Saturday, December 27, 2008
Sunday, December 7, 2008
10) Information flow: during the Great Depression, investors rarely had accurate information about companies. At best, it was very delayed. The government didn't even have an accurate estimate of GDP. Today, of course, we're swimming in data.
9) 2-income families: women work now. If a husband loses his job, the family still has an income. Not so in the 1930s. (Which put a lot more social and psychological pressure on the man to support his family, as well.)
8) Diversification of labor: when 30% of the country is employed in agriculture, and there is a Dust Bowl (partly because of poor agricultural practices), lots of people are out of work. Comparatively, today only 3% of the nation is employed as farmers, and we're still feeding everyone. So in general, if any one industry crashes, today it affects a smaller number of people. I heard yesterday that the unemployment rate just jumped to 6.7%; this is still lower than most countries have during good times. During the Depression, the US unemployment rate at its height was 26%.
7) Global cooperation. In particular, the economic integration of Europe through the EU enables a high level of coordinated action. Not so much cooperation in the 1930s, to say the least.
6) Our government's willingness to act has been impressive so far. Even if they make mistakes, they’re working on it. Compare this to Hoover, who took public pride in not doing anything: the markets will take care of themselves, after all.
5) To continue that thought, president-elect Obama's getting ahead of the game and doing lots of work before his "100 days" even begins. From the New York Times: “President-elect Barack Obama promised Saturday to create the largest public works construction program since the inception of the interstate highway system a half century ago … Mr. Obama began highlighting elements of the economic recovery program he is trying to fashion with Congressional leaders in hopes of being able to enact it shortly after being sworn in on Jan. 20.”
4) Even with last year’s bump in food prices, commodities are a ton cheaper now than then. We also have a lot more infrastructure, such as our highway system, and people just have a lot more “stuff” too. The average middle-age man in the 1920s could afford just 6 outfits, and ate a lot fewer calories a day (this sounds like a good thing, but it wasn’t.) We have refrigerators, microwaves, and air conditioners. Health care expenses will be one of the major pains that people feel during a recession today, but the quality of health care during the Great Depression was laughable even for the rich. Believe me, it’s better now.
3) Other emerging economies, particularly China and India, spread the problem thinner. The US generates a smaller percentage of world GDP now. While our growth might slow from 3% to 1%, even the worst prediction has China slowing from like 10% to 5%, still pretty amazing. And the government of China has shown initiative and willingness to address the economic crisis so far.
2) 75 years of learning from other financial crises. We've been here before. 8 recessions since WWII, if I'm not mistaken. And we've always pulled out of it. The average length of those recessions, in fact, is only 10 months.
1) Roosevelt was smarter than us. We were stupid enough to repeat another financial mess. But like some sort of cigarette-smoking Hari Seldon, he (and the rest of the government over the years) figured that might happen. The New Deal put programs in place not only to mitigate the Depression, but to prevent future ones. We’ve got the FDIC, Social Security, Medicare, and unemployment insurance, just to name the big ones that come to mind. Imagine living in a world without those.
So, calm down everyone! It might be bad, but it could be worse. A lot worse.
Sunday, November 9, 2008
Tuesday, September 30, 2008
The survey, financed by the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania, finds that Dalits are far less likely to be engaged in their traditional caste occupations — for instance, the skinning of animals, considered ritually unclean — than they used to be and more likely to enjoy social perks once denied them. In rural Azamgarh District, for instance, nearly all Dalit households said their bridegrooms now rode in cars to their weddings, compared with 27 percent in 1990. In the past, Dalits would not have been allowed to ride even horses to meet their brides; that was considered an upper-caste privilege.
Mr. Prasad credits the changes to a booming economy. “It has pulled them out of the acute poverty they were in and the day-to-day humiliation of working for a landlord,” he said.
To prove his point, Mr. Prasad recently brought journalists here to his home district. In one village, Gaddopur, his theory was borne out in the tale of a gaunt, reticent man named Mahesh Kumar, who went to work in a factory 300 miles away so his family would no longer have to live as serfs, tending the animals of the upper caste.
