Wednesday, July 7, 2010

I'm Off!

Ill be taking a break from the blogging to take a lil trip to Nairobi, London, Amsterdam, and Vancouver. I'm also going to visit Ottawa and perhaps Montreal. A jaunt down to Havana might be in the mix as well! Why, you may ask? Well, why not?

So, needless to say, posting will be sporadic at best.

Now I've got to go out and buy some more SD cards for my camera.

Cheers to the summer!

Monday, July 5, 2010

Website of the Week - Transparency International

Transparency International is 'the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption.' Their most famous publication is the Corruption Perceptions Barometer. This report has been criticised much for the same reason I criticised Daniel Kaufmann's corruption paper just yesterday. It is a survey, so people must volunteer information about corruption. If different people have different incentives to lie, or not lie, about corruption the whole survey is moot.

So long as we are aware of this limitation, I think the report can still offer some interesting information. Here are the most corrupt nations on earth according to the citizens of those nations:

Afghanistan, Myanmar, Iraq, Sudan and Somalia were the lowest-ranked while New Zealand was the highest, with last year's winner Denmark as runner-up and Singapore in third. None are too surprising. The scale ranges from 1.1 in Somalia to 9.4 in New Zealand. The vast majority of countries score below 5. Corruption is rampant. Clear legal frameworks and fair, effective enforcement of the law continue to be a great challenge for the vast majority of nations around the world.

Beyond that report, TI also publishes a Global Bribe Payers Index as well as a Global Corruption Barometer.

TI is fighting the good fight against corruption by strengthening and supporting watchdog agencies both national and international. It is present in about 100 countries and works to foster freedom of information around the world. It also produces extensive reports on corruption in these countries.

I love this organization. I think that bringing corruption to the forefront of the global struggle against poverty is exactly what needs to happen. More than anything, it is corruption that keeps poor people poor.

TI also has a nice little section of their website devoted to news about corruption around the globe. For this little section, as well as for their expansive documentation of global corruption, they get website of the week.

How was your education?

I recently stumbled across, which I think is a fascinating example of the single-mindedness that unfortunately seems to be increasing in present-day media. It's so unabashedly single-minded that I thought it was worth a mention.

The website, written somewhat anonymously by wealthy suburbanites from Upper St. Clair, PA, is essentially against the International Baccalaureate high school curriculum on the basis of it touting "anti-American" propaganda. Their tag-line is "IB's primary purpose is to promote globalism and turn our children into global citizens. TAIB'S primary purpose is to celebrate what it means to be American and to preserve freedom for our children and grandchildren."

The IB: shameless anti-America propaganda

The essence of the site is difficult to capture from any single quotation, but this one does the trick, I think. In response to Federal funding for disadvantaged schools to adopt the IB, the site claims that "school administrators believe this is "free" money that schools can use to further their new world order agenda. What they are really doing is enslaving the very children in their care to a future of unsustainable debt and anti-American indoctrination. "

What exactly is threatening? Let's see... they quote the IB's document, emphasizing "In the PYP [Primary Years Program], the attempt to define international-mindedness in increasingly clear terms, and the struggle to move closer to that ideal in practice, are central to the mission of PYP schools." The document continues outlining the importance of re-thinking to avoid bias. In response: "IBO's own document as a direct assault on our Constitutional and Judeo-Christian values must be deaf, dumb and blind."

Now the website does have certain valid points about cost, penetration, and recognition in the US marketplace, but most of the flames emerge from paragraphs of this America-before-the-world (or America is the world) type banter.

In one section, a student tries to argue for the importance of international understanding to the website's editor, to be told "Your [time] would have been better spent studying our Constitution and Declaration of Independence to better understand your rapidly disappearing rights as an American and what is really most valuable and worth fighting for."

I'm not trying to make a value judgement here. Probably the editor believes the greater truths of the world are contained in America's founding documents, and that's fine. But to actively seek to prevent others from knowledge, especially knowledge based on the present world's condition, seems pretty anti-freedom, which you might say is anti-American.

Stuff like this does tend to make me uncomfortable, and if you are sickened by closed mindedness, avoid visiting the website. (They've even got a whole page dedicated to pro-IB comments that they have shrugged off).

Education isn't for everyone...

Rambling on about Corruption

Imagine a customs agent sitting at his/her desk in at a boarder between two impoverished nations. They pull you over and ask to examine your papers. You have a visa, and all the documents you thought you needed. The agent solicits a bribe from you, you give in and pay the equivalent of 20 USD. How do you feel? Cheated?

What if that agent can't afford to pay for school for his/her children on the less than meagre salary they receive without your bribe? Would you feel any different? What if that bribe went to something less noble like fuelling his/her alcohol addiction? Different still?

