I’ve written before on the link between unrest in South Africa and the problem of rising food prices. Looking at the plot of the right, it’s not hard to notice the similarities in the series of conflict events post 2005 to food prices as estimated by the FAO’s Food Price Index (FPI).
I began to wonder whether some of the recent rise in conflict events is somehow related to rising food commodity prices. Having found a correlation in South Africa, it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
I calculated the cross correlations between the FPI and conflict events and found that the FPI was predictive of conflict, but that conflict was not predictive of FPI. This was similar to what I found in South Africa.
Plotting the FPI against the number of monthly conflict events, I found something interesting. It appears that the two are mostly unrelated until the FPI reaches a threshold of approximately 200, then the number of monthly events shoots up. It is interesting to note that in other research, 210 was the assumed maximum price that households would absorb before taking to the streets.
I’ve repeatedly written on the problem of stock market speculation in food commodities as a cause for rising volatility in world food prices. I won’t beat this into the ground again. However, results such as these indicate that the problem of rising and volatile food prices is not just an economic problem, but also a problem of human health and welfare.
The ending to Vietnam was easy to recognize. We have the iconic pictures of the last helicopter on it’s way out to freedom to prove it. The end of WWII came with capitulations from Japan and Germany and a cessation of fighting.
If the media is to act as a guide, the end of the Iraq war (which was really an invasion) is not so clear. I would even speculate that most Americans think that the war is still on in full force. (To be charitable, they might not realize there’s a difference between Iraq and Afghanistan.) Despite this perception, iCasualties, a web site which tracks deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan only reported one military death in 2012 and, so far, none in 2013.
The Iraq Body Count site, however, listed 355 civilian deaths last month. The question is, though, where does the war stop? I find it hard to believe that there weren’t violent deaths previous to the entry of the Americans. A look at the listing of deaths lists attacks in markets and police stations, random roadside bombs.
Most troubling to me are the targeted killings of educators, University employees and academics. Though it may be unpopular to say so, there comes a point where we can’t blame ourselves any longer. Reading this list, I’m thoroughly disgusted. Hate the Americans if you will, but the killing of teachers and kids is inexcusable.
There is no doubt that the war was a colossal waste of resources, begun under intentionally fabricated pretenses for reasons which still remain mysterious to me. I sincerely doubt Bush had the intellectual faculties to come up with it on his own. The blame for the war goes to people like Robert Zoellick, Francis Fukuyama and Paul Wolfowitz and Donald Rumsfeld all members of the “Project for the New American Century,” a group which pressured Clinton to invade.
The saddest part is that the war was massively expensive, we haven’t really even begun to pay for most of it. The money came from low interest bonds. Of course, with inflation outpacing the interest rate on those bonds, we might not ever have to.
The Washington Post put it rather well:
In relative terms, the Iraq war has been fairly cheap by historical standards, costing about $120 billion a year or around one per cent of GDP, compared to 45 percent of GDP for World War II. In absolute terms, however, the Iraq war is the “second most expensive war” in American history after World War II. According to Hormats, it has been financed largely through the issuing of treasury bonds, 40 to 45 percent of which have been bought by foreigners
These treasury bonds were bought at rock bottom interest rates, I might add (again). To be honest, I get annoyed when liberals start screaming about how expensive the war was. Perhaps they don’t know what a bond is but the absolute expense isn’t the problem. The scary part is (as it states above) that the war, in relative terms to GDP, won’t cost us hardly anything. This lack of financial pain just makes it easier for us to do it again in the future.
HRW did a great piece on torture and human rights abuses in Iraq.
I’ll include the movie here for posterity:
Today I encountered a discussion, where the participants emphatically maintained that the current US economic woes are to be blamed in part on increased US defense spending during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I countered and claimed that they have no relation at all. Of course, these people hate me now (thinking I was merely being difficult for the same of being difficult), but that’s ok. I’m used to it.
To test this hypothesis, I took data on US GDP (adjusted to constant 2005 dollars) and combined them with data on US defense spending (adjusted to constant 2010 dollars). The results can be seen to the left. The red line is defense spending. The blue line is GDP.
