Lessons On Modern Corporate Malfeasance From The British East India Company

We still talk about the British conquering India, but that phrase disguises a more sinister reality. It was not the British government that seized India at the end of the 18th century, but a dangerously unregulated private company headquartered in one small office, five windows wide, in London, and managed in India by an unstable sociopath – Clive.

In many ways the EIC was a model of corporate efficiency: 100 years into its history, it had only 35 permanent employees in its head office. Nevertheless, that skeleton staff executed a corporate coup unparalleled in history: the military conquest, subjugation and plunder of vast tracts of southern Asia. It almost certainly remains the supreme act of corporate violence in world history. For all the power wielded today by the world’s largest corporations – whether ExxonMobil, Walmart or Google – they are tame beasts compared with the ravaging territorial appetites of the militarised East India Company. Yet if history shows anything, it is that in the intimate dance between the power of the state and that of the corporation, while the latter can be regulated, it will use all the resources in its power to resist.

When it suited, the EIC made much of its legal separation from the government. It argued forcefully, and successfully, that the document signed by Shah Alam – known as the Diwani – was the legal property of the company, not the Crown, even though the government had spent a massive sum on naval and military operations protecting the EIC’s Indian acquisitions. But the MPs who voted to uphold this legal distinction were not exactly neutral: nearly a quarter of them held company stock, which would have plummeted in value had the Crown taken over. For the same reason, the need to protect the company from foreign competition became a major aim of British foreign policy.

– , “The East India Company: The original corporate raiders“, The Guardian

A lot of relevant lessons to this day. While modern big companies are not as brazen or blatant in their exercise of power, they most certainly prey open societies where rule of law is weak or easy to co-opt. Even in the most developed democracies, such private entities hold tremendous sway, with their policies and personnel often interchangeable with those of the public sector.

…The corporation – a revolutionary European invention contemporaneous with the beginnings of European colonialism, and which helped give Europe its competitive edge – has continued to thrive long after the collapse of European imperialism. When historians discuss the legacy of British colonialism in India, they usually mention democracy, the rule of law, railways, tea and cricket. Yet the idea of the joint-stock company is arguably one of Britain’s most important exports to India, and the one that has for better or worse changed South Asia as much any other European idea. Its influence certainly outweighs that of communism and Protestant Christianity, and possibly even that of democracy.

Companies and corporations now occupy the time and energy of more Indians than any institution other than the family. This should come as no surprise: as Ira Jackson, the former director of Harvard’s Centre for Business and Government, recently noted, corporations and their leaders have today “displaced politics and politicians as … the new high priests and oligarchs of our system”. Covertly, companies still govern the lives of a significant proportion of the human race.

The 300-year-old question of how to cope with the power and perils of large multinational corporations remains today without a clear answer: it is not clear how a nation state can adequately protect itself and its citizens from corporate excess. As the international subprime bubble and bank collapses of 2007-2009 have so recently demonstrated, just as corporations can shape the destiny of nations, they can also drag down their economies. In all, US and European banks lost more than $1tn on toxic assets from January 2007 to September 2009. What Burke feared the East India Company would do to England in 1772 actually happened to Iceland in 2008-11, when the systemic collapse of all three of the country’s major privately owned commercial banks brought the country to the brink of complete bankruptcy. A powerful corporation can still overwhelm or subvert a state every bit as effectively as the East India Company did in Bengal in 1765.

Corporate influence, with its fatal mix of power, money and unaccountability, is particularly potent and dangerous in frail states where corporations are insufficiently or ineffectually regulated, and where the purchasing power of a large company can outbid or overwhelm an underfunded government. This would seem to have been the case under the Congress government that ruled India until last year. Yet as we have seen in London, media organisations can still bend under the influence of corporations such as HSBC – while Sir Malcolm Rifkind’s boast about opening British embassies for the benefit of Chinese firms shows that the nexus between business and politics is as tight as it has ever been.

The East India Company no longer exists, and it has, thankfully, no exact modern equivalent. Walmart, which is the world’s largest corporation in revenue terms, does not number among its assets a fleet of nuclear submarines; neither Facebook nor Shell possesses regiments of infantry. Yet the East India Company – the first great multinational corporation, and the first to run amok – was the ultimate model for many of today’s joint-stock corporations. The most powerful among them do not need their own armies: they can rely on governments to protect their interests and bail them out. The East India Company remains history’s most terrifying warning about the potential for the abuse of corporate power – and the insidious means by which the interests of shareholders become those of the state. Three hundred and fifteen years after its founding, its story has never been more current.

