Conceptual Progress

It is easy to take values like freedom and democracy for granted, and that speaks volumes about how good we have it (at least in some parts of the modern world). For the overwhelming majority of human history, across almost every society, ideas like individual liberty, human rights, and equality were not even conceived, let alone practice.

In the approximately 200,000 years that homo sapiens have existed, only in the last three thousand or so years did such concepts even emerge, and even then they were quaint ideas limited in scope and agree — the ancient republics of Athens and Rome still had slavery and the disenfranchised women, as did the republics of the United States and France.

We are fortunate to live in a time when we have higher aspirations and ideals to live up to. People speak of realism versus idealism, but at least better values and principles exist to be attained, if even only conceptually. It was not that long ago that the very idea that slavery was morally monstrous, that women were fully humans, that children warranted rights, and that people should have a say in their governance, simply did not exist in the minds of even the most heightened intellectuals, let alone the largely impoverished and illiterate masses.

We have come a very long way as a species, even if we have an even longer ways to go.

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

Who, or What, is to Blame for Inequality?

Over at the Washington Post, columnist Matt O’Brian reveals how inequality has less to do with a small class of super wealthy elites, and more to do with the structure and culture of many big U.S. companies

The easiest way to think about this is to think about the different types of inequality. There isn’t just inequality between everyone, but also between everyone at a single company. Why does this matter? Well, if CEOs really are gobbling up a bigger and bigger slice of the profit pie, then inequality within society at large should have increased because inequality within companies increased. But that’s not what happened. The research team of Jae Song of the Social Security Administration, Fatih Guvenen of the University of Minnesota, and David Price and Nicholas Bloom of Stanford were able to look at what had previously between private earnings data for every company between 1978 and 2012—the best data we have so far—and found that the pay gap between executives and their own workers had barely changed during this time. What had changed, though, was the pay gap between every worker at the highest-paid firms and everyone else. In other words, inequality exploded because the top 1 percent of companies were making more and paying all their employees more. This was true across the country and across industries.

It is not entirely clear why this is the case, but one hypothesis is that technological innovation has made every industry “winner-take-all”, meaning it is easier than ever for the most ruthless and resourceful companies to dominate a particular market. This explains the rise of global behemoths like Google, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook, all of which lack any true competitors in their respective industries.  Continue reading

Voter Turnout By Country

According to a 2015 report by Pew, the United States had one of the lowest voter turnout rates in the developed world OECD,  with only 53.6 percent of voting-age people taking part in national elections in 2012. Only Japan, Chile, and Switzerland ranked lower.

Voter TurnoutThree of the countries with the highest voter turnout — Belgium (No. 1), Turkey (No. 2) and Australia (No. 5) make voting mandatory, as do mid-ranking nations like Greece (No. 12), Mexico (No. 18), Luxembourg (No. 26), and France (for Senate elections only; No. 13).

If you are wondering why countries with compulsory voting nonetheless have a gap between voting turnout and voting registration, there are various explanations, such as the law not being enforced (as in Greece) or absent voters being allowed to offer a justifiable excuse and/or pay a fine (Australia).

As for why the U.S. fares so poorly despite being one of the world’s foremost republics, there is no shortage of explanations. Many allege that it comes down to how difficult it is to actually vote — the registration process is relatively more complex than in other democracies, and national votes take place on a single non-holiday weekday. Others say it has to do with growing disaffection with, and subsequent apathy towards, politics. Still others assert that voter turnout is not really all that low to begin with.

All that said, do you think voting should be mandatory? Is it a civic obligation like jury duty and taxes, or is it best left to individual to decide, even if it means less civic engagement in the aggregate. What are your thoughts?

Source: The Washington Post

http://www.pewresearch.org/chart/voter-turnout-around-the-world/iframe/

How Cicero’s Political Campaign is Still Relevant Today

What does it say about the nature of human political life that analyses and advice dating from the first century B.C.E. is still applicable today? Stripped of its cultural and historical context, the Commentariolum Petitionis, or “Little Handbook on Electioneering”, which was ostensibly written to the great Roman orator and statesman Cicero by his younger brother, Quintus, can just as well describe contemporary American politics.

For example, it starts by outlining the importance of connections and patronage networks — especially among the wealthy and elites of society — for political advancement. Continue reading

The World Goes a Little Less Hungry

For most of us in the developed world, hunger is no worse than a nuisance, and can be easily rectified by the abundance of options offered by restaurants, fast food joints, convenience stores, and supermarkets. So it is mercifully easy to forget the horrific toll that malnutrition and chronic hunger continue to reap across vast swathes of humanity.

A person who is chronically hungry would feel more than just hunger pangs. The body produces less energy and develops a daily sense of weakness. “They feel tired, they don’t feel like they can perform their work optimally,” says Rafael Perez-Escamilla, a chronic disease epidemiologist at Yale University. “They feel fatigued and a sense of apathy.” He adds that the hunger can become so severe that a person barely has the ability to get up from bed.

