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The Sustainable Development Goals: Too restrictive? Too wordy? Or simply dadaist?

I looked at the Sustainable Development Goals for fun last week, became blinded by their Biblical length and decided that I’d revisit them when my sight returned. I still can’t really see, but managed to get through them anyway.

The SDGs are a replacement for the now-expired Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), a set of benchmarks that serve as a guide for the development trajectories of developing countries. The MDGs were widely criticized for lacking proper justification and for not providing proper means to measure the items suggested.

The SDGs take the opposite extreme. Instead of a concise eight goals, we now have 17, with numerous amendments and subcategories. In some ways, it resembles the Ecuadorian Constitution.

The items range from standard development goals such as “elimination of poverty” to far more complicated items such as number 12:

Rationalize inefficient fossil-fuel subsidies that encourage wasteful consumption by removing market distortions, in accordance with national circumstances, including by restructuring taxation and phasing out those harmful subsidies, where they exist, to reflect their environmental impacts, taking fully into account the specific needs and conditions of developing countries and minimizing the possible adverse impacts on their development in a manner that protects the poor and the affected communities.

Good god. It’s like the SDGs went out of their way to create titles for every development proposal for the next ten years so people wouldn’t have to. Unfortunately, this particular proposal will be incomprehensible to the common person. It is ironic that item 17.14 is “Enhance policy coherence for sustainable development.”

Living in Africa, it’s pretty easy to get cynical about international development projects. One of the effects of the SDGs, however, will be to stifle craetivity by being too specific. It is a reality that a lot of NGO work is redundant or ineffective, but the MDGs were at least broad enough to allow locals to come up with ideas to address them on their own that took local conditions into account. I’m not sure the the SDGs will allow that level of freedom.

I’m going to end this short post with Kurt Schwitters. It seems appropriate.

Links I liked January 6, 2015

I’m trying to lose 20 pounds, sleep more than five hours a night, finish piles of work and keep this blog alive so I’ll cop out and just post to some stuff that other people wrote.

1. Confusion on the internet is not the answer (WaPo). I almost bought the book of the review that he’s writing about here. It’s amazing how limited writers’ knowledge is sometimes, particularly of economics. Is Amazon good or bad? That’s the question, though.

2. A Farewell to Africa Rising (LSE) Some people are optimistic about Africa, others are pessimistic. One thing they share is that they routinely ignore Africans.

3. 2014: The Year Marvel Studios Redefined Itself (Again) I will not hesitate to admit that I have been quite excited by Marvel’s Phase One and Phase Two films. Thankfully, they weren’t like the not so good X-Men movies, which have sadly lost their way.

4. What a Strong Dollar Means for the Economy (NYT) My paycheck is in yen so I now make as much as I did as a graduate student.

I can’t believe I’m agreeing with Dave Brooks

Dave Brooks’ articles for the NYT are really bad. I mean, head scratchingly bad. I’m convinced that the NYT hired Brooks as a token conservative, or, at least, as a pseudo-conservative who appeals to a a select group of wishy washy liberal-ish readers of the NYT.

Today, Brooks writes on the “The Real Africa.”

There’s been something similarly distorted to some of the social media reactions to the Boko Haram atrocities over the past week. It’s great that the kidnappings and the massacres are finally arousing the world’s indignation. But sometimes the implication of the conversation has been this: Africa is this dark and lawless place where monstrous things are bound to happen. Those poor people need our help.

But this is more or less the opposite of the truth. Boko Haram is not the main story in Africa or even in Nigeria. It is a small rear-guard reaction to the main story. The main story in Africa is an impressive surge of growth, urbanization and modernization, which has sparked panic in a few people who don’t like these things.

While I think that Brooks, like many writers, overestimates “Africa rising,” he’s not incorrect here. In general, Africa only makes the news when something really bad or horrific happens. The stories of regular people just trying to get by against unimaginable economic and political odds are never interesting enough for American readers to start generating sexy hashtags.

