Archive by Author | Pete Larson

New insurance product protects pastoralists from losses due to drought in Kenya

This is rather interesting. Pastoralism is characterized as a complex system of avoiding, accounting for and taking advantage of risk, not unlike hedge fund managers in the United States. Animals represent potential earnings, prices at markets vary with grazing conditions and perceived long term benefits, and decisions to sell animals are not made lightly.

In the past, pastoralists have protected against devastating losses through herd maximization and cooperation and conflict over prime grazing spots, along with systems of redistribution where animals from wealthy herders are given away or stolen with the approval of the community. The world has become complicated, though, as droughts become more and more frequent, political borders and conflicts constrain the movements of pastoralists, and as the spear has been replaced with the AK-47.

An interesting though appropriate insurance system might help to mitigate losses and stabilize communities.

Capital and inequality

Joseph Joyce, professor of economics at Wellesley College wrote and interesting piece to day on capital liberalization and inequality.

I’m glad to see that so much attention is being fawned on Piketty’s most excellent book, “Capital in the 21sr Century.” It’s sure to go down as a classic in the economics literature, but the debate and discussion surrounding the book couldn’t come at a better time.

I don’t think it’s an accident that Piketty’s book, would top the NYT best seller list just a week after appearing, that a sitting President of the US would mention that inequality is one of the most important issues of our time, or that Christine LaGarde, head of the IMF would make a case that we need to address inequality at a global level.

They (Florence Jaumotte, Subir Lall and Chris Papageorgiou) analyzed the effect of financial globalization and trade as well as technology on income inequality in 51 countries over the period of 1981 to 2003. They reported that technology played a larger role in increasing inequality than globalization. But while trade actually reduced inequality through increased exports of agricultural goods from developing countries, foreign direct investment played a different role. Inward FDI (like technology) favored workers with relatively higher skills and education, while outward FDI reduced employment in lower skill sectors. Consequently, the authors concluded, while financial deepening has been associated with higher growth, a disproportionate share of the gains may go to those who already have higher incomes.

This is a scenario we’re all mostly familiar with, though the broad effects are still debatable. Increasing investment by giants like the US in overseas manufacturing push down wages on domestic unskilled labor, but it’s hard to say whether this had a major effect on overall employment. Unemployment remained steady even after Clinton signed NAFTA, and continues to remain well under European levels today, though the lowest level of workers feel the worst pain. I’m not sure if I can really advocate for protectionist measures to keep capital at home or dissuade foreign investment on principle alone, but it is true that the worst effect of foreign competition has been the erosion of labor’s political power.

Jayati Ghosh of Jawaharlal Nehru University of New Delhi has examined the role of capital inflows in developing countries. She maintains that the inflows appreciate the real exchange rate and encourage investment in non-tradable sectors and domestic asset markets. The resulting rise in asset prices pulls funds away from the financing of agriculture and small firms, hurting farmers and workers in traditional sectors. Eventually, the asset bubbles break, and the poor are usually those most vulnerable to the ensuing crisis.

Well, this is somewhat more interesting. Foreign investment in developing countries appreciates the exchange rate, leading domestic investors to put their money into, say, real estate assets. This is certainly the case all over Africa. Land and building developments are occurring at a breakneck pace, with the hopes that expensive properties will be bought up by foreign companies and individuals. It’s certainly the case that no common African could ever afford some of these places (or would even want to buy them if they could). Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and Luanda, Angola are all in the middle of a real estate bubble. The problem, of course, is that domestic investors are hoping to make a quick buck, rather than attempting to create long term, profitable industries. No wonder Africa imports the lion’s share of it’s manufactured goods. No local will invest in the infrastructure to create it locally since urban real estate is so absurdly profitable right now. This, of course, means that money flows directly into the pockets of the urban elite and then sent back out to bank accounts and retailers in France and England, further entrenching the poorest of the poor.

Without the development of local industries, domestic economies can’t function and opportunities for revenue collections are missed. and countries like Tanzania and Kenya, for example, will continue to be beggar economies which depend on the good graces of the international community to support domestic social programs.