The lack of nutrients is especially detrimental for children under 5, for whom hunger is the leading cause of death. Each year, hunger kills some 3.1 million children under 5, accounting for 45 percent of child mortality within that age group. Those who survive suffer a lack of physical and mental development. Roughly 100 million are underweight, and 1 in 4 children are stunted, meaning their height is below the fifth percentile for their age.

… And To The Brain

Perez-Escamilla warns that the physical consequences are only part of the problem. “The vast majority of people facing chronic hunger cannot concentrate very well,” he says. “You start having a headache and getting into a bad mood, and you can’t concentrate on your work.”

Now, he says, imagine that happening every day. Add the distress of not being able to provide for your family. He recalls a study in which he asked people what hunger meant. “People talked about how hunger is the worst form of violence against human beings,” he says. “It’s the worst thing that can happen to the dignity of a human being.”

Given such grim details, it is all the more gratifying to see that this scourge has been declining at an impressive speed: according to the most recent U.N.report published last summer, 795 million people were hungry as of 2014 (the most recent year for which there is reliable data). While that is still a terribly high number, it is over 200 million less than in 1990, when 1  billion people — one out of five people — were hungry, compared to one in nine today.

Also keep in mind that the world’s population has grown by another 2 billion, making this achievement even more impressive.

To top it all off, the rate of hungry has nearly halved, from 23.3 percent in 1990 among developing countries, to a little less than 13 percent today.

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Countries in green have either halved the proportion of people who are malnourished, or reduced it to less than 5 percent; those in yellow have made slow progress, while red indicates no progress.

For a larger version of the above map, click here.

As the map shows, much of the progress was led by East Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. China halved its malnourished population, while Vietnam and Korea lifting millions out of hunger. The number of underweight children dropped dramatically in Brazil, Chile, Guyana, Nicaragua, Peru, and Uruguay, with only Guatemala seeing its undernourished population grow.

What accounts for such incredible progress? As you might imagine with an issue of this magnitude, quite a lot of strategies have been involved, including improvements in infrastructure and communications, which ensures more quality food makes it to more tables; public and private investments in agriculture, particularly to boost yields and grow more nutrient-dense food; government programs to provide greater food access for the poor; and a decline in abject poverty.

Clearly, a lot of work remains in reducing chronic hunger in this world of plenty. But given the incredible progress thus far, even the challenges posed by climate change might be overcome if we continue to apply solutions across the political, economic, and technological spheres.

Sources: NPRNational Geographic

Can and Should Governments Promote Happiness?

Back in February, the United Arab Emirates announced the creation of a “minister of state for happiness” that would “align and drive government policy to create social good and satisfaction”, whatever that means. (The same statement announced the creation of minister for tolerance, perhaps in response to the country’s rapidly growing multicultural population.)

Needless to say, the idea of a “happiness minister” was met with a lot of confusion and amusement, both from within the country and beyond. What does it means to promote happiness on a policy level? What would this entail? And should governments even take it upon themselves to worry about this?

As The Washington Post points out, the U.A.E. is only the latest of several countries to go this route. Both Ecuador and Venezuela announced similar initiatives in 2013 — a state secretary of “good living / well-being” and a “vice ministry of supreme social happiness”, respectively — and the small Himalayan nation of Bhutan pioneering the concept back in 1972 with its “gross national happiness” (GNH) index.

In theory, these ministries work to try to improve the levels of happiness in the countries through a variety of policies. David Smilde, a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, says that despite its grandiose name, Venezuela’s ministry actually has a “pretty reasonable mandate” – measuring the effectiveness of the government’s various social welfare programs. In Ecuador, Ehlers has implemented or plans to implement a variety of policies that included both labeling foods based on their health values and meditation classes for schoolchildren, the Miami Herald reported last year.

Bhutan’s GNH measure is especially interesting, as it was devised to shift public policy focus away from economic concerns — as signified by the near-universal interest in gross domestic product (GDP) and towards promoting several components of happiness, such as mental and physical health, leisure time, and standard of living.

While there is no minister directly responsible for happiness in the tiny Himalayan nation, the Gross National Happiness Commission is tasked with surveying the levels of happiness in the nation. The information they gather is then used by the government to make decisions.

Butan’s big idea has since proven popular around the world and now a variety of countries all around the world – including Thailand and the United Kingdom – have begun measuring happiness with an aim to using it to devise policy. Dubai actually announced plans for its own Happiness Index in 2014, with Hussain Lootah, director general of the municipality, telling the National newspaper that it would be designed to “create an excellent city that provides the essence of success and comfort of sustainable living.”

Interestingly, despite leading the way in prioritizing social well being as government policy, Bhutan’s performance has been mixed at best: according to the most recent U.N. World Happiness Report, which was inspired by the GNH idea, the country ranks only 79th out of 158, not terrible but not all that great. Bhutan has also dealt with faced issues such as pervasive poverty and discrimination against non-Buddhist minorities.

Believe it or not, the same U.N. report ranked Venezuela a respectable 44th in 2016, a significant drop since 19th in 2012, when the Orwellian-sounding “vice ministry of supreme social happiness” was created. Given the country’s plethora of social, economic, and political problems — ranging from food shortages to high crime — this decline is unsurprising, though still not as damaging as one would think.