The Heroic White Helmets of Syria

Amid one of the most brutal conflicts and humanitarian crises of the 21st century, a small but powerful force for good has emerged against all odds to do what it can to help. These are the White Helmets of Syria, a volunteer group that offers well-needed emergency services to the millions across the nation who are continually slaughtered and maimed in the nearly four-year conflict.

More from Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times:

There are more than 2,200 volunteers in the White Helmets, mostly men but a growing number of women as well. The White Helmets are unpaid and unarmed, and they risk their lives to save others. More than 80 have been killed in the line of duty, the group says, largely because Syrian military aircraft often return for a “double-tap” — dropping bombs on the rescuers.

Wearing simple white construction helmets as feeble protection from those “double-tap” bombings, the White Helmets are strictly humanitarian. They even have rescued some of the officers of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad who are bombing them.

Since the White Helmets began in 2013, its members have saved more than 12,500 lives by its count.

A reputation for nonpolitical humanitarianism has allowed the White Helmets to work across lines of rival militias, including the Islamic State. In a land short of heroes and long on violence, many rally round the White Helmets. Syria may be notorious today for cruelty and suffering, but these men and women are a reminder of the human capacity for courage, strength and resilience.

I had the supreme honor of donating to this group last winter, but I wish I could do more. They are always in need of funding, so give what you can or spread the word. Their website is here.

The Countries Most Threatened By Climate Change

It goes without saying that climate change will have a severe impact on humanity. But some areas will be harder hit than others, and the countries most likely to be heavily impacted are also the least equipped to handle the subsequent social, economic, and political consequences.

Indeed, as the following infographics show, nearly all the world’s wealthiest nations will get by relatively unscathed (at least initially), while the greatest burden will fall on those states that are already strained by poverty, underdevelopment, environmental degradation, and political instability — factors that will exacerbate, and be exacerbated by, the effects of climate change.

Bussiness Insider notes some important details to keep in mind:

While the maps provide a great zoomed-out perspective of what’s going to happen globally as the earth warms, there are a few caveats to keep in mind when checking it out:

First, these maps are based on country rankings, not comprehensive evaluations of each country. In other words, the best-ranked countries are only as great as they seem compared to the countries that are performing less well.

Additionally, the ranking looks only at the level of entire countries. All of the state-specific, region-specific, or city-specific data gets somewhat lost in this zoomed out perspective.

While many in the developed world, particularly the United States, remain unresponsive or slow to act (if not in open denial to the problem), humanity’s most vulnerable people — already suffering enough as it is — will bear the brunt of the consequence of inaction. It is worth pointing out that a large proportion of the world’s population lives in the “global south” where climate change will be worst, meaning the human toll will be of an appalling scale.

Of course, in our heavily globalized world, even the initially best-off countries will be negatively impacted eventually. World food supplies will be disrupted, tens of millions of refugees will flee starvation and social breakdown to wherever they can, and the possibility of international conflict over strained resources (or disfavored migration) will be more likely. So while some places may be relatively better off than others, all of us will be affected in some way or another: there is currently no way to escape our planet and its increasingly erratic climate.

While the precise sociopolitical effects are speculative (to varying degrees of likelihood), climate change itself is not. The evidence is mounting and the impact is already being felt and documented in both ecosystems and the world’s poorest countries (and even in the U.S., which recently endured record drought throughout most of the country). Ultimately, we will all suffer together, and the only way to do anything about it is to develop an appropriately global response. This is both an existential and moral issue.

Three Big Historical Anniversaries Today

In 1943, the Soviet Red Army won the Battle of Stalingrad, turning the tide of the Second World War. One of history’s bloodiest and most decisive battles, the five-month siege involved over 1 million troops on each side. The Axis suffered a total 850,000 casualties (wounded, killed, captured) and the Soviets over 1.1 million, of which over 478,000 were killed.

To understand the scale of the battle, the U.S. and U.K. suffered a total of 405,399 and 383,800 combat deaths respectively in the entire war. (Ultimately, by the end of the war, Soviet Russia lost 20-28 million people, of whom 7-12 million were civilians; nearly a quarter of its population had been killed, wounded, or directly affected by the conflict in some way).

Soviet soldier waving the Red Banner over the central plaza of Stalingrad in 1943. 

You can read a quick rundown of the battle here.

In 1848, the Mexican–American War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, in which Mexico was forced to give up 530,000 square miles of territory to the United States for $15 million. Along with the prior cession of Texas, this amounted to 55 percent of Mexico’s pre-war territory and today comprises about 15 percent of U.S. territory.

Cession includes all of California, Nevada, and Utah, most of Arizona, large chunks of Colorado and New Mexico, and some of Wyoming.

