Like anyone at all cares what I’m ever reading, but… here we go:
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot – Masha Gessen (2013) – For some reason, I was asleep when the Pussy Riot debacle was underway. Perhaps it was a result of my disdain and fatigue for independent music. I’m not sure why, but if this great book is any indication, Pussy Riot could possibly have been the most amazing rock act of the 21st century, despite not even being a real band. A group of women read radical feminist theory and note the paucity of feminist activism in modern day Russia. They then create an elaborate video project to protest Putin’s authoritarian government eventually staging a video shoot in one of Russia’s most sacred Orthodox churches. 40 seconds of screaming and dancing in a church while wearing colorful balaclavas earns them 660 days in prison.
Notwithstanding the intellectual depth of the project, the court cases were a damning indictment of post-Soviet Russia’s faux-democracy. Corrupt lawyers, pro-state judges and willful disregard for the popular outrage toward an entrenched and self-interested government are all at play during the trial and sentencing of the members of Pussy Riot. That supporters and participants in Putin’s heavy handed state participated in the senseless persecution of a group of “intellectual pranksters” is no surprise. Most perplexing were the testimonies of the few people who were in the Cathedral that day. Much of the case depended on the “hurt feelings” of the people who were visiting the church. I am wondering how a group of girls screaming in a corner could lead one to suffer PTSD but apparently it happens. I never knew God was that weak. Great book. BUY HERE
Social Democratic America – Lane Kenworthy (2012) – Could social democratic policies such as those of Sweden be beneficial to the United States? Is it even possible to implement them? I’m happy to see this book, if only that it helps validate some of my positions (one needs those moments). Kenworthy rolls through what social democracy is, how it works in the Scandinavian countries and how it might be applied within the United States. It’s a realistic assessment of where US policy fails and a practical prescription to deal with the future.
Kenworthy advocates for increased spending (as a percent of GDP) on broad social insurance programs (safety nets), an income based taxed credit to bolster the wages of low and middle income workers, a national consumption tax to support them and a resurgence of labor unions and labor protections. He rightly points out that the presence of none of these precludes economic growth or affluence. Sweden is hardly the totalitarian state that American right wingers would suggest. In fact, the economic security afforded by it’s generous welfare state is far more supportive of entrepreneurship and innovation than the American system.
While I certainly like these ideas, I am pessimistic as to whether they could even be applied here. Though we do right by offering the earned income tax credit, I can’t see it’s expansion as politically feasible. The United States (at least on the state level) is far too entrenched in a Tea Party mentality and far too fractured to come to a reasonable consensus. Until the United States citizenry starts thinking big and stops thinking solely of individual self-preservation, we’ll have little to look forward to in terms of the implementation of smart policy.BUY HERE
*Again, please excuse the Amazon links. Though it looks like I’m an Amazon shill, I sincerely want to review these books, particularly books that I like. However, I have to be creative in thinking of ways to support this blog. Please, if your are going to purchase these books, use the links. I get 2% of the amount spent. That money goes to helping pay for the yearly fees associated with keeping this web site up. Thanks.
Africa is an awful place to be gay, but, just as everywhere else, gay folks exist and do the best they can under adverse circumstances.
Happily, President Museveni of Uganda has stated that he refuses to sign a “anti-homosexuality Bill” sent to him from the Ugandan Parliament. It’s possible that he would have supported had he sensed that signing the bill would have benefitted him domestically, as Nigerian President Goodluck Johnathan (who’s luck seems to be running out) did just this week.
Wasting no time at all, Nigerian authorities have arrested and tortured dozens of people suspected of being gay. The methods are frightening:
Human rights advocates in Nigeria are reporting that dozens of gay men have been arrested under a new law that makes homosexual clubs or associations illegal. That law also criminalizes same-sex marriage. Gay men who have been arrested have reportedly been tortured into giving up the names of others. Michelle Faul with the Associated Press has been writing about this and she joins us now from Lagos.
And Michelle, why don’t you give us more details, what you’ve learned about these arrests and the reports of torture from human rights groups there.
MICHELLE FAUL: As we’re speaking, Melissa, we’re getting more reports in of more people being arrested in about six of Nigeria’s 36 states. I’ve spoken with human rights activists here who say this has not just happened since the bill was signed into law, but since there’s been noise about the bill. So the very idea of the bill has led to this persecution of people because of their sexual differences.
BLOCK: And in particular the reports of torture, what have you heard about that?
