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

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United Nations Day

On this day in 1945, the Charter of the United Nations came into effect, establishing the U.N. as the world’s premier international organization and setting forth, for the first time in history, an aspirational global standard for human rights, international cooperation, and global security — hence the observation of United Nations Day.

The United Nations emerged during the Second World War as the formal name for the Allies that opposed the Axis powers, although the idea of creating a new world organization — to replace the moribund League of Nations that was created after WWI — was conceptualized by the U.S. State Department in 1939.  Continue reading

Progress Across Boundaries

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

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

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

Global STEM Leaders

STEM — short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is all the rage these days, as economies across the world become more knowledge-based, and as humanity faces threats like climate change and resource depletion that will require creative, technological solutions.

That’s why so many nations, especially in the developing world, are trying to gain a competitive advantage by investing in STEM education and seeking to attract STEM graduates from abroad. According to Forbes, which cites a report from the World Economic Forum, these are the countries leading the way:

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Unsurprisingly, with their large and youthful populations, India and China have the most graduates overall at 78 million and 77.7 million, respectively. The U.S. is in third place with 67.4 million graduates, although the quality of its degrees may be greater than that of its competitors, whose education infrastructure is younger, less developed, and less prestigious (for now).

Japan’s high ranking is not surprising given that is a well established scientific and economic powerhouse, although its aging population and low rate of immigration likely explains why it doesn’t rank higher despite a population of 126 million. Russia, Iran, and Indonesia are rarely touted as academic leaders, but each is fairly populous — at 147 million, 75 million, and 260 million respectively — and Russia and Iran in particular have a long history of scientific achievement.

However, China may soon close this gap as it continues to improve its institutions and education standards:

Some estimates see the number of Chinese graduates aged between 25 and 34 rising 300 percent up to 2030 compared to just 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe. According to the World Economic Forum, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has become a pretty big deal in China’s flourishing universities. In 2013, 40 percent of Chinese graduates finished a degree in STEM, over twice the share in American third level institutions

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to draw and retain students and graduates from around the world will likely become a bigger consideration for more countries. For all the complexities of its visa and customs systems, the U.S. has long enjoyed an edge in this regard — for example, all six of its 2016 Nobel Prize winners were foreign-born.

But a wave of nativism and xenophobia may undercut its attractiveness as a research and academic hub, and other countries — including neighboring Canada — have begun to step up as alternative options, dangling such incentives as a path to citizenship upon graduation.

One thing is for certain. The future of a nation’s success and survival will depend on its command of technology and science. How it goes about advancing those intellectual resources is a different matter altogether. But any country’s increasing education is humanity’s gain.

 

 

 

Video: The Rise of Megacities and the Era of “Connectography”

Humanity’s rapid and unprecedented rate of urbanization and connectivity is leading to the emergence of a truly globalized society. Goods and services, social relations, cultural products, ideas and values, and people themselves are transcending political and geographic boundaries like never before.

Needless to say, this trend is impacting every facet of human life, portending a future in which existing national borders — the kind we’re accustomed to seeing in every map of the world — fail to capture a new pan-human community. Indeed, the nation-state as we take for granted today may not exist at all.

Granted, such claims come with plenty of caveats. The world still far from abandoning the forces of nationalism, religious extremism, ethnic chauvinism, and basic parochialism, to say nothing of the technical challenges that remains; arguably, such sentiments have only grown stronger in some parts of the world in recent years.

In any case, there is no denying that whatever challenges or reversals lie ahead, the world is not what it once was, and today’s concept of a nation-state dominated international order is longer adequate for capturing the reality of our global society. Parag Khanna brings this to light with an interesting new TED Talk that explores the emergence of megacities and the subsequent erosion of geographic and political barriers — a dramatic shift he refers to as “connectography”. Check out the twenty minute video below, or read the transcript here. Continue reading

The World’s Most Empathetic Societies

Empathy, which is broadly defined as the ability to feel or understand another person’s experience or perspective, is considered by many to be a foundational part of morality and ethics. But putting oneself in another’s position, and relating with their pain, joy, beliefs, and other mental and emotional states, one can better learn how to treat others and what constitutes positive or negative behavior.