In 1990, South African President F. W. de Klerk declared the official end of apartheid, a system of intense segregation and racial oppression, following mounting domestic and international opposition, which culminated in negotiations between the government and resistance groups (namely the African National Congress, from which Nelson Mandela emerged as the nation’s first freely-elected leader).

De Klerk and Mandela at the World Economic Forum in Davos, 1992; the latter would be elected president two years later.

All photos courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Suffering Refugees Who Can’t Go Home

What do you say to a mother with tears streaming down her face who says her daughter is in the hands of the Islamic State, or ISIS, and that she wishes she were there, too? Even if she had to be raped and tortured, she says, it would be better than not being with her daughter.

What do you say to the 13-year-old girl who describes the warehouses where she and the others lived and would be pulled out, three at a time, to be raped by the men? When her brother found out, he killed himself.

How can you speak when a woman your own age looks you in the eye and tells you that her whole family was killed in front of her, and that she now lives alone in a tent and has minimal food rations?

– Angelina Jolie, A New Level of Refugee SufferingNew York Times

That is just a taste of the awful conditions and circumstances faced by the millions of Syrians and Iraqis fleeing some of the most savage and chaotic conflict in generations — not including the millions more displaced within their respective countries, and the hundred of thousands killed, maimed, or missing.

There can be no doubt that the Syrian Civil War, and the subsequent emergence of IS from the chaos, is one of the greatest humanitarian and moral calamities in decades. It is hard to imagine that this horror is being played out in such a large scale in other crises across the world, from Central African Republic to Burma.

I have no idea how to even conceive of this suffering, let alone face it in person.

Jolie, who has a notable track record as a humanitarian, strikes me as sincere in her observations and humanism. One particular point that was salient to me as an International Relations major:

At stake are not only the lives of millions of people and the future of the Middle East, but also the credibility of the international system. What does it say about our commitment to human rights and accountability that we seem to tolerate crimes against humanity happening in Syria and Iraq on a daily basis?

When the United Nations refugee agency was created after World War II, it was intended to help people return to their homes after conflict. It wasn’t created to feed, year after year, people who may never go home, whose children will be born stateless, and whose countries may never see peace. But that is the situation today, with 51 million refugees, asylum-seekers or displaced people worldwide, more than at any time in the organization’s history.

There is little more to add: after seventy years, it appears little has changed with respect to the plight of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable. While conflicts on the scale of the Second World War have thankfully been absent — and still unlikely, if not ruled out entirely — large international wars have given way to chronic civil strife in certain countries that extend suffering and crisis across generations. It is awful how familiar and intractable this problem remains. I hope that changes in my lifetime.

Global Spotlight: Socotra, Yemen

Socotra (also spelled Soqotra) is an archipelago of four islands in the Indian Ocean that is part of Yemen. Evidence of human settlement go back to antiquity, where the island served as a stopover for various trade routes that passed by. However, there are signs of a pre-human presence going back over a million years. Ancient inscriptions have been found written in everything from Aramaic and Greek, to pro-Arabic and ancient Indian scripts.

Today, only around 50,000 people live on Socotra, most of them eking out a living as subsistence farmers and fishers. A product of the area’s isolation, they continue to speak a nearly extinct language alongside their own distinct Arabic dialect.

Socotra’s long geographic isolation, combined with its unforgiving heat and dryness, have created a distinct and spectacular ecosystem comprised of flora and fauna found nowhere else in the world; nearly 700 species are unique to the area (only Hawaii, New Caledonia, and the Galapagos Islands surpass it in terms of sheer biodiversity). For this it has been recognized as a world heritage site and nicknamed the Jewel of the Arabian Sea. 

Among the most famous occupant is the dragon blood tree, so named for its crimson red sap, which was highly valued for centuries as a dye, medicine, glue, lipstick, and even breath-freshener. Because it was believed to be dragon’s blood — a fact that could not be unverified in ancient times given the island’s seclusion — the sap was also valued in alchemy, and even today many inhabitants of the island and nearby areas allegedly regard it as a miracle cure for all sorts of ailments.

Socotra, Yemen IV

Socotra continues to retain its centuries-long mystique and character, offering an often alien landscape that is found nowhere else in the world.

The Pearl of the Mediterranean

THOUGH IT WAS NEVER THE MILITARY AND POLITICAL CAPITAL OF THE ANCIENT WORLD, Alexandria was for a time its intellectual and cultural center. The city was founded by Alexander the Great in the aftermath of his conquest of Egypt in 331 B.C., and was developed by Ptolemy I, the general he left behind as the new pharaoh. Flush with the wealth both of Egypt and of the larger world—whose ships thronged the city’s bustling Mediterranean port—Ptolemy built both a great library and a Mouseion, or museum, which functioned as an academy of scholarship. At its height, the Library of Alexandria held around 700,000 scrolls, including the now-vanished complete works of Sophocles, Aeschylus, and Euripides.

