Archive by Author | Pete Larson

I really don’t want the US to go back to 19th century monetary policy

But Ron Paul did.

I’m checking out the graphic below, and, first, wondering why anyone ever thought that gold was the only investment to make given it’s bubblish nature, and second, wondering what it must have been like to have investments in the 19th century. Granted, most people didn’t, and some people were even the targets of investment themselves. The wide volatility in the inflation rate must have driven people nuts.

If you owed money, one year, you’d make out like gangbusters, watching inflation obliterate your debt obligations, the next year, you’d watch your world crumble as the currency became worthless. If people owed you money, you’d be in the opposite pinch. Either way, you were screwed and had little ability to plan for the future. By the time you rode out the constant rough spots, though, you’d end up with the same amount of money you started with decades earlier. I’ll take steady inflation and reasonable economic certainty over crazyland, but Ron Paul might be into it, I guess.

Do field research projects do the world any good?

IMG_3931It’s a reasonable question to which no one really has an answer. I work in a field site located on Lake Victoria, the office of which is based out of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) station on Mbita Point.

We do malaria field surveys and have a large health and demographic surveillance system that has monitored births, deaths, migration and health events of nearly 50,000 people over the past six years.

The goals of the project are to monitor changes in demographics, outbreaks and changes in the dynamics of the transmission of infectious diseases and gauge the effectiveness of interventions.

While I view those as scientifically important, I don’t think that people on the ground experience any immediate benefit from scientific research activities. In fact, I’m pretty sure that, unless they’re getting a free bednet, it’s mostly an annoyance. Of course, we appreciate their cooperation and they are free to tell us to bugger off at anytime.

We are seeing rapid declines in malaria incidence, infant mortality and fertility in the communities we study. This is, of course, cause for celebration. Less kids are dying and people are having fewer of them.

In fact, the shift in the age distribution was so dramatic from 2011 to 2012, that we thought it an aberration of the data: the mean age of 12,000 people rose nearly two years from the beginning of 2011 to the latter part of 2012. Old people died off, and fewer babies were there to replace them, resulting in an upward shift in the age distribution. Cause for celebration in an area where women normally have anywhere from 5 to 10 children, who often end up malnourished, poorly housed and uneducated.

But we have to ask ourselves, how much of this is representative of trends in communities similar to the ones we study and how much is directly influenced by the presence of the research station itself?

A recent article in Malaria Journal documents the positive impacts that a research facility had on the local community:

To make the community a real partner in the centre’s activities, a tacit agreement was made that priority would be given to local people, in a competitive manner, for all non-professional jobs (construction workers, drivers, cleaners, field workers, data clerks, and others). Of the 254 people employed at the CRUN, about one-third come from Nanoro. This has strengthened the sense of ownership of the centre’s activities by the community. Through the modest creation of new jobs, CRUN makes a substantial contribution to reducing poverty in the community. In addition, staff members residing in Nanoro contribute to the micro-economy there.

Another crucial benefit for Nanoro and CRUN stemming from their productive engagement was electrification for the area. This was made possible by the mayor of Nanoro leading the negotiations for extending the national electrical grid to the CRUN, and with it, to the village of Nanoro. Electrification spurred a lot of economic activity and social amenities that enhance the wellbeing of the community, such as: (1) improved water supply through use electricity instead of generator; (2) ability to use electrical devices, such as fans during the hot season (when temperatures can reach 45-47°C), lighting so students can study at night, the use of refrigeration to safely store food and the extension of business hours past sunset.

Health care services have been improved through CRUN’s new microbiology laboratory. Before this laboratory was established, local patients had to travel about 100 km to the capital city, Ouagadougou, for the service.

This agrees with my experience on Lake Victoria. The presence of the research facility (built originally in the 1960′s) and the subsequent scale up of research activities has been transformative for the area. As more and more people have moved to the area, a bridge to Rusinga Island has been built, two new ferry routes have been installed, the existing ferries have been upgraded, power has been extended to the area and finally, after years of waiting, a paved road has been built from Kisumu to Mbita Point.

..which brings back me to my initial question. It is clear that the building of research facilities can be a major spur for economic development and economic activity in a previously desolate and marginalized area. In case of Mbita Point, it is possible that these gains can be sustained even following an eventual cessation of research activities and strangled funding. In this sense, field research projects are doing at least some of the world good.

However, the gains which these communities are experience really have little to do with the research projects themselves and more to do with the influx of employment and infrastructure that come with research stations and research projects. This is non-controversial and I’m sure that the locals appreciate it.

But the quality and goals of research need to be assessed. Are the results we are seeing truly representative of communities which may be similar to the Mbita Point of the past? Are we unnecessarily influencing the outcomes of the research and then perhaps inappropriately generalizing them to contexts which little resemble our target communities? From a scientific perspective, this is troubling.

Of greater concern, however, are we claiming that gains against malaria are being made, when in fact, morbidity and mortality in communities we haven’t looked at is increasing? This could result in a dangerous shift away from scaled up ITN distributions or even a total reduction in international funding. If this happens, kids will die.

Interview with a warrior: Greg Pratt, homeless advocate

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Pratt with the MISSION crew. Pratt is third from the right.

Today’s interview is with my friend, advocate for the poor and downtrodden and purveyor of loudness, Greg Pratt. Greg’s a great guy in just about a billion ways. This interview should tell you why. You can learn more about the group he works with MISSION A2, here.

Who are you and what do you do?

Greg Pratt. I am a social worker by training, an organizer and movement worker by necessity. The two primary foci of my work are material and political support.

