Apple Ends (Sort Of) Ends Indentured Servitude — In 2015

It is the 21st century, and the world’s most valuable company has finally ended a practice akin to slavery, up to a point. As the Washington Post reported:

The process works like this: Employment agencies recruit workers. They then charge them placement fees for jobs, often in foreign countries. Those fees end up putting workers in debt to the agency. If that wasn’t bad enough, according to Apple’s own audits, some agencies held the passports of bonded workers in safes until their debts were paid off.

That’s right, no passports. That probably means no form of identification, and it certainly means that they can’t go home.

It’s pretty close to what some might call indentured servitude. And that’s what Apple — the tech company that has taken a lot of heat and also offers the most information about its factory conditions — has only just stopped. (It did previously ban factories from using employment agencies that charged more than a month’s wages in fees.)

This is where we are in 2015.

And before any back-patting commences, it’s worth noting that even this step is just a small one, said Scott Nova of the Economic Policy Institute, who co-authored a paper raising questions about Apple’s auditing process. Nova noted that the policy only applies to those who travel across borders to work at Apple supplier factories —  not to the Chinese workers at Chinese suppliers, many of whom also use recruiting agencies.

As the article notes, Apple is hardly unique in this and other abusive practices, as labor exploitation is pretty much the norm among tech company (and for that matter in just about every industry). Even if this one company policy was fully eradicated, many other problems remain:

While Apple has made inroads in some areas, it actually saw compliance with overtime rules fall from the previous year. Last year, 92 percent of workers of factories that the company audited kept to a 60-hour work week, a decline from 2013 when it was 95 percent. That’s not nearly as bad as levels in 2007, when it was roughly 70 or 80 percent, but it is a dip. Not to mention the 60-hour work week, which many of us would balk at, is also 10 hours more than China’s poorly-enforced law limiting the work week to 50 hours. (Technically, Apples contracts with companies such as Foxconn to manufacture its electronics and does not directly employ those workers).

Recall that most of this data come from self-reporting on Apple’s part: the picture would no doubt be just as grim among every other major manufacturer in the world. When this sort of thing is so normal and acceptable that a minor tweak in policy is considered a new-worthy step, something is certainly amiss. Consider this proposed solution to speeding up reform:

So what could Apple, or any tech company, do to speed things up? Nova suggests a model recently struck with garment workers in Bangladesh, following the horrific factory fires in 2012. In that country, he said, 200 brands and retailers fashioned an agreement with groups that directly represent workers. The deal calls for independent audits of factory conditions and promises by the retailers to put up the money to renovate dangerous facilities.

That will cost money, of course, which would eat into the relatively high profit margins that tech companies — and Apple in particular — enjoy. Improving worker conditions would also likely mean that consumers would have to be okay with slower delivery rates, Nova said. Getting swamped with orders for the new iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus, for example, could have been a reason that Apple’s overtime hours went up this past year.

Currently valued at over $700 billion — larger than most countries’ GDP — Apple’s total revenue for 2014 was $182 billion. Taiwan-based supplier Foxconn, the world’s largest electronics contractor, ended 2013 with total revenue of $131.8 billion (data for 2014 remain unavailable). I am pretty sure that a mere fraction of either company’s revenue would be enough to give workers descent treatment and pay.

I will never understand how highly profitable companies — whose executives and shareholders enjoy billions in compensation and dividends, respectively — can claim that customers must pay more in exchange for treating workers like human beings. The average corporate investor or upper manager could still remain fabulously wealthy — if heaven forbid slightly less so — while giving consumers and producers alike a better and more ethical deal.

Even if consumers should pay — and lets grant that in some cases — most of the time it will cost no more than a few cents or dollars per item, a literally small price to pay for our fellow humans to live better lives. (This applies as much to major domestic employers like Walmart and McDonalds as it does to manufacturers with global supply chains.)

Fighting Climate Change Can Be Cheap and Easy — If We Ever Get To It

Well, it is easy conceptually at least. While advanced “negative emissions technologies” (NETs) like carbon-absorbing towers and light-reflecting clouds are touted as solutions to mitigating climate change, the best approaches may actually be the simplest and most low-tech: planting trees and improving soil quality.

