Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Home-grown change, neoclassical economics, and the struggle

This is an interesting article that considers the value of "the struggle", that is, the tortuous path of missteps and trials and adaptation that any idea, product, or process goes through before it becomes successful.  The article looks at this struggle in the context of international development, where pre-packaged, proven "best practices" are often recommended for developing countries to adopt and scale up in order to improve their level of wellbeing.  The article asks (in light of the frequent failure of such an approach), whether the struggle, the "costly and time-consuming process" of home-grown change, is in fact part of what is necessary for lasting economic development.  If so, this would turn on its head the philosophy of importing best practices from elsewhere, and even the very notion of such best practices.  While we're at it, it would overturn much of neoclassical economic thinking on trade, which sees only the short-term efficiency of a poor country's exporting low-value products and importing high-value products, regarding the struggle of home-grown change and development as inefficient, a waste of time.

I tend to believe in the struggle as opposed to the neoclassical trade regime.  The only way I see that all of today's wealthy countries (the US, much of Europe, some of East Asia) could have become wealthy while "inefficiently" spurning neoclassical free trade thinking and essentially practicing import substitution, is that the struggle matters.  By limiting trade early on, thus foregoing short-term trade efficiencies in favor of developing their own domestic production and especially higher-value sectors, all these countries broke out of the trap of a raw materials, low-value economy.  Conversely, free-market countries and continents like Haiti, 19th- and early 20th-century Latin America, and 1980s Africa did indeed stagnate economically and socially, at least until some of them started more aggressively protecting their high-value economic sectors and cultivating their domestic markets in the past decades.  Another striking example of this are the Northern and Southern parts of the US.  The North's long-standing focus on developing industry, domestic markets, and a robust middle class contrasts with the South's focus on producing raw materials for export for much of our history.  Even today the two regions have very different living standards stemming in large part from the different development paths they chose two centuries ago.

A tangent off of this question is something I've often thought about as the world becomes more culturally and economically homogenous.  There are any number of local things, be they languages, customs, foods, even crops and ecosystems, that are lost as more and more people adopt a standardized, globalized way of living.  We recognize the tragedy of this when it comes to ecosystems and crop diversity, but what about the human diversity that is lost?  Recently I've been reading a lot of British spy novels, and they have many references to the quirks and customs of the British aristocracy that I know nothing about.  Certain types of clothes for different occasions, different accents and customs depending on which private boarding school you went to.  I've even learned that there are a number of different football-like games throughout England.  There are of course soccer, rugby, and North American football.  But apparently many boarding schools in England have their own form of football, with very place-specific rules, such as field measurements stemming from the distance between one campus landmark and another.  If England weren't the historical frontrunner of industrialization and imperial power but rather some peripheral outpost in the world, surely such minute diversity would have been lost long ago.  No different types of tweeds, no different rules of football, no quirky customs for thatching roofs or brewing beer or making meat pies.  They'd just be copying some global standard, convinced of the irrelevance of their own local idiosyncracies.  How many analogs to different football rules are we losing without even knowing it in places like Benin or Suriname or Cambodia, that don't have the cultural or economic wherewithal to hang onto their own little quirks?  I don't know that I can attach an economic value to the preservation or loss of such things, but I do think our world is poorer if we lose them.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Agnostic nutrition

This recent NYT article discusses the complexity of human nutrition science and its relative inability to illuminate us with useful answers to some of our most pressing questions.  According to the article, a mix of ethics, logistics, and financing limit the possibility of conducting long-term, rigorous human nutrition experiments.  So we are left with weak proxy experiments with epistemological barriers to telling us about what causes obesity or diabetes or any other number of nutrition-related problems, at the same time as these problems are increasing in our societies.

In addition to the author's observations on the obstacles to conducting meaningful nutrition experiments, I would like to cite two other issues that I have been thinking about a lot. 

On the one hand is the seeming impossibility of experimental science's ever arriving at a comprehensive understanding of complex systems.  Because the scientific method relies on a severe simplification of problems in order to support or refute a hypothesis about relatively few variables at a time, it just isn't set up to analyze the interactions between a myriad of factors.  A telling illustration of this is one author's description of the many calculations that you would have to make to optimize your purchases in a typical supermarket trip.  The author was critiquing the inability of neoclassical economics to realistically account for complex, non-rational human behavior, but I think it accurately describes the extent to which any academic study must simplify and make rigid assumptions, so much so that the study is responding to an invented reality that is very far from actual reality.