I help people with resources for living outside, so propane, water, socks, tents, sleeping bags, batteries etc. I also help them organize politically [internal and external]. Sometimes, that manifests in a camp community [internal] other times that manifests in local ordinances like the Good Neighbor Amendment to the Ann Arbor Parks Ordinance [external]. This amendment waives the fee for organizations handing out free material goods to folks in A2 public parks.

The Camp Take Notice Good Neighbor Subcommittee worked on this from April 2013 until the ordinance passed its 2nd reading on November 18, 2013. The Subcommittee was comprised of 7-8 individuals and I believe everyone but myself was homeless or recently emerging from homelessness.

You have done a lot of work with homeless people in the Ann Arbor area. How did you get started doing that work?

I am an alcoholic. On December 31, 2001, I had my last blackout and was charged with my third DUI.

On July 3, 2001, I was sentenced to six months in Oakland County Jail. The first five days were spent in the middle section of a three-section holding tank area of the Oakland County Jail. Each section was 10’ X 15’, separated by plexiglass, and had anywhere from 10-15 individuals in each section at any given time. There was one toilet per section. We were let out once per day to eat.

After I got out of there I was transferred to the County Barracks across the street for the work release program. This was basically an army style, bunk bed living quarters. We paid weekly rent [I think mine was something like 160-70 per week] and were allowed out of the barracks, at most, 5 days/week. I was only fortunate enough to get out 4 days/week.

After getting out of jail, I spent six months on tether [house arrest]. At the same time, I began my probation which included many hours of community service.

I chose to do my service hours at SOS Community Services at the River St. Location in Ypsilanti, MI. I did their “empathy training” to become a volunteer crisis counselor. At the time, the River Street SOS location served as a place for people to get referrals to other services in the area, food distribution, and a 24-hour crisis hotline which people used for information or just to talk when things were getting a bit to much to handle. I only had one suicide call [fortunately] while we still had the phone lines in place. I continued on in my volunteer capacity at SOS for a year after I got my hours for probation completed. I really enjoyed the work and the community I was a part of as a result of being there two to three times per week.

Anyhow, that is how I became involved. My first social work mentor, from SOS, was Christina Oliver. She still works in the area as a disabled-persons’ advocate.

I haven’t had a drink of alcohol since February 19, 2001. My higher power is the collective consciousness of all living beings. I am not anonymous, but I practice the principles in my daily life.

Do you find that the situation for homeless people in Ann Arbor is getting worse or better? Is Ann Arbor becoming increasingly closed?

I think you may be asking the wrong person on this one.

I am going to give an answer that is the best I can with the information I have from the friends [I don’t use the word client or consumer] with whom I work.

Assessment
On the one hand Ann Arbor is great because of its manifold set of resources for low-income people struggling with mental/physical health, addiction, and unemployment. On the other, it has very little in the way of low-income housing that is near places of low-income employment. The bus system is ok, but has limited evening hours during the week [M-F] and pretty much zero hours on weekend nights. So, if you live in Ypsilanti and work in Ann Arbor and have no car, your options for hours to work are limited as a result of these limited transportation options. If you talked to the current VP of MISSION, Jimmy Hill, you may get a more comprehensive version of what it is like trying to navigate one’s way out of homelessness in Ann Arbor.

Is is getting better? I hope that in the wake of the forum hosted by the Ann Arbor District Library last week it will. Camp Misfit A2 [one of the groups interdependent with MISSION] has, through their activism and public actions, put the issue of lack of affordable, low-income housing on the radar of local politicos as well as the local human services industry. I am cautiously optimistic right now.

Ann Arbor, as a small and somewhat well to do area, likely does not have the social space or will to accommodate an underclass, but at the same time, would not like to be seen as exclusionary. Do you think that Ann Arbor will ever be able to rectify these competing problems?

Good question. For me, change will have arrived when “our” kids can play with “their” kids.

I don’t think that we will ever correct the problem given the current system of resource distribution in our society, Capitalism.

Capitalism is a system that is framed to encourage economic growth. In this system, there are winners and losers. It is not “survival of the fittest” that determines winners. It is more like a complex gambling system that is weighted toward those with more wealth.

So, I think for Ann Arbor to rectify these problems, we would have to end capitalism as it is practiced now.

Here is another point I want to make. This one is predicated on our capitalist system of resource distribution. Homelessness is not a pond we can drain, but rather a river that flows on beyond our time here on this earth. We can dam up the river and provide bridges at certain sections of the flow, but regardless of our actions to “stop the flow” it continues on just like the wind.

There are people who are “chronically” homeless. But, most folks struggle with this for a matter of months. At our camp out on Wagner Rd [RIP], the average stay was just under three months. The Delonis Center has a similar statistic, although I think stays have been increasing over the last couple of years there.

I’m finding it interesting that Ann Arbor is having discussions about whether to create and improve public spaces, based on a perception that homeless people will use them (like this is a bad thing). How much of these concerns is based on alarmism, and how much is justified?

I think that we need to plan those spaces in an inclusive way, all stakeholders at the table. If we were to take that tack as a community I think we might reduce some of the alarmism. But ultimately, I think the folks with capital to invest in this area would rather see sunshine and lollipops and yellow brick roads, than help people who are struggling to make it in our community.

What do you see ultimately happening?

For the time being, more sunshine and lollipops and yellow-brick roads to nowhere for the poor and to increased wealth for Rick Snyder and his Carpet Bagger Finance Capitalists.