Articles I liked 4/12/2014

Here’s a few articles I’ve been reading this morning that I liked.

Intellectual Property Rights, the Pool of Knowledge, and Innovation by Joe Stiglitz (National Bureau of Economic Research)

We began by noting that some observers of innovation have claimed that a more important determinant of the levels of investment in R & D and the pace of
innovation than the intellectual property regime is the “opportunity set,” the knowledge pool from which applied researchers can draw. Knowledge, it is has long been recognized, is a public good—a
common resource from which all can draw (see, e.g., Stiglitz 1987).32 Intellectual property provides a way of appropriating the returns to investments in knowledge, but in doing so, effectively privatizes a public good. But every innovation draws upon prior knowledge, and the boundaries of “new” knowledge are inherently imprecise. Patents inevitably enclose what would otherwise have been in the
public domain. In doing so, not only do they impede the efficient use of knowledge, but because knowledge itself is the most important input into the production of further knowledge (innovations),
they may even impede the flow of innovations.

Democracy does cause growth (National Bureau of Economic Research)

Our baseline results use a linear model for GDP dynamics estimated using either a standard within estimator or various different Generalized Method of Moments estimators, and show that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run. These results are confirmed when we use a semiparametric propensity score matching estimator to control for GDP dynamics. We also obtain similar results using regional waves of democratizations and reversals to instrument for country democracy. Our results suggest that democracy increases future GDP by encouraging investment, increasing schooling, inducing economic reforms, improving public good provision, and reducing social unrest. We find little support for the view that democracy is a constraint on economic growth for less developed economies.

Abe’s Law: Domestic Dimensions of Japan’s Collective Self-Defense Debate (HERE)

The Edutainment Industrial Complex (Africa is a country)

So this is their strategy? Ask a bunch of relatively wealthy, globally-mobile pop superstars to tell rural youth to not participate in the flashy urban lifestyle they (the artists) usually promote–to stay in the countryside and participate in the resource extraction side of global capitalism? As Sean pointed out to me over email, the video isn’t unlike the type campaign some dictatorship (South Africa’s racist regime was fond of it) might use as a tool of “national development” or to fight crime or build national morale.

Is this a surprise? Western liberals have long romanticized rural poverty and encouraged Africans to simply do nothing about their developmental problems. Sorry, I had to put on my curmudgeon hat for a while.

Did pathogens influence the course of human development?

Roman toilets

Roman toilets

I would say “it depends.” I was just reading an interesting article on the “pathogen stress theory” of the development of human societies, most often attributed to Randy Thornhill, an evolutionary biologist at the University of New Mexico.

According to the “pathogen stress theory of values,” the evolutionary case that Thornhill and his colleagues have put forward, our behavioral immune systems—our group responses to local disease threats—play a decisive role in shaping our various political systems, religions, and shared moral views.

If they are right, Thornhill and his colleagues may be on their way to unlocking some of the most stubborn mysteries of human behavior. Their theory may help explain why authoritarian governments tend to persist in certain latitudes while democracies rise in others; why some cultures are xenophobic and others are relatively open to strangers; why certain peoples value equality and individuality while others prize hierarchical structures and strict adherence to tradition. What’s more, their work may offer a clear insight into how societies change.

This is a reasonable view, and something I’ve long observed from working on infectious diseases in developing countries. The developmental trajectory of a country is influenced by the deliberate avoidance of illness. An example can be seen in the locations of African cities. Many African administrative capitals are located on isolated, cool hilltops, far away from rivers and lakes. Colonialists would intentionally set up shop in areas where they were unlikely to encounter malaria.

Developmentally, this has had major implications for trade within Africa. European cities are often placed along water ways amenable to domestic European trade. The lack of trade between African countries is one of the reasons the continent has developed so poorly. This is the direct result of not only colonial priorities of resource extraction to Europe, but also the unfortunate placement of economic centers in response to malaria.

