulting work for the Carnegie Corporation of New York). However, I did not know much if anything about the 19th century scramble for Africa.

Europeans began to be interested the three “Cs” of African colonialism—the civilizing mission, commerce, and Christianity-- as they learned more about the continent, the dreadful toll that slavery was taking of African peoples, and the potential riches in the interior of Africa that could be acquired. Suddenly, the European colonial powers divided the continent among themselves. Author Pakenham describes the antecedents of the scramble and the process itself. He puts the European interests in perspective of their global concerns as well as domestic politics. He also tells some great stories!

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

How big is Africa


If you normally view the world in maps using the normal projections you probably think of Africa as smaller than it really is, and countries far from the equator as larger than they really are. This figure which compares several countries with Africa according to their actual surface area might help.

A Hopeful View of the African Economy

I quote at length from an article in The Economist:
Over the past decade Africa was among the world’s fastest-growing continents—its average annual rate was more than 5%—buoyed in part by improved governance and economic reforms. Commodity prices were also high. In previous cycles African economies have crashed when the prices of minerals, oil and other commodities have fallen....... 
Since last year the price of oil has fallen by half and many metals such as copper and iron ore have also dropped sharply........ 
In some economies large drops in commodity prices have led to currency falls. At least ten African currencies dropped by more than 10% in 2014. But there have been few catastrophic depreciations. This suggests that investors do not see lower commodity prices as a kiss of death....... 
One reason currencies have been robust may be because economic growth is starting to come from other places. Manufacturing output in the continent is expanding as quickly as the rest of the economy. Growth is even faster in services, which expanded at an average rate of 2.6% per person across Africa between 1996 and 2011. Tourism, in particular, has boomed: the number of foreign visitors doubled and receipts tripled between 2000 and 2012....... 
What explains Africa’s increasing economic diversification? A big pickup in investment helps. That has arisen partly because governments have worked hard to make life better for investors. The World Bank’s annual “Doing Business” report revealed that in 2013/14 sub-Saharan Africa did more to improve regulation than any other region...... 
Better fiscal policy also plays an important role. Commodity markets are volatile; government spending smooths out the booms and busts...... 
(T)here is reason to think the “resource curse” is losing its power. Despite turmoil in commodity markets, Africa is still one of the world’s fastest-growing regions. With better education systems, investment in infrastructure and sensible regulatory reforms, the continent could completely break the spell that has held it back so often in the past.
I can't vouch for the accuracy of the forecasts made in this article; indeed, forecasting is notoriously difficult. Still, it is more optimistic than I would have expected. Africa has long suffered from a lack of economic development, and as a consequence too many Africans have lived for too long in extreme poverty. Let us hope that Africa will continue to progress economically, and that the benefits of that progress will be widely shared, reducing the worst aspects of poverty on the continent! 

Ranchers vs. Bison Huggers (Don't Try Hugging a Bison at Home!)

I quote from a column in The Economist:
THE most original political book of early 2015 is not formally about politics at all. Instead “The Battle for Yellowstone” by Justin Farrell, a young scholar at Yale University, ponders venomous rows that have shaken Yellowstone National Park in recent decades, and why they are so intractable. The rows turn on such questions as wolf re-introduction, bison roaming-rights and snowmobile access to that lovely corner of the Rocky Mountains....... 
(Sociologist Farell) spent two years asking folk in and around Yellowstone why they are so cross. Beneath debates about science and economics he found arguments about morality and the proper relations between humans and nature—though those involved often do not, or will not acknowledge this. In short, all sides purport to be weighing what is true and false, while really arguing about right and wrong. 
Pro-wolf biologists and officials call themselves dispassionate custodians of a unique place. But they give themselves away with quasi-spiritual talk of wolves restoring “wholeness” to a landscape damaged by man. Indeed, when the first Yellowstone wolves were released in 1995, the then-interior secretary, Bruce Babbit, called it “a day of redemption”. While living with pro-bison activists, a startled Mr Farrell heard them telling various furry specimens “We love you,” or “We are here to protect you, you big sacred boy,” and spouting bowdlerised Native-American teachings about the animals’ ancient souls (while simultaneously insisting, in many cases, that they distrusted religion and its works). 
As for anti-wolf types, when offered financial compensation for wolf-attacks on their livestock, some turn it down—suggesting that more than economics is at stake. Dig a bit, and a culture war is raging between the “old West” of rugged ranchers and hunters, who once earned respect and status by taming nature, but who now find themselves called environmental menaces by “new West” incomers with big-city ideas about animal rights and natural ecosystems. Behind that local clash—pitting folk with gun racks on their trucks against those with bike racks, as Mr Farrell puts it—there lurks a still larger suspicion of the federal government. Many “old West” types see a plot to drive ranchers from the land. They talk of “federal wolves” undermining their property rights, and challenging the God-ordained duty of humans to protect their own families, and exercise dominion over Creation.
Mr. Farell's book is not out yet, and I assume that the author of the article could not due it justice in a short space. I think there is a good point that the people most passionately arguing about Yellowstone are making their arguments based on ideological positions that are deeply held -- indeed, part of their view of themselves.

