Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

What Countries Fear The Most

Depending on where you live in the world, your foreign policy priorities will vary wildly. That is the conclusion of a 40-nation study conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, which asked respondents to report their levels of concern about the following international threats: global climate change; global economic instability; ISIS; Iran’s nuclear program; cyberattacks (be it on governments or private institutions); tensions between Russia, its neighbors, and the U.S.; and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Here is a map of the top threats perceived in each country, courtesy of The Atlantic:

Note: Malaysia and Venezuela both cited climate change and economic instability as top concerns.

The following chart breaks down the percentage of respondents that marked each a particular threat, with underlined figures reflecting the second-most pressing concerns.

You can see a more colorful and interactive version of the above chart at The Guardian

Needless to say, these results say a lot about a country’s political, social, and geographic circumstances. It is pretty clear why Ukraine and Poland would rank Russia as their top concern, given both current tensions and a long history of conflict with their larger neighbor. For similar reasons, Israel is most concerned about Iran, and Vietnam has many scruples with China (indeed, tensions between those states have been on and off for millennia).

Moreover, there are several clear regional trends: worries over climate change is strongest in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — in other words, the developing world. In contrast, fear of ISIS is most evident in the developed nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia, as well as countries in the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, economic instability is a secondary concern in many places, which might reflect the relative stabilization of most countries’ economies. A more cynical interpretation is that people are far more wrapped up in the sensationalism and gripping brutality of terror groups like ISIS than of more far-off and difficult to perceive threats like climate change or the economy.

Cyberattacks remain the least worrying for most citizens of the world, at least for now; things might change as technology because ever-more integrated into everyday day, or once a high-profile and calamitous cyberattack rouses greater attention and concerns.

Though Iran’s nuclear program was only a top threat for Israel, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a third or more respondents identified it as a matter of concern. (Note that this poll was conducted prior to the recent nuclear deal, so there is no telling how that has impacted public opinion.)

It is worth pointing out that this poll was only carried out in 40 of the world’s nearly 200 countries; thus it is more an approximation of collective global opinion. Much of Africa and Asia is left out, though it is safe to say that climate change would remain a top matter of concern, given the pattern among other developing states. (Central Asia would probably be a mixed bag.)

Given that climate change is a far more existential threat than ISIS (at least for any nation not near or involved with interstate tensions), this poll seem to confirm a longstanding psychological observation: as I noted in my statement about economic instability, it is far easier for people to be worried about something they can clearly identify and label as bad, then something that is harder to pinpoint, visualize, and understand. A brutal terrorist group is simpler and more visual than the complex dynamics — and for that matter solutions — regarding economics and climatology.

What are your thoughts?



In Less Than a Century, Humanity Will Number 11 Billion

It is widely known that the world population is growing at a rapid rate. Following over 200,000 years of existence, modern Homo sapiens reached one billion only in the 1800s. But since then, our numbers have increased with unprecedented rapidity, growing more than seven fold.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

After passing the 7 billion mark in 2012, the world population is projected to hit 8 billion in just a decade. And according to the latest U.N. report, biggest growth spurt in history is yet to come: by 2100, the population is projected to hit more than 11 billion. That is around 6 percent higher than earlier forecasts. Continue reading

Most Young Homeowners Have Rich Parents

Yet another big indication of America’s declining social mobility is the fact that most young people who are financially well-off are simply those already born into stable and prosperous circumstances. As The Atlantic points out, the majority of Millennials who enjoy the rare benefits of homeownership, higher education without crushing debt, or ample savings owe such prosperous standing to their parents and families.

To start with, most of those who continue their education after high school have families that are able to help financially. A recent report from the real-estate research company Zillow looked at Federal Reserve Board data on young adults aged 23-34 and found that of the 46 percent of Millennials who pursued post-secondary education (that’s everything from associates degrees to doctorates), about 61 percent received some financial help with their educational expenses from their parents.

And yet, even with this help, the average student with loans at a four-year college graduates with about $26,000 in student-loan debt. Millennials who are lucky enough to have some, or all, of a college tuition’s burden reduced by their parents have a leg up on peers who are saddled with student debt, and they’ll be able to more quickly move out on their own, and maybe even buy their own house.