Certainly, the nature of cities themselves have much to do with the control of infectious diseases. Public works often involve the management of sewage waste and the delivery of clean water. Thornhill might suggest that the development of democracy, citizen involvement and taxation to pay for urban improvements are in direct response to enteric diseases.

However, while it is interesting to try to apply this view, it can be taken to the extreme:

Fincher (a graduate student of Thornhill) suspected that many behaviors in collectivist cultures might be masks for behavioral immune responses. To take one key example, collectivist cultures tend to be both more xenophobic and more ethnocentric than individualist cultures. Keeping strangers away might be a valuable defense against foreign pathogens, Fincher thought. And a strong preference for in-group mating might help maintain a community’s hereditary immunities to local disease strains. To test his hypothesis, Fincher set out to see whether places with heavier disease loads also tended toward these sorts of collectivist values.

I’m not sure it’s that easy to boil down political differences between Asia and Europe to a need to manage infectious disease. Certainly, Sweden is more collectivist than England, but I wouldn’t say that their infectious disease profiles are all that different.

Worse yet, if taken to the extreme, this “hunt for significance” will provide one with evidence to support any crazy theory at all. Pathogens exist wherever humans do. Moreover, we risk attributing the contribution of pathogens to human development based on current conditions, assuming that the present is deterministically preordained centuries ago. Until very recently, nearly the entire world was at risk for malaria, but despite this, various societies have embarked on different social and political trajectories.

The biggest problem I have with the theory is in its basic in rational theory. It assumes that humans are making rational choices based on pathogen threats, when we know, and particularly those of us who work in the tropics, that humans often have poor conceptions of disease transmission and causes of illness. At times, despite very obvious threate, humans will act in manners which exacerbate that threat. The history of enteric disease is filled with tales of ignorance and folly.

If we are going to subscribe to a rational model of political and social development which includes pathogens, then we have to also address first, the ability of pathogens to hijack human behavior to create new opportunities for replication and survival and second, that social changes can exacerbate the worst effects of infection. For the first point, I would look to the development of international trade systems which allow pathogens such as influenza to move around the world quickly, increasing opportunities for mutation to avoid immune responses. For the second I would point to polio, a disease which becomes a problem on after the introduction of water sanitation practices.

Thornhill’s ideas are interesting, and certainly provide good material for the popular press and BBQ conversation, but they require that the reader suspend too much consideration of the details of the complex history of human social and political development. Taken with restraint, as in the example of the locations of African cities, they can provide interesting insights into how current conditions are impacted by past pathogenic threats.

I like to think that we are doing better now…..

Every once in a while, you run across something that just gives you the chills.

“A report presented to the World Health Organization (WHO) in 1948 states: “It is not enough to quote that about 3,000,000 deaths are caused yearly by malaria in the world, or that every year about 300,000,000 cases of malaria occur …… that malaria is prevalent in tropical and subtropical areas where food production and agricultural resources are potentially very high, and that, by affecting the mass of rural workers, it decreases their vitality and reduces their working capacity and thus hampers the exploitation of the natural resources of the country. At a time when the world is poor, it seems that control of malaria should be the first aim to achieve in order to increase agricultural output” (WHO, 1948).

Snow RW, Amratia P, Kabaria CW, Noor AM, Marsh K: The changing limits and incidence of malaria in Africa: 1939-2009. Adv Parasitol 2012, 78:169-262.

Today is World Health Day!

dengueToday, April 7th. is World Health Day, an annual event sponsored by the World Health Organization to help bring attention to pressing public health issues.

This years event focuses on vector borne diseases like dengue fever and Chagas disease, which are transmitted through a third party host such as Aedes mosquitoes or triatomines (kissing bugs).

Both of these diseases are becoming increasingly relevant as the world urbanizes. Dengue and malaria form a complementary nexus of diseases. Malaria is largely associated with rural areas, and rarely found in cities, where dengue fever is almost exclusively found in urban areas. Generally speaking, dengue is a disease of development, where malaria is a disease of the lack of development.