That is the conclusion of a recent Oxford study reported in The Atlantic:

Both techniques, said the report, are “no regrets.” They’ll help the atmosphere no matter what, they’re comparatively low-cost, and they carry little additional risk. Specifically, the two techniques it recommends are afforestation—planting trees where there were none before—and biochar—improving the soil by burying a layer of dense charcoal.

Between now and 2050, trees and charcoal are the “most promising” technologies out there, it said.

Charcoal refers specifically to the production of biochar,  an ancient practice whereby agricultural waste (such as food scraps, decaying leaves, etc.) is smoldered and then covered by dirt. This not only makes the soil richer, but it helps dispose of a major source of CO2 while also eliminating the need to clear forest for more arable farmland.

As the article notes, these low-cost methods have a long and proven track record:

Forest management is one of the oldest ways that humans have shaped their environment. Before the arrival of Europeans, Native communities in the Americas had been burning forest fires for millenniato support the growth of desirable plants like blueberries and to manage ecosystems. British communities have long practiced coppicing, a tree-cutting technique that keeps forests full of younger trees.

In other words, humanity has been “geoengineering” with trees for a very long time. The authors of the Oxford report add that afforestation will need global support in order to be successful.

“It is clear that attaining negative emissions is in no sense an easier option than reducing current emissions,” it says (emphasis mine). “To remove CO2 on a comparable scale to the rate it is being emitted inevitably requires effort and infrastructure on a comparable scale to global energy or agricultural systems.”

It is interesting that the authors also cautioned against viewing NETs as a”deus ex machina that will ‘save the day,'” viewing them instead as just some of the many ways to avoid the worst of climate change still yet to come. That said, reforestation and soil enrichment alone will not solve the problem either; reducing emissions in the first place, in conjunction with these and other methods, is still our best bet.

This is confirmed by two recent reports by the National Research Council, an arm of the United States National Academies. As National Geographic reports:

An NRC committee of experts from across disciplines was asked by several U.S. government science and intelligence agencies to evaluate geoengineering proposals. The ideas range from anodyne (planting trees to capture CO₂) to potentially alarming (injecting sulfate particles or other aerosols into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight and cool the planet).

Committee members were blunt in their first recommendation: The world should focus first and foremost on curbing fossil fuel emissions rather than on any kind of geoengineering.

“I think it’s going to be easier and cheaper to avoid making a mess than it will be to make a mess and then try to clean it up later,” said committee member Ken Caldeira, a climate scientist at Stanford University’s Carnegie Institution for Science. “If we end up having to build a fix that’s on the scale of our energy system, why not just retool our energy system?

….

The first, CO₂ removal, the committee characterized as worthy and “almost inevitable.” The second, using aerosols or other means to reflect solar radiation, would be “irrational and irresponsible” if done as anything but a last-ditch effort to prevent a global famine or other emergency.

The Royal Society of the United Kingdom and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) have similarly put an emphasis on reducing emissions first and foremost, with other strategies being auxiliary or complementary.

We know the solutions, and have ample resources and capital to draw upon — we just need the political and public will to make it all happen. If merely planting trees, enriching soil, and cutting back on carbon usage are enough to largely avert an existential threat to humanity, then the worsening of climate change is a damning condemnation of our species’ foolishness and shortsightedness.

Apple Nation

The rise of Apple Inc as a dominant global force in the 21st century could not be better pronounced than with the news that it is currently worth an incredible $700 billion, with $178 billion in profit as of the latest quarter. If the company were a country, it would be the 55th richest in the world, on par with New Zealand and bigger than Vietnam, Morocco, and Ecuador (nations that together have well over 120 million people).