Homo economicus, the fictional actor envisioned by the neoclassicals, performing calculations instead of interacting with reality, could be diagnosed as “autistic” more easily than the economists who created him. More advanced and evolved than the average homo sapien consumer, this idealized construct is capable of analyzing an infinite string of data in an infinitesimally small period of time – all with seamless prescience and precision. Take as an example a trip to the supermarket, where actors are charged with calculating which basket of goods will maximize utility and minimize cost. With the number of combinations increasing exponentially with the number of options, the actor faces 100 combinations given 2 options when told to choose 0-10 units of each. But given just 30 goods, told once again to choose 0-10 units of each, the consumer faces 1030 combinations. Even if the consumer could rule out 99.9% of the combinations and calculate each remaining combination in one-billionth of a second, he would be faced with a task lasting 32 billion years, or a period longer than the age of the universe. Homo economicus does not even bat an eye.
Anyway, if I am right in this agnostic view of certain aspects of reality ("agnostic" pertaining to the inability to truly arrive at knowledge of something), then the NYT author is not entirely on the mark in his explanation of the lack of concrete evidence about the causes of obesity and other health problems.  It is not so much the fact that we haven't gotten our act together to perform a watertight, rigorous long-term nutrition experiment that would exhaustively explain obesity, but rather that there could never be such an all-explanatory experiment, because the human body and human society are simply too complex to describe through such means. 

The second tie-in to an issue that I think a lot about is the nefarious influence of commerical interests on sound science.  Much of science as practiced today is shaped and bent by commercial interests, either in the questions asked, the techniques used to respond to them, or even what is done with the results of an honest experiment.  In the case of nutrition, I am not as aware of how the corporate agenda feeds into academic research, but I am very aware of how nutrition science is often channeled into popular culture through dishonest books, dangerous fad diets, uncritical news coverage, and perhaps worst of all, the bogus nutrition claims made on the packaging and advertising of all sorts of processed junk food.  So again, beyond the legitimate problems the NYT author points out with conducting meaningful, telling nutrition research, I also see a commercial agenda distorting what we know or think we know about nutrition and obesity.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Cowardice, tolerance, and nuance around the new homophobia wave

Homophobia is big news these days, as various countries enact new laws or enforce old ones to persecute gays. 

This article about the cowardly, hateful bullying sweeping Russia made my blood boil.  I can't even fathom what it would be like if someone tried to take my own children away from me for who I am, as is the situation many Russian gays are facing right now.  I could easily be driven to violence if anyone or anything threatened my family in that way.  But it all makes me feel so helpless, because there doesn't seem to be a good way of addressing it.  I think when you hear about injustice and oppression, the natural impulse is to fantasize childlike about using force to "get the bad guys".  But even in a case like Russia's, where the violent, murderous homophobes are clearly identifiable as bad guys (which moral clarity is rare in most conflicts), how would you use force to right the situation?  A military or guerrilla incursion led by foreigners would simply strengthen and cement the society's demonization of gays as a foreign, undesireable element.  If Russian gays themselves began to use force in self-defence, again they'd be even more targeted by the larger society.  There's no easy way out when the hatred and the evil is all around you, in the general society.

Here is an article of simple, straightforward language that puts the lie to the idea that African gays are somehow "un-African".

And lastly, here is a very complex analysis calling into question the logic of a Western development establishment that is vocally disapproving of the oppression of gays by intolerant laws, but not of the oppression of the poor by neoliberal laws and militarism.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

An ethical application of transgenics

In a recent post about some of my ethical misgivings about transgenic technologies, I posited that when considering the widespread introduction of a new transgenic product, we should consider any benefits it may offer against the fundamental imposition on nature, and on people's free will as custodians of that nature, represented by the irreversible insertion of a new gene, a new trait, into a crop population.  A new transgenic "event", as innovations in genetic engineering are called, would have to offer something really good in order to justify such a breach of the world's genome.  In my desire to do something constructive with my convictions, I have been searching for a really worthwhile application of genetic engineering, and I believe I recently found one.

I entered in contact with a researcher named Dr. Faroud Ghorbani, of an institute called Science for Moral Development, based in Beirut.  He is doing some very exciting research to address alcoholism and all the pain it causes in people's lives.  As someone from the Great Lakes region of the US, with its very high levels of drinking and alcoholism, I have seen alcohol impair and destroy too many lives, so Dr. Ghorbani's research really spoke to me. 