While known to be distributed widely through Latin America and Southeast Asia, dengue has yet to make it on Africa’s radar yet, simply (in my opinion) because not enough people are looking hard enough. Africa, as the most rapidly urbanizing area of the world will eventually face a double burden of dengue and malaria and health facilities aren’t yet prepared to deal with it.

A network visualization of international migration

The UN keeps data on migrations patterns around the world, tracking origin and destination countries and number of migrants (Trends in International Migrant Stock: Migrants by Destination and Origin). I took some time out and created this network visualization of origin and destination countries from 2010. Other years were available, but this is all I had time for.

The size of each node represents the number of countries from which migrants arrive. By far, the most connected country is the United States, accepting more people from more countries than any other place on the planet. Most areas of the network represent geographic regions. Note that Africa is clustered at the top, and pacific island countries are clustered at the bottom.

An interesting result is that countries tend to send migrants to other countries which are only slightly better off than they are. For example, Malawi sends most of its migrants to Zambia and Mozambique, and Zambians go to South Africa, whereas those countries do not reciprocate to countries poorer than them. Wealthy countries tend to be more cosmopolitan in their acceptance of migrants.

Click on the picture to explore a larger version of the graphic.

migration2

Keiji Haino at MOCAD, Detroit

DSC_1682I went and checked out Nazoranai, Keiji Haino’s unit with Steve O’Malley from SUNN and Oren Ambarchi from Australia.

Seismic.

I’ve known of Haino’s work since the early 90′s. Haino is an odd figure, blending Blue Cheer with Albert Ayler and infusing it with butou dance and Japanese minstrelism (a word I just made up). Somewhere along the line, I lost track of Haino’s work, particularly while living in Japan where he barely registers. In Osaka, you wouldn’t even know he existed. He told me he only plays there twice a year.

Fortunately, I got a translating gig for him so I was able to spend a little time talking with the man. Turns out, he’s a really funny guy. We talked at length about guitars, pizza, how young people in Japan are on the road to hell and the challenges of being in cities after living in the country for a long time.

I had forgotten what a major influence Haino has been on my musical life. I started using multiple amplifiers and didn’t shy away from the guitar because of Haino. Despite the amplified guitar’s somewhat pedestrian roots, Haino wields it like a fine sword, taking advantage of both the amplifiers and the room itself. It can be said that the entire room is Haino’s instrument. Though I’ve mostly given up playing (just don’t have the time) and wasn’t ever very good at all, I was incredibly moved to finally see one of my heroes play.

Haino was incredibly particular about everything. The lights had to be at a certain brightness and a certain color, and the audience was required to stand at a particular distance from the stage “for their own safety.” Though he was quite jovial about his specific requests, once the show started, it made sense why things had to be laid out in a certain way.

Interview with an academic: Ben Brucato

Ben+Brucato+n1071606991_419436_3461916Continuing my series of interviews with interesting people I know, this week I spoke with Ben Brucato, a PhD candidate in Science and Technology Studies at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. You can read more by and about Ben at his website, www.benbrucato.com.

Tell us about yourself and what you do.

I’m a husband and father. I live in upstate New York because it’s where my doctoral program is located. I look forward to moving on. I’m currently a doctoral candidate and teaching assistant at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in the Science and Technology Studies department. I have taught periodically as an online instructor in the Sociology department at Northern Arizona University, where I earned my MA. I’m about to start teaching as an adjunct at Union College in Political Science. I came to RPI to study with my advisor, Langdon Winner. I’ve been a musician since I was about 10 years old, and have played in all sorts of bands. I’ve been making noise as Clew Of Theseus (and other projects) since 1997 or so. I’m in a black metal band that’s trying to get off the ground. I started a label in around 2001 or so, called Cathartic Process, which releases noise and power electronics. Lately, it’s been a cassette-only label. It’s been very slow going the last couple years, though.

Every academic has a history. What brought you to this arena?