You’ve also done work with the unions, specifically during the push to bring GSRA’s into GEO. What’s your history working with labor?

Ugh. What a nightmare campaign that was. Before that disaster, I helped nontenure track faculty at MSU and EMU build their unions.

Yes, I worked for AFT Michigan [American Federation of Teachers]. I was a member of GEO as a grad student at the UM School of Social Work and was interested in learning labor/political organizing. I became a member of the GEO Organizing Committee just as our 2008 contract campaign was ramping up in December 2007. This was the contract campaign wherein we shut down both the UM Stadium and Business school renovation projects. I was picket captain for the business school site.

That summer, I was hired by AFT to work on a campaign with non tenure track faculty at MSU. After we won that campaign, I was sent to EMU to help bring the part time lecturers into the existing full time lecturer union. EMU has about 120 full time lecturers and about 500-600 [depending upon the semester] part time lecturers. In order to accomplish this, we conducted a few well-attended sit-ins at President Martin’s office. Paul Horvath [Math Lecturer at EMU] was one of the key lecturers involved in that effort. Good times.

After that campaign, I went to work with GEO leaders on bring the GSRAs into the union. In the wake of that Rick Snyder signed a law that prohibited GSRAs from joining a union. I believe this law has since been found unconstitutional and is in some sort of legal limbo on appeal.

That battle was eventually lost. It seemed like a really not so controversial idea. What do you think was going on to make it blow up as big as it did?

I think that conservative anti-union folks in Michigan watched AFT organizing at many of the colleges and some community colleges across the state. Grad Students, Lectures and even some faculty were joining unions in large numbers through the dedicated work of organizers like Jon Curtiss and Lynn Marie Smith between the years 2003-2010. When Rick Snyder was elected, the republicans had every lever of our state’s government under their control. I think they saw an opportunity and put a lot of resources toward blocking this campaign.

That describes what happened on their side. I think it is more telling, what happened on our side [labor]. Our leaders, when planning this campaign, did not listen to the suggestion of leaders on the ground in GEO and in general on campus. We were internally divided. That made it easier for the Mackinac Center to pick us apart and stop the momentum we had while out talking to hundreds of researchers like yourself.

You eventually left. What happened?

Unions are great at the local level. But, as they get bigger, the organizational structure mirrors the organizations they are meant to regulate or keep in check. I didn’t want to compromise my organizing style in order to get a paycheck. I decided that the work needed to be done was the work for which there is no paycheck.

I had been teaching at UM School of Social Work in Winter 2012. I continued on as a lecturer there and at EMU until December 2013.

I am currently unemployed, but doing the work for which there is no paycheck.
[MISSION]

What’s up with your radio career? How does radio figure in to your worldview as champion of the poor and marginalized?

You are very kind to call it a career :)
How does it figure in? Well, I grew tired of complaining about the media and decided to become a part of it instead. Viva Jello!

What’s up for the future?

1) Kicking ass for the working class!
2) Getting a job with a paycheck.

What I’m reading now March 23, 2014

Well, it should really be, what I was reading two weeks ago, but… details, details….

TOEThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor Generally speaking, I like Bill Easterly’s views on aid and development. Easterly questions traditional models of development, arguing that top down strategies which rely on purely technical solutions rarely work, and often do more harm than good. Here, Easterly again makes the argument that the development world is full of bumbling technocrats, who fail to see the simplicity of the real problem of African development.

Note, however, that I do not share the views of uninformed cynics, which laugh at the “folly of development” and the evils of foreign aid indiscriminately. Easterly is often propped up by cynical opponents of foreign aid as a spokesperson for why we shouldn’t be given money to poor people, or by Ron Paul style non-interventionists who are quick to dismiss anything the United States does outside it’s borders, not to suggest at all that the United States alone is responsible for development. To me, and call me stupid, the issue is far too complex to boil down to a black and white view of a few self satisfied cynics. Debates over what works and what doesn’t work in development are far more interesting to me than debates of whether development is “good” or “bad.” But… I digress…

Easterly argues that what’s missing from the picture is the guarantee of true democratic rights, that is, legal restrictions on the powers of government. The reason democracy is faulty in Africa, is that most African governments equate democracy with merely having elections, when, in fact, democracy is a function of checks on the ability of government to stifle opposition and the guarantee that citizens are fully protected under the law. He is absolutely right. The structures of African governments (in general) were initially constructed to support a colonial model, which guaranteed that power would be held by a privileged (white) few. However, post-independence, few governments have made substantive changes to the ways in which they govern, despite having had, in most cases, nearly 50 years to do so. Easterly lays blame with development organizations, which offer highly technical solutions to basic problems, but are weak-kneed in demanding that governments work to guarantee basic rights to their citizens.

While I agree that democracy is about more than just having elections, and agree that basic rights must be guaranteed in order to have a free state, I wonder if he gets so caught up in the grand academic thought process, and misses some of the details. His treatment of Asia is quite limited, for example. There, most governments achieved their developmental goals without guaranteeing the rights of citizens and sometime achieved them under incredibly authoritarian and sometimes brutal one party systems. While I don’t think that the end of development is worth the means of authoritarian brutality, it must be pointed out that many governments (for example, South Korea and Taiwan) only loosened their grip after they had an educated middle class which demanded increased freedoms and rights (see the work of Ha-Joong Chang and Joe Stiglitz for a reasonable treatment of the subject). While Africa and Asia are two very different places, any discussion of development has to include both.

