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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.

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.

What will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015? Will the UN’s new benchmarks finally include the private sector?

The Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight developmental benchmarks which the world should achieve by 2015 are set to expire. Though there have been many gains, most notably in the worldwide reduction of extreme poverty since 2000, successes between countries remain uneven. Many people are wondering what set of policy recommendations will come next.

I’m reading “A Framework for Sustainable Development,” a document from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which aims to bring together a number of experts from a variety of fields with the goal of developing partnerships and creating innovative solutions to new developmental problems.

The Solutions Network mobilizes scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable-development problem solving at local, national, and global scales. This Solutions Network accelerates joint learning and helps to overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world. The SDSN works closely with United Nations agencies, multilateral financing institutions, as well as other international organizations.

The document suggests the creating of 12 thematic groups, each of which will bring experts and institutions together to work on specific problems. These include themes such as macroeconomics, health, sustainable industry, oceans, forests and governance, among others. They all address very real problems the world is facing that will require the collective knowledge of a variety of stakeholders to successfully solve.

The last group struck me:

Redefining the Role of Business for Sustainable Development (synthesis of ideas, including from the other Thematic Groups, on how business in key sectors
can contribute to sustainable development; ways for business and financial markets to internalize externalities such as environmental damage and support a shift
towards the polluter pays principle; management of non-sustainable “stranded assets” as part of a shift to a socially and environmentally sustainable economy)

It’s interesting that the private sector seems to be almost an afterthought. This, or course, follows a general pattern. Policy groups and NGOs often take an adversarial approach toward business. The MDGs adressed nothing regarding the private sector and business development. The “thematic group” here, doesn’t really appear to wish to engage with private business at all, apparently offering a top down approach to dictating how business should participate.

This is a grave mistake. Though it is entirely true that many of the world’s greatest environmental challenges are directly attributable to capitalist activities, pushing the private sector to the margins is no way to engage multinationals in working toward a sustainable future. If businesses can’t be convinced (rightly) that the long term health of the planet and the equitable development of human resources is in their long term interest, then they will continue on a path of destruction. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the private sector is a monolithic entity. Private businesses are a varied in intent and practice as NGOs.

Pharmaceuticals to treat malaria, HIV and TB don’t appear out of nowhere and despite the role of the public sector in encouraging and supporting basic research to create life saving drugs, governments are in no position to bring such innovations up to scale and market them successfully.

Even stranger to me, is that a list of themes that allegedly purport to deal with global welfare would not include business development in developing countries. Rapidly urbanizing and dynamic countries in Sub-Saharan Africa faces unique challenges to bringing people out of poverty, one of which is the development of domestic economies. Lack of access to capital, a paucity of banking services and regulatory handicaps keep African entrepreneurs from growing and potentially improving the lives of everyone involved. Again, the MDG’s did not address the problem of business development. Here again, we see the same pattern.

It was interesting that the tone of a document, A NEW GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP:ERADICATE POVERTY AND TRANSFORM ECONOMIES THROUGH SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT written by leaders of two developing countries, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and and Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (well, David Cameron’s in there, too), would be so different from the UN’s Framework:

3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth. We call for a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities and a profound economic transformation
to end extreme poverty and improve livelihoods. This means a rapid shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production–harnessing innovation, technology, and the potential of private business to create more value and drive sustainable and inclusive growth. Diversified economies, with equal opportunities for all, can unleash the dynamism that creates jobs and livelihoods, especially for young people and women. This is a challenge for every country on earth: to ensure good job possibilities while moving to the sustainable patterns of work and life that will be necessary in a world of limited natural resources. We should ensure that everyone has what they need to grow and prosper, including access to quality education and skills, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications and transport. We should make it easier for people to invest, start-up a business and to trade. And we can do more to take advantage of rapid urbanisation: cities are the world’s engines for business and innovation. With good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.

The UN’s new development framework clearly has Jeff Sachs at the helm and certainly the group intends to influence policy. But policy without the acknowledgement and inclusion of the private sector, both on a macro and micro level, is doomed to fail.

Cell phone banking in Kenya protects public health

MPESAIt’s rare that I read an academic paper I can get really, really excited about, but this is one of them.