Many of the greatest scholars of the ancient world lived in Alexandria and frequented the Mouseion. So, too, did Jews, Syrians, and Greeks—for Alexandria was the center of the Hellenistic civilization in which Greek culture mingled with that of North Africa and the East. Ptolemy had conceived the city as a civilizational project: The library, he decreed, would accept volumes from “all nations so far as they were worthy of serious attention.” The library held a collection of Sanskritic texts from India. And it was in Alexandria that Jewish scholars translated the Bible into Greek, the work now known as the Septuagint.

Ancient Alexandria, in short, was the cosmopolis par excellence—but it was not to last. The city was sacked by Romans and then by Christians. The library collapsed, and the scrolls crumbled into dust. The Pharos, the great lighthouse that was counted one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, fell into the sea. By the time of the Arab invasion in 642 A.D., there was little left to plunder.

In the centuries that followed, the city was eclipsed by Cairo, Damascus, and Aleppo. It came back to life only in the middle of the 19th century, when Egypt’s rulers, seeking to modernize the country, turned toward Europe. First Greeks, then French, Italians, English, Armenians, and others began to settle in this city, which looked across the Mediterranean to Europe. The Alexandria synagogue was built in 1836; the Opera House, which unlike the synagogue remains in use, in 1918.

By the early 20th century, Alexandria had become a home, not for mathematicians and astronomers, but for novelists and poets. E. M. Forster wrote a guide to city in 1922. Constantine Cavafy, the greatest of modern Greek poets, served as a kind of muse and presiding spirit of Belle Époque Alexandria.

Alexandria is still, in its own way, a cosmopolitan city. There’s an underground music scene—though I was told that at one pop-up concert, outraged Salafis destroyed the stage. Amira Hegazy, a language teacher who also works with local researchers, made the peculiar observation that the city has the largest proportion of both gay men and Salafis in Egypt. “That’s Alexandrian cosmopolitanism,” she said. “Everyone can coexist.”

– James Traub, The Lighthouse Dims

Economics and Optimism Around the World

According to research cited by the Wall Street Journal, more than three-quarters of American adults felt their children would be worse off than they are, a sobering testament to the economic malaise and political dysfunction that have been entrenched (if not worsened) these past several years. Who could blame anyone for being so cynical?

But how do other nations compare? Which societies have been brought low by the global recession and the subsequent stagnation, and which ones have managed to remain optimistic? Earlier this month, eminent pollster Pew issued a report that explored these attitudes across dozens of rich and developing countries.

As an article in The Atlantic observed, the findings show a strong connection between economic development, attitudes towards certain economic concepts (like the free market), and thoughts about the future.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Germany, South Korea, and the United States are the advanced countries with the most robust support for the market economy. Among emerging markets, Jordan and Argentina are most opposed to the free market. And among developing economies, which are the poorest in Pew’s sample, the market economy is least popular in Uganda and El Salvador, while Bangladesh, Ghana, and Nicaragua (another country with a socialist government) report the strongest support.In general, the world is inclined to favor the free market (66 percent of all those surveyed by Pew do), but its greatest supporters are in the poorest countries (80 percent in Bangladesh, 75 percent in Ghana, and 74 percent in Kenya). Among emerging economies, 76 percent of Chinese respondents think people do better in a market economy, and that number remains high in India (72 percent), socialist Venezuela (67 percent), and Brazil (60 percent).

Here is a visual representation of the results:

For comparison, here is how respondents from these countries feel about the future of their countries.

Note the strong optimism among developing countries, especially those in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. As The Atlantic notes:

Asia […] is the most optimistic region when it comes to how people view the economic prospects of their children. Europeans and Americans, meanwhile, are quite grim about the future. Pessimism abounds in France, where 86 percent of those surveyed believe that children will be worse off financially than their parents, and the numbers of those who worry about the outlook for younger generations is also high in Japan (79 percent) and Italy (67 percent). In contrast, the expectation that future generations will be better off is widespread in Vietnam (94 percent), China (85 percent), Chile (77 percent), and Bangladesh (71 percent).

Indeed, the following chart shows just much more optimistic Asians are than the rest of the world (although large minorities still remain pessimistic):

So not only does support for the free market correlate with greater optimism, but this pattern applies overwhelmingly to poorer countries. For all their positive views of this economic approach, the average rich-world resident remains skeptical about the future and perhaps doubtful that their vaunted free market is really in place as they would prefer.

I personally suspect that this may have something to do with the rise in inequality, which has been especially well publicized in the rich world, despite being an otherwise global phenomenon. With companies reaping record profits but wages and employment remaining stagnant, even the most enthusiastically pro-business societies like the U.S. cannot help but feel cynical, whatever their support for the principles of the free market.

