The Anniversary of Separate But Equal

On this day in 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark case Plessy v. Ferguson that racial segregation in public transportation was constitutional under the “separate but equal” doctrine.

The effects were immediate: already significant disparities in funding for segregated schools widened, flying in the face of the vague doctrine. States that had successfully integrated blacks quickly adopted legislation that reversed the progress made during Reconstruction. These segregation laws would eventually become known as  the Jim Crow system. Continue reading

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Finland Rated World’s Happiest Country

What better way to kick off the International Day of Happiness than with the latest results of World Happiness Report, conducted annually by the United Nations. This year’s top spot went to Finland, which climbed five places to unseat longtime placeholder Norway (which is still an enviable second). Continue reading

The World’s 2,000 Billionaires Could End Extreme Poverty Seven Times Over

According to the latest report from Oxford International, a U.K.-based confederation of twenty independent charities, the world’s 2,000 or so billionaires saw their collective wealth surge by $762 billion — enough to end abject poverty seven times over.  As Time.com reported: Continue reading

What Exactly is National Identity?

We take the ideas of citizenship, nationality, and countries for granted, but the vast majority of our history, none of these concepts ever existed.

Indeed, if one thinks about it, the sense of being part of a nation or country is a little strange and counterintuitive: you and all these other strangers within an artificial border have some sort of baseline commitment to one another based on a shared identity. But where does this identity come from?

The New York Times has a great five-minute video explaining the origin of national identity, its pros and cons, and where its future lies in an increasingly globalized world. It is well worth checking out below!

How Global Inequality Undermines Global Democracy

Yet another massive leak of offshore banking documents has revealed the remarkable extent of the world’s “parallel economy”, in which a large and growing proportion of global wealth is secretly stashed away in a complex and opaque network of tax havens.

In addition to the obvious diversion of literally trillions of dollars of capital that could be better spent alleviating the needless suffering of billions (with plenty left over to spare), this development is arguably a threat to democratic governance the world over, as Matt Phillips at Vice argues. 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?

 

The Problem With How We Treat Drug Addicts

The United States is facing an opioid and heroin epidemic that is killing and harming record numbers of people; more people died of overdoses in 2014 than in any other year on record.

One of the latest and most troubling images of this problem was a widely circulated photo of a couple passed out in their car with their four year old left watching from the back city. The City of East Liverpool, Ohio saw fit to share the photo on its Facebook profile to “show the other side of this horrible drug”. Continue reading

The Globalization of Plutocracy

According to a 2015 paper by American political scientist Larry Bartels of Vanderbilt University, the gap between the rich and poor — and the subsequent unresponsiveness of government to the needs of the majority — is not just a feature of United States, as a multitude of studies have revealed. The struggle between the haves and have nots seems inextricably tied to our species, varying only be degree.

For example, in almost every nation Bartels studied, the wealthy were generally and categorically opposed to social spending, even during bad economic times. Continue reading

The Safest Cities in the World

According to 2015 Safe Cities Index compiled by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), Tokyo, Japan is the world’s safest city, scoring high in all factors, from low crime to pedestrian-safe urban planning.

According to The Guardian:

The EIU looked at a wide range of factors when putting together the index. It examined digital security, and considered the number of cyber attacks and how they were tackled. It looked at the obvious area of personal safety, but also infrastructure security – sanitation, roads, and management of natural disasters. In the health security category, it looked at quality of healthcare (for instance, how many hospital beds and doctors there were per 1,000 people), but also at issues such as pollution. As the report puts it, “Living in a safe and healthy urban environment can make a real and measurable difference to city inhabitants”. In the index’s top 25 cities, average life expectancy is 81; in the bottom half, it is 75.

As the article cautions, however, a sense of safety is highly variable depending on one’s lifestyle and priorities.

Before you start packing your bags, however, the conclusions aren’t simple: Tokyo also happens to be considered the world’s riskiest city, in part because of the huge number of people who would be harmed in an inevitable future earthquake. Nor does the report actually say which city is safest for you. From an individual’s point of view, as opposed to the municipal officials responsible for the smooth running of a city, isn’t personal safety more important than the threat of cyber crime? In that case, maybe you should look at Singapore instead. And what if health security is your priority, but you’ll take your chances on the streets? Move to Zurich: first for health, 13th for personal safety.

Other studies have revealed other issues that might be of personal importance. Amsterdam, for instance, is – perhaps unsurprisingly – a good place to be a on a bike. In 2011 and 2013, the Dutch city was ranked safest for cyclists by urban planning consultancy the Copenhagenize Design Company, using criteria such as bicycle facilities, drivers’ attitudes, and political will to promote cycling. The sheer proliferation of cyclists helps – cycling in the city, notes the report, is “about as mainstream as you can get” – as does cycling infrastructure and a 30kph speed limit.