I see Yellowstone as a unique place, both for its beauty and the richness of its biodiversity. I want it preserved for that reason, while I am quite willing to see most of the country modified to meet human demands. I suspect that the ranchers who live near Yellowstone see it as part of their neighborhood. I am not happy when deer from the woods miles from my house get into my yard and eat my wife's tomatoes, and I suspect that the nearby ranchers have similar feelings related to Yellowstone.

Too bad! My view -- that the National Parks are a great American idea -- is widely shared by Americans and by the people all over the world, and in our democracy our will has prevailed for more than a century.

Ranking Economists

Souce: The Economist magazine
RePEc rank is the rank of economists as measured by the number and impact of their papers in the professional literature.
The Economist asked Appinions, a startup that analyses influence online, to look at a list of 500 economists—the 450 atop the RePEc list, plus some we chose ourselves. Appinions tracked how much attention was paid to their utterances in the mainstream media, the blogosphere and in social media over a 90-day period up to December 11th 2014. That produced an alternative influence ranking (see table).
Jonathan Gruber, a health economist, received a lot of attention in the last months of 2014 when the media announced that he had been an important player in the design of Obamacare and that he believed it had been misrepresented.  It turned out he had played a role, but not as important as the media implied, and he later retracted the charge. He is a serious economist with a decent professional representation, who perhaps has had his 15 minutes in the media spotlight.

Paul Krugman is that rare bird -- a public intellectual, with a Nobel Prize in Economics and a widely read and influential column in the New York Times.

Many of the other people listed are newsworthy mainly because of their current or former positions on important economic policy boards; their public statements indicate economic policy of interest to the media. Not surprisingly, most of these are also highly ranked according to their professional publications -- we look to serious economists to make public policy.
Economists whose work has come to define public debates do well, too. They include Thomas Piketty, author of a bestselling book on economic inequality; Larry Summers, who has been warning of the risks of “secular stagnation”; and Robert Shiller, an authority on financial-market instability.
Daniel Kahneman is also a Nobel Laureate in Economics for his seminal work on the psychology of economic decision making -- work that justifiably has won him a high ranking for his contributions to the professional economic literature. He has a relatively recent and very popular book out explaining a theory of the brain and decision making, and his theories are generating a lot of media interest.

The point I would make is that different indicators may appear similar, but may actually  do quite different things. RePEc is good for measuring the visibility of economists in the professional literature; it is not equally good for predicting the impact of economists in the more popular media during a relatively short period of time.

I find it relatively reassuring that so many of the economists quoted by the media do in fact have strong professional credits justifying that attention.

Where do all the scientific paper come from


The number of scientific papers produced by the United States, with its large population, might be compared with the number of papers produced by several European countries which together have a population comparable to that of the USA -- perhaps Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Sweden and Norway,

Friday, January 09, 2015

Charles Kenny on our improving world

You might also want to look at this earlier and longer video in which Charles talks about his book, Getting Better.

Charles Kenny on "The Upside of Down"

Charles makes a number of great points here. One is that globalization has greatly benefited the elite in the USA. Another is that the US poverty policy has not kept up with our increasing national wealth, and the US poor are about as poor as they were a half century ago. He suggests that as a result, the large fraction of the US population that are poor see globalization primarily as threat and not opportunity.

He goes on to suggest that in many ways our fear of the rest of the world is depriving us of opportunities and wealth, and that our attitude is the basis of a major foreign policy problem.

"Chart of the Year of 2014"

The poorest of the poor saw some real income growth over two decades, but not all that much. On the other hand, real income growth increased for those from the 10th percentile of income to the 55th percentile, and remained high up to the 70th percentile; it peaked for the percentile occupied by the Chinese "middle class". The rate of income growth was lowest for the middle classes in the developed world during this period, but the very highest income group managed to grow their incomes quite rapidly.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

Ranking of Latin American Universities 2014

There is a new ranking of Latin American universities. It is based on a weighted combination of scven indicators, and a different weighting or different indicators would presumably yield a different ordering of the universities. It focuses on 300 universities chosen originally to be the best in the region (thus some of those not ranked my be better than some of those ranked low among the 300)

Five of the top 10 are in Brazil, two in Chile, two in Mexico and one in Colombia.

