Archive | September 2013

Not All GDP Measures are Created Equal

1365632412893Recently, I got the pleasure of seeing a lecture by Morten Jerven, a faculty member at Simon Fraser University’s School for International Studies. He has written a wonderful book, “Poor Numbers” which asks some very important questions.

Measure of the gross domestic product (GDP) of a country are important to understanding one country’s economic health as compared to another. We use these measure all the time to track relative differences between economies, and to figure out if countries’ economies are improving and degrading from year to year.

The measure is, of course, not without its problems. Gross Domestic product usually measures the sum total of the value of all market goods within a country at a particular time. For developed countries with established systems of taxation, this is not a difficult measure to produce.

Developing countries, however, particularly in Africa are quite bad at collecting taxes from their citizens, they often have opaque informal business sectors which dominate their economies and weak governments which don’t fund their census and statistical offices very well.

This is, of course, exactly the question that Jerven explores in his book. Given the rudimentary infrastructure of data collection and recording in developing countries, how do we know what we think we know about developing world economies?

Global funding agencies and governments make billion dollar decisions based on the recorded GDP of a particular country. Yet, it’s astounding that few of these agencies or anyone else who uses these measures often never asks whether the numbers are valid.

Three years ago, Ghana’s GDP doubled in one day, due to a change in the way that the GDP was calculated. Ghana went from being a developing country, to a low middle income country in one day. This year, Nigeria is also going to revise how it calculates its GDP. We expect that Nigeria’s GDP will rise considerably over night.

These measures matter. The World Bank considers concessionary loans on the basis of the GDP. If a country has too much money, it no long qualifies for special lending terms. This is a serious issue for countries that want to embark on development projects, or, in the case of resource economies (which most developing countries are), weather rapid fluctuations in market prices.

There are three major sources of GDP measures. The World Bank’s Development Indicators, the Maddison Project, and the Penn World Tables.

Jerven pointed out in his book that the rankings of countries by GDP do not agree between the three measures, outside that the Democratic Republic of Congo is the poorest country in the world. Liberia is the second poorest country in the world according to Penn, number seven according to Maddison and number 22 by the World Bank.

Though ranking is interesting, I was interested to see if the measure agreed with one another over time. If we were to measure economic growth of, say, Liberia over time, even if the basic dollar measures did not agree, the change from year to year might. For math people, the intercept might differ between two lines, but the slope might be the same.

Lacking time, I could only download two of the tables, the World Bank’s and Maddison’s. I wrote a script that would extract all of the GDP measure for each country from 1960 until 2012. I then compared the two measures by calculating the correlation coefficient for each country’s series.

I found that most of the country’s series agreed, with correlation coefficients in the .85 to .99 range. However, there were some glaring exceptions. The map to the right shows correlations coefficients for each country, colored by level. Tanzania stick out prominently, as does Namibia, the Central Africa Republic and Sierre Leone. Some of them are even in the negatives.

The political mess that is the CAR does not surprise me at all. Tanzania with its mostly righteous government and wealthy Namibia do surprise me very much.

I will have to explore this further, but until then, the take home message is that not all measures are created equal.


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.

Thoughts on Environmentalism and an Anthrocentric World

Elephants in Laikipia

Elephants in Laikipia

My friend recently asked me if I thought that “humans were more important than other species.” I sent him back a rambling reply, the question was thought provoking to an extent that I turned it into a blog post, which, unfortunately, still rambles.

I think that rather than ask whether humans are “more important than other species,” we have to explore the human-nature dichotomy itself. Unfortunateley, discussions on environmental issues seem to start from an assumption that one exists. These discussions, which put humans at odds with nature, generally lose me on three points (though, again, this is not my field of expertise):

1) The intense focus on large mammals. If we are going to convince ourselves that “nature’s” needs are more important than our own (or simply worth considering) we have to eliminate the idea of a hierarchy of species and consider all living things as equally important. It often seems that conversations become less holistic and more mammal-centric. Given that we are mammals and hard wired to like cute and furry things (particularly those small and weak), this is to be expected. However, the urge to protect things like ourselves makes it impossible for humans to objectively rank the importance of living things.

How often do you hear about people screaming to save snakes? Perhaps it happens and I just don’t hear about it. Clearly, big furry animals are an easy sell.

2) The idea that “species” are distinct entities, the number of which needs to be maximized at any cost. Preserving more species is seen as a goal, when in fact, the word itself is not uncontroversial. “Species” is a rough and artificial concept created by humans to assist in our understanding of the world. Even scientists can’t agree on what a species is, given that the situation that determines how a species is defined differs by type of animal and context (and history).