How is a tax diffferent from this bribe? Is the guise that all taxes fund happy social programs what legitimizes them? Isn't it just as likely that the inflated yet legitimate salary of a high ranking civil servant will go to booze? And still isn't it more efficient for a customs agent to gain his/her salary on the spot by extorting cash from travellers?

I have too many questions.

One of my favorite economists who is concerned with corruption is Daniel Kaufmann. He answers some of my questions quite well. Here he shows that corruption does not 'grease the wheels' of growth. He claims that "if bureaucrats have control in determining the extent of regulatory burden and red tape delay so to extract bribes" the efficiency of the system falls. He surveys thousands of multinational firms and finds that the ones that say no to bribery deal with less red tape.

Trouble with this study begins at the fact that it is a survey and firms must volunteer their information. I wonder what incentives the firms had to lie about their practices. Cue the old paradox of believing someone who admits to lying.

"I lied"
"You did?"

In any case I believe his conclusion. Even if it were more efficient in terms of overhead, or red tape, more corruption is bad for business simply because it is the powerless that ultimately suffer. The powerless lose power to corruption.

Ah, the intricacies of corruption. I imagine a spectrum of corruption where on one side lies the powerful that abuse their power to gain money but ultimately function as they would normally his/her job (such as our border friend). On the other side lies the powerful who change the outcome of their work on account of their illicit gains. Can you slide across the spectrum on stolen ice skates or are you fixed by your moral compass? Is the greasy palm of a customs agent always likely to stop illicit goods from entering?

To get an idea of how vast, pervasive and serious corruption is, here is a nice graph that ill just throw in for fun from Global Financial Integrity:

More money flows out of impoverished nations because of corruption than flow in because of charity tourism and remittances:

Just to clarify: "The term, illicit financial flows, pertains to the cross-border movement of money that is illegally earned, transferred, or utilized. Illicit financial flows generally involve the transfer of money earned through illegal activities such as corruption, transactions involving contraband goods, criminal activities, and efforts to shelter wealth from a country’s tax authorities."

Friday, July 2, 2010

Tasty Little Plastic Fish

Do you find yourself pondering the future of global fish stocks? Are you worried that the seafood you are eating poses an existential threat to marine life due to the irresponsibility of the fishing industry?

Well, here is a site that should quell your anxiety somewhat: The Environmental Defence Fund's guide to eating eco-friendly fish. Now you know which fish is which!

I have been concerned since I heard Daniel Pauly talk about global fish stocks not lasting 50 years. Though I don't have that link, Prof. Pauly wrote this comprehensive piece in the New Republic

Well, If you weren't worried about overfishing for some reason, you can worry instead about our plastic consumption - It's ending up in the ocean. Every fish you have eaten had a little bit o' plastic inside when it was caught. Yuk.

 Hear about our plastic seas and the Pacific trash vortex in this short TED talk from Capt. Charles Moore:

If that still doesn't trouble you, or if you are passed the realm of concern and have entered the realm of impuissance, the 'marine debris' sometimes converges to form giant islands of trash that float around the pacific ocean.  Apparently it sometimes becomes dense enough to stand on.

Plastic island doomsday tiki party anyone?

Thursday, July 1, 2010

No Failure for Organized Bribery

FP's Failed State Index belies important social realities that rely upon cvil society, not on strong government as I have argued before. Here is a quote From Rachel Strohm at Economic Geographies where she demonstrates what I mean. A failed state, such as the DRC in this example, is not in complete bedlam. Here Ms. Strohm tells us how the police in Kin do not solicit bribes for no reason, though they could well do, they only take bribes in the correct social context.
Bribe-seeking is technically illegal & unregulated behavior, and can look rather chaotic to the first-time observer. If you’re wealthy enough to be traveling by car in downtown Kin, you may rest assured that the roulage will be looking for any pretext to stop you and ask for payment of an imagined fine. (In the situation leading up to the photo above, a friend had parked quite legally in a designated parking spot outside my apartment – after which we were surrounded by police & escorted to the station on claims that we were blocking the road.) Interestingly, though, the key word here is pretext. I never saw any interaction between the police & drivers that did not involve some sort of legalistic claim to the driver’s money, even if both parties knew that the accusation was false. By contrast, white foreigners probably look just as wealthy walking down the street as they do when in cars, but the same police officer who stopped us morning after morning whilst we were driving to work scrupulously ignored me when I walked past him on my way to lunch. Imagined moving violations are presumably easier to justify than imagined walking violations, and the group norm specified that bribery in this particular location had to have a legal pretext.
Social order can be found even within the indicators of state failure!