To be sure, there is no shame in getting help from one’s family. But it is important to acknowledge one’s fortuitous circumstances, and the contributions of others — from loved ones to society as a whole — that helped make it happen.  Continue reading

Finland and the Netherlands Experiment With Basic Income

Finland became the first country in Europe to announce plans for the implementation of a basic income program, according to the Basic Income Earth Network (BIEN). (To recap: a basic income is a universal, unconditional form of payment to individuals that covers their living costs. It allow people to choose to work more flexible hours and devote more time to non-work related activities, from caregiving and volunteering, to studying and leisure.)

The commitment consists of one line: ‘Implement a Basic Income experiment’, in the ‘Health and Welfare’ section of the programme.

The main party of government, the Centre Party and the new Prime Minister Juha Sipilä, are known to be supportive of Basic Income, but his new government partners, the populist Finns Party and conservative NCP have not spoken publicly on the issue. The scant reference to Basic Income raises some doubts about the government’s commitment to the policy.

So while it is far from a done deal — especially as the government has yet to release any further details, including a timeframe — it is nonetheless a big step, as few other countries, even in socially progressive Europe, have ever made such a formal, nationwide commitment.

Meanwhile, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, another country that has been mulling over a basic income, is set to implement a plan of its own. The intention is not only to determine if a basic income will help people in absolute terms, but to see how its efficiency compares to the status quo of welfare payments. From The Independent:

University College Utrecht has paired with the city to place people on welfare on a living income, to see if a system of welfare without requirements will be successful.

Alderman for Work and Income Victor Everhardt told DeStad Utrecht: “One group is will have compensation and consideration for an allowance, another group with a basic income without rules and of course a control group which adhere to the current rules.”

“Our data shows that less than 1.5 percent abuse the welfare, but, before we get into all kinds of principled debate about whether we should or should not enter, we need to first examine if basic income even really works.

“What happens if someone gets a monthly amount without rules and controls? Will someone sitting passively at home or do people develop themselves and provide a meaningful contribution to our society?”

It is not surprising that the Dutch would lead the way in this experiment, given that they already have a well-established fondness for less traditional work environments — 46.1 percent of the labor force works part-time, the highest proportion in the European Union, and the nation is nonetheless broadly prosperous, with a high rate of life satisfaction. This is a country that already leads the way in work-life balance, so it would be interesting to see how this endeavor goes and whether it will catch on elsewhere in the country or beyond.

Finland and the Netherlands are the first developed nations to experiment with a guaranteed basic income since the 1970s, when Canada conducted a pilot project dubbed “Mincome” in a small town, with great results. Other experiments have been performed more recently in India, Namibia and Brazil, each one of them reporting measurable, positive outcomes in everything from poverty reduction to healthcare and general wellness.

As BIEN notes, there is an increasing interest in Basic Income worldwide, as well there should be: from mounting inequality to a dearth of well-paying and sustainable jobs, there are plenty of good reasons to consider at least trying out this streamlined and promising approach to alleviating poverty and improving quality of life.

The Countries With the Greatest Well-Being

According to the most recent Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, Panama once again takes the top spot in the number of people reporting high personal well-being, followed by Costa Rica in second place and Puerto Rico in third.

In fourth place was Switzerland, the top European country, which along with Austria (in ninth place) was the only non-Latin American country in the top ten.

The United States came in at No. 23, one spot behind Israel and one ahead of Canada.

This is the second time the report has been compiled (see the first one’s results here). It looks at how more than 146,000 randomly selected adults, spanning 145 countries and areas, respond to questions about five areas related to their well-being: purpose; social; financial; community; and physical. Here are the specific questions, courtesy of NPR. Continue reading

The End of Casual Christianity

As expected, the response to a recent Pew report finding a precipitous decline in religious believers in the United States has generally been doom and gloom among most Christians. But as an article in the Washington Post rightly points out, the issue of declining piety — and its subsequent impact on society and policies — is a lot more nuanced that meets the eye.