Here are the safest cities by region:

safe_cities_index_world-map-2

Here is a detailed breakdown by the EIU:

  •  Tokyo tops the overall ranking. The world’s most populous city is also the safest in the Index. The Japanese capital performs most strongly in the digital security category, three points ahead of Singapore in second place. Meanwhile, Jakarta is at the bottom of the list of 50 cities in the Index. The Indonesian capital only rises out of the bottom five places in the health security category (44).
  • Safety is closely linked to wealth and economic development. Unsurprisingly, a division emerges in the Index between cities in developed markets, which tend to fall into the top half of the overall list, and cities in developing markets, which appear in the bottom half.  Significant gaps in safety exist along these lines within regions. Rich Asian cities (Tokyo, Singapore and Osaka) occupy the top three positions in the Index, while poorer neighbours (Ho Chi Minh City and Jakarta) fill two of the bottom three positions.

  • However, wealth and ample resources are no guarantee of urban safety. Four of the five Middle Eastern cities in the Index are considered high-income, but only one makes it into the top half of the Index: at 25 Abu Dhabi is 21 places above Riyadh at number 46. Similar divides between cities of comparable economic status exist elsewhere.  Seoul is 23 positions below Tokyo in the overall ranking (and 46 places separate the two on digital security).

  • U.S. cities perform most strongly in the digital security category, while Europe struggles. New York is the only U.S. city to make it into the top ten of the overall index (at 10). However, it is third for digital security, with three of the four other US cities in the Index (Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago) joining it in the top ten. Meanwhile, European cities perform relatively poorly.  London, at 16, is the highest-ranking European entry in the digital security index; Rome is the lowest, at 35.

  • Leaders in digital security must not overlook real-world risks. Los Angeles falls from 6th place in digital security to 23rd for personal safety. San Francisco suffers a similar drop, falling from 8th to 21st.  For these cities—both home to high-tech industries—a focus on technology and cyber security does not seem to be matched by success in combating physical crime. Urban safety initiatives need to straddle the digital and physical realms as the divide between them blurs.

  • Technology is now on the frontline of urban safety, alongside people. Data are being used to tackle crime, monitor infrastructure and limit the spread of disease. As some cities pursue smarter methods of preventing—rather than simply reacting to—these diverse security threats, a lack of data in emerging markets could exacerbate the urban safety divide between rich and poor. Nonetheless, investment in traditional safety methods, such as bolstering police visibility, continues to deliver positive results from Spain to South Africa.
  • Collaboration on safety is critical in a complex urban environment. Now that a growing number of essential systems are interconnected, city experts stress the need to bring together representatives from government, business and the community before threats to safety and security strike. Some cities have appointed an official to co-ordinate this citywide resilience. With the evolution of online threats transcending geographical boundaries, such co-ordination will increasingly be called for between cities.
  • Being statistically safe is not the same as feeling safe. Out of the 50 cities, only Zurich and Mexico City get the same rank in the overall index as they do in the indicator that measures the perception of safety among their citizens. Urban citizens in the U.S., for instance, tend to feel less safe than they should, based on their city’s position in the Index. The challenge for city leaders is to translate progress on safety into changing public perceptions. But cities also aspire to be attractive places to live in. So smart solutions, such as intelligent lighting, should be pursued over ubiquitous cameras or gated communities.

Aside from Tokyo, the next five biggest cities in the world do not fare well in terms of safety.

the-big-five

Granted, some analysts are skeptical of the very idea of ranking cities based on safety. As The Guardian reports:

But is it really possible, or even desirable, to rank cities according to their safety? “We are quite wary of doing that”, says Dr Michele Acuto, principal investigator for UCL’s City Leadership Initiative, which is working with the UN on how to improve urban safety. “Rankings pit cities against each other. If you say London is safer than Manchester, it’s a blunt generalisation. You can say London has a lower crime rate than Manchester – that would be correct – but making judgements on safety is perception-based”.

How do you make a city safer? Nobody wants to live in a police state. “You have to reduce crime, but it’s also things like improving safety of transport. If you make a city more sustainable, with more bike lanes, for instance, you can redesign it so that it’s also safer for pedestrians”. The wealth gap also has an important effect on a city’s safety: “There is no safer-city agenda that can proceed without a social-equality agenda”, says Acuto.

And if there’s one factor you might want to consider as a sign of how safe your city is likely to be in future, look to the immigration rate. Studies in the U.S. have shown that, far from what the anti-immigration lobby would have us believe, a city with more immigrants has lower crime rates. A study by Robert J Sampson, professor of social sciences at Harvard University, found that first-generation immigrants were 45% less likely – and second-generation immigrants 22% less likely – to commit violence than third-generation Americans. As Sampson has summed it up: “If you want to be safe, move to an immigrant city.”

Whatever you think about the results, or indeed about ranking cities by safety in the first place, this research is very insightful in a world where a large and rapidly growing proportion of human life is centered.