Researchers at Georgetown and MIT have shown that transactions over M-PESA, an African phone banking service can help struggling households when faced with a sudden illness, weather event or economic shock.

We explore the impact of reduced transaction costs on risk sharing by estimating the effects of a mobile money innovation on consumption. In our panel sample, adoption of the innovation increased from 43 to 70 percent. We find that, while shocks reduce consumption by 7 percent for nonusers, the consumption of user households is unaffected. The mechanisms underlying these consumption effects are increases in remittances received and the diversity of senders. We report robustness checks supporting these results and use the four-fold expansion of the mobile money agent network as a source of exogenous variation in access to the innovation.

M-PESA is a cel phone based banking system which allows users to send and receive money to friends and family. Transactions can be small; most users are transferring less than $10 at a time. Users are charge about $.40 to transfer money and a percentage to withdraw. It is free to deposit money into the system.

Anyone can be an M-PESA agent. Starting an M-PESA business requires only a small investment so that even extremely rural areas have access to the system. Agents receive a percentage of transaction costs, and often piggy back it onto existing enterprises such as grocery stores and mobile phone shops. M-PESA not only provides a needed service, but has also created profitable business opportunities for people even in isolated rural areas.

The system is wildly popular. Africans are extremely mobile but maintain deep friend and family networks often spread out over wide distances. When a person has trouble, he or she will often turn to family and friends for financial help.

Previously, people would send money by getting on a bus and travelling, or by sending it with friends who might be going to a particular destination. Transportation costs are high ($5 to go a distance of 200km) and often outweigh the amount to be sent. Sending money by hand also incurred risks of loss to theft and misuse.

The number of M-PESA users has skyrocketed since its introduction in 2007. Nearly all adults in Kenya have access to a cel phone now, and the number of M-PESA users is now 70% of all mobile phone users.

Shocks due to illness or negative weather events such as drought can be devastating for a poor household. A single bout of malaria could set a family back as much as a month’s income or more. When poor households lose money, they don’t get it back and successive events can quickly pile up so much so that families will often wait until illness has become too severe to effectively treat.

Jack and Suri, the researchers who conducted the study found that illness shocks can reduce a households consumption by at least 7%. An average household only consumes around $900 a year, nearly half of which is for food. A 7% reduction in consumption could mean that households will simply eat less given a sudden negative event.

M-PESA users, however, experience no reduction in consumption given a sudden health or economic event. Presumably, the ability to transfer money quickly over long distances provides insurance against disaster. Mutual reciprocation allows the system to effectively function to protect against financial disaster.

This has incredible implications for public health. Financial concerns are an incredible barrier to insuring prompt and effective treatment for diseases such as malaria, diarrheal disease and respiratory infections. An efficient system of moving money creates a broader social insurance scheme, protecting the public against the worst and, hopefully, reducing costly advanced treatments and mortality.

M-PESA is a private sector entity, which was never intended as a public health intervention. However, in an area where public sector health delivery is inefficient, underfunded and most broken, a private sector banking initiative could help bolster availability of life saving drugs (for example) by insuring a consistent flow of money. Shops in extremely isolated rural areas will be more likely to stock malaria drugs if they know that customers have the means to pay for them.

This also has incredible implications for development. One of the pillars of the Millennium Development Goals and the recent Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development is to insure that the basic health needs of the poorest people on the planet are met. This cannot happen without addressing the greater problem of financial stability of poor households, which requires the participation of the private sector. Covering basic issues of financial movement, security and access to funds by isolated households is a major step to not only helping households which are disproportionately impacted by health and weather events, but also allows flow of cash to poor regions, bolstering local economies.

Are we living in the age of protest?

ProtestsIt’s possible.

A working paper from the Initiative for Policy Dialogue tracked all protests from 2006 to 2013. The authors classified each protest according to the types of grievances and causes of outrage, the profile of demonstrators, size and the nature of opposition.

They found that protests are becoming more common worldwide and larger in size. The largest protests in human history (one exceeding 100 million people) have occurred in the past six years.

Increases in frequency are consistent across all types of protests, including economic justice, failure of political representation, rights and global justice.

Full on riots are fortunately few (only ~10% of all protests), but arrests and state violence are common. The biggest offenders include Iran, Russia, the US, Canada and Cameroon.

