The Enduring Lies About The Iraq War

I began systematically to investigate the answers to those and other related questions, enlisting the help of a team of reporters, researchers and other contributors that ultimately included 25 people. Nearly three years later, the Center for Public Integrity published Iraq: The War Card, a 380,000-word report with an online searchable database. [4] It was released on the eve of the five-year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq and was covered extensively by the national and international news media.

Our report found that in the two years after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush and seven of his administration’s top officials made at least 935 false statements about the national security threat posed by Iraq. The carefully orchestrated campaign of untruths about Iraq’s alleged threat to US national security from its WMDs or links to al Qaeda (also specious) galvanized public opinion and led the nation to war under decidedly false pretenses. Perhaps most revealing: the number of false statements made by top Bush administration officials dramatically increased from August 2002 to the time of the critical October 2002 congressional approval of the war resolution and spiked even higher between January and March 2003, between Secretary of State Colin Powell’s address before the United Nations General Assembly and the fateful March 19, 2003, invasion.

– Charles Lewis, in an excerpt of 935 Lies available at BillMoyers.com

The World’s Most Livable Cities

Which cities are the best places to live? The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has set out to answer this question with its livability survey, which asses 140 cities based on such factors as overall stability (25% of total score), health care (20%), education (10%), infrastructure (20%) and culture and environment (25%) — the sorts of things most people agree are fundamental to individual and collective quality of life.

Here are the results for 2014, courtesy of Mic.com:

For the fourth year in a row, Melbourne took the top spot with a total score of 97.5 out of 100. The impressive score can be partially attributed to their perfect scores in the health care, infrastructure and education classifications. Several of Melbourne’s fellow Australian cities filled out much of the top 10, along with a handful from the Great White North. Combined, Australia and Canada scored big, claiming 7 out of the top 10 cities.

The remaining three cities were Vienna, Austria (2nd place), Helsinki, Finland (8th), and Auckland, New Zealand (10th).

As the article notes, while these top ten performed well in all the indicators measured, health care had a particularly strong impact:

A common factor of these livable cities was a high score in the health care category. The top nine spots all garnered scores of 100 in that category. To determine health care, the EIU looked at the availability and quality of private health care, availability and quality of public health care, availability of over-the-counter drugs, and general health care indicators.

Canada, Australia and New Zealand offer a variety of very livable cities, thanks in large part to their great health care, education, culture and environment, affording the countries general stability. Plus, as all English-speaking countries, they’re especially attractive destinations for any Americans considering a move.

Not only does being healthy have the obvious benefit of improving an individual’s mood, comfort, and longevity — all vital to life satisfaction — but in the aggregate, it improves entire communities. Healthy individuals are likelier to be more economically and socially productive, helping businesses and societies at large. They will be less burdensome to more expensive emergency services, and will have more disposable income on hand, since pooling the costs of health care through socialized insurance is less costly then spending a lot per person on expensive treatments.

But this study also highlight that there is more to quality of life than the bare necessities. Each of these cities offer an abundance of recreational and leisure options — well-kept green spaces, cultural centers, community events and facilities — that enliven individual lives and cultivate a sense of shared community. Good infrastructure provides access to these areas and events while helping to create more cohesion and interaction between various neighborhoods and enclaves. It is also telling that all the top cities are medium-sized, which suggests that being too big could present challenges to accommodating residents optimally.

All of this should be pretty obvious. But unfortunately, not enough municipal governments in the world, including in the U.S., have the vision and/or finances to make it happen, and too many city residents are apathetic, disenfranchised, or lack the community spirit to come together. Sub-national and national governments could be doing more to help local communities as well, especially as most countries, and the world at large, are either highly urbanized or becoming rapidly so. As cities begin to house more of the world’s population, and become the main drivers of economic, social, and cultural life, we need to work on making them as ideal for the human condition as possible. We have much to learn from the like of Melbourne, Vancouver, and other successful polities.

Melbourne, Australia — by some accounts, the best city in the world to live. Source: Getty Images / Mic.com

Nine Maps That Help Put Geography in Perspective

I cannot seem to embed the original video for some reason, so pay a visit to Business Insider to check out this neat minute-long video that shows how much large certain countries and landmasses are compared to their map projections. While the world is getting smaller in some respects, geographically it is still much larger than we realize .