I’m convinced that people, even academics, believe that people in Africa are like the uncontacted tribes of the Amazon rainforest. I believe it’s enraging for people to hear that Africans are just like everyone else. They’d rather see dying children or sexy pastoralists in their native habitat than people buying and thoroughly enjoying Game of Thrones or Desperate Housewives on bootleg DVDs.

I’m remembering the time when a friend once chastised me when I wrote of Botswana’s fiscal and political successes which brought quickly to middle income status and insured solvency for decades to come. He criticized me for not addressing the plight of the San people, a group of pastoralists in Botswana whose numbers are fewer than the population of tiny Adrian, Michigan. While insuring the rights and welfare of indigenous peoples and minorities worldwide is of the utmost importance, it was interesting to me, that the rights and welfare of the other nearly two million Botswanans didn’t enter into the conversation at all.

It would seem that liberals are more concerned with maintaining an nostalgic past, imagined by Europeans and educated Americans, than addressing the current concerns of the vast majority of Africans.

Human migration policy after the 2015 MDGs expire

We are living in an unprecedented age of human mobility. It is estimated that nearly 250 million people around the world are living as migrants. Some migrated across national borders as political, environmental and economic refugees, some as forced migrants and some simply to seek opportunities for work. This number is expected to reach 400 million by 2050.

Remittances (money sent from migrants to family and friends back home) totaled nearly $600 billion, triple the amount of international foreign aid. Migrants tend to save just as much, which could be a major source of capital to fund local business enterprises.

Despite it’s importance and magnitude, migration was not included in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, which really should coe as no surprise. Calls for the protection of migrant rights and for the relaxation of onerous taxation laws which skim off the top of remittances are both the responsibility of governments, specifically governments of countries which host migrants. The MDGs were notable in that they demanded little change to how governments operate in developing countries and demanded almost nothing of the wealthy countries which depend on migrants as a source of cheap labor.

A report from the office of the UN Special Representative for International Migration came out today with specific policy recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals, which are set to replace the expiring MDGs.

Migration patterns are likely to evolve in response to demographic imbalances, development dynamics and environmental changes. While three quarters of international migrants today move to a country with a higher Human Development Index (HDI) than their country of origin, much of that movement is to non-OECD countries. Nearly half of all international migrants move within their region of origin and about 40 percent move to a neighbouring country. Emigration rates are highest for small and remote countries, many of them small island developing states (SIDS).

As distasteful as some people find it, the economies of the United States, Europe and, to a less obvious extent, Japan, depend on migration to function. Large economies are characterized by falling populations as families have fewer and fewer children and by a constant need to cheap and efficient labor.

Closing borders works well to insure poor working conditions and near slave-labor compensation schemes. Insuring adequate protection for migrant labor and systems which effectively integrate them into the greater economy can benefit everyone.

An aside, I enjoy it when people make arguments that increased immigration will increase the supply of labor reducing wages overall. The flawed economic assumption here is that demand for labor is constant, that is, the demand for good and services is a fixed and unchanging number. This is entirely incorrect. An influx of migrants creates new demand for goods and services by introducing a new set of potential customers which must eat, house themselves and enjoy basketball games on the weekend.

I’m an advocate of open borders. If someone wants to come to the US and work, start a business big or small, take advantage of educational opportunities for their kids or themselves, then by all means, let them. We could use the money.

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.

More Scam Science: OMICS Group “Advancing Scientific Discovery”

Just got an email from the OMICS Group, whose tagline is “Advancing Scientific Discovery:”

Dear Dr. Peter S Larson,

The purpose of this letter is to formally invite you, on behalf of the Organizing Committee, to be as a speaker at the upcoming 3rd World Congress on Virology during November 20-22, 2013 at DoubleTree by Hilton Baltimore-BWI Airport, USA.

The main theme of the conference is Exploring Novel Approaches on Virology which covers a wide range of critically important sessions.

Work Shop on What Type of HIV Vaccine Research Should be Promoted?

John Benson
Life Science conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
CA-91362-7354, USA
Office +1-888-843-8169
Toll No +1-800-216-6499 (USA & Canada)

Of course, it’s entirely odd that they would invite me to speak on viral diseases given that I have never done any work at all on them.