Indeed, it appears that economic growth was more of a determinant than current economic conditions. Generally, poorer countries are growing faster than richer ones, so even if times are bad now, most residents in the developing world have much to look forward to, especially if they are rising from a much lower base.

So it makes sense why there appears to be a mismatch in optimism between developing and developed countries. Emerging economies probably feel that their support of the free market is being vindicated by growing prosperity, while richer but stagnant states are less optimistic even if they hold true to the ideal of the free market.

Of course, there is the issue of semantics: what exactly is the “free market” in the context of this survey? Like most academic concepts, it is difficult to neatly define, let alone implement in the real world. Moreover, different societies no doubt have different interpretations of it. I imagine Pew accounted for that to some degree, but I am not sure. Just a caveat to keep in mind.

And what about the issue of inequality that I mentioned before? Surely that has an impact on attitudes towards the both free market and the future? Well it does, albeit in an interesting and nuanced way. Citing Pew:

A global median of 60% say that the gap between rich and poor is a very big problem in their country. Concern is somewhat higher among developing economies and emerging markets (median of 60% in each), but is also shared by people in advanced economies (56%).Nonetheless, despite this high level of worry about inequality, the issue only ties or tops the list of economic problems in four of the 44 countries surveyed. In general, people in advanced economies tend to worry more about public debt and unemployment than inequality, while those in emerging markets and developing economies are more concerned about inflation and jobs.

The top culprit for income inequality cited by publics around the world is their national government’s economic policies. A global median of 29% say their government’s policies are to blame for the gap between the rich and the poor, while the amount workers are paid is a close second at 23%. Globally, people place less blame on the educational system (11%), a lack of individual hard work (10%), trade between countries (8%) and the structure of the tax system (8%).

Advanced economies in particular lean toward the notion that their governments are to blame for inequality (median of 32%). The Greeks (54%), Spanish (52%) and South Koreans (46%) are government’s harshest critics. Significant percentages among advanced economies also fault workers’ wages for the gap between the rich and the poor, including 29% in Japan and 26% each in France and Germany. The Americans and British are two of the few publics to blame individuals’ lack of hard work (24%) about as much as they do their government’s policies (24% in U.S., 23% in UK).

Emerging markets are more divided. Pluralities in nine of the 25 countries surveyed blame their government for inequality in their country, including roughly four-in-ten or more in Ukraine (45%), India (45%), Lebanon (43%), China (43%), Tunisia (43%), Turkey (42%) and Nigeria (39%). Meanwhile, pluralities in another six countries say workers’ wages are the primary scapegoat. Latin American publics – such as Brazilians (44%), Chileans (39%) and Colombians (39%) – are particularly likely to blame inadequate take-home pay for the gap between the rich and poor.

People in developing economies are also split between blaming the government for income inequality in their country and faulting workers’ wages. Pluralities in Kenya (36%), Ghana (29%) and Tanzania (29%) say inequality is their government’s fault, while Salvadorans (32%) tend to blame the amount workers are paid. Nearly equal percentages in the Palestinian territories, Bangladesh, Senegal and Uganda say both the government and wages are the culprits. Nicaragua (31%) is the country with the highest percentage who say a lack of individual hard work is the problem.

And what do most respondents think is the solution? Well, given that government is perceived to be the problem, it stands to reason that the most popular solution would be to weaken the public sector in favor of strengthening the private one, as the results indeed show:

Pluralities or majorities in 22 of the 44 countries surveyed say to reduce inequality it is more effective to have low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment and economic growth rather than high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to fund programs that help the poor. Publics in 13 countries prefer the high tax option.

Overall, advanced economies (median of 48%) are somewhat more supportive than either developing (40%) or emerging (31%) countries of using high taxes on the wealthy and corporations to address income inequality. The broadest support comes from Germany, where 61% favor using high taxes to fund poverty programs. Roughly half or more in Spain (54%), South Korea (53%), the UK (50%) and the U.S. (49%) agree. In Italy (68%), France (61%) and Greece (50%), opinion leans toward low taxes to encourage investment.In most advanced economies, people who say they are very concerned about inequality are particularly supportive of income redistribution to reduce the gap between the rich and poor.

There is also a large ideological divide over taxes in Europe and the U.S. In general, individuals on the left are much more likely than those on the right to prefer high taxes on the wealthy and corporations. For example, 71% of those on the left in Spain support redistribution, compared with 45% of people on the right. In the U.S., 70% of liberals say high taxes are more effective to combat inequality while just 33% of conservatives agree.

