Progress Across Boundaries

It is telling that all the Nobel Prizes this year — as in recent years — have thus far been awarded to multiple laureates, often of different nationalities and/or for research done in a country different from their birthplace. Like so much else nowadays, science is becoming an increasingly globalized endeavor, conducted across an international network of institutes, universities, labs, and other academic and scientific organizations.

Of course, this is nothing new: almost every human achievement, regardless of time or place, can trace its origins to gradual, supplementary, or parallel developments elsewhere. Mathematical principles, political concepts, artistic expressions — all of the contributors to these and other fields built (and continue to build) upon the work of predecessors or contemporaries, adding to or refining the growing pool of ideas along the way. Thanks to advances in technology, expanding access to education of all levels (especially in the developing world), and a growing sense of global consciousness, this historical development is accelerating.

Knowledge and talent know no boundaries, whether political, linguistic, or ethnic, and the more we facilitate the exchange of ideas and the collaboration, the closer we will come to greater human progress. This is not easy, due to both practical and cultural challenges, but neither is it utopian; there is thousands of years worth of cross-cultural progress persisting to this very day proving it can be done, and the world has a lot to show for it. Given how much more needs to be done — socially, scientifically, ideologically, etc. — we have all the more reasons to keep it up.

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China, Russia, and the U.S. Compete for the World’s Hearts and Minds

Nations, not unlike individuals, have much to gain from being in good standing with their peers. A country with a positive image, compelling ideology, or attractive culture is likelier to enjoy more influence on the global stage, whether its visa-free travel for its citizens, trade deals, or international support for its goals.

Thus, it is not surprising that the world’s leading powers — namely China, Russia, and the U.S. — care very much about how favorably they are viewed by the international community. (Indeed, even smaller and less globally ambitious nations like Denmark, Sweden, and Singapore benefit considerably from their image and status as a role model for things like political governance and economic development.)

According to the most recent global polling data from Pew, the United States — technically the world’s sole superpower (or hyperpower) — has maintained is long-standing lead in the international popularity contest.

Nevertheless, China in recent years has risen not only economically but in terms of global standing, even managing to unseat the U.S. in some traditionally pro-American places.

Meanwhile, Russia, a rising force in the globe once more, is also making gains in soft power, although it still lags far behind its larger peers. Continue reading

The Countries With the Highest Well-Being

It is safe to say that most people want greater well-being in their lives, but as with concepts like happiness or success, it is often loaded and subjective — albeit up to a point. Wealth is certainly a big factor, if not the biggest, but so are — generally speaking — civil rights, a healthy environment, personal safety, and social support.

Predicating well-being on these and other inputs, the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) conducted the “Sustainable Economic Development Assessment” (SEDA), which measures which countries in the world provide the most well-being to their inhabitants. The results were based on over 50,000 data points spanning three broad metrics and ten “dimensions of well-being”: economics (which includes income, economic stability, and employment); investment (health, education, and infrastructure) and sustainability (socioeconomic inequality, civil society, governance, and environment). Continue reading

Gun Ownership Around the World

Americans are considered exceptionally fond of guns; the United States has the highest rate of gun ownership — both generally and per capita — by a huge margin, and is one of only three countries in the world, along with Guatemala and Mexico, to enshrine a right to guns in its founding document (the latter two were directly inspired by the American example).

But just how unusual is the U.S. in this regard? Here are some interesting and illuminating visual data courtesy of indy100which draws on research from he Washington Post:

screenshot-www.indy100.com 2017-06-13 22-44-07.png Continue reading

Iran Tests Most Generous Basic Income Plan Yet

Iran hardly comes to mind when it comes to testing bold new ideas (never mind its various scientific and technological achievements in the face of sanctions and a reactionary theocracy). But since 2011, it has been testing and monitoring one of the most generous basic income schemes in the world, joining the likes of Canada, Finland, and the Netherlands (among others) in exploring the merits of an idea that has been gaining traction amid concerns about mass unemployment from advancing automation.

The program, which is ongoing, was launched during the tenure of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, himself hardly a progressive (to put it mildly). But it was ideal timing, as it followed cuts to subsidies for bread and fuel, which disproportionately impacted the poor. Participants received a monthly cash transfer equivalent to 29 percent of the country’s median household income — which would amount to over $16,300 a month in the U.S.! This is far more generous than the $1,000 or so monthly stipend that is typical in most basic income schemes. Even advocates of the idea might think it is far too much to sustain a productive population.

Yet, as BusinessInsider reported, not only did researchers find that most recipients remained employed, but many of them worked more hours.

Despite reports in local press that the poor were forgoing their jobs to spend the extra money, the investigators found no such evidence.