Take the Zebra, which comes in three main flavors, though I’ll focus on two. The Grevy zebra is Equus grevyi and the plains zebra is Equus quagga, different “species” by classification, but able to breed with one another and create offspring which are able to reproduce. The two “species” are distinct from one another only in superficial morphological features (stripes and size) and behavior.

Gravy’s, though genetically indistinct from plains zebras, are listed as endangered, which gives them certain benefits and allows Kenya (for example) to legally restrict grazing for Maasai goat herders, with the support of international groups. It’s a simplistic example, but it makes little sense to me to ask that humans make sacrifices based on a flawed concept of what makes a “species.” It also makes little sense to create policy which impacts the lives of Africans based on a false paradigm created by 19th century Europeans (“Gravy” was a French President). Yet, here we are.

An aside, but I often think that people really believe that “species,” particularly large mammals, are individuals with distinct personalities and collective thought patterns. From the animals’ standpoint, extinction isn’t an issue. Rhinos don’t hold regular meetings and worry collectively about extinction. Individual rhinos are merely concerned with eating enough grass and mating when necessary.

3) The concept that nature is a fragile and static entity which would be ultimately benefit from our non-existence. This stems from traditional dichotomies of “man” and “nature” where man operates in his (male) world and nature operates in an entirely separate and unchanged sphere. In the West, this goes all the way back to Genesis. It is a simplistic and useless concept and does more harm than good.

Nature is a dynamic and constantly changing system of which we are one part. We create nature “reserves” which are thought to “preserve” the “natural” state of “nature” but even these are artificial, human constructed spaces, as we have dictated the location and killed all our large wildlife. We approach them are “preserves”, but forget that we have altered the system (by, for example killing the wolves or cutting all the pine trees in Michigan). Thus, arguing for the “preservation” of nature is somewhat disingenuous, since even by advocating for what part of nature needs to be preserved, we are writing its rules.

The question of whether the world would be better or worse off without us is fairly moot since humans are defining the terms of “better” and “worse.” Moreover, from the German cockroach’s (Blattella germanica) standpoint or the Black rat (Rattus rattus), humans could be considered a great thing as we tend to migrate and take our pests with us. If it could, Plasmodium falciparum should worship us like a God, since it wouldn’t exist without us.

I don’t see man as separate from nature. For better or for worse, we are a part of it. But after we have run our course, the world will go on without us. “Nature,” however it may be defined, has shown itself to be a tough beast in the past. Even if the entire planet became desertized (is that a word?), life would continue to exist. One day, with or without us, all life on Earth will cease to exist.

The most salient questions should revolve around how our environmental impacts affect our long term survival for humans. Focusing on our own needs is the only sustainable strategy (though I despise the word).

Steve Irwin’s Daughter and the “Threat” of Overpopulation

Steve Irwin's family launches Goulburn Valley Fresh - SydneyA few days ago, a friend posted a link to an article about a thought piece written by 14 year old Bindi Irwin, daughter of the late television personality Steve Irwin.

Bindi was tasked with writing on why she chose to pursue wildlife conservation as her life’s work. Instead, she went on a rant on what she believes the most pressing problem facing humanity today: overpopulation.

Here’s what she wrote:

An average of 150 people is born. Every. One. Minute. This means, every day approximately 489,600 people are born.

How can the poor have any improved lifestyles with more people to share fewer resources?

These are alarming figures as earth only has so many resources and cannot keep up with our ever growing population.

Now, I’m not saying that there is any one answer. This is an extremely delicate topic and one certainly not to be taken lightly. I’m just suggesting that perhaps this is an issue we should start discussing as a society.

Maybe family planning is one solution. Some women don’t get the freedom of choosing whether they want many children or not. Surely when these women are living on $1.00 a day it would be easier to feed 5 children than 10.

Now, I’m inclined to forgive her, as she was only 14 at the time of writing, but as a public figure, she’s fair game to be raked through the coals like anyone else.

Moreover, her basic view is not uncommon in any political circle: The world is facing a crisis because poor people are having too many kids and we need to stop it. A view that I find incredibly reprehensible. Here’s why:

1. The irony is incredible

It is true that population growth is highest among the poorest of the poor of the world. It is also true that extremely wealthy regions like Japan and Europe are facing the spectre of population shrinkage, and that population growth in North American is flattening.