As I maintained, there is no obvious relationship between defense spending and economic growth. There are a couple of major blips in GDP growth, namely the collapsing of tech equities in the early 2000′s and the economic meltdown on 2007/8. There are no events in US GDP for drops during Clinton nor sudden increases in defense spending following 9/11.
In fact, as defense spending dropped pre-9/11, you can see the US economy was plugging along just fine. As defense spending went up post 9/11, the US economy maintained the same trajectory, minus the economic bumps.
Now, at first glance, this is a little more convincing. But when you take the events into consideration, it is less so. The two major economic events of the 2000′s, namely the equity bust, and the financial meltdown both resulted in sudden jumps in the unemployment rate. 9/11 and the troop surge did not. In fact, as spending was doing up, unemployment was going down. If we look back into the nineties, we can notice that even though defense spending was declining, unemployment was up, then down again. In short, given the context, there is no real reason to assume that two related.
I am NOT an advocate for war. I am though, an advocate for evidence backed claims. There is little evidence to suggest that increased defense expenditures during the Bush years affected our economy.
We can claim, if we like, that federal revenues might have been greater had the wars not happened. These revenues, it is argued, could have been allocated to education or infrastructure improvements, for example. However, it has to be noted that the wars weren’t funded out of federal revenues. They were funded out of low interest bonds. Thus, as those bonds had not been serviced at the time that this data was collected, there is, again, even less reason to assume that the wars negatively impacted the economy.
Now, we can certainly make arguments over how much defense spending is too much and what the potential long term effects of servicing the war debt will be. I argue, though, that our elected representatives are much more interested in financing the military than, say, welfare programs for the needy. It would take a great leap of faith to assume that, if the military were closed tomorrow, monies targeted for defense would automatically be transferred to providing health care to poor people. I also argue that, long term, the expenditures that came out of the financial crisis will be, in comparison, more difficult to service.
The war cost us politically, but was a bargain economically. To me, that’s a much more frightening state of affairs.
Today, I got a email notice calling for applications for Telluride House. A scholarship guarantees one free room and board for up to 5 years here at the University of Michigan.
Telluride house is a residential community at the University of Michigan that offers full room and board scholarships to University students, based on a selective application process. The scholarships, renewable for up to five years, offer a unique living experience filled with intellectual stimulation, challenging leadership development opportunities, and a host of avenues for thoughtful engagement in governance and community service. Past winners of the Telluride scholarship include a diverse set of luminaries such as philosopher Francis Fukuyama, postmodern scholar Gayatri Spivak, World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, and
several Nobel prize winners including Steven Weinberg, Richard Feynman, and Linus Pauling.
I never realized I shared an educational pedigree with such right wing luminaries like Fukuyama and Paul Wolfowitz.
Both were members of the Project for the New American Century, the right wing group with orchestrated the eventual invasion of Iraq by the United States. It’s worth noting that Dick Cheney, Jeb Bush and Donald Rumsfeld were also in the same group.
It can be argued that this was one of the most influential groups in recent history, having carved the path of current US foreign policy.
Do these people need free room and board? That’s a better deal than most people ever get. Most people don’t orchestrate massive military expeditions. Telluride would do well to open their doors to the poor and conscientious.
Recently, a scandal has erupted over pictures of US Soldiers posing proudly with the corpses of dead Afghan fighters. I am reminded of a flight I took last year from DC to Detroit. I sat next to a man from a town close to mine who was returning from Iraq. He indicated that he had been working in a training position for the military in Savannah for the past few months, but was now 100% DAV. He was returning to his wife and an unsure future, though he gets reasonable benefits and full health care.
I have met a lot of these guys and some have even been my students. They are usually pretty sharp, follow instructions to the letter, work incredibly hard and will help out other students when needed. I can usually tell that something is wrong though, particularly if they don’t show up for a couple of weeks.
I was interested in getting his opinions on a small spatial project I had done on conflict events in Iraq and showed him of the maps I had made. He was only moderately interested but answered my questions as to what was where in Baghdad and why some areas are harder hit than others.
In return, he showed me some of his pictures.
The man was personable, but guarded, though he happily showed me pictures of him and his buddies posing with the bodies of Iraqi insurgents. He even laughed at a few of them and remarked that there were good times to be had in Iraq. After a few minutes, he must have realized the public nature of an airplane and quickly closed them up. It was interesting to me that he would carry them around with him in a marked folder.