Developed countries account for the lion’s share of protests and the authors noted increased levels of “soft repression” in the form of surveillance and profiling.

More encouraging, they found that 37% of protests result in some kind of political change. These gains were mostly in the areas of political, legal and social rights. Global issues and economic justice, however, appear the most difficult areas to achieve change. No surprises here. These problems are vastly complex, entrenched, include numerous players and not easily solved.

I’ve written before on the issue of food prices and protest in South Africa and other authors have found similar trends in the Middle East. While the grievances of protesters often has little to do with food or issues of daily living, I’m wondering how economic pressures might be stimulating conditions favorable to demonstration. No doubt, we might look to solving the worldwide problem of volatile agricultural commodity prices and food availability.

Most interesting are the ubiquitous calls for “real democracy” or adequate representation of the populace in political matters. Policy makers would do well to respond to this simple and obvious call for inclusion. If not, we will see further unrest and potentially more violence and instability.

A few articles I’m reading 1/10/2014

That’s the first time I’ve typed “2014″ all year. Wow.

Here are some articles I’m reading this morning:

1. The news seems to be all over debates on the general shift toward the right in Europe (a feature in a recent issue of the Economist). Specifically, discussion of the tightening of immigration/migration rules are starting to heat up. One analyst has developed models to determine exactly what the long term impact of reduced migration in the UK would be on the overall economy. The results aren’t good.

Our results show that a significant reduction in net migration has strong negative effects on the economy. First, by 2060 in the low migration scenario, aggregate GDP decreases by 11% and GDP per person by 2.7% compared to the baseline scenario (Figure 1). Second, this policy has a significant negative impact on public finances, owing to the shift in the demographic structure after the shock. The total level of government spending expressed as a share of GDP increases by 1.4 percentage points by 2060. This effect requires an increase in the effective labour income tax rate for the government to balance its budget. By 2060 the required increase is 2.2 percentage points. Third, the effect of the higher labour income tax rate is felt at the household level, with average households’ net income declining because of the higher income tax despite the initial increase in gross wages due to lower labour supply. By 2060, the net wage is 3.3% lower in the low migration scenario.

Humans are more mobile in the 21st century than they’ve ever been in human history. Say what one will about globalization, but the reality is that it’s already happened. Cutting the cord on migration would see declines in income in both the developed (through loss of productivity) and developing worlds (through loss of remittances).

2. Niger and France have yet to come to an agreement to the terms of a contract to mine uranium by state owned multi-national giant Areva. Niger would like to increase their share from the current 5% to 12%. Areva is worried about profitability. Not knowing Areva’s operating costs and Niger’s track record of transforming mining revenues into public services, I’m not sure what to think.

France derives 75% of its energy from nuclear power and Areva gets 37% of its uranium from Niger. On top of this, Niger has few other options with which to generate money. The two parties have a lot at stake.

3. Krugman rails on the 50th anniversary of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. On the surface, it looks to be a bitter failure. Inequality is at an all time high and wages have been slipping for the bottom 25% for decades. Still, Krugman ends on a positive note. The pain we feel now could help spur a new progressive movement. I think he’s probably right. Amid the political circus, We’ve been quietly expanding social programs like Medicaid and it’s going to work out well for us. It’s really easy to be pessimisitic about American politics, but there’s potential light at the end of the tunnel, assuming that progressive can finally get their story straight and the right continues to shoot itself in the face.

4. Groups in Zimbabwe are gearing up to fight over who will succeed the old bastard. I think he’s already dead and we’re actually seeing a robot. I’m not confident that whoever succeeds him will be much better. It’s possible that his poison has been spread so thick, that Zimbabwe, once a rising economic star, will continue to be the inexcusable poster child for African political failure.

At the core of the long running struggle for supremacy in ZANU-PF are two factional groups led by Mujuru and Mnangagwa. Mujuru’s side, sometimes referred to as ‘the moderates’, is a purportedly pro-business and centrist bloc that is seen as attempting to push ZANU-PF politics to the centre and improve relations with the international community.

Mnangagwa’s camp, the so-called ‘hard-liners’ or ‘old guard’, is mostly made up of an elite group believed to have dominated Zimbabwe’s political scene since the 1980s; many assume that this faction would seek to continue Mugabe-style politics, anti-western rhetoric and policies as well as continued authoritarianism.