When he was a child, Dalits like him had to address their upper-caste landlords as “babu-saab,” close to “master.” Now it is acceptable to call them “uncle” or “brother,” just as people would members of their own castes.
Click here for the full article, by Somini Sengupta.
Saturday, August 16, 2008
- The Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan has had a century of royal rule, but they just held elections for the first time. Their King, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, voluntarily abdicated and declared the country a constitutional monarchy, with a popularly elected parliament. Most Bhutanese liked their king, but he simply explained that no nation should be in the hands of one person, and that the changeover should happen while the country is peaceful.
- The tiny island nation of Tonga is having a similar experience, with their king due to forfeit most of his powers to parliament by 2010.
- Turkmenistan’s infamous dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, died in 2007 and the new ruler has been slowly but surely dismantling the cult of personality around the former ruler. A giant, rotating, gold-plated statue of Niyazov has been removed from the capital, the names of the months have been restored after Niyazov named them after himself and his mother, Internet access is increasingly allowed, and the ban on car radios might even be lifted (Niyazov banned them because they annoyed him.)
- Even Cuba, long held tightly in the hands of Fidel Castro, has been slowly allowing freedoms under their new ruler, Fidel’s brother Raúl. “Socialism means social justice and equality, but equality of rights, of opportunities, not of income,” he announced, dramatically reversing his brother’s philosophy. Ordinary Cubans can now own mobile phones, televisions, and computers for the first time, and farmers can decide for themselves what to plant.
- Lastly, the Summer Olympics have shown a spotlight on China’s worst anti-democratic impulses, such as its stifling of dissent, but a recent New York Times headline reports that “Despite flaws, rights in China have expanded.” China is a significantly more open place than it was a generation ago, with its citizens able to choose where to live, own some property, travel abroad, and gain access to technology.
Saturday, July 26, 2008
We all know the bad news: Over 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, making it a pandemic, and some African countries are completely devastated. In South Africa, for example, 18 percent of the population is infected. It is estimated that 1,800 children a day become infected with HIV, mostly newborns. Amidst this dire news, however, glimmers of hope can be seen. Astonishingly, the annual number of AIDS deaths has fallen by half, from 3.9 million in 2001 to 2.1 million just six years later. AIDS is conquerable, and an end to the disease is within sight.
A recent UN report found that the spread of AIDS worldwide is finally slowing. The rate of new HIV infections peaked in 1998 and has been falling ever since then. The world is finally learning how to both treat and prevent the disease. Since we have now had several decades of living with AIDS, we can objectively review the results of international policies. Several countries, such as Cambodia, have been successful in curbing AIDS through a concerted educational effort via the media and schools. In Kenya and Zimbabwe, fewer teenagers are having sex, and condom use has increased, slowing the spread of the disease among fifteen to twenty-four year olds. Some countries, such as Thailand, have seen success by targeting prostitutes with condom education. Other governments have used public ad campaigns to spread facts about AIDS; in many developing countries myths persist about how the disease is contracted. In most countries, blood for transfusions is finally being screened for the disease. In southern India, where large numbers of the population are afflicted, the prevalence of HIV is slowing too. China denied the existence of any cases of AIDS for decades, but it has finally admitted its problem and is concentrating on solving it. The Chinese government is sending volunteers into rural villages to spread information, and it is also broadcasting a series of TV documentaries about AIDS.