Africa’s True Size

Last year, I wrote about the many different map projections that exist, and how each distorts spatial and geographic features in one way or another. I briefly touched on how Africa is particularly understated in size, a fact that other sources have noticed as well, such as The Economist, which provided this very telling map:

Africa's True Size

For a more detailed and comprehensive picture, here is another (and much larger) infographic courtesy of io9 (click to enlarge):

 

This is also relevant to the growing concerns about the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which has led to much of the continent being a no-go zone for visitors, airlines, and businesses — despite the fact that, as an NPR piece points out, much of Africa is far and away from the main infection zone.

The Ebola outbreak is centered in four countries in a relatively small part of West Africa: Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. There has also been one reported case in Senegal and a small, unrelated outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The distance from the heart of the outbreak to Nairobi, Kenya — where Korean Air canceled all flights on Aug. 14, citing fears over Ebola — is roughly 3,300 miles. That’s about the distance from Orlando, Fla., to Juneau, Alaska. So, geographically speaking, canceling a trip to Kenya is like canceling a trip to Disney World because of an Ebola outbreak in Alaska.

In fact, Africa is so large that many cities in Europe are actually closer to the Ebola outbreak than are cities in eastern and southern Africa. Johannesburg is more than 3,400 miles away — farther than both Paris and London.

Of course, Africa is hardly the only part of the world to be erroneously portrayed; as I discussed at length in my aforementioned post, every map projection thus far conceived exaggerates or underestimates one or all spatial dimensions. It is fascinating to see how much different the world is from the maps we grew up with and took for granted as fully accurate.

But it is also disheartening to see how such misconceptions, especially as they pertain to marginalized parts of the world, can reaffirm or worsen biases — e.g. Africa is a monolithically unsafe place, despite its incredible geographic, ethnic, and sociopolitical diversity.

Note, none of this is not intended to call into question the validity or usefulness of maps as a whole, since different projections serve different purposes, and must necessarily supersede other concerns. This is just an important caveat to keep in mind when analyzing any map, something many cartographers also tend to advise.

Chart: The Best Places to Be Born

In 1988, The Economist compiled a ranking of 50 countries according to which would be the best place to be born (or put another way, which would be the best to settle and start a family). This was determined on the basis of 11 weighted sociopolitical and economic criteria, ranging from the quantifiable (such as GDP growth) to the subjective (cultural richness). The results can be seen below.

The United States tops the list, followed by France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The Soviet Union managed a respectable 21st place, with communist Poland and Hungary not that far behind. The Philippines, India, and Mexico also ranked relatively higher than one would expect from developing countries. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, and Zimbabwe rank the lowest.

Anyway, in 2013, The Economist revisited this “where-to-be-born” index, which basically measures overall quality-of-life both presently and in the foreseeable future. As before, there are 11 indicators involved, including the results of life-satisfaction surveys, public trust, crime, and even geography (environment and natural beauty can go a long way towards leisure and comfort).

So over 25 years later, here are the world’s best places to be born:

The United States is now in 16th place along with former third-place winner Germany; France falls to 26, Italy to 21, Japan to 25, and Canada to a still-respectable 9. In their place are mostly small, northern European countries, as well as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Notice how Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved, while poor Nigeria remains among the bottom five (indeed, it is dead last, although Iraq and Zimbabwe, whose fortunes have each only gotten worse over the years were not measured this time).

Granted, a direct comparison between these two charts can’t say much, since The Economist measured far more countries, and claims to have been much more rigorous in its metrics, the second time around. Moreover, the inclusion of several subjective factors leaves much in dispute; for example, even people in otherwise prosperous places (e.g. the French) often report a low rate of life satisfaction regardless. Needless to say, individuals will weigh certain factors differently depending on their personal or cultural preference: environment may not matter as much to some as, say, public trust, and visa versa.

Of course, any effort to determine where is the best place to live or start of family is going to be arguable. It touches on a macro version of what makes for a good life. Clearly, freedom from violence, starvation, poverty, and the like are nearly universally-agreed upon. But what do you think of these results? Where would you consider to be the best place in the world to live?