Americans Die Earlier and Live Sicker than Everyone Else: Why?

DeathsI was just reading a recent op-ed in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “The US Health Disadvantage Relative to Other High-Income Countries
Findings From a National Research Council/Institute of Medicine (NRC/IOM) Report.”

Well, at least it’s an op-ed on a paper from the afformentioned NRC/IOM. The paper digs through data from 17 OECD countries and tracks trends in disease and mortality.

Americans fare worse than other OECD countries in:

• infant mortality and low birth weight
• injuries and homicides
• adolescent pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections
• HIV and AIDS
• drug-related deaths
• obesity and diabetes
• heart disease
• chronic lung disease
• disability

We also tend to die earlier than everyone else (75.64 years) but really can expect to live about as long as Finns (75.86), Portuguese (75.87) and Danes (76.13).

I’m not surprised that we ended up on the bottom of the list. We certainly have much to be ashamed of in terms of social violence, access to means to kill one another when enraged, and a fractured and inefficient health care system (or lack thereof).

What struck me is how varied the list is. Some elements (accidents, homicides and drug-related deaths) have nothing to do with access and quality of health care. Infant mortality and birth weight shouldn’t be so low in a well fed country like the United States.

The JAMA article sums a lot of the systematic problems of US health care and its potential impact on human welfare:

What could explain a health disadvantage that involves conditions as varied as motor vehicle crashes, heart disease, preterm birth, and diabetes? The NRC/IOM panel explored this paradox and found clues in almost every class of health determinants it considered. The United States lacks universal health insurance coverage, and its health system has a weaker foundation in primary care and greater barriers to access and affordable care.4 Care coordination also is a problem. In multiple surveys of patients with chronic illnesses in up to 11 countries, The Commonwealth Fund has shown that US patients are more likely than patients elsewhere to report lapses in care quality and safety outside of hospitals.1 US patients appear more likely than those in other countries to require emergency department visits or readmissions after hospital discharge, perhaps because of premature discharge or problems with ambulatory care. Confusion, poor coordination, and miscommunication between clinicians and patients are reported more often in the United States than in comparable countries.

But we know all this. Continuing:

Health is determined by more than health care, and the NRC/IOM panel explored differences beyond health care to explain the US health disadvantage. It considered individual behaviors and found that although US adults are less likely to smoke (due to successful tobacco control efforts) and may drink less alcohol than adults in peer countries, they have a greater propensity for other unhealthy behaviors. People in the United States consume more calories per capita, are more likely to abuse drugs, are less likely to fasten seat belts, have more motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol, and own more firearms than do people in other high-income countries. US adolescents seem less likely to practice safe sex than adolescents in European countries. These problems are not products of the health care system

But what I’m seeing here is a pattern. All of these problems are concentrated in the poorest strata of the American population. Drug abuse, violence, poor diets, lack of access to health care.. these are all problems non-existent in all but the most troubled areas of the country.

This is, of course, an unforgivable condition. However, given the plurality of the United States, evaluating Americans as a group masks the true problems. Life expectancies are presented as averages. That is, all deaths are recorded, even those in the top 50% of American households, those with health insurance, those who go to the gym, those who eat relatively well, those who won’t kill one another during a family fight, those who won’t use coke, crack, heroin, meth or even abuse oxycontins. All of these households bring the average up.

If we were to only look at the bottom 50%, a much more homogeneous group than that of all Americans, we would find that the average life expectancy to be frighteningly low. We would find that the incidence of avoidable disease is extremely high, the chances of getting shot high, access to health care minimal and a general state of un-health among them all. We already know that African Americans die about four years earlier than white Americans. In total, though, we’d probably find socioeconomic worlds within the United States as different as that of countries like Somalia and Germany.

Note: Ezra Klein also wrote something on this report.

Food Prices and Riots in South Africa: One Year Later

I noticed this morning that gold is tanking. This is no surprise as the rally in gold over the 00′s was fueled by excessive commodity speculation following the loosening of finance regulations at the end of Clinton’s term. On the down side, this commodity bubble drove food prices up around the world but, more positively injected a decent amount of cash into Sub-Saharan African economies. Much of the economic growth that Africa has experienced over the past decade has been financed by this bubble.