Easterly makes me feel good, though, in his preface. Mentioning anywhere that markets are good things in a discussion of development will have one branded as a rabid right winger, which is just a pathetically myopic view (or merely a by-product of total ignorance). The tired argument of market vs state which dominates political discussions in the US (and elsewhere) is merely a distraction from the real argument we should be having, which is over rights vs. non-rights. Are rights being protected or not? Is there proper representation or not? You can have any type of free market system you like or even a heavy welfare state, but if the guarantee of basic rights to free speech, assembly, expression and representation aren’t there, you don’t have a democracy and you probably don’t have continued development of the type that matters most.

But, I’m not a political scientist, and could easily rant on aimlessly for hours to no end whatsoever.

Politics in West Africa – Sir Arthur Lewis (1965) - Sir Arthur Lewis was a Nobel Prize winning economist from St. Lucia. He wrote this fantastic little book on the state of West African politics following independence in 1965. It’s just as relevant now as it was back then. His scathing criticism of authoritarian African governments and the multitude of missed opportunities for development for African countries were both timely and eerily prophetic. I’m particularly drawn to his criticism of viewing Africa through a Marxist lens, pointing out that, outside of a few foreign corporations, there are few true capitalists and that the plentiful nature of land compromises efforts to commodify it, and thus create a European style, class based system. He also points out the problems with the one party state, pointing out that the one party state was often created by force following independence, rather than consensus. In fact, the nature of the independence movements themselves compromised the creation of true constitutional democracies, which guarantee the rights of the minority. Independence movements were created to topple minority rule. Great book.

ATSAgainst the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japans I can’t put this book down. An excellent account of the fight to stop the building of Narita airport in the 1960′s, the implications of which were more than merely a struggle of some farmers unwilling to part with land. The struggle for Sanrizuka was a culmination of the coalescence of a wide variety of actors, many of which had little in common ideologically, reacting to an ever disconnected state. Apter rightly points out that despite strict rules on social behavior and self-control, Japan’s history is filled with examples of social change brought about not through discussion, but incredible and coordinated violence.

VOFCThe Violence of Financial Capitalism (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) I bought this book thinking it might be an interesting perspective on the financial crash and the events which followed it. I was somehow let down to find that the book didn’t really live up to it’s striking title. Marazzi views the crash as not an aberration, but rather another aspect of capital accumulation by financial elites, a tool of undermining labor and a method of creating conditions of social change which benefits a minority of privileged individuals. While I don’t really argue that these things didn’t (aren’t) occurring, the treatment of the subject was far too academic and disconnected for me to get behind. It is possible that I’m just not well informed on the particular academic perspective of this author. I will have to read it again.

Branko Milanovic weighs in on global inequality

Which isn’t suprising, given that’s what he does for a living. The NYT this morning had an interesting interview with Milanovic this morning, where he discussed issues of inequality both within and between countries, globalization, national policy and the simultaneous rise of a global economic elite and growing populism around the world.

The context here is that while inequality is rising in wealthy countries like the United States, on a global level, inequality in incomes and lifestyles is shrinking quickly, most due to the rise of China and India.

Inequality calculated among all individuals in the world, as if they were part of one single nation, has been edging slightly downward over the past 10 to 15 years, mostly thanks to very high growth rates in China and India. These relatively poor giants (particularly India) have pulled quite a lot of people out of poverty and into something that can be called “the global middle class.”

That is the key factor behind the decline of global inequality: The distance between their incomes and the rather stagnant incomes of the middle class in rich countries has diminished. Yet global inequality is still extremely high by the standards of any single country. It is, for example, significantly higher than inequality in South Africa, which is the most unequal country in the world.

Obviously, we still have work to do. Many African countries, due to an unfortunate poor hand of geography, internal ethnic struggles and an unforgivable failure of government still sit in the same mess they sat in around the time of independence. For these countries, the future continues to look bleak.

The contrast is between a globalized economy that largely determines our employment and income level, and political systems that remain national. This contrast was not nearly as strong before the 1980s, when national economies were not as interdependent and capital could not flow easily across the borders. Then, countries could more or less design the economic policies that suited them. Today this is no longer the case.

The danger is that these dynamics could lead to populism — a sort of a Luddite reaction against globalization — or to plutocratic rule. We can already see some hints of the latter. Rule of the rich would ensure the continuation of globalization, but it would deprive political democracy of any meaning. If I wanted to be somewhat melodramatic, I would have said that the challenge is to navigate between the Scylla of populism, which would do away with globalization, and the Charybdis of plutocracy. Our defining challenge is how to maintain both globalization and meaningful national democratic systems.

I fear the erosion of political rights of low and middle class citizens that has occurred in the context of rising inequality. I believe that I fear populism and it’s myopic focus on short term solutions to complex problems even more. A response to rising inequality in the US or Europe is not to close the borders or embark on destructive protectionist policies which benefit only a small minority of people.

My feeling is that domestic (US) inequality is best handled through re-distributional policies such as income subsidies, the provision of health care and investments in education and infrastructure. International inequality should be attacked through a combined effort to increase opportunities of movement of people to areas which present economic opportunities, through the encouragement of policies of good governance which reduce onerous and bureaucratic restrictions on economic development within developing countries, an increase in access to capital by individuals and policies which encourage the granting of true democratic rights and protection for citizens, something we don’t see a whole lot of in African countries. Looking at this, I’m realizing the solutions to inequality in in wealthy countries seem much easier to implement.