Chart: Poverty in Asia

Much has been made of the rise of Asia and the subsequent arrival of an “Asian Century“, whereby the continent will become the dominant economic, cultural, and political force in the 21st century world. Setting aside the sheer diversity of this massive landmass — in terms of both culture and fortune — most Asian nations still face tremendous challenges, namely in the area of poverty reduction. Consider the following chart:

Courtesy of The Economist.

As The Economist goes on to note:

Asia’s rapid economic growth has put it on track to eradicate “extreme” poverty, defined by the World Bank as daily consumption of less than $1.25 per person, by 2030. However, the Asian Development Bank reckons this is too low given that nowadays, things like mobile phones are seen as necessities; so it has calculated a more suitable daily minimum of $1.51.

This lifts Asia’s 2010 poverty rate to nearly one-third of the population, adding 343m people to the ranks of the poor. The ADB believes food insecurity, and the risks of natural disasters, global economic shocks and the like, should also be taken into account when measuring poverty. This would further raise Asia’s 2010 poverty rate, to nearly 50 percent.

As with so many other parts of the world, Asia holds tremendous promise but faces daunting challenges. As the continent grows richer and more powerful, despite millions being left behind in squalor, it may be wracked by the same strife and instability that historically bedevils most unequal societies.

Another Study Finds U.S. Healthcare System Among Worst

I know reports like these are a dime a dozen, especially in post-recession America, but it bears reaffirmation, if only because a fair number of Americans still seem to think that our system is vastly superior to any existing or hypothetical alternative — even though the social and economic costs are vast and growing.

Let us start with this chart, courtesy of i09, which comes from a new report by the Commonwealth Fund, a private U.S-based foundation that promotes a more efficient healthcare. It compares the results of an extensive survey of patients and physicians across ten developed countries, looking at several relevant metrics.

Notice that by all measures, the United States is either middle-of-the-road or dead last , despite spending the most per person by far — $8,508 compared runner up Norway at $5,669 (incidentally the latter also does not perform all that well). Canada, while comparatively more efficient at nearly half the cost, does not perform all that impressively either.

By contrast, the highest ranked country on average, the United Kingdom, spends just $3,405 per person on health care. Taken as a whole, it appears that per capita spending has little bearing on the overall quality and effectiveness of the healthcare system (something that has been noted in similar international studies). Another chart from the report confirms this:

Despite such astronomical spending, in both proportional and absolute terms, the report sums up the America’s performance thusly: “[the country] fails to achieve better health outcomes than the other countries, and as shown in the earlier editions, the U.S. is last or near last on dimensions of access, efficiency, and equity.”

The culprit for such inefficiency? The very fact that many Americans lack access to reliable health care (including those who are technically insured).

Not surprisingly—given the absence of universal coverage—people in the U.S. go without needed health care because of cost more often than people do in the other countries. Americans were the most likely to say they had access problems related to cost. Patients in the U.S. have rapid access to specialized health care services; however, they are less likely to report rapid access to primary care than people in leading countries in the study. In other countries, like Canada, patients have little to no financial burden, but experience wait times for such specialized services. There is a frequent misperception that trade-offs between universal coverage and timely access to specialized services are inevitable; however, the Netherlands, U.K., and Germany provide universal coverage with low out-of-pocket costs while maintaining quick access to specialty services.

However, as i09 notes, the study’s conclusion points to more than just broadening access:

The authors believe that the problems inherent in the U.S. healthcare system are so pervasive that it will take more than better access and equity to solve them. According to Karen Davis, lead author of the study, overall improvement “is a matter of accountability, having information on your performance relative to your peers and being held accountable to achieving a kind of care that patients should expect to get.”

But it’s not an intractable problem. The U.K.’s excellent result can be attributed to a number of reforms, including the hiring of more specialists, allocating bonuses to family physicians who meet quality targets, and adopting health system information that allows physicians to easily share information about their patients. Moreover, every citizen (apparently) has a doctor.