Inspired by Bitrex, the substance added to antifreeze and rubbing alcohol to make them taste bitter for any pets or children that might find them, Dr. Ghorbani set out a few years ago to use the same principle to limit people's drinking.  The way alcohol is made is that brewer's yeast exudes alcohol as a waste product when it consumes sugar.  If one could modify this yeast genetically such that its waste alcohol also contained low levels of a foul-tasting substance, the resulting beverages would gain an increasingly upleasant taste with every additional drink, and thus naturally limit people's intake.  A drug that acts in a similar fashion is called Antabuse.  It produces almost immediate hangover-like effects in anyone who drinks even a bit of alcohol.  However, Dr. Ghorbani aims to avoid such violent effects on drinkers, while simultaneously addressing one of Antabuse's prime limitations; the people who really should be taking Antabuse, even those to whom it is prescribed, often don't take their medication, because they prefer avoiding its unpleasant effects as opposed durably overcoming their alcoholism.

Much of the exact mechanism of Dr. Ghorbani's work, which goes by the provisional name of Nurcohol, is a proprietary secret, but he has been kind enough to share some details with me as to how it could be applied.  The roll-out plan is as follows:
  • Start publicizing Nurcohol transgenic yeast to governments in countries where alcohol is legally forbidden except among the Western expatriate population.  If even one country mandates use of Nurcohol for its limited in-country production of alcohol for expatriates, it will set a precedent many others may follow.  The benefit to the adopting country would be that they could avoid drunkenness and alcoholic violence among the expat populace, as well as the spillover of such problems in the local population that manages to obtain and consume alcohol.  Without this government-level obligation, obviously no private brewer will willingly replace its existing production practices with Nurcohol.
  • Once Nurcohol establishes a presence in a number of countries, it will naturally expand.  Part of the novelty of the Nurcohol transgenic event is that the yeast are a prolific line that outcompetes most yeast used in brewing today.  This means that, after a critical mass is reached of surrounding adopters, all other brewing will also undergo a gradual insertion of the Nurcohol transgene, through natural biological spread.
  • The end goal is that all alcohol consumed in the world will be Nurcohol.  The rich brewing cultures of Europe and North America can remain intact, but their product will now intrinsically contain a natural limit that prevents consumers from going over the edge with too much drinking at a sitting.  It is a way of advancing the uncontroversial goal of reduction in alcoholism, while still respecting the cultures in which moderate consumption of  alcohol plays an important social role.

 For more information on the Science for Moral Development laboratory and Dr. Ghorbani's groundbreaking work, you can visit their website here.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

On real food

I have discussed in the past my disdain for radical diets and the marketing of food-like products as real food.  On this same note, I have written criticisms of people who purport to have improved upon real food, and cited others who resoundingly state that this is impossible

Much of my thinking and blogging on this has been inspired, or at least framed, by Michael Pollan's injunction to "Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly plants," which I'm amazed that I've never discussed or linked to on my blog.  I guess it has been so present in my thinking that I just assumed I'd already talked about it.  A fish noticing the water and all.

Anyway, this revisiting of links about real food was inspired by a recent review of scientific literature that comes to the obvious conclusion that eating real food is better for you than any fad diet.

I am also re-linking to a great video spoofing how simple it really should be to eat healthy.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Different views of development

This is an article by an Indian author, comparing the small-scale, unglamorous, yet amazingly effective model of development pursued in the state of Kerala on the one hand, to Karnataka on the other hand, which has embraced big projects, the private market and high technology, and the inequality, pollution, and repression that accompany this second approach. 

It is a contrast I've long wondered about.  In economic development, it often does seem that simple, proven approaches often lose out to approaches that are newer, flashier, yet less effective, especially when these less effective approaches have the potential to enrich a few interested parties.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Underground economy in Chicago

There's a new book out by the economic sociologist Sudhir Alladi Venkates, once again on the functionings of the economy in the Chicago ghetto.  His basic thesis is that, in impoverished urban neighborhoods, residents are largely isolated from the nation's larger, formal economy, and so have forged an underground economy that dips in and out of crime.  This rings true with my limited experience of life in Chicago's poor, marginalized neighborhoods.  It also gives the lie to the idea that ending extreme poverty in the world (defined as making less than $1.25 a day) will end many of humanity's worst problems.  I mean, if even homeless people or people living off the informal economy in Chicago's impoverished areas are making $10, $20, or $60 a day, and they still have to face hunger, violence, and early death from preventable health problems, then it is evident that simply moving someone's income beyond a defined threshold is not enough to address the problems of absolute, grinding poverty.

On another note, I am somewhat distressed that my hometown of Chicago is becoming increasingly identified in the public mind with desolation, decay, violence, and glaring inequality.  We're like the poster child now for urban dysfunction in the 21st-century US.