Long ago I worked and taught in three of those universities:
  • 29 The Catholic University of Valparaiso (Chile)
  • 39 Universidad Tecnica Federico Santa Maria (Chile)
  • 51 Universidad del Valle (Colombia)

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Experts too have difficulty predicting the future

Thanks to Gyan Parida, who collected these bits of wisdom from the past that had been previously posted on FB by Adam Roberts:
"There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home."— Ken Olsen, Founder Digital Equipment Corp.,1977 
"I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."— Thomas Watson, Chairman IBM, 1943 
"Automobiles are just a fad. They can never replace horses."— Chief of the Michigan Savings Bank advised the lawyer of Henry Ford, 1902 
"It is impossible to come up with a 32 bit operating system. We will never make a 32 bit operating system."— Bill Gates 
"Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax" — William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899 
"Nuclear energy will never be obtainable"— Albert Einstein
"A rocket will never be able to leave the Earth’s atmosphere."— New York Times, 1936 
"There will never be a bigger plane built."— A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people 
"Travelling through rail will never be possible."— Dionysius Lardner 
"Fooling around with alternating current is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever." — Thomas Edison 
"Remote shopping, while entirely feasible, will flop"— TIME magazine, 1968 
"I predict the internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse."— Robert Metcalfe, inventor of Ethernet,1995 
"There’s no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No Chance."— Steve Ballmer, 2007 
"There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television, or radio service inside the United States."— T. Craven, FCC commissioner, 1961 
"While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility."— Lee DeForest 
"I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won't last out the year."— The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Long and Reasonably Steady Progress Since the Recession of 2008

Source: The Economist
"EIGHT out of ten voters told exit pollsters in November that they were worried about the economy. That is one reason why the new Congress, which starts sitting next week, is dominated by Republicans. Yet there is mounting evidence that the benefits of the economic recovery—long concentrated among the rich—are spreading to ordinary Americans."

Cultural Groupings Show Up in the World Values Survey

The Ingelhart-Welzel Cultural Map of the World.
(NB: the green cluster in the center of the map is unmarked, but is labeled South Asian.)

This is an old graph that still carries a lot of information, that has shown up in a new publication.
Using data from the World Values Survey (WVS), professors Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Christian Welzel of Leuphana University created this amazing Cultural Map of the World...... 
According to WVS, traditional values (the bottom of the y-axis) emphasize religion, traditional family values, parent-child ties, and nationalism. Those with these values tend to reject abortion, euthanasia, and divorce. On the other hand, those with secular rational values (the top of the y-axis) place less preference on religion and traditional authority, and are more accepting of abortion and divorce. 
The x-axis tracks survival values versus self-expression values. Survival values emphasize economic and physical security and are linked with ethnocentrism and low levels of tolerance. Self-expression values, according to WVS, "give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life."
It is a useful reminder that cultures are different, and people of different cultures really do have different values. One of the problems with foreign aid is that people from one culture (typically on the right hand side of the figure shown) are designing projects and giving funds to meet the (perceived) needs of people of another culture (typically from the lower or left side of the figure).

Friday, January 02, 2015

An Interesting Chart on Bull and Bear Markets in the USA


The data seem to be from the S&P 500.

The grey bars are recessions, with at least two sequential quarters in which the GDP has decreased. While recessions are usually associated with drops in the values of stocks, they have not usually resulted in Bear Markets, as defined here.

The Great Recession that started in the last decade appears to have produced a very sharp reduction in stock prices, but one of relatively short duration. I suppose that was the result of the stimulus packages put into place under the Bush and Obama administrations.

The obvious message of the chart is that over the last century, especially since the end of the Bear Market that followed the 1929 stock market crash, investing in stocks has been very good for the investors. It may be hard to predict the bear markets, but just holding stocks has worked rather well for the holder.

A thought about foreign aid

Development occurs when there is a widespread movement of people doing things better. They better protect their health, living longer, healthier lives as a result. They better produce goods and services, seeing the GDP per capita increase as a result.

How do people come to do things better? Well they do them smarter, and they do them with better technology. Farmers plant better cultivars, they are smarter about the use of agricultural chemicals, they use better equipment. Factory workers similarly are better organized, they are better equipped, and they work smarter to produce better products more efficiently. I could go on to talk about lumberjacks, bankers, teachers, health workers, etc. but you get the picture.

As economists have pointed out, doing things better on a society wide basis involves investment -- usually improving technology involves investing in new plant and equipment. Some of that investment is in better infrastructure (and better infrastructure technology) -- roads, ports, railroads, airports, electric power infrastructure, water and sanitation infrastructure, dams, canals. It also requires investment in people, especially their education and training and their health physical well being.

This seems so obvious, the question arises, why has development been so difficult. One reason seems to be rapacious people in power who use their power to acquire all the loose resources in their societies, exporting the capital and living high; there is nothing left for investment by the majority, and little reason for the majority to do things better since they will not benefit from doing so.

Another reason is conflict. Wars destroy the very resources that are needed for development, diverting those who could do things better for society into destructive activities.

Disorganization, as typified by failed states, is still another reason that people don't do better.

A number of people are suggesting that foreign aid has failed because it has too often been directed toward places where these things get in the way of progress. The focus on the technical problems combined with acceptance of corruption, emphasis on countries in conflict and emergency aid had resulted in ineffective aid.

I think there is merit to the criticism, but perhaps it fails to recognize that there have been big victories from the technical approach. The green revolution that has seen food production keep up with population growth, the spread of contraceptive technologies that have allowed population growth rates to be reduced, and the improvement in life expectancy globally are examples.