The prevailing view in most emerging markets surveyed is that low taxes on the rich and businesses to stimulate growth are a better way to address inequality. Roughly six-in-ten or more express this opinion in Brazil (77%), Argentina (60%), Vietnam (60%) and the Philippines (59%). In just five of the 25 emerging countries do pluralities or majorities pick high taxes as the preferred means of reducing the gap between the rich and poor, including 57% in Jordan, 53% each in Egypt and Chile, 48% in Ukraine and 42% in China.

Developing economies also lean more toward low taxes on the wealthy and corporations to encourage investment rather than high taxes for redistribution. At least half prefer low taxes in Uganda (64%), Ghana (57%), Kenya (52%) and Nicaragua (52%). El Salvador is the only developing economy where a majority (58%) chooses high taxes.

Again, this reflects greater faith on private sector forces — businesses, entrepreneurs, and civil society — as avenues of prosperity than public ones, namely the state and its policies. Given that corruption and inefficiency are endemic in most developing world governments, such pessimism towards public officialdom is perhaps expected, especially when those societies are otherwise more optimistic about the future and their own economic potential — and thus more wary of historically inept states getting in the way.

The conflicted solutions offered by respondents in richer countries may reflect the fact that both the public and business sectors have been disappointing, with trust in all institutions at a record low. There is plenty of blame to go around, but where does the answer life if both economic and political elites are culpable? That is a question deserving of its own blog altogether, so I will leave that to you all.

Anyway, Pew looked at attitudes to more than just the free market. There is also the universally important matter of how someone gets ahead in life. Participants were asked to rank the importance of several factors of success from zero (“not important”) to 10 (“very important”). The results were largely in favor of “getting a better education”, which 60 percent of respondents checked as maximally important. Here’s the Pew report again:

Among those surveyed in the most advanced economies, Spaniards place the greatest value on education as a factor of success, with 71 percent saying that it is very important. Not so in France, where the value of education was given its lowest marks among all surveyed countries with only 24 percent characterizing education as a critical factor. Ironically, by international standards the quality of education in France is higher than in countries where a much greater percentage felt a good education was a very important precursor to success (86 percent of Venezuelans, for example).

Half of the survey’s respondents believe that “hard work” is very important for success, while 37 percent say the same about “knowing the right people”, 33 percent about being “lucky”, and 20 percent about belonging “to a wealthy family”. Seventeen percent of those polled view being male as critical to success, and just 5 percent feel the same way about giving bribes. The countries where the greatest percentage of people believe that family money is very important for getting ahead in life are Tunisia (46 percent) and Nigeria (45 percent). These are also two of the countries where respondents ranked bribery among the most important determinants of success.

Here are how the results played out from country to country (again, the question was what is most important for getting ahead in life).

Another interesting result to point out: in 32 of the 44 countries surveyed, more men believed that being male was an advantage to success than women. With more women taking change of their economic and political future (as evidenced by higher rates of female employment and civic participation), they feel more hopeful and emboldened that the system can and does work in their favor. But that is just my own (optimistic) speculation.

Still, there does appear to be a consensus across all these different societies: economic prosperity is dependent largely on factors beyond one’s control, an attitude that even the most optimistic countries shared.

Pretty interesting stuff, and a lot to ruminate on. My time is short and my analysis is spotty, so I encourage you all to check out the report for yourself and draw your own conclusions. As always, I welcome feedback.

The End of the Population Pyramid

The issue of overpopulation has been a bugbear of the popular imagination for decades, and remains so especially into the 21st century, when humanity crossed its seven billion mark — unprecedented in both size and scale of growth (consider that while it took millennia for humanity to finally reach a billion only in 1804, it took just another two centuries to hit seven times that number).

Given all that, it is perfectly understandable why people would be concerned about the impact such rapid growth is having on everything from the environment to global food supplies and energy resources (to say nothing of the subsequent social, political, and economic instability that results from such strains).

But as the following video from The Economist shows clearly, the global population — though set to grow by another two billion by 2042 — has already begun slowing down in its rate of expansion.

An excerpt from the original article nicely sums up the visual data:

 The pyramid was characteristic of human populations since the day organised societies emerged. With lifespans short and mortality rates high, children were always the most numerous group, and old people the least. Now the shape of the global population is changing. Between 1970 and 2015 the dominating influence on the global population was the fertility rate, the number of children a woman would typically bear during her lifetime. It fell dramatically over the period, meaning that the world shifted from having larger to smaller families. The age groups start to become markedly smaller only about the age of 40, so the incline starts much further up the chart than with the pyramid. The shape looks more like the dome of the Capitol building in Washington, DC. Between 2015 and 2060 the biggest influence upon the population will be ageing. Small families are already becoming the norm, the fall in fertility is slowing down and now almost everyone is living longer than their parents—dramatically so in developing countries. So, by 2060, the dome will have come and gone and the shape of the population will look more like a column (or perhaps an old-fashioned beehive).