I can’t claim to understand what happens in war. I have seen what war does to its participants, both soldiers and civilians. I do fault the better judgement of people that pose with bodies, though am interested in a culture of violence that would allow humans to revel in it.
I am drawn (again) to Amartya Sen’s work on the nature of violence and its relationship to identity, a concept I often think about. He posits that violence is only possible when the objects of attack are reduced to compartmentalized categories that remove all others. These photos, which are strikingly similar to that of the widely popular lynching photos in the United States, are no exception. American soldiers gleefully posing with corpses view them not as someone’s son, friend, father or neighbor, reducing them only to one single facet of their true identities. Sen would argue that the true crime is not the violent act itself, but the violence of stripping away the individual identity of the recipient of violence.
Photos of soldiers posing with bodies, though, is at least as old as the camera itself:
Psychotic episodes on Lariam are not uncommon. Reports go deep within the drug’s history (which is an interesting one), and problems have even been noted in military contexts. It was reported that Larium may have caused four military men to kill their wives in the summer of 2008. Killings in the UK in 2002 were also associated with Lariam. Even veterans groups have come out against the drug.
The NIH even notes that side effects of Lariam use include: “nervousness or extreme worry, depression, changes in mood, panic attack, forgetfulness, confusion, hallucinations (seeing things or hearing voices that do not exist), violent behavior, losing touch with reality, feeling that others want to harm you, thoughts of hurting or killing yourself.” They also note that these are rare events. However, as we in epidemiology know, rare events tend to occur more when larger numbers of people are at risk. If there is even a .1% chance of something happening, then likely, given 1000 people, there will be one event. More than 100,000 military members have gone to Afghanistan. Do the math.
Military deployments are characterized by stress, long periods of sleeplessness, a culture that rewards violence and the propensity for violence, and social hierarchy that leads to imbalance power differentials in interpersonal relationships. All of these things likely aggravate potential negative side effects of Larium.
It is perplexing that the military would still be using Lariam. The risks are well known to the military, who have been reported to overprescribe it to inmates at Guantanamo, likely as a form of torture. It is likely, that the daily schedule of the more benign (and effective) Malarone are prohibitive in extended combat missions.
Some researchers, noting the evidence of psychotic episodes and death associated with Lariam, also point to political and economic corruption as being the reason Lariam continues to be used. Interestingly, Lariam was unethically tested on American prisoners in the 1970′s, where negative effects were noted even then. The US military needs to reassess its malaria policy (as it appears to have done) and ask itself if the risks to civilians, both foreign and domestic, are worth the low cost and convenient dosage regimine. Reports have indicated, though, that the military is set to drop Lariam from its list of drugs. Whether this has happened yet, is unclear at this point.
Personally, I would never take Lariam. I would rather risk getting malaria, than take it. Even the more moderate Malarone, reportedly free of side effects, induces severe depression in me (in addition to my normal depression), to the point where I have to stop taking it.
Lariam does not get Sgt. Bales off the hook. My fear is that Sgt. Bales defense and war apologists may use the Lariam issue as a convenient defense. The fact is that he killed 17 civilians who all have names and people who love and miss them.
The news broke yesterday that the Obama admin is sending 100 US troops to Uganda to root out the Lord’s Resistance Army and finally bring their leader, Joseph Kony, to justice. The American public, still reeling from the protracted wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are notably suspicious.
A world without the LRA and Joseph Kony is a better world. Kony and his group have waged a war against humanity. Acts of violence, dismemberment, disfigurement, rape, child slavery and exploitation are just the top of the list of the horror story that the LRA have created in Northern Uganda,the DRC and the Sudan. Estimates vary, but it has been said that the LRA has abducted more than 100,000 children as child soldiers and killed tens of thousands more. Ostensibly, the LRA is a Christian group, though, though experts point out that there are heavy elements of Acholi mysticism and politics. They are similar to many charismatic groups in Africa, though they distinguish themselves though bloodshed and rape.
The LRA has been active since 1986, when mystic and spirit medium Alice Auma, created the Holy Spirit Movement to rid the Ugandan government of the influence of witchcraft and satanism and abate the spiritual crisis that had stricken Uganda. Truly, though, Kony and the LRA have used mysticism to achieve broader goals of power, control and terror. The LRA is little different from a widespread pattern of witchcraft accusations, which gel rural populations together against a common, and mystical, enemy.