FAUL: That particular report comes from Bauchi State in the north of Nigeria, where it’s almost a case of entrapment. A law enforcer pretending to be a gay man went to a meeting where an AIDS counselor was speaking to men, who have sex with men, about how they could do this safely. He pretended to be gay, got the names of a couple of people, arrested subsequently one person, used their cell phone – this is illegal in itself for him to go through this person cell phone, contact another gay person and another gay person. Called them for a meeting, arrest them, take them to the police station and beat them up repeatedly and brutally until they gave up 168 names of people who were supposed to be gay.
But back to Uganda. Museveni has a thin road to walk. If he comes out on the side of Uganda’s very active gay rights movement, he risks losing crucial domestic support. If he would have signed the bill, he risks losing international support at a fragile point in Uganda’s development.
He plays it carefully, but offers a few bizarre ideas:
The President said a homosexual is somebody who is abnormal because the normal person was created to be attracted to the opposite sex in order to procreate and perpetuate the human race. He said, nature goes wrong in a minority of cases.
While in the Bill passed by Parliament there is no provision for killing homosexuals; the President said, “The question at the core of the debate of homosexuality is; what do we do with an abnormal person? Do we kill him/her? Do we imprison him/her? Or we do contain him/her?”
While the President said homosexuality is an abnormal condition that can be cured, he disagreed with the position of Western countries that homosexuality is an “alternative sexual orientation”. “You cannot call an abnormality an alternative orientation. It could be that the Western societies, on account of random breeding, have generated many abnormal people,” he said, adding that his acid test for rejecting Western position is that nature is purposeful.
The President said apart from the people who are abnormal, it seems there is a group of those that become homosexual for “mercenary reasons”—they get recruited on account of financial inducements. He said this is a group that can be rescued and that many of the youth fall in this category.
I’m not following his logic here. I seriously doubt Museveni does either. Though he says that homosexuality is a natural condition, he also tries to claim that young men become gay to make money. The former presents him with a problem. If homosexuality is to be considered an unfortunate genetic outcome, the state has no right to inflict punishment on the individual any more than on a person born with any other type of genetic defect.
The latter, I’ve heard before. NGOs allegedly come to Africa and recruit young men through promises of money and passports. There is no reason to discount the problem of prositution enabled by economic inequality. We’ve seen it elsewhere (a movie was even made about an Irish author’s disgusting sexual adventures in Nepal). Of course, the Ugandan and Nigerian Parliaments seem to be doing little to curb the much larger problem of female prostitution in Uganda and it’s difficult for me to understand how it’s at all relevant to the lives of people peacefully living their lives who happen to be gay.
And this is of course where the problem lies. Homosexuality makes for an easy target for Christian conservatives in Africa (often egged on by western missionaries and evangelicals). However, there is little outrage over extramarital affairs, child rape, and the buying and selling of women, an obviously greater social problem. But policy makers worldwide often like to pick on those who are unable to defend themselves.
How do the governments of Nigeria and Uganda have time for all this? In countries where half the population lives on a dollar a day, the problem of delivering food and health care would seem to be more pressing issues. Many people I know like to blame the West for all of Africa’s ills. Clearly, as these examples show, policy makers in Nigeria and Uganda aren’t in the least bit interested in the welfare of their people, preferring to weed out minor issues of “gays” than deal with important matters such as food, health and stability.
This map (from “Mapping of poverty and likely zoonoses hotspots”) is pretty eye-opening. Looking at this, I’m thinking that the next big disease event will most certainly come out of India.
Note that the most virulent of infectious diseases in humans are often associated with animals. India’s high density, close contact with animals and poor regulatory environment make for a frightening mix.
I was just reading a transcript of Benjamin Bratton’s takedown of TED, the immensely popular series of talks on science and innovation. Perhaps the word “talk” is a bit too specific. TED is more of a “format” for presenting ideas.
To be clear, I think that having smart people who do very smart things explain what they doing in a way that everyone can understand is a good thing. But TED goes way beyond that.
Let me tell you a story. I was at a presentation that a friend, an Astrophysicist, gave to a potential donor. I thought the presentation was lucid and compelling (and I’m a Professor of Visual Arts here at UC San Diego so at the end of the day, I know really nothing about Astrophysics). After the talk the sponsor said to him, “you know what, I’m gonna pass because I just don’t feel inspired… you should be more like Malcolm Gladwell.”
At this point I kind of lost it. Can you imagine?
Think about it: an actual scientist who produces actual knowledge should be more like a journalist who recycles fake insights! This is beyond popularization. This is taking something with value and substance and coring it out so that it can be swallowed without chewing. This is not the solution to our most frightening problems — rather this is one of our most frightening problems.