I’m wondering if Glenn Beck and Ron Paul foresaw this event, encouraging the market in gold to help encourage a price rally, so that they, and other savvy individuals might jump out at the right moment. That smacks of conspiracy, however, and I’m not sure that either are smart enough to think that far ahead. It’s a fun thought to consider.

I was curious, however, if the collapse of the commodity bubble (though really less of a collapse and more of a “cooling down” of a slow burn market) might also be having impacts on social unrest. As I’ve shown here on this blog and other, more learned individuals have confirmed, food prices are associated with social unrest around the world.

I have written before on how the problem of Wall Street speculation is contributing to the problem of rising food prices around the world.

Fortunately, food prices are declining with the real or expected tightening of commodity speculation. Most notably, the Volcker Rule, as part of the Dodd-Frank set of reforms, aim to prevent banks from engaging in risky speculation in commodity derivatives. The Commodity Futures Trading Commission has also introduced several new rules regarding commodity speculation, most notably limiting the grabbing of large stakes of commodity futures with the aim of price manipulation. These rules, which place specific restrictions on agricultural futures and are though to only affect approximately seventy traders worldwide, have been fought vociferously by Wall Street.

Most relevant to developing countries, corn, price fluctuations of which have been shown to be tightly associated with speculative behavior, is returning to pre-2006 levels and could even get back to 1996 levels. This is bad for corn exporters (or maybe a return to normal), but great for corn buyers, particularly families living on pennies a day.

As before, I counted (or rather, the computer did) the number of newspaper articles which mentioned protests in South Africa, arguably the protest capital of the world, and combined them with the FAO’s food price index to see if a dip in prices was associated with a dip in protests. As the graph shows below, there is evidence to suggest that it is.


The Dodd-Frank reforms are welcome, but they aren’t enough. Starving kids and violence that result from excessively high food prices should be considered a major human rights priority. Fortunately, some groups like the World Development Movement are putting pressure on the UK government to enact and support badly needed reforms.

The Epidemiologic Transition in Kenya: Are Pastoralist Communities Benefitting?

demographic_transition_detailedIn epidemiology, we have a concept called the “epidemiologic transition,” which illustrates the shift in the the causes of illness and death as humans change from pre-agricultural to agrarian to affluent societies (Omron, 1971).

Traditionally, humans die from infectious causes, limiting their lifespan to a few decades at most. Through agriculture, they are able to increase their nutritional profiles, reducing infant mortality and allowing rapid population increases. As societies introduce efficiencies in transport and trade and move to technological solutions to former pathogen threats, infectious diseases become controlled and chronic conditions become more prevalent. Economic challenges restrict family size so that births and deaths reach equilibrium and population ceases to increase.

While it’s a great model for understanding the shifts in the health profile of worldwide or continental populations, it is fairly unsatisfying when examining within country or within community health and useless when looking at individuals.

The Health Transition and the Maasai

I’ve been thinking about a Maasai community in Laikipia, Kenya that I was working with this summer. We were looking at Q fever, a bacterial disease which can infect all mammals, but is particularly common in domesticated herd animals. The pathogen is transmissible to humans and can cause fevers, malaise, cardiac problems and miscarriages in pregnant women. It is an occupational hazard to those who work with animals, and potentially a threat to pastoralist communities, who depend on livestock for money and sustenance.

Now, it’s hard to know what was really happening before humans moved to agriculture for sustenance. Paleolithic peoples weren’t known for leaving written records or for data collection. We can, however, look at hunter gatherers in Sub-Saharan Africa or South America to give us at least some idea of what human health was like before we started growing crops in fixed locations.

More relevant to the Maasai, we can look at nomadic-pastoralists, who rely on domesticated animals but move from place to place, and sedentarized pastoralists, who also rely on livestock, but reside in mostly fixed locations. Sedentarization can occur due to land constraints which might include scarcity of water or the introduction of political or property boundaries.

