Archive | December 2013

Does malaria facilitate the development of exploitative agricultural estates? Interview with Dr. Luis Chavez

905237_334159403372948_183902807_oMy friend Luis just published a paper in PlosOne on land consolidation or the formation of “latifundia” in Spain. Latifundia were large agricultural estates owned by the Romans, often dependent on slave labor, the growth of which has been implicated in Rome’s fall.

Luis creates a mathematical model to describe the formation of these large estates. He then tests the hypothesis that malaria transmission exacerbated the situation, by forcing land owners to sell cheaply to opportunistic land owners in less malarious areas.

Luis, an ecologist who works on issues of disease transmission (and all around great guy), is somewhat unique in the world of quantitative sciences. He took a few minutes to talk to me so that you can see why.

Who are you and what’s your background?

If you ask the japanese they might say: O gata no hen na gaijinsan. As to my academic background, I studied biology/parasitology as an undergraduate, then mathematical ecology for a M.Sc. and then was granted a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology (note: at the University of Michigan).

Nevertheless, I have always been interested in the humanities, especially history since it gives the best vantage point to understand the present. I grew up in a household where mixing things/topics was usual. Both my father and grandfather went to grad school, something unusual in Latin America, and since i was child lunch time talk was heavy on the side of human rights and solidarity, science and the need for change. When Nelson Mandela died i remembered that a lovely family activity during my childhood was going to a cultural/educational event in solidarity with Nelson Mandela and the South African people to end the apartheid.

For lay people, what’s the paper about and what motivated you to explore it?

The paper presents a mathematical model that can explain the formation of latifundia (large estates) when the profitability of land varies across landowners in a landscape. The model is also used to show that when such differences are not present latifundia still can emerge if there are differences in the risk of acquiring an infectious diseases. I built the model based on historical records to show that both patterns have been observed in societies as different as “latin” Europe (Italy and Spain) and China.

What’s a “latifundium” in Spain? I dug around a bit and could find some things about Rome and Latin America, but not so much about Spain. Why choose Spain?

A latifundium is a large estate, which requires the labor of people that do not own the land. I chose Spain because a essay by Chantal Beauchamp presented a couple of striking maps showing that places where malaria was common were those where Latifundia were common during the 1930s (Fig. 2): http://www.persee.fr/web/revues/home/prescript/article/ahess_0395-2649_1988_num_43_1_283483

The pattern of association between malaria and latifundia was not new, but only Beauchamp had data amenable for a quantitative analysis.

Are you trying to say that malaria helped enable capitalist land appropriation?

It might be the case. The hypothesis that malaria helped to enable land appropriation was put forward by the great italian malariologist, Angelo Celli. He has a book on the topic [reference 8 in the paper, available at the UMICH SPH library]. Celli was probably the most advanced malaria epidemiologist at the turn of the 20th century.

Unfortunately, he and other italians [most notably Grassi] were blackbolded in the Anglo-Saxon world because they threatened the ego of Ronald Ross by saying malaria was not just due to a parasite transmitted by the bite of a mosquito [a biological fact that, nevertheless, they independently showed and published in Italian]. If you are interested just check the oldest records for malaria in the Nature archives.

Though issues of land tenure are very different in the US (given that we killed all the natives and stole it all), we did have some big and awful land plantations in the South along with a serious malaria problem. Might we also try to apply this to the United States, and, if so, how?

I think it might have helped to the consolidation of large estates in the south. Interestingly in the Midwest you never had the latifundia observed in the south, but you had malaria in Michigan (the midwest) at some point (See Humphreys M. 2001. Malaria: Poverty, Race, and Public Health in the United States. Baltimore (MD): Johns Hopkins University Press.).