It is also true that wealthy regions like Europe, Japan and the USA are consuming the lion’s share of resources and belching out copious amounts of pollution. The rural poor in Africa subsist on domestically produced corn grown on their own land often without pesticides, fertilizers and machinery (since they can’t afford it).

Moreover, they are good recyclers. They are reusing the first world’s trash. They wear our clothes, use our electronics and drive our cars and recycle all three when they reach the true point of no return (which is a long, long road).

Though I question whether the archaic agricultural methods in Africa are truly environmentally friendly, we do need to ask ourselves, who is really threatening the health and welfare of the earth here?

2. Bindi, like many people, displays an incredible ignorance as to what the true problems of developing countries are.

Poor people in developing countries (yes, the one’s who make all the kids) often eat what they produce. Developing countries themselves, lacking trade linkages and cash, often subsist only on what they can produce domestically. Thus, rather than being a drain on the world’s resources, as Bindi would suggest, they are most self-sufficient (though lacking as a result).

Environmental degradation usually occurs because, since households are producing their own food, agricultural practices are inefficient. They don’t rotate their crops. They don’t irrigate properly so that they have to over plant crops and take up more space. Inefficient regulating bodies and weak governments fail to manage water resources properly.

Most salient, is that poor countries (at least in Africa) are caught in a trap where they have trouble selling agricultural products between regions and across borders.

If Kenya experiences a drought, it can’t just import food from Zimbabwe because 1) there is no history of trade between Zimbabwe and Kenya and 2) the transportation infrastructure doesn’t exist. In the States (and Europe) we have solved the problem of trade linkages and the movement of goods which, in large part, explains why we are so wealthy. We are able to diversify our risks and there is no more risky venture than growing crops.

The problem isn’t too many kids, but a failure of development.

3. Bindi fails to recognize the agency of Africa and Africans

In another news story, she was quoted as saying that 7 year birth control implants should be provided for 11 year old children in developing countries.

“There’s such a thing as seven-year-implants, so if you had a girl that was 11 years old and gave her the seven-year implant she wouldn’t be able to have kids until she was 18.”

Of course, I am all for expanding access to birth control, family planning and women’s health resources in developing countries. Actually, I support expanding access to these things all over the world. Women, being in charge of birthing children, should be allowed to choose whatever path is right for them without interference.

I feel that what Bindi is suggesting (assuming she has any idea what she is suggesting) is that women not be given a choice at all. She’s suggesting state interference in reproductive affairs in countries. It’s always been interesting to me that, in conversation, China’s one child policy (which, minus the loss of a public sector job, really amounts to a tax on children) gets maligned so heavily in the States, but people have no qualms at all about forced sterilization and forced birth control for Africans. (Note: Bindi did not suggest forced sterilizations.)

Of course, forced sterilizations do happen in America, Kenya and Namibia.

To me (and seemingly me only), the message behind Bindi’s suggestion that 11 year olds be given seven year implants seems to be that Africans can’t take care of their own affairs. Even in development and public health circles, many people are of the opinion that Africans are incapable of taking care of themselves. I disagree. After colonization, independence, civil wars, decades of crushing structural adjustment failures, prolonged negative economic growth and failure after political failure, African countries are zooming back.

Kenya’s government restructuring and ratification of a new constitution following one of the worst and most violent elections the world has ever seen should be proof that Africans can take care of their own affairs.

Of course, it turns out that Bindi Irwin is loosely aligned with the nationalist and anti-immigration group, the Stable Population Party. A faux environmentalist group, their intro speaks for itself:


The Population Party is a sustainability party with a major focus on the everything issue – population. A stable and sustainable population will help create a better quality of life for all Australians, present and future, and provide a positive example for the rest of the world.

Australia’s population is currently growing by over 1000 people per day. That adds up to over one million people every three years – the size of Adelaide! It’s no wonder Australia’s quality of life is being degraded.

From a population of 23 million today, under Liberal/Labor/Greens policies we are on target for 40 million by 2050 – and rising! We say let’s slow down and stabilise at around 26 million by 2050.

In a finite world, more people means fewer resources per person, leading to poverty and conflict. Australia’s finite natural resource base is the true source of our wealth – not our rapid population growth that both dilutes and erodes it. To meet the huge costs of population growth, Australia is using finite and non-renewable resources that should be saved for our children and grandchildren.

Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria

rwandan-genocideIn 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.

America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.

The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.

Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.

While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.

Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.

Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.

People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.

In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.

I was incredibly encouraged to see Nick Kristoff’s brave series of posts on Syria, despite the vitriol that came from his readership.