If there is any silver-lining, it is that the U.S. is moving in the right direction, if ever so slowly. In addition to the flawed but still impactful Affordable Care Act:

The U.S. has significantly accelerated the adoption of health information technology following the enactment of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, and is beginning to close the gap with other countries that have led on adoption of health information technology. Significant incentives now encourage U.S. providers to utilize integrated medical records and information systems that are accessible to providers and patients. Those efforts will likely help clinicians deliver more effective and efficient care.

Indeed, all of this attention towards the inefficiency of our healthcare system is leading to changes in both the political and private spheres. However, it will take a lot more than this piecemeal and hodgepodge approach to rectify what is very clearly a failing system. The solutions, while often difficult to implement, are clear, and both the necessary capital and public will is available. When will that be enough to spur necessary change?

Inequality in a Global Context

When it comes to wealth and income inequality — a subject I have discussed at length here –  the news is rarely positive. As the following graph makes succinctly clear, the issue has worsened dramatic over the last few decades.

Income includes household wages and government transfers. Source: Census / Colin Gordon. Credit: Quoctrung Bui / NPR

While the most recent data in these sorts of graphs are around seven years old, newer evidence suggests the problem is still prevalent, if not worsening — at least in the United States.

According to an interesting new paper on global income distribution conducted by economists Branko Milanovic and Christoph Lakner, the global pictures regarding income inequality is far more nuanced, if not positive. As NPR reports, the study found that globalization — the same mechanism that plays a large, though hardly solitary, role in rising inequality — has had the opposite effect, broadly speaking.

Essentially, they look at inequality at a global scale, accounting for the world’s population as a whole rather than breaking it down country-to-country (as is usually the case).  S what happens if you look at the change in income over the past few decades for everyone on Earth? Here’s what the graph of the data shows:

Income is defined as per-capita income. Source: Milanovic and Lakner (2014). Credit: Quoctrung Bui/NPR

So what does this mean? Basically, people in the middle of the global income distribution — mostly concentrated in China and India, as as well as a few other developing Asian countries — have had the biggest gains in come by percentage. In fact, the average American, like most others in the developed world, would fall at the far right of this graph, at the top of the global income distribution.

So in a global context, the typical developed-world individual is capturing the lion’s share of income growth. Assuming this is truly the case (I await for more research and scrutiny to be certain one way or the other) that does not make inequality any less worrisome, now and especially in the long-term. Worldwide, we are still finding far too much wealth concentrated at the top amid austere policies, insufficient investment in the public good, and the persistent absolute poverty of hundreds of millions of people.

An increasingly transient global elite is still capturing the lion’s share of investment — as made depressingly clear by the revelation that 85 individuals hold more wealth than 3.5 billion people. Too many countries are mired in the same old problems despite the ever-growing generation of wealth that never seems to be reflected in higher wages, incomes, or public investments. Even if some people in this arrangement have it worse than others, the fact that many have it worse than they should given the capital potential is a problem, for most individual countries and the world at large.

Those are just my brief thoughts. What are your opinions?

Happy Birthday Red Cross

On this day in 1864, twelve European nations signed the seminal First Geneva Convention, which established “the basis…for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts” and with it what is now called the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), conceived and founded by Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant and Swiss jurist Gustave Moynie. 

The organization served as both the catalyst and enforcer of the convention’s articles, which were history’s first legally-binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict.

The first of several such conventions, this watershed moment for both international law and humanitarianism launched the wider Red Cross Movement (now known as the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement), which is comprised of several distinct humanitarian organizations geared towards protecting human life and health, ensuring respect for all human beings, and preventing and alleviating human suffering.

The ICRC is one of several institutions in this broad movement, along with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), and 189 National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. Together these groups number around 97 million volunteers, members, and staff across the world, making it by far the largest movement of its kind in history. The Red Cross and Red Crescent remains the most enduring and universally recognized symbol of humanitarianism and compassion. 

The World’s Friendliest Cities

According to the annual Readers’ Choice Survey conducted by luxury travel and lifestyle magazine Condé Nast Traveler, the following are the world’s friendliest cities:

11 (tie). Salzburg, Austria

11 (tie). Budapest, Hungary

9 (tie). Seville, Spain

9 (tie). Savannah, Georgia, U.S.