College was the expected thing to do after graduating high school. I intended to go to graduate school right away. Through my activist work, I met and became good friends with Joel Olson. He was just finishing his PhD and trying to find a job. Seeing that process put me off of my intentions to be a professor. I came back to graduate school after a nearly decade-long advertising and marking career. It was soul crushing and I hated everything about it except the paycheck. After the last place I worked was essentially liquidated and my unemployment ran out, I started considering other options. Spending a couple years being broke again changed my expectations. I knew I could go back to school and have a reliable but small income from stipends. It was a way to get by for a few years more than a stepping stone in a career trajectory. It would be nice if it ends up being the latter.

You have a black metal/noise history. What’s that about and does it inform your present work? Do you find extreme music to be helpful to your academic work?

I’ve been a noise artist for a while now. That was always more important to me than my professional life. Now that I’m finding more satisfying theoretical and topical issues to explore in my work, my studies and writing is more personally rewarding. But I don’t think these really inform my work that much. The themes in black metal and noise have me more attuned to the extreme, the pessimistic, and so on. I’m sure there’s something deep inside me that draws me to both fanatical politics and extreme metal, to cosmic pessimism and the bleakest industrial noise. I’d like to offer some more profound explanation, but any real connection is at an affective level that resists verbalization.

It might just be me, but I’m thinking that reports of police brutality are becoming more prominent in public discourse. First, is there evidence to suggest police brutality on the rise? Second, what do you make of the fact that, despite increased public awareness of police brutality and abuse of power, that no pubic representative (to my knowledge) has commented on the problem? Third, I feel that issues of police brutality were softened in the 90′s by TVs shows such as COPS, which forced viewers to watch through the perspective of officers, but that public opinion seems less empathetic to police in the YouTube era. Producers necessarily had to defer to the police to make the show. It’s my opinion that it very much matters who holds the camera. Do you find that the new trend of citizen produced (or edited video) is changing attitudes to police brutality? Or has nothing changed at all?

What counts as police brutality? What would it mean for police brutality to be “on the rise”? I don’t think there are clear answers, and that the terms discussing these have to be tentative, provisional operationalizations. They have to be tied to a context and to texts, to discourses and the places where they emerge. My research is mostly tied to the visibility of policing and its violence. Some researchers have addressed the idea that because police use-of-force is now more visible, the perception is that standard, ongoing police activity – including use-of-force – is becoming more prevalent, more invasive, more violent, and so on. The research on incidence and outcomes of use-of-force by police is incomplete, and there are few longitudinal studies. Without quality, national-level, longitudinal research, most assertions about these things are speculative. I am, however, comfortable claiming that use-of-force incidence remains stable, and I think there is some reasonably reliable empirical basis to support this claim. The bulk of my research is motivated by trying to understand, on the one hand, why the Rodney King beating prompted a national conversation and nearly led to a crisis for the policing institution as a whole. Yet, on the other hand, we are now presented with a new documentary video of a police beating or shooting about every week and without the same national conversation and crisis of legitimacy. What explains this? As I’m finding, there are many reasons for this that work together to explain it. I’d say the most common reaction I hear is that people are becoming “desensitized.” I think that has very little explanatory value. I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not an explanation I spend much time exploring. I think you’re on to something with the reference to COPS, which predates the Rodney King beating. I think we have a “toolbox” of codes and symbols we use to interpret these visualizations and representations of police violence. Reality shows like COPS, and all sorts of other cultural artifacts help people decode these images. Most of our toolboxes are full of lots of white supremacist and classist codes that are used in interpreting these videos. So, the purported objectivity of video – which the intentional and politicized monitoring of police in some ways relies upon – is suspended in doubt, here. The idea that video and cameras will change policing in some ways relies on the idea that these images will be received without any need for interpretation, that “what really happened” will be laid bare, and any reasonable viewer will be offended by the common violence the police rely upon.

I am interested to see the shift in public attitudes toward surveillance that has been occurring throughout the past decade. In the 00′s, there seemed to be a general acceptance that government would use any means necessary to weed out terrorists (for example). Now, it seems that the public is much more concerned about the issue. Do you think this shift can be sustained?

