I had one of those odd old man moments today where I’m watching a squirrel run up a tree. It goes half way up the tree in a split second, stops, then decides there’s nothing to run from after all. It then spends the next 10 seconds trying to get down. In short, the squirrel can climb a tree in a tenth the time it takes to get down. I realize this is a pretty silly observation.
Humans, too, are really good at running up hills, but terrible at getting down them. I remember climbing Mt. Mulanje in Malawi once. Going up was no problem at all. Getting down was dangerous as hell.
We pull better than we push, see right in front of ourselves better than beside ourselves, and have an easier time thinking of the concerns of a few proximal people, than a vast numbers of people who live far away. The latter, obviously, has important implications for global policy.
All of these things, though, are remnants of our evolutionary past and make complete sense when put in the context of our humble, though dangerous, beginnings. Arising in the savannahs of Kenya, humans would have been easy prey for all sorts of predators. When faced with a lion or hyena, a reasonable strategy is to run up the nearest tree and wait for the threat to pass. Thus, getting up the tree is critical for survival, particularly for children. Importantly, if they are eaten before they reproduce, the survival of the species is in question. Better climbers are survivors who are able to pass their climbing abilities on to their own children.
Getting down from the tree, of course, is not critical to survival. Thus, we can take our sweet time clumsily trying to get down, live and be able to pass our clumsy genes on to our children. So threats create effective adaptations and the lack of threat creates useless ones. The same is true for eyesight. Humans, as predatory omnivores, benefit from being able to focus on their prey while hunting, especially when they have the unique ability to run long distances while they wait for their prey (which likely has a serious head start) to tire out.
The Kericho region of Kenya is famous for producing long distance runners. I wonder if they maintained a particular hunting strategy that the Europeans or Asians no longer required.
Of interest to me is why humans might be so clan centric. It has been shown that humans are able to feel empathy for individuals close to them, but have a hard time imagining the sufferings of millions of unfamiliar people. This limitation, of course, allows us to wage wars far from home, and maintain indifference toward the millions living in poverty around the world.
Again, there are evolutionary roots here. Humans, being pack animals are adapted to be concerned about their immediately family and pack members, particularly children. This is important to survival. When any member of the group is threatened, all must be ready to ward off the threat, and protect children, who pass on similar traits to their children. A group of people indifferent to those aorund them would die out quickly. We are poor fighters on our own.
We have lived only in small groups until very recently. Thus, we never formed a need to be concerned with anyone else besides those closest to us. This state of having to care about the welfare of millions (or billions) is entirely new. We haven’t yet adjusted to it, though we make noble attempts. It is possible that we may never fully develop the ability to feel the pain of billions, unless something comes along and starts wiping out those who don’t. If that happened, we’d probably all be dead, though.
I had never thought of the problems of global policy in terms of evolutionary behavior. I guess, I have the squirrel to thank.
The NYT did an interesting article this morning on Japan’s recent increase in defense expenditures. I’m never sure where I stand on the issue of Japan’s military (not that I have a say). One the one hand, a stronger Japanese military would help solidify Japan’s position and a major global player, and put a formal end to it’s stupid, weak-kneed political isolation.
It would no longer be able to hide behind the skirt of the United States, a situation that complicates domestic and international policy. Japan’s military, one of the largest and most well equipped in the world, largely operates in the shadows, on paper, surrendering military policy to the United States. This complicates international policy by disincentivising Japan from taking a global leadership role and tends to exacerbate isolationist behavior at home. The influential words of Peter Parker’s venerated uncle may ring true.
On the other, Japan has to respond to credible threats from China and North Korea and can’t wait on the Americans to protect them. This is dangerous for us. Even a small skirmish would require the immediate response of the Americans, which could result in a global war.
On the other, other hand, giving Japanese right wingers the proper tools of war would be disastrous. I have zero confidence in American right wingers. My confidence in Japanese right wingers falls into the negative zone. Though Japan, in general, is a very pacifistic country, its extreme elements are so deeply backward as to be irresponsible.
First, there is no such thing as a “Monsanto Protection Act” anymore than there is any such thing as “Obamacare.” This is a term created by the item’s opponents to rile up opposition, rather than foster critical analysis. I think that Liberals should be well aware of the political problems associated with demonizing and reductionist labeling of things they don’t like.