Nevertheless, in the south due, for example, to Jim Crow laws there might have been a differential risk of malaria infection not observed in the Midwest. However, i found no data to go beyond speculation, well other that in the Canal Zone the Jim Crow housing organization showed the differential malaria risk: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/529265

I find these quantitative approaches to historical problems fascinating (I also started work on a paper on malaria in post-conflict Angola, maybe I should publish it). Do you think applying these methods to history as informative to present day problems? If so, how?

I think so, history probably gives the best vantage point to understand the present (Rendering history a tinker damn’s is a good strategy to sell things no matter if they are useful or even safe, Henry Ford was clear about this). In theory failures can be highly educational, something the model suggests is that equity in land tenure is an unstable equilibrium that could only be maintained by an external policy as the Chinese did before the An Lushan rebellion, and that any kind of unfair land redistribution could only be expected to not work (latifundia will be eventually formed), as observed over and over in most Latin American nations.

The mix of methods is rather novel. However, in the discipline focused and partitioned environment of academia, do you find that its hard to get an audience for this kind of work? Is there a future in it?

I can tell you this stuff is only suitable for publication on the Arxiv.org or PLoS One/ Springer Plus, if you want it to be peer reviewed and you don’t sign your paper with an address in Princeton or Oxford. I think the audience does not belong in any department, though scholars working on the diverse fields of ecology, health, sociology, maths, economics and even history might find it interesting. I think there is some future, there is the emerging field of cliodynamics that looks at historical dynamics and there is even a journal for cliodynamics where they, every once on a while, publish good food for thought like this paper: http://escholarship.org/uc/item/1ks0g7dr#page-1

I thought my data was not dynamical enough, so I didn’t try there.

This work is heavily political. Do you think there is a place for politics in science?

I think everything gets embedded in politics. Otherwise there would have been no shutdown in the CDC and other US government agencies few months ago, etc. I don’t think my work is more or less political than a risk factor analysis for lung cancer and smoking. I think i might be blackbolded by some of the references I cited, but to understand Capitalism even the Catholic Church is studying Marx [Funny the leading scholar is the Munich Bishop, whose last name is Marx]:

http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2012/06/01/cardinal-marx-urges-europe-to-move-beyond-capitalism/

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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.

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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.

Development in Africa and Latin America

No doubt the development experience is different everywhere. There are commonalities, usually associated with productive or non-productive responses to the same issue. Latin America, however, is a big mystery to me, simply because I have little experience with it.

I was talking with a student today about the World Bank’s structural adjustment reforms of the 1980’s and 90’s. Basically, the World Bank developed a series of policies as a requirement to obtain loans for development projects. These policies largely centered on cuts to government expenditures and privatization of state assets. They were disastrous to Africa’s nascent, post-colonial states (though some argue that the benefits to SA programs are now realizing themselves).

Early in the development process (or even after an economic downturn), government expenditures are necessary to provide a foundation for economic activities. Cutting expenditures prematurely could hamper the process.

And it did.

The experience of Latin America and Africa (I’ve learned), though, was vastly different. African states, when looking for items to cut from their budgets, often offered to cut social services, but chose to continue funding for military expenditures. This resulted in the hollowing out of public sector social programs such as health care and schools, but provided governments with stability.

Latin American countries, however, chose to do the opposite. So what happened was that where turnover of governments in African states was rare, Latin American states faced constant upheavals and regime changes.

Now, I’m not quite sure I believe this (and the data would be fairly easy to find), but it’s worth exploring. It would be interesting to see if different approaches to the SAPs resulted in different and predictable outcomes.

Elysium: South Africa Light

Elysium-imax-poster-matt-damonLast night, I watched Neil Blomkamp’s science fiction opus Elysium, which was about as underwhelming as his previous work, “District 9.”

Though most American viewers will miss it, it’s impossible to watch Elysium without thinking of South Africa. Elysium is the name of a giant gated community in the sky that we mostly don’t get to see. The residents of Elysium live in huge mansions, complete with swimming pools and trimmed lawns. Most salient to the story is their access to medical care which allows them to live forever.