The interest of the Obama admin and the United States is far too little, too late, almost 25 years too late. In some sense, the United States unwittingly created the conditions that produced a group like the LRA, through its long and protracted war with the Soviet Union and China that it fought by proxy in the DRC and Angola. The ideological fight between the two Cold War powers destabilized the entire region by providing a consistent supply of sophisticated weaponry and favoring the worst and most despotic of leaders, not the least of which was President Mobuto of Zaire. Presently, supplies for the LRA come from neighboring Sudan, though food and health care appear to remain scarce.
So why now? The second scramble for Africa is underway. Nigeria and Angola are both major suppliers of petrochemicals, and a recent oil find in Uganda has finally put this small and landlocked country on the map of speculators and oil investors. China has long sought to dig its claws into Africa’s vast resources and turn attention away from the west. China’s as yet untested relationship with Africa provide it a considerable advantage over the west long history of exploitation. The United States is therefore in a precarious position. In it’s search for new sources of petroleum, it can’t let Africa slip though it’s fingers. The cost of 100 well trained troops to stabilize Uganda’s rural, oil possessing regions, is far outweighed by the benefits of obtaining a new source of energy resources.
This could be a boon to the struggling, though emerging, country of Uganda. Finally securing the Northern region of Uganda could free up Uganda’s financial resources that it could invest into infrastructure and economic expansion. Sales of oil contracts could provide a solid source of income for a country with few options. It could also be a curse. Mismanagement and corruption could, at best, exacerbate inequality and at worst, finance even more conflicts.
Regardless, the US’s refusal to move on from petroleum will be its political downfall. Several years ago, discussion of alternative energy, efficiency and technology has been replaced by calls for expansion of dirty, though domestic, energy sources, and an ever expanding presence on the globe. Again, the Obama admin has disappointed by falling into this trap and continuing the same old pattern that the previous administration set.
I’ve decided that this is food week on this blog and have prepared a series of posts regarding the very dire situation of increasing world food prices. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, world food prices have hit an all time historical high in 2011, and the trend shows no signs of abating. The prices of cereals, sugars, meat and dairy continue to rise as a result of climate change, insufficient production methods and rising demand for biofuels. Protectionist schemes such as US and European agricultural subsidies discourage the importing of food to developed nations, inhibiting the capacity for developing countries to improve agricultural infrastructure. Speculation on African and South American crop land by China, Korea and Saudi Arabia for future sources of grains intended for biofuels drive prices up even further. The refusal of the United States to develop strategies to combat and respond to climate change, continued economic policy that favors developed nations at the expense of the poor and the global grab for arible land will only insure that the situation becomes even more dire in the future.
The wealthy have little to fear from rising food commodity prices. It has long been shown that the wealthy are immune to the effects of famine and food insecurity, for obvious reasons. The lives are the poor, however, are extremely sensitive to changes in food prices. Even a modest increase shift in world food commodity prices can spell death for an infant born into poverty. Food insecurity also creates social insecurity, which can then lead to riots, social violence and ultimately armed conflict.
To explore this relationship, I took data from the FAO website for food commodity prices from 1980 to the present and merged them with the Armed Conflict Data Base (that I have written on before) and asked the question, do rising food prices influence the liklihood of conflict events?
I merged the ACLED data base with the FAO’s monthly food price index data, which includes prices indices for food, cereals, dairy, oils and meats. I then compared the two in a regression model to determine if any relationship exists between the number of conflict events in a month and the monthly prices of food.
The results were interesting. Overall food prices were not correlated with conflict events. Meats, dairy and oils, however, were. In fact, meat prices had an inverse relationship with conflict events, indicating that when meat prices increase, conflict decreases (filet mignon can save the world!). Dairy and oils, however, are positively associated with conflict events. Increasing milk and oil prices coincide with a rise in the number of conflict events.
Does this prove that food prices predict conflict events? In and of itself, no, though evidence here suggests that exporing this relationship is worth undertaking. In the next post, I will move on to regional relationships, isolating effects of food prices and conflict events in the major conflicts of the past 20 years, namely those of Afghanistan and those in the region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.