DSC_0685Research has indicated that sedentarized pastoralists are more unhealthy than still nomadic livestock herders. Women and children in sedentary communities have been shown to have poorer nutritional profiles than nomads (Nathan, Fratkin et al. 1996, Fratkin 2001). Incidence of diarrheal and respiratory disease is lower in nomadic children than in children in sedentarized communities. Sedentarism and interaction with commercial livestock markets has been associated with declines in social cohesion, which has been associated with declining health profiles of pastoralist communities in Uganda (Pearson 2010). Sedentarization isn’t all bad, however. Nomadic communities have been found to be at greater risk for zoonotic diseases (like Q and Brucellosis), have lower rates of vaccination, poorer vitamin profiles and high rates of infant mortality(Montavon, Jean‐Richard et al. 2013).

The Direction of the Health Transition in Pastoralist Communities

In actuality, it is difficult to quantify “health,” though if we take infant mortality and life expectancy as an indicator of the quality of life of communities, we might find that sedentarized pastoralists do worse than nomadic pastoralists. This contradicts the “epidemiologic transition,” which posits that any shift towards fixed agrarian societies is beneficial to human health.

Modern societies, characterized by technological efficiencies, diversified economies and sophisticated transportation networks are significantly better for human health than nomadic hunter-gatherer contexts and pastoralist communities which exist at the mercy of weather and environmental pressures. Though it is definitely tempting to romanticize the days when humans quietly roamed the grasslands of Africa, eating whatever was available to them, it is hard to deny that humans were better off in a distant past. This would confirm the model of the epidemologic transition.

However, I believe, that though the trajectory toward development may be beneficial in the long term, the disruptions which occur along the transition have deleterious effects on humans health. I found this in Laikipia. Within a Maasai community, there were two distinct groups of people. One held on to traditional herding techniques and relied heavily on traditional medications to treat animals health problems. They mostly refused to send their children to formal school, had large numbers of children, and seemed ambivalent toward household economic diversification. The other was characterized by smaller families, eagerly sent their children to receive formal education, were open to modern herd management techniques and often took jobs or started business to diversify their household economic activities.

Financial losses from livestock death by occupation. "None" means no economic activities outside of herding.  "Mpala" refers to those working as security guards at a local research station. "Other" comprises a number of activities.

Financial losses from livestock death by occupation. “None” means no economic activities outside of herding. “Mpala” refers to those working as security guards at a local research station. “Other” comprises a number of activities.

I found that those resistant to sedentarization and economic integration with the Kenyan market economy did significantly worse than those who embraced change. I collected data on herds, asking households how many animals they possessed, what kinds, how many were born in the past year and how many died. What I found was that households which engaged with the Kenyan market economy through formal employment as security guards or herders on large commercial ranches had larger and more diverse herds since they did not have to sell animals to obtain cash for health services or school fees. They sprayed their animals for ticks more often and they overwhelmingly reported fewer animals deaths as a proportion of their total herd, indicating that herds were healthier overall.

If we were to take animal health as a proxy of human health (as herding households are in maximal contact with livestock at all times), then we might see that the epidemiologic transition among the Maasai might not be linearly increase consistently, but might rather be J-shaped. Health might decline on the shift from purely nomadic to sedentarized, by might improve again as households adapt to new conditions. Thus, the pattern of the epidemiologic transition, while holding overall, might experience a series of dips along the way, presumably representing disruptions and adaptation to new conditions. It will be interesting to formally test this hypothesis.

Abdel, R. O. (2001). “The epidemiological transition: A theory of the epidemiology of population change.” World Health Organization. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 79(2): 161.
Fratkin, E. (2001). “East African Pastoralism in Transition: Maasai, Boran, and Rendille Cases.” African Studies Review 44(3): 1.
Fratkin, E. M. and E. A. Roth (2005). As Pastoralists Settle. Boston, MA, Springer US
Kluwer Academic Publishers-Plenum Publishers.
Montavon, A., V. Jean‐Richard, M. Bechir, D. M. Daugla, M. Abdoulaye, R. N. Bongo Naré, C. Diguimbaye‐Djaibé, I. O. Alfarouk, E. Schelling, K. Wyss, M. Tanner and J. Zinsstag (2013). “Health of mobile pastoralists in the Sahel – assessment of 15 years of research and development.” Tropical Medicine & International Health 18(9): 1044.
Nathan, M. A., E. M. Fratkin and E. A. Roth (1996). “Sedentism and child health among Rendille pastoralists of northern Kenya.” Social science & medicine (1982) 43(4): 503.
Omran, A. R. (1977). “A century of epidemiologic transition in the United States.” Preventive Medicine 6(1): 30.
Pearson, A. L. (2010). Health and vulnerability: Economic development in Ugandan pastoralist communities, ProQuest, UMI Dissertations Publishing.