The Atlantic, my source for this news, puts this into perspective:

These sort of comparisons help underscore just how much money Apple has, but they’re not entirely nuanced. For instance, although Apple has made history with its earnings, there have been countries just as rich—and richer—once you adjust for inflation. In that case, Apple still hasn’t hit Microsoft’s high-water mark in 1999. (Microsoft was worth $620 billion then; which would exceed $870 billion in today’s dollars.) But what does that tell us, really, other than how quickly tech fortunes can change? After all, Apple today is worth more than twice as much as Microsoft ($349 billion). In 1999, though, Apple was perhaps notable for making colorful iMacs that dotted high-school computer labs, but not much else.

It is astounding that a private company could accrue enough wealth to rival entire nations, or to give every American $556. I see it as a troubling development, insofar as it is indicative of a wider trend of global inequality, with more wealth becoming concentrated among a small cohort of the population — mostly the shareholders, executives, and financiers involved in the trading and investing of these big companies.

Apple’s beleaguered workers, namely those subcontracted in the developing world, certainly deserve some sort of bonus for helping to make these record-breaking profits possible. If such compensation is a way to reward success, and to encourage productivity and performance, as businesspeople alleged, than does that logic not apply to average people? Or are only the rich who helm the top of these companies entitled (or apparently in need of) such motivation?

It is scary to think that this is hardly an unprecedented development either:

No modern tech company has approached the value of trading companies of the 1700s, though, and the Dutch East India Company trumps them all. The shipping juggernaut was the world’s first publicly traded company. At its height,according to several estimates, it was worth the equivalent of more than $7 trillion in 2015 dollars. That’s a seven with 12 zeros after it—or Apple’s valuation today 10 times over.

The Dutch East India Company was ultimately undone, at least in part, by the weight of corruption and venality among its personnel. It seems a common fate for institutions that become swept up in unchecked growth and the subsequent expectations for more and more. This is not a sustainable model for any organized system, whether it is a government or a tech firm.

Interesting Read: Decline of Democracy?

From Aeon:

Neo-liberalism, which was supposed to replace grubby politics with efficient, market-based competition, has led not to the triumph of the free market but to the birth of new and horrid chimeras. The traditional firm, based on stable relations between employer, workers and customers, has spun itself out into a complicated and ever-shifting network of supply relationships and contractual forms. The owners remain the same but their relationship to their employees and customers is very different. For one thing, they cannot easily be held to account. As the American labour lawyer Thomas Geoghegan and others have shown, US firms have systematically divested themselves of inconvenient pension obligations to their employees, by farming them out to subsidiaries and spin-offs. Walmart has used hands-off subcontracting relationships to take advantage of unsafe working conditions in the developing world, while actively blocking efforts to improve industry safety standards until 112 garment workers died in a Bangladesh factory fire in November last year. Amazon uses subcontractors to employ warehouse employees in what can be unsafe and miserable working conditions, while minimising damage to its own brand.

Instead of clamping down on such abuses, the state has actually tried to ape these more flexible and apparently more efficient arrangements, either by putting many of its core activities out to private tender through complex contracting arrangements or by requiring its internal units to behave as if they were competing firms. As one looks from business to state and from state to business again, it is increasingly difficult to say which is which. The result is a complex web of relationships that are subject neither to market discipline nor democratic control. Businesses become entangled with the state as both customer and as regulator. States grow increasingly reliant on business, to the point where they no longer know what to do without its advice. Responsibility and accountability evanesce into an endlessly proliferating maze of contracts and subcontracts. As Crouch describes it, government is no more responsible for the delivery of services than Nike is for making the shoes that it brands. The realm of real democracy — political choices that are responsive to voters’ needs — shrinks ever further.

Politicians, meanwhile, have floated away, drifting beyond the reach of the parties that nominally chose them and the voters who elected them. They simply don’t need us as much as they used to. These days, it is far easier to ask business for money and expertise in exchange for political favours than to figure out the needs of a voting public that is increasingly fragmented and difficult to understand anyway. Both the traditional right, which always had strong connections to business, and the new left, which has woven new ties in a hurry, now rely on the private sector more than on voters or party activists. As left and right grow ever more disconnected from the public and ever closer to one another, elections become exercises in branding rather than substantive choice.

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.

The Poor Have It Easy In America

That is a sentiment that appears to be widely held by the nation’s wealthiest citizens, according to a recent Pew survey reported by the Washington Post.