In other words, barring any sort of unlikely massive uptick in the global birthrate, humanity is currently entering its peak of population: shortly after hitting nine billion, growth will begin to stagnate as the number of people of childbearing age declines.

Indeed, a map of fertility rates by nation shows that most of the world’s countries (many of them developing) are already experiencing slowing, stagnating, or even shrinking populations.

Total fertility rates as of 2013. Courtesy of Wikipedia / CIA World Factbook.

Keep in mind that a fertility rate between 2-3 (green) is considered the sweet spot for stable growth: any lower and you face rapid population aging followed by, and concurrent with,population shrinking (unless immigration is high enough to offset the difference); any higher, and populations grow too quickly for resources and institutions to accommodate. Both circumstances bring their own challenges and issues, which in turn vary from country to country.

But note how the majority of the world’s population growth is taking place in the developing world, especially in Africa (where not a single country has a total fertility rate of less than 2. Indeed, as The Economist video showed, 90 percent of the world’s youth will be living in emerging economies, with Africa having more young people than any other continent.

Conversely, it is mostly mid- to high-income countries whose fertility and birth rates are low, and whose populations have already begun stagnating, if not shrinking. The few exceptions — namely the U.S., Canada, the U.K, Ireland, and France — are growing mostly due to immigration and the subsequent increase it brings to the birthrate (since immigrants tend to have more children than native-born individuals).

The following map shows the population growth of the world’s countries by percentage between 2000 and 2010.

Courtesy of Wikipedia / United Nations. Note: data vary by source.

Notice again a similar pattern: broken down by country, most of the world is seeing low to negative population growth, even if the world as a whole is growing. Basically, the global population is growing highly unevenly, with a relatively small number of countries making up the lion’s share of total growth.

Moreover, as the video showed, much of this population “growth” is really a reflection of more people living longer: previously, population stabilized or shrank because enough people would die by the time the next generation came of age to have children. But as more people stick around longer, even the effects of a low birthrate will not be felt since so many people remain.

Hence why countries like Germany and Japan — which have long had some of the lowest fertility rates, and thus fastest-aging populations, in the world — did not begin to experience stagnation or decline until decades later. Their peoples are also among the longest-lived (note that higher immigration as of late has lead to modest but noticeable growth in Germany).

So what is the significance of all this? Well, there are many issues and challenges facing the world now and in the future as population dynamics rapidly change. Frankly, I do not have time to get into the larger social and economic ramifications of having whole societies without enough working-age adults; too many older people strains social security systems

But with regards to the most commonly cited concern — that of overpopulation straining resources — the solution is simple to recognize but difficult to implement: more efficient allocation of resources on a global level.

There is plenty of capital, food, and energy in the world to go around, but most of it is concentrated in and consumed by a wealthy few nations (and within those nations in turn, by a wealthy few people). Finding a way to allocate such resources to where it is needed most would lift hundreds of millions from poverty.

Consider that food output is well above what is needed, but that chronic malnourishment afflicts hundreds of millions of people — especially in fast-growing populations — because much of that food does not go to the poorer parts of the world, and 40 percent is wasted altogether. (To further underline this misallocation, in recent years the number of overweight and obese people in the world has outnumbered the malnourished.)

Moreover, shrinking wealthy countries could benefit from taking in the younger workers overflowing fast-growing poorer nations — as several immigration-friendly nations are experiencing — but there is (and would be) much resistance.

Perhaps as the world continues to develop its global consciousness — and with it the necessary global institutions to implement such policies — we will find a mutually beneficial way address the mismatch in demographic changes. There is a lot more to this topic that I have not touched on given my time constraints, but as always I welcome your thoughts and feedback.

The Most Popular Country in the World

Nations are often spoken of as if they were individuals: Russia and Ukraine are fighting, China says Japan should stay out of its territorial waters, Iran is unfriendly to Americans. A lot of this comes down to basic expediency: it is a lot easier to refer to countries as monolithic entities than to get into the specifics (“Brazil says” rather than “the Brazilian government says”, for example).

But countries have long been personified for reasons other than simple ease. Everything that they embody — their political institutions, culture, people, climate, geography, etc. — amounts to a cohesive identity or national character of sorts. And countries, like individuals, can be loved, hatred, admired, and in some way or another related with. (Within International Relations, we study the phenomenon of “nations as persons” and whether it has any legitimacy or basis.)