Most of the actual decline in believers from 2007 to 2014 was concentrated among Roman Catholics and the Protestant mainline, and among those most loosely tethered to religious faith. Evangelical Christians held pretty steady, which set up an odd chain of reactions. Secularists were pleased about the decline of Christianity. Some conservative Christians were pleased about the decline of theological liberalism. The latter is evidence of an old grudge.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the Protestant mainline decisively won the battle for cultural preeminence — triumphing in public battles such as the Scopes Trial and leaving fundamentalists to retreat into a subculture. So the mainline’s comeuppance is met with uncharitable satisfaction in some conservative circles — call it William Jennings Bryan’s revenge. The language of “decline”, however, is imprecise. The mainline has not so much declined as faded into the broader culture. “Liberals have learned that it’s difficult for the church to survive”, says historian George Marsden, “if there’s nothing that makes the church distinct from culture”.

Indeed, with most liberal Christians being, in effect, deists — denying retrograde doctrines and theologies — it makes sense that the natural progression would be towards outright irreligiosity, agnosticism, or atheism. Continue reading

The Unexpected Cause Of Addiction

Addiction has long been the subject of intense personal criticism, attributed to personal irresponsibility, negligence, or immorality. But centuries of this approach have done little to mitigate it; if anything, social or legal punishments make the problem worse, breeding psychological distress and resentment that further reinforce, if not escalate, the addiction.

A cynic might chalk the persistence of this social ill to the vagaries of human nature, e.g. bad, stupid, or irresponsible have always existed and always will. No amount of medical, legal, or social support will do anything about it. Locking up addicts or ostracizing them is the most we can do to remove the problem.

But there is mounting research, going back over three decades, that shows substance abuse to have more complex and external origins that go well beyond personal fiat. As HuffPo reported:

One of the ways this theory was first established is through rat experiments – ones that were injected into the American psyche in the 1980s, in a famous advert by the Partnership for a Drug-Free America. You may remember it. The experiment is simple. Put a rat in a cage, alone, with two water bottles. One is just water. The other is water laced with heroin or cocaine. Almost every time you run this experiment, the rat will become obsessed with the drugged water, and keep coming back for more and more, until it kills itself.

The advert explains: “Only one drug is so addictive, nine out of ten laboratory rats will use it. And use it. And use it. Until dead. It’s called cocaine. And it can do the same thing to you”.

But in the 1970s, a professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?

In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling.

The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.

Before anyone points out the obvious fact that rats are not humans, and thus not a reliable basis on which to base our addiction solutions on, it turns out that the Vietnam War, of all things, bolstered the study’s conclusion as well:

Time magazine reported using heroin was “as common as chewing gum” among U.S. soldiers, and there is solid evidence to back this up: some 20 percent of U.S. soldiers had become addicted to heroin there, according to a study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry. Many people were understandably terrified; they believed a huge number of addicts were about to head home when the war ended.

But in fact some 95 percent of the addicted soldiers — according to the same study — simply stopped. Very few had rehab. They shifted from a terrifying cage back to a pleasant one, so didn’t want the drug any more.

Professor Alexander argues this discovery is a profound challenge both to the right-wing view that addiction is a moral failing caused by too much hedonistic partying, and the liberal view that addiction is a disease taking place in a chemically hijacked brain. In fact, he argues, addiction is an adaptation. It’s not you. It’s your cage.

In other words, addiction is shaped as much, if not more, by the individual’s social environment than any chemical reaction or moral perspective. This makes sense when one considers that fundamentally social nature of humans, and how our behaviors, actions, and pathologies are influenced by a wide range of external factors, ranging from the physical environment to the support of our fellow humans.

Here’s one example of an experiment that is happening all around you, and may well happen to you one day. If you get run over today and you break your hip, you will probably be given diamorphine, the medical name for heroin. In the hospital around you, there will be plenty of people also given heroin for long periods, for pain relief. The heroin you will get from the doctor will have a much higher purity and potency than the heroin being used by street-addicts, who have to buy from criminals who adulterate it. So if the old theory of addiction is right — it’s the drugs that cause it; they make your body need them — then it’s obvious what should happen. Loads of people should leave the hospital and try to score smack on the streets to meet their habit.