The center surveyed a nationally representative group of people this past fall, and found that the majority of the country’s most financially secure citizens (54 percent at the very top, and 57 percent just below) believe the “poor have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return.” America’s least financially secure, meanwhile, vehemently disagree — nearly 70 percent say the poor have hard lives because the benefits “don’t go far enough.” Nationally, the population is almost evenly split.

Here are the results in visual form; note the large minorities of poor and middle-class people that agree with this view.

Unsurprisingly, the report also found that those who identify as conservatives — around 40 percent of the most financially secure groups — are more likely to believe the poor have it good thanks to the government, and that the poor do not work hard enough. Another Pew report confirmed that around 75 percent of conservatives in general feel this way about the poor, regardless of income.

So in essence, if you are wealthy or conservative — but especially both — you are likely to take a dim view of America’s least fortunate — and conversely, to believe that wealthy people have it harder, due to perceived higher taxes, onerous government regulations, and the usual bugbears of the right.

As columnist Christopher Ingraham points out, such a perception of America’s poor is greatly at odds with reality:

But I have a hard time understanding how you could read about the experience of families relying on food stamps to eat, or those trying tomanage chronic conditions with Medicaid, and conclude that these people somehow have it easy. For context, here is a brief and wildly incomplete list of the ways life is “easy” when you’re poor:

Of course, it is no coincidence that those who think the poor have it easy also think the poor do not work hard enough and just live off the government (and by extension, live off the hardworking taxpayer). If you think that poor people get what they deserve for their laziness and irresponsibility, no amount of data demonstrating their difficult circumstances — and by contrast how much better the wealthy are doing — will sway the wealthy’s sympathy; nor will any of the evidence showing the role that external factors — from low wages to unstable business cycles — have contributed to growing and persistent poverty.

Moreover, with many of these same wealthy Americans having a disproportionate influence on our media and politics, it is little wonder that more is not being done to address the mounting socioeconomic conditions faced by a growing proportion of Americans.

As for how so many wealthy people can retain such callous views of the nation’s poor, that can be attributed to a range of factors. Richer people are increasingly holing up in gated communities or gentrified areas where poor people are largely absent. They are more likely to interact with and know only other well off or at least middle-class people. Some evidence even suggests that wealth accumulation itself contributes to an empathy gap with those who are not rich.

Whatever the cause, it goes without saying that this arrangement is not sustainable. No society has ever endured such a wide and growing gap between rich and poor without ultimately subsiding into sociopolitical instability — including revolution. While the U.S. may not necessarily go the way of 18th century France or Bolshevik Russia, it will certainly experience the same sort of underlying tensions and political problems that tend to bode ill for long-term prosperity.

It is time we start caring about the least vulnerable in America and doing more to help them, namely by promoting a more sustainable and equitable economic system. If more companies paid their employees better (perhaps by tapping into those record-breaking profits), that alone would go a long way. Of course, viewing the poor as people that deserve dignified wages and treatment would be the natural place to start — it is a shame that even needs to be a lesson to learn.

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 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?

Africa Rising

When one thinks of Africa, prosperity and progress rarely come to mind. In the minds of most Westerners especially, the name conjures up chronic instability, strife, poverty, and (more so lately) disease. But the people of Africa — incredibly diverse and culturally rich — are nothing if not resilient, and they have endured these widespread (though often exaggerated) hardships with remarkable tenacity and perseverance.

The end result is a broadly improved outlook for this fast-growing continent’s future, whose vast potential already being realized, according to a special report by The Economist:

War, famine and dictators have become rarer. People still struggle to make ends meet, just as they do in China and India. They don’t always have enough to eat, they may lack education, they despair at daily injustices and some want to emigrate. But most Africans no longer fear a violent or premature end and can hope to see their children do well. That applies across much of the continent, including the sub-Saharan part, the main focus of this report.