I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.

While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.

Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.

Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:

What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.

September 11, 2001: I just don’t get it.

I don’t get 9/11. That’s not to say I don’t understand much of the events that led up to it, the how and why it happened. I simply don’t understand the sentimental patriotic uproar that followed.

I was in New York City on September 10, 2001. We were playing a show in Brooklyn that night. Like all my visits to New York, I made a point of visiting my good friend from Mississippi, John. We were driving into Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge and saw the World Trade Center. We started talking about the attempted bombing in 1993 which had intended to blow the foundation out of one tower, knocking it into the other. We both remarked that the towers must be indestructible.

The show ended up going late, we considered staying in Brooklyn, but at the last minute I decided to make the drive back to Providence and go to my awful job the next day. I got two hours of sleep, went to work and found out that the towers were, in fact, destructible.

The reaction on the east coast was nothing short of reprehensible. Mass mobilization of military units into downtown Providence to protect the Raytheon headquarters downtown. Drunken fools chanting “USA” harassing people who appeared “Arab.” The televised arrest of a Sikh man from the Commuter Rail for having a turban and carrying a “deadly weapon.”

The worst, though, was watching the shock on people’s faces as though their own homes had been attacked. For New Yorkers, this reaction would be entirely justified. Outside of New York, I’m not sure why the reaction would be anything other than concern. This same reaction among the so-called counter culture types was also very surprising. Call me shallow.

My passport is blue and it’s quite convenient for travel and wage earning. I believe in the US as a political ideology (constitutional representative democracy) and am quite proud to be an American because we do lots of cool and good things. Though I’m empathetic with the victims, it’s hard for me to get teary eyed at the thought of an attack by an international terrorist group known to be searching for big targets.

Americans weren’t fazed when the Kenyan and Tanzanian embassies were attacked in 1998, perhaps because few Americans died. The majority of the victims (Kenyans) were guilty of nothing more than earning a pay check and were sadly caught in America’s international problems.

Mostly, Americans, who viewed 9/11 as an act of war, are oblivious to the ongoing economic war against the poor and marginalized that occurs within their own borders every single day.

In contrast to vile, socialist enclaves such as a Canada, the age of death of an American is directly correlated with his or her annual income. Minorities die earlier. Indigenous peoples are among the unhealthiest in the entire country. Our decentralized and localized education “system” ensures that the poor have few opportunities for advancement. The slow death of the union insures that wages are low and benefits non-existent.

Though the two issues (9/11 and the US’s structural issues) are unrelated (and this post is way off in space), I would ask those reflecting sadly on 9/11, take the time to reflect on what needs to be fixed in the United States. If there is a tear to be shed, it’s for more than 3,000 people who fell victim to a international band of murderous thugs who profited politically from the act. It’s for the millions who fall victim every day to a multitude of equally dangerous and self-interested groups.


Syrian blogger Edi

Syrian blogger Edi

I’ve been long hesitant to make my views on Syria known. I am still hesitant and my reluctance to say anything on the subject has been extremely troubling.

It seems that there is room for only one view on Syria, just as there was only room for one view on Iraq in 2003. Social media, I believe, has exacerbated the herd like nature of political views. The NSA need not work to create to create a uniform citizenry, the citizenry are quite adept at doing it to themselves. In contrast to 2008, though, the political tables have in some ways been turned.

I won’t say much about any of it, mostly since I have little time to respond to the one or two comments that will inevitably come. I am, however, drawn to a young Syrian blogger (tweeter?) named Edi, whose pictures (two of them) I post here. The situation clearly isn’t as simple as America believes.

I fear that America (and particularly the American left, who have it horribly wrong this time) is vastly underestimating the long term, worldwide consequences of American inaction in Syria.

That is all I will say on the matter (not that my opinion counts for anything).

From Edi's Twitter feed.

From Edi’s Twitter feed.

Resurrection: I Want You to Post

Try as I might, I can’t seem to resurrect this blog. Lack of internet, exhaustion and general malaise prevented any worthwhile activity this summer.

I though that the camels might help, but alas….

So I’m appealing to you, the reader, to assist me. I am going to insert a number of guest blogs over the coming weeks. If you, or anyone you know would like a public forum on which to express your views on, well, just about anything, it’s here.

Any topics are free game, but I’m guessing that most people who read this blog have views and interests that somewhat align with my own.

Please submit your post to me by email if you like. I am sure that I will get nearly no response, but I figure this is worth a shot.

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