8. Cape Town, South Africa

7. Siem Reap, Cambodia

5 (tie). Sydney, Australia

5 (tie). Dublin, Ireland

4. Charleston, South Carolina, U.S.

3. Victoria, BC, Canada

1 (tie). Melbourne, Australia

1 (tie). Auckland, New Zealand

You can read the consensus review for each selection in the first hyperlink of this post (although the site was acting a bit wonky for me, hence why I could not reproduce the details here). Respondents allegedly based their choices on a range of factors, although CN notes that the survey is ultimately subjective. It appears most of the top cities tended to share a valuable combination of hospitality, beauty, great amenities, and overall character (unique, historically rich, etc).

Additionally, the majority of friendly cities are medium-sized, temperate in climate, and fairly wealthy (which is reflected by good infrastructure, low crime, lots of public attractions and spaces, etc). This is especially true of Australia and New Zealand, whose cities were dual winners for being warm and welcoming places (they also tend to rank high in indexes of livability, although interestingly, there is little correlation between quality of life and friendliness to outsiders, perhaps because the priorities and focuses of residents and visitors differ).

Siem Reap, hardly as well known as the other contenders, also stands out for being a relatively poor place in a poor country; however, it is apparently a well-established and popular resort-town that recently ranked as the world’s fourth-best city for tourists, so it is clearly a hidden gem of sorts. Budapest did a good job of giving lie to the stereotype of dour and unfriendly eastern Europeans, while Savannah and Charleston seem to confirm the endurance and appeal of southern hospitality.

Anyway, aside from the most pleasant places to visit,  respondents also selected the least friendliest ones:

10. Nassau, Bahamas

9. Monte Carlo, Monaco

8. Milan, Italy

7. Frankfurt, Germany

6. Beijing, China

5. Marseilles, France

4. Paris, France

3. Moscow, Russia

2. Cannes, France

1. Johannesburg, South Africa

An interesting mix of cities across the world, although France stands out with a plurality of three spots, including two among the top five. As with the previous list, this is all based on an aggregate of factors beside the hospitality of residents: for example, Beijing was given bad marks for its “terrible pollution” and “dirty streets and hideous traffic”, while Johannesburg made the list (despite being “one of the most beautiful” cities in the world) for its crime and staggering inequality.

Overall, however, it seems that most of the cities that ranked as unfriendly did have an attitude problem:  Marseilles was described as “threatening”, Monaco as “overcrowded and ostentatious”,  Frankfurt as “rude”, and Paris as “cold and aloof” (which in fairness can be said of many cities its size).

You can read the original summaries and judge the fairness of these assessments yourself, although those of you who are familiar with these locations in any way are more than welcomed to share your two cents. My own traveling experience is sadly limited, and none of the places I have been too (such as Orlando, Florida or Prague, Czech Republic) made either cut.

I do feel there are three big caveats to take into account when going over this list: one mentioned earlier is subjectivity — what is rude or cold behavior to some people may seem perfectly normal or even polite to others, depending both on one’s own personality and the sociocultural norms in which they were raised.

This leads to the next issue: the backgrounds of these respondents plays a role in how they interact with, and are perceived by, the cities they visit. Given the target demographic of this high-end, American-based magazine, I imagine most respondents represent a rather limited socioeconomic and cultural group that may have differing experiences in certain areas than people of other groups (would speakers of French or another Romance language feel the same coldness from Paris as those who do not know the language? Would someone who is used to living in big, polluted cities find Beijing so objectionable?)

Finally, a lot of these assessments are based on ultimately limited sample sizes. I do not just mean the number of respondents — although that, too, applies — but how much they experienced, how long they were there, and how often they have gone. Perhaps I missed this factor in looking through the criteria of those participating in the survey, but who is to say they got a good picture of the city they are visiting? Where you go within the city, when you visit, and even how you travel through it all influence one’s experience and overall impression.

As a resident of Miami, I can tell you that sticking to Miami Beach is very different from visiting the duller suburban areas or experiencing the grinding poverty of peripheral areas).

Still, this is nonetheless an interesting pair of lists to look at or consider, although I would much prefer to see these cities and judge them each for myself!

Source: CNN