African statistics are often unreliable, but broadly the numbers suggest that human development in sub-Saharan Africa has made huge leaps. Secondary-school enrollment grew by 48% between 2000 and 2008 after many states expanded their education programmes and scrapped school fees. Over the past decade malaria deaths in some of the worst-affected countries have declined by 30% and HIV infections by up to 74%. Life expectancy across Africa has increased by about 10% and child mortality rates in most countries have been falling steeply.

A booming economy has made a big difference. Over the past ten years real income per person has increased by more than 30%, whereas in the previous 20 years it shrank by nearly 10%. Africa is the world’s fastest-growing continent just now. Over the next decade its GDP is expected to rise by an average of 6% a year, not least thanks to foreign direct investment. FDI has gone from $15 billion in 2002 to $37 billion in 2006 and $46 billion in 2012.

Many goods and services that used to be scarce, including telephones, are now widely available. Africa has three mobile phones for every four people, the same as India. By 2017 nearly 30% of households are expected to have a television set, an almost fivefold increase over ten years. Nigeria produces more movies than America does. Film-makers, novelists, designers, musicians and artists thrive in a new climate of hope. Opinion polls show that almost two-thirds of Africans think this year will be better than last, double the European rate.

Indeed, while all eyes are (nonetheless justifiably) on China and India, Africa has clearly become another rising force in the global economy, especially as its population is far younger and faster-growing than most parts of the world (which, while currently problematic in light of strained resources, might bode well for the long-term if its potential is harnessed).

Of course, Africa is not a monolithic place by any stretch: on every level, from politics to culture, it is the most diverse geographic area on the planet, by some estimates more than the rest of the world combined. As such, it is not surprising that different countries or regions on the continent are going in varying directions, in equally varying degrees. But the overall trend seems encouraging, if the following maps are any indication:

Africa Rising

Africa Politics

In recognition of how many readers may be skeptical of such a rosy few of Africa’s prospects, The Economist had set out to verify these data with a physical tour of the continent, perhaps the longest ever undertaken by a journalist (at least by my recollection).

Inevitably, Africa’s rise is being hyped. Boosters proclaim an “African century” and talk of “the China of tomorrow” or “a new India”. Sceptics retort that Africa has seen false dawns before. They fear that foreign investors will exploit locals and that the continent will be “not lifted but looted”. They also worry that many officials are corrupt, and that those who are straight often lack expertise, putting them at a disadvantage in negotiations with investors.

So who is right? To find out, your correspondent traveled overland across the continent from Dakar to Cape Town (see map), taking in regional centres such as Lagos, Nairobi and Johannesburg as well as plenty of bush and desert. Each part of the trip focused on one of the big themes with which the continent is grappling—political violence, governance, economic development—as outlined in the articles that follow.

The journey covered some 15,800 miles (25,400km) on rivers, railways and roads, almost all of them paved and open for business. Not once was your correspondent asked for a bribe along the way, though a few drivers may have given small gratuities to policemen. The trip took 112 days, and on all but nine of them e-mail by smartphone was available. It was rarely dangerous or difficult. Borders were easily crossed and visas could be had for a few dollars on the spot or within a day in the nearest capital. By contrast, in 2001, when Paul Theroux researched his epic travel book, “Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town”, he was shot at, forced into detours and subjected to endless discomforts.

Doubtless, I will be keeping track of the coming articles based on this continental tour. I strongly welcome a more nuanced and firsthand account of Africa beyond the usual stereotypes of decay, underdevelopment, and misery. While we should not make light of the many humanitarian issues that still bedevil that region (among many others), nor get carried away into thinking that prosperity is destiny, it is vital to see that progress is possible and Africa is more than just its negative stereotypes.

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‘Walmart’s Worst Nightmare’ Is Expanding Massively

Eupraxsophy:

This is definitely a good company to keep an eye on, especially as it continues to expand across the west coast (and hopefully beyond). WinCo is employee owned and managed, and offers generous pension and healthcare benefits even to part-timers — all this while managing to offer lower costs to consumers than even infamously exploitative Walmart. Hopefully this model catches on. Read more about it on Forbes.

Originally posted on TIME:

WinCo Foods is pushing into one of the country’s hottest grocery store markets, Texas—and the competition is quaking in their boots.

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