Obokata Haruko: Shoddy scientist or scapegoat?

photo_2I know very little about lab sciences. A few months ago, Obokata Haruko, graduate of Waseda University and researcher at the Riken Center for Developmental Biology in Japan, discovered something “too good to be true.” She found a way of creating pluripotent cells, that is stem cells which can become anything, without the awful side effect of inducing cancer in a vertebrate host. Though my knowledge of such matters is sadly lacking, from what I understand, virae are usually used to induce the cell to convert, which can make the cell unstable, and likely to turn cancerous. Obokata discovered that the cell could be manipulated merely by stressing them with pressure.

The results followed the peer review process, were rejected once, and, after revising and resubmitting, were eventually published in Nature. Soon thereafter, the results were challenged and it was discovered that the images accompanying the paper did not represent the content of the paper and had likely been lifted from her doctoral dissertation. Obokata was disgraced.

Yesterday, an article appeared which claimed that even more improprieties were found in Obokata’s doctoral thesis and that she has formally requested that her dissertation be withdrawn. She supposedly lifted portions of her introduction from the NIH website without attribution and had doctored images. Even some of the chapter bibliographies were suspicious:

Each chapter in the dissertation has a separate bibliography. For chapter 3, there is a bibliography of 38 references even though there are no footnotes in that chapter. The bibliography contains the authors of the material referred to, the title, the journal and the pages on which the original article appeared.

However, the bibliography in question is almost exactly the same as the first 38 items in a bibliography containing 53 reference materials that was published in 2010 in a medical journal by researchers working at a Taiwanese hospital.

It is entirely possible that Obokata is a shoddy researcher. Actually, it’s quite likely given the mountain of evidence against her. What isn’t clear, is how her mentors allowed her train wreck of a career to happen. Research doesn’t occur in a box. I’d certainly be entirely happy if no one at all ever looked at my dissertation again (outside of the published papers from it). But, one would assume that the most egregious of infractions would be caught by her committee members (and her co-authors) before the work goes into print.

It’s worth nothing that Obokata, like a lot of academics, is quite odd. She had her lab repainted pink and yellow, and would don a Japanese smock more characteristic of kindergarten teachers rather than a traditional lab coat. Though I encourage such behavior, I’m not sure that her eccentric style is doing her career any favors at this point.

This incident brings more than a few conflicting ideas to mind.

First, Japan is a terrible, awful place to be a woman in a professional position. In fact, Japan is pretty much just a terrible place to be a woman at all. In terms of women’s empowerment, wages, education and political representation, Japan is 101st out of 135 countries, well under less developed countries like Kenya, El Salvador, Bangladesh and Indonesia, and among the worst in all of Asia.

Once, I remember when I was visiting Japan, a tenured faculty member who happened to be female was tasked with serving us men tea. I was enraged.

Though Obokata is likely less than professional, professionals are made, not born. I can imagine that, given her reproductive capabilities, her mentors refused to take her seriously, and slacked on their most important job, which was to create and nurture a responsible and talented scientist.

Of course, Obokata, though likely a victim of shoddy mentoring, has to shoulder some of the blame. Shoddy mentors create shoddy students, but shoddy students still have to take responsibility for their own actions. But I can’t help but thinking that it’s interesting that a young female is taking the heat for what should be a collective fuck up.

Obokata is currently being eviscerated in the press. After making numerous appearances on television as an eccentric though brilliant scientist, her downfall has brought out the worst. Many are alleging that Obokata slept with her mentors to attain her position (despite being trained at Harvard), following a narrative that women can’t attain privileged positions without having sex with someone. The vile depths of the interweb are even speculating that Obokata will start making porn, a common standby career for fallen actresses and swimsuit idols, again following a narrative that women are never degraded enough.

Does Obokata deserve the brutal punishment she’s receiving? While scientists need to held accountable for their work, given the amount of shoddy research out there, I would say that Obokata is probably being treated rather unfairly. It would seem though, that the extreme nature of her punishment is due to her gender, her age and the fact that she was unlucky enough to appear on Japanese television.

Human migration policy after the 2015 MDGs expire

We are living in an unprecedented age of human mobility. It is estimated that nearly 250 million people around the world are living as migrants. Some migrated across national borders as political, environmental and economic refugees, some as forced migrants and some simply to seek opportunities for work. This number is expected to reach 400 million by 2050.

Remittances (money sent from migrants to family and friends back home) totaled nearly $600 billion, triple the amount of international foreign aid. Migrants tend to save just as much, which could be a major source of capital to fund local business enterprises.

Despite it’s importance and magnitude, migration was not included in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which really should coe as no surprise. Calls for the protection of migrant rights and for the relaxation of onerous taxation laws which skim off the top of remittances are both the responsibility of governments, specifically governments of countries which host migrants. The MDGs were notable in that they demanded little change to how governments operate in developing countries and demanded almost nothing of the wealthy countries which depend on migrants as a source of cheap labor.

A report from the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration came out today with specific policy recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals, which are set to replace the expiring MDGs.

Migration patterns are likely to evolve in response to demographic imbalances, development dynamics and environmental changes. While three quarters of international migrants today move to a country with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) than their country of origin, much of that movement is to non-OECD countries. Nearly half of all international migrants move within their region of origin and about 40 percent move to a neighbouring country. Emigration rates are highest for small and remote countries, many of them small island developing states (SIDS).

As distasteful as some people find it, the economies of the United States, Europe and, to a less obvious extent, Japan, depend on migration to function. Large economies are characterized by falling populations as families have fewer and fewer children and by a constant need to cheap and efficient labor.