I couldn’t agree more. As scientists, we are required to be able to explain our research to the outside world. Aside from the important matter of justifying our existence and use of public funds, some of us would hope that our work improves the world. However, the process of explaining shouldn’t involve unnecessarily dumbing down or overstating the potential impact of our work.
TED demands that every presentation be centered around some success. We have to end the talk on some positive note, proudly declaring that our work went the way we wanted it to and had a profound impact on the world. We are there to create, innovate and inspire.
The trouble is that science is often hardly creative, sometimes not innovative and often wholly uninspiring. Mind you, I don’t consider these to be negatives.
Much of science involved the testing of previously held results, views and conclusions. We aren’t seeking to create something new, but rather to evaluate the validity of what has been created before or commonly assumed. We are pursuing knowledge with the hope of refining how the world sees itself using methods to create hypotheses, gather evidence and rigorous test our assumptions.
The outcome, of course, is that the road of science is paved with failure. We embark on our adventures with money in hand, a plan, the proper tools and the best intentions, but, in most cases, we find out that the money didn’t go as far as we would have liked, the plan was ill-conceived given the realities on the ground, the tools were insufficient and our intentions may have been misplaced. At least, that’s my experience of science.
Again, I don’t see this as a negative. In order to improve our ability to understand the world and potentially ameliorate it’s problems, we are required to fail. A child can’t learn to walk without falling down. I can’t learn how to not offend people in Japanese without offending people more than a few times. I can’t learn how not to bake a cake without creating an inedible mess.
TED talks overlook this process of failure, focusing exclusively on the positives and the successes and, more troubling, the inspirational nature of the work. But then, this is a problem that’s not unique to TED talks. I find that TED talks are really just symptomatic of a broader trend which discourages negative results to the point where scientists troll the data hoping to find at least something that can be labelled “successful.”
Most journals won’t publish papers with negative results and most people don’t want to read them. To me, though, there is as much to learn from a paper which found that the previously held view was correct than one which refutes it. There is as much to know from a project which failed miserably as one which was “successful.” At least in my discipline, where field work under pressing circumstances is the norm, it would be nice to hear where people went miserably wrong. We could waste a lot less time, money and experience a little less frustration.
This success driven culture isn’t, of course, limited to science. It permeates our culture, particularly our children. This young generation (and their parents) appears wholly frightened of failure, potentially to the point of paralysis. If we aren’t careful, we might turn into the stagnant Japan of the 00’s.
TED talks probably have to go. While they worked well in the Gates era where small technological fixes in isolated boxes were thought to solve mankind’s most pressing problems, we need to move on to a format which effectively looks to the process of exploration. We need to know and accept that we will fail and those potential sources of failure need to inform our current strategies.
We need to integrate people of many disciplines for mutual benefit. For example, as a quantitative scientist, I learn a lot from people in the humanities, who often hold viewpoints and perspectives completely different from my own but no less important.
In short, we need more discussion and less posturing. Failure is good because we learn from it. Let’s not let the the scientific forum, as Dr. Bratton noted, becomes like cheap, inspirational, yet myopic and wholly useless megachurches.
He hired sex workers in Ecuador and Mexico to interview other sex workers employed in brothels and as street prostitutes. As sex workers have a keen sense as to what clients consider “beautiful,” he relied on them to scale their looks fairly.
As much of sex work relies on friendly interactions with clients, survey staff were also instructed to assess communication skills. Sex workers were asked to report the number of hours worked in the previous week, the number of clients and the time spent with each.
Sex workers in Ecuador reported making approximately $5 per hour, where Mexican prostitutes made nearly $12 an hour. Most prostitutes worked a 40 hour week. A Mexican prostitute can expect to make about 5 times the income of an average household there. The payoff in Ecuador is somewhat less but still higher than the average.
About three quarters of each had children and between 20 and 50% of them were married. Around 1 in 10 Ecuadorian sex worker tested positive for an STI.
Arunachalam found that beautiful sex workers in brothels tended to spend more time working, more time with clients and made more money per transaction. Attractive sex workers earned approximately 15% more than average and unattractive prostitutes.
He also found that while beautiful women tended to be more likely to work in brothels, where hours are fixed, than as street prostitutes. The pay off for beauty on the street tended to be higher on the street than in brothels, however.
Beauty payoffs have been seen in other employment contexts. It has been associated with a decreased risk of being involved with crime, the likelihood of happiness, securing a job, success in politics, and in generating positive reviews from University students.
The paper “The Prostitute’s Allure: The Return to Beauty in Commercial Sex Work” is available here.
OK, back to work.
I was just checking out Bill Easterly’s (author of The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good) article in the January issue of Reason, “The Aid Debate is Over.” (I wonder if he noticed that he had written an article called “The Big Aid Debate is Over” back in October of 2013.)