But here’s the strange thing: It virtually never happens. As the Canadian doctor Gabor Mate was the first to explain to me, medical users just stop, despite months of use. The same drug, used for the same length of time, turns street-users into desperate addicts and leaves medical patients unaffected.

If you still believe — as I used to — that addiction is caused by chemical hooks, this makes no sense. But if you believe Bruce Alexander’s theory, the picture falls into place. The street-addict is like the rats in the first cage, isolated, alone, with only one source of solace to turn to. The medical patient is like the rats in the second cage. She is going home to a life where she is surrounded by the people she loves. The drug is the same, but the environment is different.

This gives us an insight that goes much deeper than the need to understand addicts. Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

I recommend reading the rest of the article, but the conclusion is clear: when addressing addiction at both an individual and community level, it is vital to go beyond the biological or psychological factors and take into account the context — the state of the addict’s social life, the sort of bonds or lack thereof in their life, etc. A more holistic view takes into account all the relevant details.

Obviously, more research is needed to explore this issue, but it is definitely interesting and important to take into account every possible variable.

Spain: The Most LGBT-Friendly Country in the World

The results might be surprising, since — compared to the likes of the Netherlands or Scandinavia — Spain rarely comes to mind as being particularly pro-LGBT. But the conclusion comes from an extensive 40-country survey conducted by the reputable Pew Research Group which asked respondents to discuss the morality of various issues, ranging from marital infidelity and divorce, to gambling, premarital sex, and abortion.

Of the Spaniards interviewed, 55 percent said homosexuality was morally acceptable, compared with six percent who said it was unacceptable and 38 percent who answered that it’s “not a moral issue” to begin with. These results actually match with another Pew study from 2013, which similarly concluded Spain to be the most LGBT-tolerant country in the world on the percentage of participants who believed homosexuality should be accepted by society.

The following graph shows the results of the top ten countries to be pro-LGBT, followed by the U.S. and Chile (courtesy of PolicyMic and the Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project).

The famously LGBT-friendly nations of Northern Europe weren’t part of the survey, although I imagine they’d make up most of the top ten as well. Although a predominately Catholic country, Spain’s high ranking reflects a generally relaxed attitude towards homosexuality and other social mores, which coexists with a fairly high rate of Catholic identity (perhaps more culturally than piously nowadays). The country was among the first to legalize same-sex marriage in 2005, and hosts some of the largest pride parades in the world.

After the U.S. was Brazil, Mexico, Israel, Poland, and Greece. The fairly high ranks for Japan, Italy, and Argentina may seem surprising, given that these countries are generally viewed as being socially-conservative by developed-world standards (and of them only Argentina has legalized same-sex marriage, in 2010).

However, attitudes in these societies, as elsewhere, are changing — although viewing the rest of the countries polled would suggest they’re only high relative to the lowest-common denominators. Moreover, just because one doesn’t see homosexuality as immoral, doesn’t mean they don’t have stereotypical or negative views about it in some other sense (regarding gays as effeminate, lesbians as man-haters, etc). Of course, progress is progress even if there’s a ways to go.

The PolicyMic article makes the following assessment:

It’s important to note that the rankings are based on percentage of respondents who classified homosexuality as morally unacceptable. The United States had a surprisingly high number of respondents claim homosexuality was morally unacceptable — 37% — however, another 35% claimed it was “not a moral issue.”

Meanwhile, the Czech Republic had the highest overall percentage of respondents claim homosexuality was morally acceptable, edging out Spain with 56%. However, 14% of Czechs surveyed said it was unacceptable.

Countries with the lowest tolerance, according to the survey, included Ghana and Russia, where 98% and 72% of citizens replied that homosexuality was morally unacceptable, respectively.

The lowest-scoring countries after Ghana were Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Uganda, and Indonesia — none of which are entirely surprising, given the correlation between high rates of religiosity and negative perceptions towards LGBT people. However, relatively secular places (by global standards) such as China, South Korea, and Russia were also in the middle-to-bottom part of the list. Attitudes towards gays, lesbians, and other marginalized groups are influenced by many different factors beyond religion, some of which may be unique to the country in question.

There are many other caveats and observations that can be made, but I sadly do not have the time to offer them. As always, please weigh in at your leisure.