OMICS, in addition to sponsoring numerous scam conferences and workshops, can also proudly claim to be the publisher of more than 300 journals, none of which I’ve ever heard of. They can also proudly claim to have one of the most scathing Wikipedia entries I’ve ever seen. Numerous articles have questioned OMICs’ legitimacy, and even the US Government has asked them to cease listing any affiliations with the NIH and the HHS.

Of course, they do appear on the black list of scientific publication houses at the Scholarly Open Access blog, which tracks the world of scam publications and conferences. Avoid at all costs.

Update: It’s worth noting that OMICs shares a building with a PayDay Loans place, a shady credit card company, and a company that will help you get out of paying speeding tickets.

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.

Back to Kenya

I arrived in Kenya last night after a grueling flight. It turns out that I flew so much last year, that I’ve seen just about all the movies I would have ever wanted to see on the Delta on demand system. It was pretty slim pickings.

The flight, of course, was filled with kids on their way to spreading the gospel of white people to helpless Africans. I’m never sure what these people really do.

Today, we have to drive out to Lake Victoria. I was really apprehensive about coming to Kenya right now, but now that I’m here, I’m happy that I came.

Is a balmy 90 degrees, so I can’t complain about really much of anything.

Defense Spending and the Economy: Is there a link?

DefenseGDPEventsToday I encountered a discussion, where the participants emphatically maintained that the current US economic woes are to be blamed in part on increased US defense spending during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. I countered and claimed that they have no relation at all. Of course, these people hate me now (thinking I was merely being difficult for the same of being difficult), but that’s ok. I’m used to it.

To test this hypothesis, I took data on US GDP (adjusted to constant 2005 dollars) and combined them with data on US defense spending (adjusted to constant 2010 dollars). The results can be seen to the left. The red line is defense spending. The blue line is GDP.

As I maintained, there is no obvious relationship between defense spending and economic growth. There are a couple of major blips in GDP growth, namely the collapsing of tech equities in the early 2000’s and the economic meltdown on 2007/8. There are no events in US GDP for drops during Clinton nor sudden increases in defense spending following 9/11.

In fact, as defense spending dropped pre-9/11, you can see the US economy was plugging along just fine. As defense spending went up post 9/11, the US economy maintained the same trajectory, minus the economic bumps.

DefenseUnemploymentEventsCertainly, GDP is not the only economic marker we could use. I did the same thing with the unemployment rate.

Now, at first glance, this is a little more convincing. But when you take the events into consideration, it is less so. The two major economic events of the 2000’s, namely the equity bust, and the financial meltdown both resulted in sudden jumps in the unemployment rate. 9/11 and the troop surge did not. In fact, as spending was doing up, unemployment was going down. If we look back into the nineties, we can notice that even though defense spending was declining, unemployment was up, then down again. In short, given the context, there is no real reason to assume that two related.

I am NOT an advocate for war. I am though, an advocate for evidence backed claims. There is little evidence to suggest that increased defense expenditures during the Bush years affected our economy.

We can claim, if we like, that federal revenues might have been greater had the wars not happened. These revenues, it is argued, could have been allocated to education or infrastructure improvements, for example. However, it has to be noted that the wars weren’t funded out of federal revenues. They were funded out of low interest bonds. Thus, as those bonds had not been serviced at the time that this data was collected, there is, again, even less reason to assume that the wars negatively impacted the economy.

Now, we can certainly make arguments over how much defense spending is too much and what the potential long term effects of servicing the war debt will be. I argue, though, that our elected representatives are much more interested in financing the military than, say, welfare programs for the needy. It would take a great leap of faith to assume that, if the military were closed tomorrow, monies targeted for defense would automatically be transferred to providing health care to poor people. I also argue that, long term, the expenditures that came out of the financial crisis will be, in comparison, more difficult to service.

The war cost us politically, but was a bargain economically. To me, that’s a much more frightening state of affairs.

ASTMH Meetings

I’ve been out of town at the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene (ASTMH) and unable to post. Here’s a poster I just presented. At the very least I’ll be able to move Justin Zatkoff off the front page.

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