Elysium is propped up by a single corporation, which manufactures robots for use on Elysium as servants, and as security on Earth below. Our hero Max is a shanty town dweller and former criminal who works on an assembly ling of one of the factories. He gets hit with a lethal dose of radioactivity, and must get to Elysium to get medical care or die in five days.

Fine. What’s striking is all of the references to South Africa’s apartheid government, which propped up state protected private monopolies to keep and consolidate power for the white minority, while insuring a steady flow of cheap and disposable labor.

Max’s nemesis is the hulking Kruger, the only obvious South African of the film. We see him enjoying African BBQ and drinking Castle Lager, an obvious allusion to the South African 32 Battalion, sent to fight the communists in Angola and along the Namibian border during the 70’s and 80’s. In fact, his spaceship (?) has a (current) South African flag emblazoned on it.

The most despicable character of the film is dressed up to emulate IMF chairman Christine LaGarde. Oddly, Ms. LaGarde has deviated from her more mundane duties of monetary policy and gone militaristic, happily shooting down ships filled with crippled children looking for medical care.

In the end, the computer controlled hegemony of Elysium is toppled, though, not through the collective uprising and political struggle of the poor majority, but through the nameless efforts of a smuggler. Blomkamp, for all his detailed references to South Africa’s history, delivers it a cheap shot by excluding this important detail.

Of interest, though, is the final move from a designed state protected private economy, to a presumably socialist economy, where health care is available for all. While I like the move to freely available and quality health care for all, it’s odd that the film doesn’t do much to address how the economy is to move forward.

But the economic questions are the most perplexing of the movie, but then the economy of the South African apartheid government and even the present government are perhaps equally bizarre. Why would even the most wealthy concentrate all their wealth into a single, non-competitive space? We can assume that the wealthy in Elysium are obtaining socialist kick backs from their oppressive form of government, but it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense that someone on Elysium wouldn’t go it alone and seek other opportunities. In this sense, the people are Elysium are at least as oppressed as those on Earth. You’d wonder how they’d put up with it. Wouldn’t someone get bored?

Also, with so many humans on Earth, you’d assume that someone might think of this as a major opportunity for investment. It’s pretty clear that the people on Elysium don’t have to use cash, but on Earth, the potential for grass roots markets seems limitless. One of the main characters of the film has tapped into the market of smuggling people up to Elysium for medical care. The entrepreneurial spirit is alive on Earth. Wouldn’t someone on Elysium try to tap into this, reacting to market demand and helping people at the same time? This was certainly the story in expanding access to HIV antiretrovirals in Africa (in a really, really simple sense, don’t flame me, man!). There’s no reason to assume the same wouldn’t play out here.

But that’s asking too much, and I digress.

Elysium’s two dimensionality is really what hobbles the film. Like District 9, what could have been a really clever allegory for unequal societies and the structural problems which produce and support them, Elysium fades off into a bland world of polarized, Hollywood science fiction. It fails to explore how humans push back against inequality and fails to educate its audience as to what it all means. Blomkamp clearly understands the issues. Hopefully, he’ll deliver the goods next time.

Subsidize Workers Instead of Business?

Conservatives confuse me, mostly because I tend to think of them in black and white terms. The ability to think in a nuanced manner is directly correlated with one’s familiarity with a subject. The less you know, the more polarized your opinions become (of course, the opposite can be just as crippling).

A blog I regularly read posted a link to an article from the (rabidly) conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI). The article confronted the issue of automation in manufacturing, how it is displacing the American worker and what to do about the problem of increasing economic inequality in the United States.

Noah Smith, an assistant professor of finance at The State University of New York at Stony Brook states:

“..a better proposal is actually wage subsidies, government wage matching, also called a negative income tax. We would be putting our thumb on the scales between humans and robots to keep humans in work that in a perfectly free market they wouldn’t be doing. When a company offers you wage, the government matching would have already done behind the scenes. Someone comes and offers to pay me $20 an hour, the government is paying $12 of that. I would be making $8 an hour, but I would feel like a person who making $20 an hour. Unlike the Earned Income Tax Credit where you get a check from the government based on how much income you earned, I think people would feel a lot better in term of the framing of it if the government matched their wages instead.”