After ignoring the disease for so long, the developed world is at last devoting necessary funds to the AIDS crisis. The trick is to use the funds wisely. The Copenhagen Consensus found that combating AIDS and malaria has the best return of any aid investment. Developed countries, charities, and NGOs are now allocating vast resources to fighting both diseases. Research devoted to the treatment of AIDS and malaria has been extraordinarily successful. Thanks to ARVs, anti-retroviral drugs that block HIV’s effects on the immune system, AIDS is no longer a death sentence for many people. The greatest difficulty is supplying the expensive drugs to the masses, though much progress has been made in this area, partly because generic drug manufacturers in India are willing to supply them very cheaply. This is thanks to a coalition of activists led by Bill Clinton, and helped by $15 billion in new funds made available by President Bush. Astonishingly, while in 2002 only 1 percent of Africans who needed the drugs had them, in 2007 28 percent – or 1.34 million people – were able to receive the treatment, and the number is growing. Likewise, one-third of all HIV-positive pregnant women are now receiving drugs that help prevent transmitting the disease to their newborns, compared to one in 10 in 2004. With continued funding, the world will keep seeing incredible progress in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
Monday, June 30, 2008
- Low-income countries (particularly India and China) have experienced unprecedented rates of economic growth, pulling millions of people out of poverty;
- Democracy has been introduced in many countries, and become stronger and more entrenched in countries that were partially democratic;
- Increasing gender equality;
- Increased tolerance of ethnic minorities and gays and lesbians in developed societies.
Rich countries tend to be happier than poor countries. And according to University of Michigan political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who headed up the survey, "The results clearly show that the happiest societies are those that allow people the freedom to choose how to live their lives."
Of the countries surveyed, Denmark is the happiest and Zimbabwe the most miserable. The US ranks 16th.
Sunday, June 22, 2008
- Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria talks about the worldwide drop in terrorism over the last few years. Stats that show terrorism on the increase tend to count civilian casualties in Iraq, which doesn’t really make sense. Excluding Iraq and Afghanistan, terrorist attacks and casualties from terrorism are way down. In addition, Islamist terrorist groups stumbled in their recruiting PR by killing too many Muslim civilians; support for their tactics among Muslims has plummeted in recent years.
(This brings up a conservative theory I’ve read which posits that by attracting potential terrorists to fight in Iraq, that country’s invasion has prevented attacks on the US. If true (and how would you prove it?), this is easily the most compelling justification for the war I’ve heard. Of course, it’s still a justification that was thought of long after the fact of deciding to invade.)
- Meanwhile, The Week summarizes a number of data sources about the sorry state of al Qaida. Al Qaida is on its last legs in Iraq and Afghanistan, having been backed into a corner in Pakistan, its one remaining stronghold. And we’re getting more effective at fighting them there; rather than just throwing money at Pakistan (and watching it arm itself against India instead), we’re training local Pakistani troops directly.
- Lastly, the Economist had a cover story about “The change in Iraq: Is it turning the corner?” Optimism is popping up in the country, thanks to more ceasefires, fewer casualties, more political cooperation, and a bit of restored infrastructure, including a surge in cell phones. The newspaper is quick to explain that it is not trumpeting good news in Iraq as a means to justify the war (it backed the decision to invade); indeed, the war remains a terrible, deadly blunder. However, progress is finally being made out of a bad situation.
Sunday, June 1, 2008
That’s a classic concept of progress that has fallen in and out of favor, but I wholeheartedly believe in it. Sure, there are sometimes dramatic events or inventions that pop up and make a huge change, but many of those that we learn about actually built on previous work that remained under the radar. There are also often missteps backwards, but the good outweighs the bad.
An important aspect of this is how spread out the improvements are among people: “And so it rejects the idea that innovation is the province of an elect few; instead, it’s taken to be an everyday task for which everyone is responsible. … Toyota implements a million new ideas a year, and most of them come from ordinary workers (Japanese companies get a hundred times as many suggestions from their workers as U.S. companies do.)”
Take the same principle and spread it out among the world’s people, and we see civilization improving daily. The vast majority of people are daily trying to make things better for themselves and their families. (Or, they can be lazy and do nothing; but the number of people actively trying to make things worse is very small.) Many mistakes are made, and big mistakes can push many people back at once (like, say, invading Iraq) but adding together all that effort means history practically has no choice but to improve.