Yet again, Easterly uses Jeff Sachs as his academic punching bag. Sometimes I wonder if those two really just like each other a great deal, but go to great lengths to hate on each other in public.
I’m somewhat interested in his derisive tone towards technology:
Jeffrey Sachs’ formula for ending poverty was appealingly simple. All the problems of poverty, the famous Columbia University economist argued, had discrete technological fixes. Bed nets could prevent malaria-spreading mosquito bites. Wells could provide clean water. Hospitals could treat curable diseases. Fertilizer could increase yields of food crops.
Through a recent book on Sachs by Nina Munk (author of: The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty), he goes on to expose the failings of Sachs’ “Millenium Villages” experiment. Sachs wanted to test the hypothesis that throwing money at the poor and solving their basic ills would get the wheels rolling and free them from the chains of poverty for good.
Sachs’ technical fixes frequently turned out to be anything but simple. The saga of Dertu’s wells is illustrative. Ahmed Mohamed, the local man in charge of the effort, discovers that he needs to order a crucial part for a generator that powers the wells. The piece takes four months to arrive, and then nobody knows how to install it. Eventually a distant mechanic arrives at great expense. A couple of years later, Munk returns to find Mohamed struggling with the same issues: The wells have broken down again, the parts are lacking, and nobody knows how to fix the problem.
Easterly then moves on to use Sachs “failures” to criticize the current trend in development which uses small targeted programs which lend themselves to easy evaluation and implementation. People will often work on localized water development programs, or experiment with ways to help small farmers. Behavioral economists will attempt to use cash incentives to get parents to send their children to school. The thinking is that if projects are too big, they become unwieldy and impossible to properly implement.
Easterly believes that development should come from releasing countries from the shackles of bad policy. If the economic policy of a country is too intrusive or bureaucratic to allow the market to function properly, the policy should be changed.
We can now see that aid and development are two distinct topics that should each have their own separate debates. If today’s development economists talk only about what can be tested with a small randomized experiment, they confine themselves to the small aid conversation and leave the big development discussion to others, too often the types of advocates who appeal to anecdotes, prejudice, and partisanship. It would be much better to confront the big issues, such as the role of political and economic freedom in achieving development.
I mostly agree with Easterly’s position. The problems of poverty are mostly problems of the market. Even within Kenya, for example, high value companies must follow a Kafkaesque bureaucracy to do business, following 10 procedures and taking an average of 32 days from initial application to license. To put it in perspective, in the States, you’ll have to jump through 6 hurdles and it will take you five days. In developed countries, that’s considered extreme. In New Zealand, there’s only one step and it takes all of four hours.
Setting up a fruit stand may be easy, but profits slim, business slow and tax revenues are impossible to collect. Setting up a new wage paying transport company to move massive amounts of fruits from producers to markets efficiently is a bigger bureaucratic challenge, though the long term benefits are massive. Reducing the number of gatekeeper would go a long way to allowing these industries to grow.
However, aid and social programs are not ineffective. Though Easterly loves to beat up on Sachs, painting aid with a broad brush is unsatisfying. Sure, the water pump in one village may break, parts may be difficult to obtain and expertise hard to find when things go wrong, but the simple fact is that some people are getting water where they couldn’t before. Internationally funded distributions of bed nets have reduced malaria incidence and mortality all across the continent. There are a lot of kids alive today who would have died a decade ago.
Naively, I measure social progress through dead kids. There’s no way to measure the level of devastation that families feel when children needlessly die and the negative impacts on society and development are vast. Anything which keeps kids from dying is a good thing.
My view is that the macro and micro level development strategies need to work in tandem. Bed nets need to be distributed and water pumps provided. Aid programs which increase access to capital and training need to be strengthened. Evaluation of programs will be important to insure that waste is minimized and report successes. But we also need to see the end of unnecessary regulatory hurdles which do nothing but foster corruption and hamper the ability for countries to develop their market sectors.
Aid programs and market oriented regulatory reform developing countries will insure that short term problems are ameliorated and insure long term sustainability of current gains. While probably patently obvious, a combination of these two strategies will go a long way toward improving the public health and making sure that kids don’t die.
The New York Times reported today that Novartis Japan has been discovered to have overstated research results to make the product more marketable.
Advertisements aimed at doctors in Japan reportedly claim benefits of the medicine Diovan, a blood pressure medication, that have not been proven by research.
The ads under investigation, which ran in pamphlets distributed among Japanese doctors, cited studies carried out at Japanese universities that appeared to show that Diovan was also effective in preventing strokes and other heart conditions, according to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare.