They even have to worry about social standing: just as we worry about our image and status among a community of people, so too do the countries of the world content with how they are perceived by the international community. Hence why governments engage in public relations — whether through formal diplomatic channels, the funding of cultural institutions, or the launching of state news broadcasters — and why things like the Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index exist.

Spearheading the fascinating world of nation branding — which has only become more relevant in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world — the survey asks over 20,000 people across 20 countries their perceptions of 50 countries. Each nation is scored on factors ranging from exports and governance to culture and people.

As The Atlantic reported, five-year first-place winner America has been overtaken by Germany, which had previously occupied the top spot in 2008. Here is the top ten as of 2014:

1. Germany

2. United States

3. United Kingdom

4. France

5. Canada

6. Japan

7. Italy

8. Switzerland

9. Australia

10. Sweden

Interestingly, the top ten has not changed much since 2010, which was as far back as I could find data (the survey was launched in 2005). The same countries more or less occupy the same spots, rising or falling by only a point or two (but never falling off entirely).

You can read the methodology of the report here. According to an official press release, Germany’s burgeoning international image can be attributed to several factors, including — of all things — “sport excellence”, which was “the largest gain seen this year for any single attribute across the 50 measured nations”.

Simon Anholt, an independent policy advisor, explains, “Germany appears to have benefited not only from the sports prowess it displayed on the world stage at the FIFA World Cup championship, but also by solidifying its perceived leadership in Europe through a robust economy and steady political stewardship. Germany’s score gains in the areas of ‘honest and competent government’, ‘investment climate’, and ‘social equality’ are among the largest it achieved across all the aspects covered by the NBI 2014 survey.”

In contrast, the USA has shown the least impressive NBI gain among the developed nations. While it still is seen as number one in several areas, including creativity, contemporary culture, and educational institutions, its role in global peace and security only ranks 19th out of 50 nations.

Meanwhile, here is why the U.S. (as well as nascent rival Russia) fared less well this time around.

Xiaoyan Zhao, Senior Vice President and Director of NBI at GfK, comments, “In a year of various international confrontations, the United States has lost significant ground where tension has been felt the most acutely. Both Russia and Egypt have downgraded the U.S. in an unprecedented manner, particularly in their perception of American commitment to global peace and security, and in their assessment of the competence of the U.S. government.  However, on a global level, it is Russia that has received the strongest criticism from public opinion.”

In previous years, Russia had shown upward momentum – but in the 2014 NBI study, it stands out as the only nation out of 50 to suffer a precipitous drop. Russia’s largest decline is registered on the Governance dimension, especially for the attribute of its perceived role in international peace and security. This is the most drastic score drop seen for any single attribute across the 50 nations. Overall in this year’s study, Russia has slipped three places to 25th, overtaken by Argentina, China, and Singapore.

The two countries cannot seem to shake off their legacy of global meddling and the subsequent negative impact it is having on their international standing, although Russia seems worse affected by it than America; subsequently, I am curious about the national breakdown of the respondents and how much certain nationalities dragged down or pulled up the overall score for certain countries.

In any case, the U.S. is hardly in bad shape, all things considered, and much of that clearly has to do with the heft of its “soft power” — from its music and entertainment media (especially film), to its top-notch universities still-attractive (if not weakening) civil values, America projects a lot of influenced and a positive image around the world. It is little wonder that so many other countries, including China, are seeking to emulate this soft power approach by promoting cultural and ideological products.

I would wager that the rest of the top ten ranks highly for similar reasons: all of them either have strong, globally-exported cultures (especially the U.K., France, and Italy), or enjoy a reputation for good governance, high-quality of life, and benign foreign policy (Australia, Canada, Sweden, and Switzerland).

In any case, Germany’s status as a brand champion is hardly surprising, all things considered. From its robust (if still shaky) economy and (relatively) pacifistic foreign policy, to policies like free college tuition and strong arts funding, the country has a lot going for it across different sectors. Its well-trained workers and less-indebted homeowners seem better off and happier than counterparts elsewhere in the world, and while political cynicism is as high among the German populace as it is anywhere else in the post-recession world, national pride — and with it a sense of purpose as a global role model — is growing (albeit with a degree of restraint, given the lingering shadow of the early to mid-20th century).

In the end, countries — again, like people — can learn a lot from one another with respect to national performance, be it in the real of politics and economics or even in sports. Not only is excelling in these areas a valuable end in itself, but as the study’s press release observes:

“International diplomacy clearly reaches beyond the realm of public opinion – however, policy makers need to be keenly aware that the way in which a country is perceived globally can make a critical difference to the success of its business, trade and tourism efforts, as well as its diplomatic and cultural relations with other nations. As our partner Simon Anholt often says, the only superpower left in today’s world is global public opinion.”

What are your thoughts?