Friday, May 23, 2008
The next day, I saw another ad, this one with Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich, again on a couch, in front of the Capitol building. Looks even more photoshoppy. And where the two good reverends at least look like they’re having fun, these two Speakers look like they’re gritting their teeth and seething behind their smiles. Newt is sinking into his side of the couch while Nancy is perched like a bird next to him.
The ad directs us to www.wecansolveit.org, which, while it’s hard to tell what actions it actually performs, certainly has a nice message about a movement of people to help “solve the climate crisis.”
The ads are funny, and it would be easy for a cynic to mock the sentiment. But when did we subconsciously pass the moment when climate change became a commonly accepted mainstream concept? Was it An Inconvenient Truth? It seems like it was just a few years ago that it was difficult getting any politician or public official to take global warming seriously, let alone Republicans. But today, politicians are leaping over one another to seem environmentally sound, and the majority of products and advertisements tout their environmental accreditations. (I don’t want to imply any of these specific people are insincere; Gingrich did write a book on the environment, after all.)
This is a common Secret Peace trend:
- An idea that was once rare or scorned becomes more mainstream.
- A tipping point is reached after which it is gauche to disagree with the idea.
- People are forced to jump on the bandwagon and pretend to agree with it, even if they harbor doubts or resentments towards the new idea.
- Eventually (after a generation at the most), since everyone has been publicly supporting the idea, peoples’ views subconsciously shifts into genuine support.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
On April 21, Philippe Quint, a Grammy-nominated classical violinist, accidentally left a Stradivarius violin, valued at $4 million, in the back seat of a cab that he took from the airport to Manhattan on his return from a performance in Dallas. After several frantic hours, the Newark police told him the violin had been found and was at the airport taxi stand with the cabdriver who had taken him home. The two connected, and the violin was returned.
The city of Newark awarded Mr. Khalil, who has driven a taxi here since 1985, a Medallion, its highest honor. Mr. Quint gave him a $100 tip when the violin was returned, but he wanted to do more, so he arranged for Tuesday’s concert for about 50 cab drivers in a parking-lot-turned-theater outside Newark Liberty International Airport.
“Anybody out here would have done the same thing,” said the driver, Mohammed Khalil, waving a hand at his laughing, dancing colleagues.
To learn what’s going on in the world, I usually shun “fluff” articles like this one. Anecdotes that illustrate larger trends are useful, but feel-good human interest stories are too small-scale and often irrelevant. It’s a total pet peeve when someone uses anecdotal evidence to prove a point (and they usually do so to prove a negative point.)
But whatever, this one totally got me. It doesn’t prove any larger point or give any real insight … except towards the realization that most of humanity is basically good, and honest. Wait until you’re in a bad mood, and then click here to read the whole article, and see if you don’t suddenly feel like the world isn’t that bad a place. And then there’s that twist in the last sentence, too!
Thursday, May 1, 2008
On September 11th, in the beginning days of a new century, an unprecedented event took place that changed the course of history. In Johannesburg, South Africa, in the old Empire Theatre, a full house of Indian South Africans stood up and vowed to disobey their country’s unjust racist laws. They took a solemn oath to do so without shedding a drop of their enemy’s blood, though they were prepared to sacrifice their own, “to die but not to submit to the law.” With that act, the diminutive thirty-six year-old lawyer standing onstage created satyagraha. His name was Mohandas Gandhi, and the date was September 11th, 1906.
My fiancée and I saw Philip Glass’s opera Satyagraha at the Met Monday. (If that sounds elitist, I’ll go bowling in Pennsylvania to make up for it.) The opera tells the story of Gandhi’s early activism in South Africa.
Gandhi crafted the word satyagraha, which refers to using peaceful resistance methods for political or social reform, to replace “nonviolence” and “passive resistance,” terms that many people who practice true nonviolence don't like. Why? Because nonviolence is a negative word, defining itself as the opposite of violence, e.g., not-violence. In reality, nonviolence is the active, positive force, while violence should be described as its negative corollary. Nonviolence also carries the stigma of passivity, but according to Gandhi, it is the most active force in the world. Simply not being violent is not practicing true nonviolence — I am not emulating Gandhi just because I refrained from attacking any passersby today. Practicing nonviolence is difficult, certainly harder than practicing violence. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said, “Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.” That is why Gandhi described satyagraha as active nonviolence. Satyagraha can be translated as “truth-force,” although Gandhi also described it as “holding to truth,” “pursuing truth,” and “direct action for truth.” He defined the three core principles of satyagraha as truth and fairness, refusal to harm others, and the willingness for self-sacrifice.
Gandhi found that violence sometimes works in the short term, but never in the long term. Sometimes violence quickly solves a problem, only to breed resentment that rears its head with more, and often greater, violence. On the other hand, nonviolence always wins out in the long term, and often brings short-term gains as well. And even in cases when nonviolence does not solve an immediate problem, it causes no harm and sows seeds of peace that are guaranteed to sprout later. As social critic Theodore Roszak wisely put it, “People try nonviolence for a week, and when it doesn’t ‘work’ they go back to violence, which hasn’t worked for centuries.” Gandhi learned that the anticipated end of any problem, and the means for achieving it, couldn’t contradict each other. To build a permanently peaceful society, only peaceful methods are effective.
I consider Gandhi to be a scientist who discovered the new field of satyagraha. As he fully admitted, he only scratched the surface of the techniques and power available. Martin Luther King, Jr., was inspired by Gandhi and built on his work to innovate new methods used in local campaigns. “The whole concept of satyāgraha . . . was profoundly significant to me. . . .It was in this Gandhian emphasis on love and nonviolence that I discovered the method for social reform that I had been seeking for so many months.”
The opera ended with a powerful scene that featured Gandhi and Dr. King on stage together. Gandhi walked on the ground belting out the meditative music, with Dr. King preaching at a podium in the air, seemingly grabbing the music and realizing further dreams with it.
Sunday, April 27, 2008
We frequently hear the discouraging news of the poverty that still exists for billions of people in the world today. But the reduction of the world’s extreme poverty is one of the most dramatic – and surprising – trends leading toward peace. There is a proven path out of poverty, and two examples illustrate it perfectly. Korea and Vietnam share the dubious distinction of being the sites of the United States’ worst wars since World War II. Though Korea and Vietnam are more than two thousand miles apart and have very different cultures, their recent histories are strikingly similar. After World War II, both countries remained occupied against their will. Then, around the same time, they each became embroiled in conflicts that were simultaneously civil wars and proxy battles between the United States and the Soviet Union. Korea and Vietnam each held communist forces in their northern halves supported intermittently by communist Russia or communist China. They each had southern forces supported by the United States and its allies, who were attempting to block the spread of communism. Both wars were waged as opposing sides vied for control of the country’s central parallel. Although both countries began their conflicts under very different circumstances, each ended a vast war—Korea in 1953 and Vietnam in 1975—with hundreds of thousands of casualties, an impoverished citizenry, and a devastated countryside.
Here their histories diverge. North Korea’s communist forces were unable to conquer the southern half of the country and were only able to maintain control of the northern half of the peninsula. North Korea became isolated, and for fifty years it carried out a countrywide experiment in pure communism and totalitarianism. Today North Korea faces economic collapse and widespread famine. Perhaps more than any other country, it is cut off from global civilization. Its people exist in a semifeudal society: hungry, destitute, and scared of being shipped off to labor camps for any dissent. Only top-level Communist Party bosses enjoy luxuries such as cars and foreign food. Every year many North Koreans risk death as they attempt to escape by crossing the heavily armed border. What little wealth their leader Kim Jong Il amasses gets diverted into outdated military forces and giant, solipsistic statues. If you look at the earth at night, North Korea remains dark next to the shining electric wealth of Japan, South Korea, China, and much of the rest of the globe. North Korea remains a pariah, and its desperate attempt to develop nuclear weapons reveals its weaknesses: it has no other power or influence in the world. It relies on energy from China and aid from South Korea. In terms of its economy, the health of its citizens, and its reputation in the world, North Korea is one of the most failed states in modern history.
In contrast to the situation in North Korea, North Vietnam’s communist forces seized control of the entire country. Vietnam united under communism, and the United States, having suffered a terrible loss, expected the worst. Vietnam seemed destined to follow in North Korea’s footsteps. True to form, Vietnam played the role of a strict communist state for a decade. But then something strange started happening. In the mid-1980s, facing potential famine, Vietnam had a change of heart. The government started enacting market reforms under a policy it called doi moi (renovation). It abandoned its attempt to collectivize its industry and agriculture, and it slowly began to allow free-market enterprise. It invited foreign firms into the country to open new factories and provide employment. Private ownership became acceptable. The changes didn’t translate into political freedom; they focused only on the economy. Nevertheless, the people of Vietnam saw their standard of living start to improve. Life expectancy went up, and infant mortality rates went down. The number of Vietnamese living in extreme poverty dropped from 50 percent in 1990 to a scant 10 percent in 2003. The United States restored trade relations with Vietnam in 1994, and in 2006 removed it from a blacklist of countries that suppressed religion. Today Vietnam is engaged with the world community, participating in international law and encouraging tourism, and with a relatively free press. To complete the metamorphosis, Vietnam’s leaders recently unveiled a plan to establish the country as a fully modern, industrial nation by 2020.
Totalitarian, isolationist North Korea is looking more every day like an anachronistic aberration. Meanwhile, different versions of Vietnam’s success story are playing out all over the world.
Sunday, April 20, 2008
Jeff Sachs is a world-renowned economist, whose book The End of Poverty was a great source for the economics section of The Secret Peace. He was at Barnes & Noble the other day speaking about his new book, Common Wealth.
His theme is sustainable development, and meeting the UN's Millennium Development Goals to alleviate extreme poverty in the world. I think he's a genius. And a great speaker.
The clip here is about the Iraq War. Ironically, this is one issue I'm not sure if I agree with him on, but it was the only video clip I was able to get before my camera ran out of space. I've thought we shouldn't pull out of Iraq ASAP because of the chaos it could leave the country in. However, Sachs's case is simply that being in Iraq is SO expensive that we'd get better bang for our buck using the money to help other countries alleviate poverty, or in developing more sustainable technologies. He makes a good case when you look at the numbers.
Saturday, April 19, 2008
- After James Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, he spent 80 days on his deathbed while a team of doctors probed him with unwashed hands and unsanitary medical instruments. They tried to find the bullet with a metal detector invented by Alexander Graham Bell – but the device failed because Garfield was placed on a bed with metal springs, and no one thought to move him. To escape the Washington heat, Garfield was moved to a seaside cottage in New Jersey early in September. There he died on Sept. 19, 1881, succumbing to death by doctors.
Friday, April 4, 2008
But this means the mass media, especially television, presents a narrow perspective of the state of the world. Retreating from the media’s focus on negative details reveals large trends that are hard to discern but which come together to paint a vivid picture of our secret story. Newspaperman Ben Hecht said it best, “Trying to determine what is going on in the world is like trying to tell the time by watching the second hand of the clock.” Our short-term preoccupations often eclipse our long-term focus. But once you’ve pulled back to see the big picture and spotted some of the hidden trends, more jump out at you.
The clues point toward a grand secret: we, as a global culture, are moving in a discernible direction. And despite popular opinion, it’s a positive direction. World events are not random, and world peace is not just possible but probable. The world is in better shape than we think, but the inevitability of peace is only half the good news. The real secret is that for much of the world, peace is already here.
I’m not naïve, and I won’t deny the horrors that happen everywhere. But at any given minute, most people are just busy working towards better lives for themselves and their families. The bad news is real, but it already gets plenty of coverage, so we’re going to focus on the good stuff instead. I hope you stop by The Secret Peace regularly to get a nice refreshing break of good news in the middle of your day. The secret is too big and important to be missed.