But a number of universities announced last year that Novartis employees had been involved in carrying out these clinical studies, and that the data they yielded was suspect. Misleading ads violate Japan’s pharmaceutical laws, the ministry said in a statement to the news media.
Overstating results, though not unheard of for pharmaceuticals, is common in advertisements for nutritional supplements and other dubious health products. Unfortunately, it is possible that Novartis Japan is using the same tactics in a desperate bid to insure the profitability (or cover losses) of a lagging product. The patent for Diovan is set to expire soon, perhaps increasing the level of desperation.
I was disturbed to find out that Japan’s regulatory body does not recognize research conducted in areas outside of Japan. Certainlt, the country is known for its insularity and protectionist policy, but this seems counter productive. It would explain why many drugs are unavailable in Japan and why availability lags.
I’m not going to suggest that Japan’s health care system is poor. Far from it, Japan’s heavily regulated health care sector insures affordable care for everyone and fair compensation for doctors. I would say that disregarding research conducted aborad must increase overall costs, making Japan an unattractive market. All research for any new drugs must be conducted from scratch within Japan. This strikes me as odd.
The blog of the Center for Education Policy and Research claims that the patent system has induced Novartis Japan to overstate the results:
It’s Novartis and Japan today. The NYT reports on allegations that the company altered test results to exaggerate the effectiveness of Diovan, a drug for treating high blood pressure and heart disease. This is the sort of corruption that economic theory predicts would result from government granted patent monopolies. By raising the price of drugs by several thousand percent above their free market price, patents provide an enormous incentive for drug companies to misrepresent the safety and effectiveness of their drugs.
Odd. While I also agree that the patent system often works to stifle innovation and impedes access to life-saving drugs in developing countries, I’m not so sure that the patent system has caused Novartis Japan to misrepresent the drug. While the author speaks only patents here, I suspect that (though I have no proof), given the emphasis on the “free market,” he or she might oppose drug regulation as a whole providing an enormous opportunity for drug makers to misrepresent just about anything they like.
I’m slowly waking up from the Christmas break and aching from shoveling all this snow.
I read a lot of news media but, in terms of total number of sources, I read more blogs than anything else. Here are my favorites for 2013, in no particular order.
1. The Big Picture – Barry Ritholz works in finance. Unlike some of his colleagues he is human, rather than reptilian. He gives great and reasonable financial advice, much of which centers around completely ignoring media reporting on finance and investing trends. He’ll tell you to do boring things, like pick something you’re into and stick with it for the long haul. Though he works in finance, he’s immensely interested in all of its problems. Plus, he posts great reading lists on a daily basis.
2. Noahpinion – Noah Smith is an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University. He writes for the Atlantic and others but also writes a great blog on finance and economics that isn’t so difficult for people like me to understand, but technical enough to maintain my interest.
3. Calculated Risk – Great blog on domestic economic issues which includes timely updates and a host of graphics to help you figure out what’s going right or wrong with the American economy.
4. Shisaku – Interesting blog on Japanese politics from Michel Cucek, a research associate at the MIT Center for International Studies. Japanese news isn’t always the best source for information on Japanese politics and my reading ability is far to slow to digest more interesting writing on the subject. This blog is a great resource.
5. Chris Blattman – Chris Blattman is an Assistant Professor of Political Science & International and Public Affairs at Columbia University. He studies poverty, political participation, the causes and consequences of violence, and policy in developing countries and writes a great blog on global issues.
6. Mark Maynard – I would feel bad if I didn’t list Mark here. Mark is a good friend. He wants to make his town a better place. To do this, he writes regularly on issues relevant to Ypsilanti, MI in addition to current happenings in liberal politics.
7. PLOS Global Health Blog – As it says. The posts are infrequent, but always worth it.
8. Africa is a Country – This has turned out to be one of my favorite sites of the year. Great articles on African popular culture, politics and history. Africa is a Country is a great sounding board for those enthusiastic about the Africa that has nothing to do with Bono’s starving kids and poor women.
9. Conscience of a Liberal – I have to say, I love Paul Krugman’s blog. He’s somewhat of a broken record (liquidity traps, the infallibility of Keynesian economics, “I told you so”) but it’s great to have a solider out there exposing the failings of Republican economic policy (assuming there is one).
10. Baobob (Economist) – I was hesitant to put this on the list as it’s from a magazine rather than an individual, but I do read it frequently and can recommend it as a great source for news and commentary on current events in Africa.
That was somewhat of a challenge. 4 blogs on finance/economics, 2 on Africa, 2 on global health/development, 1 on Japan and 1 on local issues. That kinds of sums me up.