Guest Blog: Jamie Ought to Put his Money Where he Thinks Poor People’s Mouths Should Be

Jim Pyke as Iron Man

Jim Pyke as Iron Man

Jim Pyke is an old friend from Ann Arbor. Besides laying claim to wearing meat as clothing before Lady Gaga, he cooks really good food which I inexplicably keep not taking advantage of. He has offered to write today’s post for me (not that I write every day):

I’ve just browsed around some articles online about the latest Jamie Oliver “controversy.” The issue, in which Oliver is persistently laying himself open to criticism for blaming the poor for some of their own travails, basically boils down to this (from an essay in The Guardian by Alex Andreou):

Oliver observes:

“The poorest families in this country choose the most expensive way to hydrate and feed their families. The ready meals, the convenience foods.”

If only he could travel back in time and advise the homeless me of 2009 how to replace a Tesco Value lasagna or Tesco Value chicken curry, both under £1, with something healthy that I can buy from the King’s Cross Tesco Metro (the only supermarket within walking distance) and cook in a microwave (the only cooking apparatus at my disposal).

This points to the idea that the real issue, the one Oliver isn’t seeing – despite his generally acknowledged good intentions – much less addressing is actually infrastructural, as opposed to attitudinal, cultural, or whatever “boot-strappy” fallacy Oliver is allowing himself to get caught up in.

Where I live it is relatively easy to walk or catch a bus to a well-stocked grocery store, but this is not always the case – especially in places of concentrated poverty. Additionally, the tools and equipment needed to cook cheap, healthy and *fast* meals may be neither readily available, nor cheap to purchase in those same areas. For example, I can make a lot of staple foods pretty quickly in my kitchen with just a bag of flour and a few other common ingredients.

However, this would take a prohibitive amount of time without my stand mixer and the attachments I have amassed for it over the years. Plus there’s the fact that cooking anything from raw ingredients requires, even more fundamentally, a bare minimum of clean, uncluttered counter space (to say nothing of a functional stove, oven, pots and pans, etc.).

Maybe instead of writing more cookbooks (even giving copies of them away to every public library in the country – as he did in an odd effort toward damage control) and spreading himself around on the TV, Jaime would do well to partner with or mentor some potential business operators in impoverished neighborhoods in order to open fresh food co-op stores. They could go further and add well-equipped co-op kitchens/dining rooms around the backs of the stores.

These cooperatively run businesses could become pillars of their neighborhoods where people could come together and strengthen themselves with healthy food and robust social relationships. They could benefit from sharing the knowledge of individuals in those communities some of whom undoubtedly work in food service or have family food traditions and would be only too happy to give back to their neighbors in this way. Kids could go there to learn how to make their own healthy after school snacks and eat them while hanging out and doing their homework in the co-op dining rooms in the hours before the evening neighborhood dinners available through pay-at-the-door or multiple-meal punch card buy-ins.

The economy of scale – especially if the idea could somehow be “franchised” – would benefit everyone in the neighborhoods by providing lower prices for and higher availability of healthy fresh food.

I am not a business person myself, but I suspect something like this would require ongoing charitable donations or an endowment of some kind to ensure that it wouldn’t just fall into disrepair almost immediately after the grand opening. Such funding would likely also be required for core staffing needs. Volunteerism is great, but even good organizations that run mostly by the grace of willing volunteers need a core of paid staff in most cases. Maybe Jaime and his fellow celebrity chefs could rally some of their millions to provide that seed money instead of (or at least in addition to) trying to sell poor people copies of the companion book to his new TV series.

Imagine all the free publicity and product placement possibilities present in these proposed shop/cook/dine hybrid storefronts. (I do think it’s important to balance being hopeful about positive social change against a touch of skepticism or even cynicism regarding the ability of celebrities to drive that change.)

Come to think of it, the journey to setting up something like that would probably make a really lovely, very sincerely uplifting reality TV series.


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