Closing borders works well to insure poor working conditions and near slave-labor compensation schemes. Insuring adequate protection for migrant labor and systems which effectively integrate them into the greater economy can benefit everyone.

An aside, I enjoy it when people make arguments that increased immigration will increase the supply of labor reducing wages overall. The flawed economic assumption here is that demand for labor is constant, that is, the demand for good and services is a fixed and unchanging number. This is entirely incorrect. An influx of migrants creates new demand for goods and services by introducing a new set of potential customers which must eat, house themselves and enjoy basketball games on the weekend.

I’m an advocate of open borders. If someone wants to come to the US and work, start a business big or small, take advantage of educational opportunities for their kids or themselves, then by all means, let them. We could use the money.

Brucellosis creates political uproar over Yellowstone bison herd

Bison population by year. Bars represent culls.

Bison population by year. Bars represent culls. From Dobson, et al. (1996)

Well, at least that’s my take. Most people would probably point to humans when talking about political problems. Here, though, I’m going to blame the bacteria.

Bison were once found across most of the middle and western United States and Canada, but were nearly hunted to extinction in the 19th century. Expansionists sought to cut off Native American food supplies and the Industrial revolution created an intense demand for buffalo hides, which were used for belts to run large machinery.

Fortunately, a few conservationists saved the fewer than 25 animals who remained in the wild in Yellowstone Park. In 1902, captive bison were introduced into the park to increase the genetic viability of the herd. Populations were managed and regulated until 1966 after which the herd was allowed to expand naturally.

However, climate change and food scarcity has caused some of the expanding population to move out of the park in search of grazing lands.

This is a real problem for cattle herders. Bison are thought to be the largest reservoir of Brucellosis in the United States, despite decades of effort to eliminate the disease. When bison roll into cattle ranches, bacteria can spread from bison to cattle.

Bison appear to suffer little from the disease, but in cattle, spontaneous abortions are likely, resulting in major economic losses to livestock producers. When cattle test positive for the disease, they are culled immediately. The US government compensates the farmer for the loss.

Bison who leave the park and wander into neighboring Montana threaten the state’s Brucella free status. If Montana were to lose that status, all cattle exported from Montana would have to be tested and certified Brucella free, which would increase costs to livestock producers.

Park managers have considered culling the herd, and reducing its size to a more manageable 3000 animals. They propose killing several hundred of the animals which are in the vicinity of Montana’s border as both a precaution and a way to scale back the bison population. The carcasses will be sold as meat.

And this is where environmentalists come it. Several organizations have sprung up around the issue. Most notably, a man chained himself to a 55 gallon drum filled with concrete to prevent more bison from being killed and shipped off the slaughter. Hoping to avoid an escalating political confrontation, the authorities called off the cull.

Opponents of the cull claim that Yellowstone can support more than 6000 bison, far over the target population size of 3000. Proponents argue that the park may theoretically support more than 3000, but a larger herd means that it is more likely that bison will wander into Montana in search of food. The risk there, of course, is that Brucella will be brought into Montana. It is conceivable (to me) that this whole row wouldn’t exist without Brucellosis.

I’m especially interested in the issue because it parallels similar problems in Laikipia, Kenya. Livestock producers and conservationists are constantly in conflict over issues of land rights, economic impacts of disease threats, the rights of wildlife and strategies to protect it in increasingly crowded and rapidly changing areas of the world.

Given the very different perspectives of conservationists and ranchers, no solution has been found in Kenya yet. I’m doubting that one will be found in Yellowstone. Environmentalists are taking this as a moral issue (save the bison!), conservationists are approaching this as a practical issue (manage the herds properly and stay out of the political debate) and herders speak to economic issues (Brucella threatens my business).

Development as a faith-based activity: the role of the RCT in alleviating poverty

DSC_0060The essence of epidemiologic field trials is the RCT (randomized control trial). A random set of people get some sort of treatment (like a new drug), another random set of people don’t and we compare the results. It’s pretty simple stuff.

The trouble with RCTs is that they don’t necessarily work well when people from the two groups are able to influence each other’s outcomes. As a simple example, a trial of a vaccine which prevents people from getting infected with some pathogen might have impacts on people who don’t get the vaccine, since the number of opportunities for transmission are reduced. This is a welcome outcome (and may even be the point of the study), but it doesn’t help us to understand exactly how effective the vaccine is in the individuals who actually receive the vaccine.

Many RCTs make the (flawed) assumption that individuals are independent entities, following a long tradition of statistical analysis. This is a reasonable assumption to make in some cases, but entirely wrong in others (i.e. most public health outcomes).

Development economists have recently adopted the RCT as a means of evaluating the effectiveness of programs intended to relieve poverty or improve human well-being. On the surface, there’s nothing wrong with adopted public health methods to deal with economic problems, as most public health problems have their roots in economics. Jeff Sachs, or course, would argue that many economic problems have their roots in public health problems.

The major problem with RCTs is that while we do our best to control for all of the possible other factors that might impact outcomes given a particular treatment, without a trove of detailed data and prior knowledge of context and contingencies, we really have no idea at all whether and how some public health intervention works. Epidemiology tends to fall back on the “reasonable suspicion” argument, backing up claims of effectiveness with potentially reasonable assumptions of causal pathways. This is clearly quite easy when doing drug trials, where animals models and a century-plus of medical research has given us a reasonably clear pictures of the pathophysiological pathways that might lie between drug and outcome.