It can thus be reasoned that individuals with a high level of empathy will most likely be kinder, more understanding, and more cooperative with others; a society composed of mostly empathetic people should similarly see higher rate of pro-social activities and values, such as more charitable giving or less crime. But only very recently has a study been done to measure which societies have the most empathy, and how or if that translates to greater societal health. Continue reading

Where Your Produce Comes From

In this wonderfully globalized world of ours, we take for granted just how varied and plentiful our food supply is (at least in the more developed and interconnected parts of the world). But so much of what we see on store shelves and restaurants would have literally been unheard of not long ago, let alone a significant and growing part of our staple diet.

NPR’s The Salt column reports on a study that has mapped out and traced where nearly all the world’s cultivated crops originated from. It found that more than two-thirds (69 percent) of the crops that form a key part of national diets — from Thai chilies to Italian tomatoes — in fact came from somewhere else. Continue reading

The Lewis Model of Culture

As humanity rapidly continues its assent into a truly global community, it is imperative that we make sense of the many cultures and societies that will inevitably interact, engage with one another, and even clash.

One interesting approach to making sense of our multicultural world is the Lewis Model, devised by British linguist, polyglot, and world traveler Richard D. Lewis.  Presented in his 1996 book, “When Cultures Collide“, it offers a roadmap of the world based on the general “national characteristics” of particular countries — their beliefs, values, behaviors, mannerisms, and prejudices.

Explicitly cautious about avoiding stereotypes and neglecting to acknowledge individual and sub-national exceptions, the Lewis Model organizes countries based on their relationship to three categories:

Linear-actives — those who plan, schedule, organize, pursue action chains, do one thing at a time. Germans and Swiss are in this group.

Multi-actives — those lively, loquacious peoples who do many things at once, planning their priorities not according to a time schedule, but according to the relative thrill or importance that each appointment brings with it. Italians, Latin Americans and Arabs are members of this group.

Reactives — those cultures that prioritize courtesy and respect, listening quietly and calmly to their interlocutors and reacting carefully to the other side’s proposals. Chinese, Japanese and Finns are in this group.

Here is a full breakdown of each category:

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With these details in mind, here is the world according to the Lewis Model:

the_lewis_model_712

Moreover, Lewis argues, perhaps provocatively, that these attributes are largely immutable, even when material conditions or ideological paradigms change:

The behavior of people of different cultures is not something willy-nilly. There exist clear trends, sequences and traditions. Reactions of Americans, Europeans, and Asians alike can be forecasted, usually justified and in the majority of cases managed. Even in countries where political and economic change is currently rapid or sweeping (Russia, China, Hungary, Poland, Korea, Malaysia, etc.) deeply rooted attitudes and beliefs will resist a sudden transformation of values when pressured by reformists, governments or multinational conglomerates.

This is in contrast to another culture map I shared in a previous post, that of Ronald Inglehart and Christian Welzel, which argues that cultures emerge from the interaction of several dynamic and changing factors, both material and ideological — for example, high socioeconomic development combined with historic Protestant Christian norms creates societies that value secularism, reason, and individual self-expression.

Granted, both maps are very different in structure and categorization, but it is interesting to try and compare their interpretation of certain countries and regions.

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What are your thoughts about these two guides to the world’s cultures?

 

 

Reflections on a Global Community

For most of human history, the average person rarely knew, let alone cared, about what happened beyond his or her little community of mostly interrelated people. Now, something can happen halfway across the world, to strangers of a completely foreign culture and society, and we feel emotionally and politically invested. We mourn, express solidarity, debate, and otherwise get involved in matters that by all accounts should not concern us.

It is easy to take for granted that we live in a global community, in which our social, economic, and even personal lives are impacted by the fate of total strangers thousands of miles away. But this is actually a radically new development in our species’s history, after millennia of living in small tribes, bands, and city-states. (Indeed, civilizations only emerged three to four thousand years ago, whereas modern humans have existed for at least a quarter of a million years.)

Doubtless, we are far from forming a truly cohesive and universal identity — too many things still separates us and undermine our ability to empathize, including our biology (e.g., our minds evolved to prioritize genetic kin — those who look and seem more similar — and can develop only a limited number of deep social connections).

But given the novelty of this globalized world, I am confident that with time, such limitations can be transcended. Just as the city or country — now totally common and accepted social units — was once an alien concept for thousands of years, so too can something as crazy as a global community, in the psychological if not political sense, be a reality.

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.)