For their part, Bhutan ranked 84th, the U.A.E. 28th, and Ecuador 51st. (Wikipedia has a great breakdown of the report’s results and methodology here.) As The Post points out, the top ten countries — all of which were northern European states and small Anglophone nations — had another thing in common besides being wealthy liberal democracies:

None of the top 10 countries rated “happiest” in the U.N. report have a government ministry devoted to happiness – although given the rarity of such ministries, it’d be very surprising if they did. There’s certainly little doubt that government policies can influence levels of happiness, but whether an entire ministry is needed is not so certain. Generally, when it comes to improving levels of happiness, “what matters is how things are done across government as a whole,” says John Helliwell, a co-editor of the World Happiness Report and a senior fellow at the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research. And Carol Graham, a fellow at the Brookings Institution who has studied attempts to measure well-being, says that the creation of ministries for happiness can be a “diversion” and may even “border on the government telling people how to be happy or that they should be happy.”

And while most of the top nations were indeed highly developed, broadly prosperous states, there was a smattering or poorer or middle-income countries, such as Costa Rica (14th place), Puerto Rico (15th), Mexico (21st), Chile (24th), and Panama (25th). It goes to show that, as with individuals, there is no magic bullet when it comes to well-being and life satisfaction.

Granted, it seems to be the general rule that financial wealth, stability, and freedom — both on an individual and societal level — generally correlates with happiness. But values, community life, leisure time, and culture count for a lot, too; people or places that are lacking in some factors, but excel in others, might still end up happier on the whole.

In my view, the best thing governments can do is create the proper conditions within which happiness can thrive — effective rule of law that safeguards personal safety and stability, less intrusion into civil liberties, more public spaces for leisure and community engagement, and so on. In other words, cultivate a physical and social environment that maximizes the individual’s ability to improve their own well being. More proactive measures, such as making healthcare and education more accessible, would certainly help, too, but this could be politically unpalatable in places wary of government intrusion, like the U.S. (which, by the way, ranked a good 13th place in the U.N. happiness report.)

What are your thoughts?

 

Lessons From Prisons Around The World

In a newly published book, “Incarceration Nations“, Baz Dreisinger of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice goes on a global tour of prisons to discover and compare various approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. As a professor and activist, rather than a criminal justice expert, her book offers less in the way of data and policy analysis and more in terms of insightful, first-person accounts of the various prison systems she visited, including those in countries as diverse as Australia, Brazil, Jamaica, Rwanda, Singapore, South Africa, and Uganda. Continue reading

Graph: Countries By Wage Tax Burden

While income taxes seem to get the lion’s share of attention in the U.S., they make up only about half the government’s revenue — taxes on payroll, paid by both workers and employers, make up most of the remainder. In many ways, these taxes are more consequential, as they place a burden on all formal workers, and are used to fund things like social security and Medicare.

Hence why the OECD, a club of 34 mostly developed countries, published a report that compares the tax burden on wages in each of the world’s wealthiest nations, and how this has changed since the “Great Recession”. In particularly, the study analyzed the “tax wedge” — personal income taxes, plus payroll taxes and social security taxes, minus any cash benefits. It then calculated the average tax wedge for various types of households, giving us the following results.

 

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The country with the highest average tax burden is Belgium, at 55.6 percent of income, while the country with the lowest was Chile, at just 7.0 percent — though neither saw any change between 2007 and 2014, when the most recent data.

In terms of the biggest shifts, Hungary saw its tax wedge drop by 5.5 points, while Ireland’s grew by a considerable 6.0 points.

As the OECD points out, in some respects, a rising tax wedge might be indicative of progress: countries with rising wages will consequently experience rising tax burdens, all things remaining equal, as more workers enter higher income-tax brackets.

In many cases, however, particularly in regard to hard-hit countries like Greece, Portugal, and Spain, the higher tax burden may reflect desperate attempts for cash-strapped governments to get more revenue, as high unemployment and a decline in economic activity leaves them few other sources.

Source: Business Insider

The Countries That Are Working Hard and Hardly Working

Courtesy of Business Insider and Vizual Statistixs is a map displaying which members of the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), a club of 34 mostly-developed nations, works the hardest. This is determined by combining the average number of hours worked annually by each person, the average retirement age, and life expectancy. (See a larger version here.)

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So Mexico, South Korea, and Chile are by far the hardest working countries, while France, Germany, and Luxembourg are the least hard-working. The United States is slightly harder working than the median, but definitely more so than its Anglophone cousins and most of Western Europe. Also note that Greece is relatively hardworking by European standards, despite being widely denounced as a nation of laggards following its economic collapse (which certainly had to do with a lot more than average hours worked).

To be sure, this formula that does not take into account other details, such as how hard employees work per hour, but it is nonetheless something to go by. Also, I am not sure if working long hours and having less retirement time is, in and of itself, a good thing. Productivity per hour, the quality of the work, and for more importantly the quality of life in general, should count for a lot more.