But with issues of human behavior and economics (which is essentially a science which seeks to uncover mysteries of human behavior), the causal pathways are much more difficult to assess and the factors which lie between intervention and outcome are for more difficult to measure. For example, assessing the outcome of an education program on reproductive behavior is really, really difficult without monitoring all of the possible things that happened between the time that a woman attended an NGO sponsored event at a clinic and the time when she chose to use or not use a condom. In fact, we can’t even really verify that she used the condom, since we weren’t around to observe it.

But we assume, and assume to the point of falling back to faith that our efforts did what we intended them to do.

Lant Pritchett, a Harvard economist that I’m a great fan of for his work on economic measurement in developing countries, penned an interesting article on the website of the Center for Global Development seemingly questioning the merit of the RCT as an rigorous and necessary evaluation tool for poverty alleviation development programs.

First of all, the argument that RCTs had, until recently, been used sparingly, if at all, and yet are important in achieving good outcomes sits in kind of embarrassing counterpoint with the obvious fact that lots of countries have really good outcomes. That is whether one uses the Human Development Index or the OECD Better Life Index or any social indicator—from poverty to education to health to life satisfaction—there is a similar set of countries near the top. (In the HDI the top five are Norway, Australia, USA, Netherlands, and Germany. In the OECD Better Life Index they are Australia, Sweden, Canada, Norway, and Switzerland.) No one has ever made the arguments that these countries are developed and prosperous because they used rigorous evidence—much less RCTs—in formulating policy and programs. While one might have faith that RCTs can help along the path to development, RCTs didn’t help for those that are there now.

It is very true that development in the United States occurred without the help of RCTs. In fact, malaria elimination in the United States occurred without any of the complex set of interventions that we’re so desperately selling to malaria-endemic countries. It’s even true that, despite more than a decade of research on ITNs, that we aren’t really sure whether the declines in malaria that we’ve seen all over Sub-Saharan Africa are due to ITNs or just simply due to processes associated with urbanization and development (as in the US). Actually, a lot of research is telling us that the declines in malaria might be false and that we are simply suffering from a paucity of accurate measurement in malaria endemic countries.

And this is where Pritchett comes in. He’s right. Research in developing countries is inherently challenging to the point where the conclusions we draw from research are somewhat contentious at best, and the result of blind faith at worst.

But coarse and incomplete data and loose assumptions shouldn’t discourage public health (or even economic) professionals from doing research in developing countries. While I have issues with the condescending, neo-classical nature of RCTs in economics (another discussion, but can a peasant lady’s behavior in Western Kenya be reduced to that of Homo economicus? ), the truth is that policy makers don’t care about data. They care that people are making the case for action in an impassioned and convincing way. While academics should strive to be as rigorous as possible, the sell won’t happen based on our complex data collection strategies and statistical methodologies. They (and the public) are convinced through impassioned calls for action.

Interview with an academic: Megan Hill, ethnomusicologist

Continuing our series of interviews with interesting academics, this time I have Megan Hill, PhD student and ethnomusicologist at the University of Michigan (Thanks for doing this!).

s200_megan.hill1. Who are you and where do you come from?

Starting off with existential questions… I’m Megan Hill, doctoral candidate in ethnomusicology at UM. I’m originally from Mason City, a town of about 30,000 people in north-central Iowa.

2. What is your current research about?

My research, broadly speaking, concerns contemporary musical practice in Japan, with a secondary specialization in American popular music. Right now I’m writing my dissertation on urban soundscapes. The concept of “soundscape” is usually used to explore the ways that people create and perceive meaning through sound in the places they inhabit, but it has also traditionally been used in an all-encompassing way, assuming a homogeneous and/or pastoral environment.

My dissertation—Asakusa’s Soundscape: Sound, Agency, Place, and Montage—specifically offers a new theoretical apparatus for analyzing the nuanced ways that people experience sound in dense, heterogeneous urban environments. I’m using the Tokyo neighborhood of Asakusa to demonstrate this. I have chosen Asakusa because it is dense and urban, it has a strong unique identity as a particular neighborhood, that identity is defined by a large variety of cultural categories (i.e. “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, working-class Tokyo, etc.), and sound and music are fundamental to the ways that people behave in Asakusa and understand what Asakusa is about.

3. Urban spaces are characterized by often contrasting and competing uses of space. Did you find that there was any impact of location on sounds? Did sounds clash or blend in interesting ways?

Yes, absolutely. Certainly “competing” uses of space happen throughout cities, and all around the world, but I think it is particularly interesting how this plays out in Asakusa because of the particular kinds of activities that go on there. Many urban neighborhoods—NYC’s theater district for instance—are defined by one particular kind of activity, but Asakusa is defined by its particular amalgam of several contrasting activities (those having to do with “traditional Japan,” religion, international tourism, low-brow entertainment, and working-class Tokyo). Because of this, I find that the sonic overlap that goes on there is particularly fascinating, and has particular implications for how people perceive the space. You used the word “competing” to describe the use of urban spaces, but what I see going on in Asakusa is often more like juxtaposition. Contrasting sounds overlap, but because all of them “make sense” within the larger space, the resulting sense isn’t one of competition but one of montage.

For example, there is an amusement park called Hanayashiki which is practically bordering the precincts of Sensô-ji Buddhist temple. The screams of people riding the drop tower and roller coaster can be heard easily from the steps of the temple’s Main Hall, and those sounds mix in with the sounds of rituals that take place in the temple, as well as the boisterous sounds of tourists that fill the Main Hall and the rest of the precincts at all hours.