Second, though Presidents can veto any bill that comes across his desk, the veto of appropriations bills are rare, and have often been overridden by Congress in the past. It may be a shock to liberals, but Presidents aren’t kings. Conservatives often don’t seem to understand the three branches of Government. Liberals often appear to understand it even less.
Third, there was hardly “no debate.” A Google search will reveal that discussions of this particular item go back at least to June of 2012 and the “Famer’s Assurance Provision” as it is correctly known is part of another Ag Appropriations bill which passed last year. Anyone who tells you this is new, is either lying, or doesn’t know what they are talking about. (Even Snopes took this on.)
Fourth, there is no evidence (that I’m aware of) that GMO’s, which are already in our food supply, are having deleterious effects on human health or the environment. There have been some studies on mouse models that I know of, but it appears that no one can really agree on what a “GMO” really is. Until we can nail that down, and have more informed discussion of which GMOs are “bad” and which are “good”, I don’t think that screaming about GMO’s is any more productive than poorly informed discussion of complex issues such as climate change.
I’m not trying to suggest that there are no effects of “GMOs” whatever they may be. I am saying that lefties are accepting that there are broad effects without question and are relying on less-than-scientific and politically motivated sources such as Salon and the Huffington Post to inform them. That’s a very, very dangerous position to take.
Fifth, I think we should all know by now that rightists use issues like this to weaken Democratic Presidencies. I was of the opinion that much of the furor over controversial portions of the 2012 NDAA bill was stoked by right wingers hoping for a Achilles heel in the 2012 Obama campaign. When we buy into this type of sensationalist reporting without examining the evidence, we play right into their hands.
Sixth, well, I had a sixth, but lost it. But back to GMO’s: It’s interesting that discussions of GMO’s in Sub-Saharan Africa are opposite of what we hear in the US. People view the American and European opposition to GMOs, some of which have the potential to increase food yield while minimizing inputs, as an infringement on developing countries’ rights of self determination. It’s easy to dismiss their concerns as uninformed. However, people and policy makers in developing countries face competing issues of immediate economic needs and broad environmental concerns. Lots of things seem obvious to us, but then we have most of our basic needs already met.
I mean this not as a defense of the Farmer’s Assurance Provision or anything else having to do with GMO’s (so chill out). The endless (and perhaps deserved) vilification of Monsanto has reached a point where examination of the facts is secondary to screaming like a blithering idiot. To me, this is dangerous. When we reduce ourselves to merely accepting positions without criticism, we allow ourselves to be manipulated by just about anything. Not everyone has the time to read all that is required to create a truly informed and reasoned opinion on all subjects, I realize. Striving toward obtaining as much information as is reasonable, however, and acting critically should be a priority for everyone, however.
Liberals are the smart ones. We can do better.
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:
There’s no doubt that the events in the article occurred and is worthy of reporting. The NYT, however, has been near silent on the subject of the Kenyan elections, arguably the most important political event in the world in early 2013. After months of nothing, we get a picture of a near decapitated infant.
The 2008 Kenyan elections were an absolute disaster. Such a disaster, in fact, that the entire country is proactively wishing that the next one (scheduled in March) passes peacefully and without incident. I am, of course, skeptical that the elections will proceed entirely without incident as Kenyans universally insist, but I think it unlikely that there will be near the extent of bloodshed.
ICC court proceedings are constantly broadcast live in every eating establishment and bar in the country, likely as a grim reminder as to how bad things can be, but also as a deterrent to further violence. The festering remains of IDP camps on the sides of Kenyan highways are even more grim, particularly when one realizes that a few people are still living in them.
As the article says, Kenya is an oasis of development in a highly troubled region (it borders Somalia). In 2013, Nairobi is no different than Houston, TX. I’m not a fan of either, but it’s telling when I can go into a Nairobi supermarket and be offered free, processed food samples, just as I would at Meijer back home. It’s telling when I can buy real coffee (not instant) at a local Starbucks analogue. Granted, the rest of the country has a lot of catching up to do, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.