I could get behind this. I’m not sure that Noah Smith is a conservative, but that AEI didn’t scrap this as re-distributive heresy is kind of startling.

An interview with economist Edmund Phelps, confirms that this idea doesn’t live in a bubble:

“The advantage of work subsidies is that they would bid up the wages of low-wage people, and that same bidding for more low-wage people in the labor market would pull up their employment too. With the minimum wage, of course, the suspicion is that raising it will cut back on the number of low-wage workers that companies feel they can afford.

So government subsidies of workers increases not brings up wages, but also might increase employment. A minimum wage, these guys argue, is a disincentive to employment. If I know I want to hire low wage workers, but know I have to pay $20.00 an hour, I’m less likely to hire from those with the least skills. I’ll want the most bang for my buck. Also, it is argued that a minimum wage distorts wages by giving businesses a floor (which they will inevitably fall to) depressing wages over all. I could speculate that this would be a regional phenomenon.

It turns out that the idea for wage subsidies (or a “negative income tax”) was originally floated by conservative economist Milton Friedman. His ideas inspired the earned income credit, also a wage subsidy for low income workers.

I always thought it interesting that welfare programs are fodder for right wing politicians looking for programs to malign, but that the EIC, a blatant example of wealth redistribution, is barely mentioned. I think I understand why now.

I could get behind worker subsidies like this. It’s far more advantageous to workers than subsidizing the companies themselves, who likely convert those transfers to stock dividends. Like food stamps, worker subsidies would inject money directly into the economies through increased spending by poor families at local establishments, creating jobs

Now I have no idea whether this is a good idea or not. I’m not an economist and don’t claim to be. From the armchair though, I ‘m thinking that rather than prop up oil companies, big agri-business and bottom of the barrel box retailers, we might look to expanding the EIC program to do the poor (and society) a favor. Someone explain to me why this wouldn’t be on the political table?

Surveillance: It’s not just for Government anymore

eyeFor some reason, I’m thinking about surveillance. It might be because I heard Ben Brucato’s voice for the first time. Ben’s research work (at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) deals , in part, with issues of campus policing and surveillance. I listened to him and a colleague discuss issues of campus policing, student repression and the fine line that administrators have to walk between issues of student advocacy and corporate/government interests. It was quite enlightening.

But then, I’m digging through my blog roll for the day, and I come across this article, on Google’s involvement with right wing advocacy groups:

Google, the tech giant supposedly guided by its “don’t be evil” motto, has been funding a growing list of groups advancing the agenda of the Koch brothers.

Organizations that received “substantial” funding from Google for the first time over the past year include Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, the Federalist Society, the American Conservative Union (best known for its CPAC conference), and the political arm of the Heritage Foundation that led the charge to shut down the government over the Affordable Care Act: Heritage Action.

In 2013, Google also funded the corporate lobby group, the American Legislative Exchange Council, although that group is not listed as receiving “substantial” funding in the list published by Google.

Google, it must be noted, is one of the largest data collectors in the world, and was a source of data for the recent NSA meltdown brought to light by Ed Snowden (who since ran to that bastion of civil liberties: Russia). It is, of course, completely bizarre that Google would come out with a call to limit government data collection and surveillance, given that’s the basis of their business model.

Moreover, I noticed this article on how companies might be using data gleaned from pornography sites to not only target ads, but also to potentially determine credit ratings for individuals.