4. I know that you share an interest with things Japanese. All of us Japanophiles have unique set of events which brought us here. What brought you to Japan?

I started out, in my undergrad at Wartburg College (a liberal arts college in Waverly, Iowa), studying music education. Growing up, I knew I wanted to pursue a career in music in some way, but coming from a fairly small town with few visible music careers (high school band director and church musician being pretty much the extent of things), I decided music ed was the way to go for me. I studied that for two years with moderate levels of emotional investment, but along the way I was exposed to the field of ethnomusicology through one of my professors, with which I became totally enamored. I changed my major to clarinet performance (which allowed me to drop the education courses and add electives in ethnomusicology) at the beginning of my third year. At the same time, my dorm roommate was a woman from Tokyo in Iowa to study psychology (long story) who came to be one of my best friends. Studying ethnomusicological / anthropological theory in the daytimes and coming home to talk with my roommate about everyday things—but also Japanese music and culture—in the evenings basically started me out on the road that led me to where I am today.

5. You spent a year (or two?) in Tokyo. What were you doing there?

I’ve lived in the Tokyo area on two occasions, actually. After my undergrad in 2006, I got a job with AEON (national English-conversation school) and was given a teaching position in Koshigaya, Saitama, about 20 minutes north of Tokyo. I basically used the teaching position and visa as an opportunity to live in Japan and learn real-life things for 13 months before pursuing a graduate degree focusing on Japan. I had a great time learning all I could, talking with my fantastic students, making friends, learning to play the koto, and doing research for a paper on the use of gendered pronouns in Japanese popular music.

More recently, I was living in Tokyo doing dissertation fieldwork. I got funding from The Japan Foundation to be there for a year to study the soundscapes of Asakusa, which I’m now using as the basis for my dissertation.

6. You seem to be interested in people who don’t traditionally “belong.” The examples I’m thinking of are that of African-American Enka star Jero, the perception of soundscapes in Tokyo by a Buddhist monk and even Yoko Noge, a blues musician in Chicago. While I could be entirely off the mark, does the breaking of traditional musical belonging play a role in your work?

Interesting interpretation! You’ve been scoping out my academia.edu profile, I see ;-)

I would say that you’re on the mark in identifying which topics excite me. I tend to admire people and their work who do interesting things that are against the traditional grain, for sure. And I think your observation that those people are in particular abundance in my research is mostly evidence of my personal taste in that way—Yoko Noge, Jero, and also Japanese female singers like Ringo Shiina, Iruka, Love Psychedelico, and Ayumi Hamasaki wielding gendered-language in pop song lyrics in interesting ways.

I haven’t really approached those topics by focusing on that commonality, necessarily. Contemporary ethnomusicology makes use of all kinds of socio-cultural as well as scientific theories to study musical practice (linguistic, structural, literary, Marxist, cognitive and communication, gender/sexuality, performance, and postcolonial theories, as some examples). I think what you’ve picked up on as a trend in my research is my interest in issues of self and identity, though I am not committed to always exploring those from the same approach. My dissertation focuses on individual agency and music/sound as they intersect with ideas about place, for example, while in my other projects, ideas about self/identity have intersected with music and gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, psychology, globalization, and postcolonial culture.

7. Have you met Jero yet?

Alas, no…

8. You play a number of instruments. Do you play live at all?

I studied piano and clarinet, each for 12 years. With an undergrad degree in clarinet performance, I played a number of solo recitals, as well as countless concerts as a member of orchestras and wind bands.

I studied koto in 2006-7 and was invited to perform at my local 燈籠流し festival in Saitama with my teacher, which was really fun. I also studied Tsugaru shamisen for about 9 months as a part of my dissertation fieldwork, but I’m still a very rough beginner and have no business on a stage… At this point, I don’t have the time necessary to devote to practice to make performing a reality.

9. How did you find your teachers? I’ve heard that people studying shamisen have to spend the first two years doinng nothing but tuning? Did they cut you slack given your limited time there?

I found my koto teacher with the help of one of my English students. He was the son a friend of hers. I took the bus to his apartment every Friday morning before going to work at the English school, which began at noon. He also taught koto at a local middle school as part of the school’s offerings of “traditional” arts which became mandatory in public schools from 2001 I believe. He is also the member of a small indie band called Shiro Neqo, which includes an Indian sitar and tabla and two vocalists in addition to koto. You can see/hear them here.

I found my Tsugaru shamisen teacher in Asakusa. He owns a restaurant where he—and sometimes his higher level students—perform every lunch and dinnertime for customers. I wanted to interview him for my dissertation research, and when I found out that he teaches lessons too, I asked if I could also study with him. We started out learning how the instrument works, tuning, and practicing a simple folksong right away. I did not get the sense that I was being treated differently than other students. I have also heard the only-tuning-for-two-years story, but I don’t know how widespread that regimen really is.

You can see/hear him here (link is down below) with his band, Ryûjin. His sister is the other person playing shamisen in the video

10. What’s up for the future?

Good question… My husband is applying for academic jobs right now (he will be defending his dissertation within the calendar year), and hopefully something will work out on that front. I will be finishing mine by next spring at the very latest, so I will be applying for jobs come the fall. I’m very open to non-academic positions that would allow me to make some use of my degree (I have a friend who works for the National Endowment for the Humanities, for example), or an academic one that would center on teaching, preferably not in the middle of nowhere. I’m too much in the world of my dissertation to have many thoughts on my next research project, but there’s a lot of music out there!

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