“Our results do not indicate a negative labor supply effect for either hours worked or the probability of participation in market work, either for all workers or those in the bottom 40% of the income distribution,” they wrote.

They did find people in their twenties tended to work a bit less. But “this is not surprising since the attachment of Iranian youth to the labor market is weak,” they wrote, and many young people may have used the money to enroll in higher education they otherwise couldn’t afford.

In other cases, the extra money appeared to increase how much time people spent working. Service workers, such as housekeepers, teachers, and deliverymen, upped their weekly hours by roughly 36 minutes, “perhaps because some used transfers to expand their business.”

In other words, people were empowered to invest the money they received in ways that created greater values for themselves and, by extension, their loved ones and community. This comports with the results of the basic income experiments conducted in Canada and Namibia, as well as Brazil’s Bolsa Familia program, which is one of the few examples of a full-fledged cash-transfer scheme (although not quite a basic income, since it is conditional on children attending school and being vaccinated).

Unfortunately, Iran’s experiment also proved another common feature of the basic income idea: widespread negative attention and cynicism, in this case by both politicians and the general public. Across different societies and cultures, the idea of handing people money with no string attached strikes a visceral chord.

But given where automation and economic innovation are heading, it seems inevitable that mass unemployment — and the massive wealth imbalance that would follow — will need to be corrected. Not only would a guaranteed income provide for people’s basic needs, but as these pilot programs are thus far proving, they would empower individuals with the resources they need to unlock their own potential, whether it is freeing up time for socially valuable work (caregiving, volunteering, etc.) or investing in their own creative or commercial ventures.

What are your thoughts?

 

America’s Novice Approach to World Affairs

Although the United States remains the world’s sole superpower, this preeminent status is beginning to count for a lot less than it used to, as other nations — rivals and allies alike — begin to quickly catch up.

Our recent (though far from unprecedented) embrace of nationalism and populism is only hastening this relative decline, as Mark R. Kennedy argues in Foreign Policy. In a globalized world, even the greatest powers still need friends and allies, and our increasingly blustering attitude towards the rest of the world risks weakening the foreign ties on which we depend for economic and national security. Continue reading

How Households Worldwide Spend Money

Citing data from Eurostat, a research arm of European Union, The Economist has an interesting chart showing how households in some of the world’s largest economies differ in their spending habits.

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As The Economist points out, the results say as much about the socioeconomic status of these countries as they do their culture and values:

Russians splash 8% of their money on booze and cigarettes—far more than most rich countries—while fun-loving Australians spend a tenth of theirs on recreation, and bookish South Koreans splurge more than most on education. Some of the differences are accounted for by economics. Richer places like America and Australia, where household expenditure is around $30,000 per person, will tend to spend a smaller share of their costs on food than Mexico and Russia, where average spending is around $6,000. And politics plays a part too. Predominantly private health care in America eats up over a fifth of each household’s budget, whereas the European Union, where public health care is common, only spends 4% on it. In Russia, government-subsidised housing and heating make living cheaper, and this means money is left over for the finer things in life.

For a partial breakdown of how individual E.U. member states fare, here is a similar chart (note the research was pre-Brexit):

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Again, the results speak to both socioeconomic disparities and cultural preferences:

In Malta, an island nation of 450,000 south of Italy, almost 20% of household expenditure goes on restaurants or hotels. In Lithuania that figure is 2.9%. Relative to much of the EU, Lithuania is a poor country with a per capita household expenditure of €7,500 ($8,500), half the EU average. Thus its people spend a larger share of their budget on food and clothing than any other EU country. Somewhat predictably the Dutch splurge most on recreation, while Greeks spend the least (a trait that pre-dates the financial crisis)—the money they save could perhaps be spent on more sensible endeavours like transport, or paying-off debt.

You can see the full dataset with all E.U. countries here.

What are your thoughts?

Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

An Ode to South Korea

One has to appreciate and admire the courage and perseverance of the people of South Korea, who in the span of four decades transformed one of the world’s poorest and most authoritarian nations into one of its wealthiest and most democratic (indeed, by some measures, its growth and development was record breaking in human history).

The country’s capital, Seoul, is not only one of the largest and richest cities in the world, but it is located just 35 miles away from the demilitarized zone bordering North Korea. More than half of all South Koreans live within firing range of a hostile neighbor (although there are credible doubts about the North’s military capabilities in this regard). Yet the vast majority of them go about their day-to-day lives like people in any other city.

A vibrant culture, widespread material prosperity, low crime, a lively civil society, and an effective and stable democratic system are all difficult enough to achieve in so little time, let alone in the face of an existential threat next door. South Korea is hardly a paradise of course, but given the circumstances, it had every reason to remain an oppressive dictatorship under the pretense of security. It truly is a remarkable country and worthy U.S. ally.

The End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

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Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading