Tag Archive | America

Does the environment cause poverty?

SESKwaleAfrican countries are blessed with ample cropland and resources, but suffer from crippling and unforgivable levels of poverty, have some of the shortest lifespans on the planet and the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Singapore are wholly the opposite, yet mostly lacking in everything that Africa has. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely having access to a natural resources.

However, within countries, the picture might be different. African countries are complex and diverse places. Poverty is often confined to the most unproductive regions, areas with poor soils, poor rainfalls or dangerous terrains.

I was just working with some socio-economic data from one of our field sites, and noticed some interesting patterns (note the map up top). In Kwale, a small area along the Coast, socio-economic levels vary widely, but neighbors tend to be like neighbors and patterns of socio-economic clustering emerge.

Note that the poorest of the poor are concentrated to an area in the middle, which I know to be extremely dry, difficult to get to, difficult to farm and generally tough to live in.

I tried to see if socio-economic status (as measured through a composite material wealth index a la Filmer and Pritchett but using multiple correspondence analysis rather than PCA) was related to any environmental variables that I might have data for.

I fit a generalized additive model using the continuous measure of of wealth from the MCA as an outcome. Knowing that very few things in nature or human societies are linear, I also applied smoothing to the predictors to relax these assumptions. The results can be seen in the plot at the bottom.

A few interesting things came out. While it is hard to tell much about the poorest of the poor, we can tell something about the most wealthy. The richest in this poor area, tend to live in areas with the richest vegetation (possibly representing water), a high altitude (low temperature), high relief (no standing water) and in locations distant from a wildlife reserve (far from annoying and dangerous wildlife).

I’m not sure the wildlife reserve is meaningful (unless the reserve was an area undesirable for human habitation to begin with), but the others might be and represent a trend seen in other Sub-Saharan contexts. Areas without malarious swamps and ample farm land tend to do the best. Central Province, one of the most developed areas of Kenya, would be an example.

But the question has to be, does a harsh environment doom people to poverty, or do people self shuffle into and compete for access to more favorable areas? Is environmentally determined poverty (or wealth) an accident of birth, or the result of competitive selection?

Alright, back to work. Oh wait, this is my work. Well….

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Kenya Day 1: Mini Skirts, Donkeys and the Land of No Pirates

I’m not sure why I number these from “1.” I must have a multitude of “1’s.” Perhaps I should just start a continuing, yet even more unsearchable, series.

It’s 4 in the morning, I’ve slept probably a total of 2 hours in the past 72 hours, but being awake after the stasis of international flights and the crossing of time zone is like a sleep of its own. It might be like that creepy Russian Sleep Experiment story, though, where you’ve stayed awake long enough to arrange your entrails on the floor in an artistic fashion.

What I did today. First day is always hectic, shopping to be done. This time it was a quest for hand shaking, an extension on a research permit to suck more blood from animals, a new phone and as many Remmy Ongala CD’s as existence would allow.

Remmy Ongala is a legendary Tanzanian musician. I was told that one has to go to a special part of town to get Remmy Ongala CD’s. The place where there are no pirates, but apparently, I’m not allowed to go. See, all of the other people on the street selling Jean Claude Van Damme films and Jay Z CD’s are pirates. The Americans can never catch them. Remmy Ongala, however, must have protectors everywhere, because his CDs aren’t available. At least not in the 99% of the country where the pirates live.

I get a call from my friend Tirus. He’s apparently gone to that-place-I-should-not-go and found everything (even a video) for the crushing price of $3.00. He asks me to pay double for his services. I talk him down to a total of $4.25. I ask him how the land of no pirates is.

I buy a new phone. My old one was terrible, though it was recommended by another friend, simply because he has it. It’s supposedly a “smart” phone, but it was one of the stupidest pieces of technology I’ve ever owned. Out of loyalty, I try to buy a Japanese phone, but find they don’t exist, so I opt for one of the former colonies, thinking that they must own everything anyway, kind of like how the Brits still own everything in Kenya (well, not really, but it sounded good).

The lady at the phone store knows everything about all of the phones she has. I’m impressed by the authoritative air with which she answers my questions and her insistence that I tell her what I hated about my other phone. I intentionally play a game with her, asking more and more difficult and probably unanswerable (or so I thought) questions and she doesn’t bat an eye. Best sales lady I’ve seen in a while.

You see, in America, they just want to sell you the most expensive thing they can and get you the hell out of the store so they can sell another. Here, a sale is a sale because there’s 500 more people within a 1 km radius selling the exact same thing for the same prices.

Tirus asks me about America and why it’s so hard to get a visa. I tell him that Americans are scared of Africans because they work too hard. I tell him that there are Americans who want to turn out the lights and force everyone to go back to the farms to keep them from selling cell phones and driving taxis and writing books and networking and succeeding in America or anywhere else because they are so good at all of them.

Though I’m half joking, I’m half serious, but half complaining and Tirus senses it. I buy a hat because I left mine at home.

Uganda has banned mini-skirts. Museveni is apparently paying a political price for refusing to sign the anti-gay law, so, like a good dictator, he’s turned to victimizing another group who can’t defend themselves. Hashimoto Toru would be proud. The irony, of course, is that the law merely makes Museveni even more powerful as Uganda barrels forward to becoming an frighteningly autocratic state.

The social conservatives are nodding their heads, saying that such a law was overdue. “The women are out of control. It’s time for the police to step in.” I remark that I’ve seen more evidence that the men are the one’s who are out of control. It’s amazing how deeply female sexuality is both respected and feared here. Fortunately, the voices are reason are screaming loudly, at least in Kenya.

We eat Nyama Choma (grilled meat). I eat more than I intend and have gained 10 pounds again. I blame the chips. Apparently, though, the big news is that Kenya is falling apart because someone is opening a restaurant which serves donkey meat in Naivasha. The Chinese are blamed. I remark that I’ve never seen a dead donkey on the side of the road (as opposed to dogs and cats) and ask where do those donkeys go? Everyone laughs.

I’m eating my favorite Salticrax. OK, back to bed.

What I’m Reading Now

Note: Any of these books can be bought through Amazon. Just click the links and they will take you there. Help keep this site alive!

51pDum6hcwL Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism by Ha-Joon Chang (2008) – The title is more incendiary than the book. Rather than some scathing attack on “capitalism” it is a primer on macroeconomic development and the failings of the neo-liberal reforms of the World Band the the IMF during the 80’s and 90’s.

I have no problem with the basic premise of the book. Many of the reforms suggested by the WB/IMF were wholly inappropriate for the level of the development of poor countries at the time. For example, it doesn’t really make much sense to privatize a health system before it has the structural means to support itself but that’s exactly what was recommended to a number of countries during the 1980’s. I do, however, become annoyed at the creation of monolithic enemies (“Bad Samaritans”), though I suspect that Chang’s view is much more nuanced than this popular work would suggest.

Worse yet is Chang’s unwillingness to present information on the situations which predicated some of the reforms, such as Zambia’s failed experiment with the nationalization of private firms and over-reliance on copper revenues. I’m willing to accept that the structural adjustment reforms were ill-conceived (because they were), but would like to see more information on why the reforms were suggested. Chang, Stiglitz and Stein (all heroes of mine, btw) fall too often into the trap of blaming ideology at the expense of history and overestimate the capacity of the WB/IMF, who were often grabbing at straws in the face of massive organizational adversity.

1845285000 The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue and Prosperityby Jeffrey D. Sachs (2012)

Jeff Sachs of the Earth Institute at Colombia University in NYC is a macroeconomist. As a macroeconomist, he worries about the big picture. How does the overall economy function and what are the macro level factors which insure or compromise the economic health of a country or region? Here he takes on issues of American politics. He’s worried that American politics has become hijacked by corporate interests for their own short term benefit. We need to worry about growing inequality, environmental destruction, climate change and stop fighting useless wars. In short, Sachs, in a cookie cutter sense, represents the views of liberal America.

Now, I like Sachs. I share his view that the market economy is a good thing and an efficient means of distributing scarce goods, but that government is required to effectively insure fairness in the market, reduce the impact of economic shocks and provide or regulate public goods for which the market is unsuited (health care, education, etc). Government and the private sector should complement one another.

I feel that though sometimes Sachs’ works are so broad as to sound naive, his critics, particularly Bill Easterly and Dambisa Moyo, are unfair, particularly regarding matters of the role of foreign aid in development. I had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of years back. It was an experience I will never forget.

As before, I have no problem with the premise of the book. The US is facing a set of challenges that will be difficult to overcome. Health care, economic inequality, political impasses, failure to adequately tax its citizens to insure a health set of public services, etc. etc. As the world’s biggest and one of the most vibrant economies, the US has a special responsibility to keep its house in order.

However, Sachs’ book, as a polemic, is often overly broad and somewhat annoying to me. For example, in his attempt to pit politics against the American people, he fails to adequately deal with the problem of the behavior of individual Americans. He views the current set of problems as stemming from some nefarious clique of ambiguous groups which manipulate the world for their own evil ends (like the Koch Brothers), concluding that Americans are hapless in the face of these powerful forces. It’s easy to think that Randian ideas are an abomination, but I think that Sachs needs to get out into the country-side a bit more. Libertarian ideas resonate strong with a lot of voting America. The reason that Tea Party groups are successful is because they speak to the gut of a wide swath of Americans.

In the end, Sachs appeals to the Millenials as the last great hope of America. I think, however, he is assuming that they are far more liberal than they might appear. Though I have no data to back it up, I suspect that the current younger generation is quite conservative in more ways than Sachs cares to recognize.

More annoying are his calls for a wide cultural shift in America. A task easier written about than implemented. In the end, he sounds like a rocking chair curmudgeon bemoaning the state of the world and calling for a return to the more idyllic days of the past. I have little tolerance for this kind of writing, honestly.

There are some small gems, though. Sachs vents his frustration with his own camp. Notably, how even environmentalists have stymied development of renewable energy sources (BANANA: Build Absolutely Nothing Anytime Near Anything) and how well meaning folks calling for a return to pre-industrial styles of agriculture are failing to deal with the reality that such a strategy would be disastrous for humanity and the environment.

An interesting book, though not a rigorous analysis of costs and benefits of potential implementable policies to mitigate the problems he addresses. The book is what it is.

TanakaHiddenHorrors Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II (Transitions–Asia and Asian America)
by Yuki Tanaka (1998)
This is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. Tanaka has written a detailed account of the wide range of atrocities committed by the Japanese military during World War II. Cannibalism, rape, mass killings, prisoner abuse, it’s all here and it’s gut wrenching.

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