I think the issue is barely cut and dry. I think there is a lot of cognitive dissonance that occurs here. The less fascist people even have trouble squaring their demand for security – presumably which can only be supplied by the state, and violently so – with their desire for civility and democracy. Then, of course, you have the bold-faced authoritarians who love when cops beat Black bodies, and wish they would more frequently. More recently, vigilante activity seems to be on an upswing, as white supremacists – as they have been wont to do in the past centuries – have joined with state forces in doing this policing, i.e. George Zimmerman. But then there’s the inherent conflict in a class-divided society the police are first and foremost designed to maintain, protect, and administrate. I don’t think more people are aware and concerned as a result of consciousness-raising, more visibility, and so on, but rather as a result of more historically privileged people falling into the working class after the financial collapse. White folks are more frequently on the receiving end of invasive policing, surveillance, and so on. Some of them are quite happy to see the force of a racist regime demonstrated. Some white folks are offended that they occasionally are made subject to it, e.g. at TSA screenings in airports, roadside checks and searches, etc. Suddenly they speak up when the policing that people of color and sexual minorities have been subjected to is inflicted on them. But there are a handful of these folks who have either some class consciousness or moralistic defense of egalitarianism that inspires their feelings of offense as these situations are more widely spread and visible.

I see that you post frequently on issues of public surveillance, but not so much about issues of private surveillance. I personally think that the private sector often gets a free pass on issues of privacy intrusion, despite that the private sector might present as great a threat. Do you think that private sector surveillance has implications for the populace?

I’m generally not that interested in the theme of privacy. So we’re already past an area of discussion that I have much to say about. As for the distinctions between government surveillance and private surveillance, and how the latter contributes to invasions into our lives and affairs, and even the structuring of our navigation and negotiation of everyday life, I’m rather interested, intellectually, and concerned and committed politically. I think any blind spot here is simply a result of the fine-tuning of my own research that more obsessively focuses my attention to state violence and state surveillance. But both policing and surveillance are phenomenon that exist beyond the state, and particularly more so during the processes of neoliberalization. Private prisons, private police, and the like are just the tip of the iceberg.

What projects are you working on now, what should we look for, and where do you see yourself in 10 years?

I’m not so sure higher education will be very recognizable in 10 years. I’d like to say I see myself as a tenured professor, teaching a small load of courses of my own design while conducting smaller but long-term (and funded) research projects. But I think that’s not a very realistic projection even for those who are lucky, well-connected, and have a history of careful planning for such a trajectory. But if I entertain that fantasy a little, you could expect something like this: First would be a book on critical technology studies that takes the work of people like Mumford and Ellul as they were responded to and developed by Langdon Winner, David Noble, Richard Sclove, and others. It would characterize and develop their work, showing its relevance to understanding technology today. There would also be a book on surveillance and policing, focusing especially on the political fantasies and imaginations about transparency. The latter would obviously be based on my dissertation work. Ideally, I’ll be teaching in northern Europe, struggling to learn the local language, and be well along the way toward building a sustainable eco-village.

What’s up with the beard? I’m thinking that it’s a symbiotic living entity.

It’s a habit more than a symbol. Although, the statements it does make (except “I’m a hippy”) are generally ones in which I find more positive than negative.

US Bombing of Laos: 1965 -1973: I was there first

Actually, I was an infant, but as an adult, I wrote a blog post and made a cool video of the locations and magnitude of bomb drops in Laos from 1965-1973.

Now, Jerry Redfern & Karen Coates have written a great (I assume) book “Eternal Harvest”on the United States’ unbelievably devastating bombing campaign of neighboring Laos during the Vietnam War. I suggest that everyone go out and read this book immediately.

However, they created an accompanying video, which is eerily similar to a video I created, though theirs is embellished with narration and bookend explanations. I want to think that I helped inspire such a cool video. Or maybe this is wishful thinking. I don’t know. But it’s reassuring to know that this blog might have contributing something to the world.

Here’s theirs:

And here’s mine:

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