I’ll take an aside from Kenya to write on an excellent article I found on Bloomberg on the subject of economic “uncertainty.” During the run up to the 2012 election and the subsequent debates on the now almost forgotten “fiscal cliff,” Republicans and their faithful believers spread wacky ideas that American business was crippled by not knowing what their tax rate would be in 2013.
Caroline Baum on Bloomberg claims, rightly, that this was a manufactured panic, though I would argue that our academically challenged politicians seriously believed what they were peddling.
Republicans in Congress claimed that businesses were sitting on cash, unwilling to invest until they knew what their tax rate would be next year (as if tax rates are ever set in stone). What’s more, raising taxes on “job creators” would bring the U.S. economy to its knees.
The premise behind this is fantastical. If businesses are sure that they’ll make a profit, they’ll invest the money today. I think it’s ridiculous to assume that single digit tax increases will somehow get in the way of moving ahead with business.
She points out, though, that the whole thing was fantasy:
– The private sector added 675,000 jobs, making it the second-best quarter since the recession ended in June 2009.
– Business spending on equipment and software rose 12.4 percent annualized, the biggest increase since the third
quarter of 2011.
– Business sales rose an annualized 4.2 percent (assuming no change for December), the strongest quarter of 2012.
The most perplexing part of the whole “kowtow to the American economic elite or else you’ll be unemployed” idea is the notion that somehow CEO’s hand out jobs like candy. “Job creators” don’t create jobs unless there is demand for products, either domestically or abroad (don’t forget that the US is an export giant). Republicans, so opposed to handouts, imply that somehow it is the responsibility of business to provide jobs without the expectation of return.
This is, of course, the government’s responsibility! It is exactly why we continue to invest in infrastructure improvement, have unemployment insurance, provide food stamps and bolster national defense. These expenditures are made knowing that returns are unlikely, but the infusing of cash into the economy keeps important sectors afloat and reduces overall volatility.
It’s ironic, given the anti-Keynesian bent of the Republican Party that prevents them from admitting it, that the US’s economic contraction in the last quarter of 2012 was due to defense cuts and had nothing to do with any type of fantastical “uncertainty.”
OK, back to bednets and Kenya.
We got into an interesting discussion with our driver. Joseph is a great guy and, most salient on African roads, a great driver. He asked me if I was a Christian. I told him flat out that I didn’t believe in anything. I usually try to hold back, but maybe I was too tired to care.
He asked why, and I told him: The Abrahamic God is a despot. He let’s children die. He punishes his faithful followers with poverty and suffering and astonishingly still demands tribute. Paradoxically, the people that don’t believe in Him live relatively bountiful lives. I told him that I respect and do not think badly of people who choose to believe, but I, personally, have serious problems with religion. We can coexist peacefully.
Joseph struggled to come up with some reason why, pointing out that it is the spiritual failings of the children’s parents that cause infant death. We discussed the subject further, and it expanded into a political discussion of the nature of foreign aid and development.
“Africa is behind because our ancestors weren’t faithful. The white people came to give us the message of Christ, but it was too late. It will take us 100 years to develop.”
Of course, I jokingly replied that the white man came because he want to enslave Africans to act as farming tools and steal African gold.
This brought up some important issues. It’s a pretty sad state of affairs to assume that one’s continent is in disarray because people 300 years ago had made the mistake of practicing indigenous religions (as opposed to a foreign import). It’s worse that white people, in their exploitative glory, are seen as saviors and not the raw opportunists they were (are).
It’s even worse to think that common Africans are stuck in a state of self-loathing simply for not being born European. Western contributions to the world cannot be denied, but it’s fantasy to believe that the world couldn’t live without us. I don’t think that Joseph is particularly set in his views and was likely merely making enjoyable conversation, but the statement was revealing.
It is now almost cliche to talk of the evils of aid and the creation of the problems of dependence. If foreign governments are so motivated, they can simply stop sending money. There are other ways of helping Africa’s economies to grow (ending US/European farm subsidies is one). An issue of identity, however, is a much more difficult problem to solve. If one of the African economies joins the top ranks of the world, as I think one will in the next 50 years (it might be even Kenya), we may, perhaps, see significant change.