I spoke with Sarah Downey, a privacy analyst for Abine, which dubs itself “the online privacy company,” who disagreed with Meyer’s relaxed reading. “Data collection and profiling — and the sharing or selling of that data — is a massive problem and a multimillion-dollar industry,” she said. “I’ve seen enormous misuses of that data, from lost job opportunities to lowered credit scores and credit limits. The fact that trackers are present, and invisible, on porn sites is itself unnerving, and I’m not sure how one person can state with confidence that they’re all acting responsibly.”

Imagine if one’s visits to sex sites ended up raising the interest rate one could get on car or home loan, or even the ability to rent an apartment. Though it can’t be confirmed that this is going on, it’s no less frightening.

Honestly, despite the obviously very serious nature of the issue, I don’t worry about government spying. I encourage it. Greater spying and full transparency only makes us all subversives, and we should be proud of that. Clearly, I don’t make policy so my view here counts for nothing.

I find the issue of surveillance by the private sector, however, much more troubling. Google is not subject to election cycles. Note that the revelations about the NSA program might even be so serious as to compromise the ability of Democrats to win the next Presidential election. Google, however, with it’s links to right wing political advocacy groups, could provide tools with which to swing a national or local election.

Google being caught selling data to credit rating agencies will be seen as a matter of business. As both Google and credit rating agencies do not sell products directly to consumers, they have little to fear from public opinion. Though the public went into an uproar over the NSA program, I would suggest that they be far more concerned about private sector spying.

Slams against Mandela expose the racist underbelly of the United States

South Africa /Police op.in Soweto 1986.And what an underbelly it is. By no surprise, the interweb and right wing America have taken it upon themselves to bash one of history’s great heroes. Apparently, he’s a communist, a terrorist and a racist.

Now, I’m not going to do a run through of all the ridiculous vitriol and ignorance that exists all over the internet. I am going to call them out and ask: Do you really have any comprehension of how disgusting the apartheid system was?

The South African government prior to the fall of apartheid was a brutal, technologically sophisticated, repressed and unforgiving system designed for the sole purpose of marginalizing a black majority, preserving wealth and opportunities for a minority, and insuring a constant flow of cheap labor to support a blood economy. It was violent and systematic. Perhaps the only historical example that might have been more efficient and more effective would be that of the Nazi Holocaust.

The history of the use of technology to support apartheid, which the white minority required to effectively maintain control can be found here.

The significance of the role of U.S. computers in S.A. [was] not restricted to their use by repressive agencies of the government. [Leo80]
It is likely that the tool which made the most crucial contribution to the system of apartheid was the computerized population register. The Plural Affairs Department maintained the passbook system on the more than twenty five million Africans defined as black. These records were all kept electronically on British-made ICL hardware. The Department of the Interior maintained the “Book of Life” files on the other seven million citizens classified as non-blacks using an IBM hardware system. The passbook records included data on “racial classification”, name, sex, date of birth, residence, photo, marital status, drivers license, dates of departure from and return to the country, place of work or study, and fingerprints. One South African described the population register at work as,

The main purpose of the population registry was administration of the influx control system, a system which channeled needed black workers into the labor force to be exploited, and confined others to the desolate homelands. The passbooks, which every black person was automatically given at the age of sixteen, coupled with the computer database, guaranteed one’s instant identification and one’s history of government opposition. If these passbooks were properly endorsed, the owner had the right to work or live in “white areas”, and lack of these endorsements or failure to produce the passbook resulted in arrest and jail. Many were detained for months at a time without a trial and their families were not given notification of their whereabouts.

Frightening. Our apartheid system here in the states appears rather primitive in comparison (though equally horrific).

There is no reason to defend Mandela’s incredible record. Plenty of other people have already done so. However, to denounce Mandela as a “terrorist” and a “racist” is not only completely stupid, but also gives apartheid a free pass. Giving apartheid a pass also allows that racism is acceptable, and marginalizing and exploiting people based on their genetic profile is allowable. If the current flurry of ignorance on the internet is any indication, bigotry and racism are alive and well in the United States, and more than a few people would happily institutionalize it once more.

Fuck.
That.

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