Book Review: Equality and Efficiency the Big TradeOff

Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff (A Brookings Classic)Equality and Efficiency: The Big Tradeoff by Arthur M. Okun
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very interesting book, written back in the 1970s, and still relevant. While this was written 40 years ago, the challenges between equality and efficiency is one that continues to bedevil us, and has recently returned to to forefront of discussion. Considering this, I think that this book is definitely worth revisiting especially considering the very pragmatic way that Okun approaches the subject. I really liked the way that Okun presented the issue of having to balance social good with economic efficiency. I found his frank discussion appealing, especially with how objective he tried to be showing both the pros and cons of different decisions that each society must make, as well as his own preference of where he would have liked society to have come to.

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Book Review: The Price of Civilization

The Price Of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue And ProsperityThe Price Of Civilization: Reawakening American Virtue And Prosperity by Jeffrey D. Sachs
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I often find reading any book by Jeffrey Sachs requires that I first remove my general dislike for an arrogance that comes through in his books with a know-it-all like characteristic that feels like he is slowly leading along a bunch of slow children to the “correct” answer. Once I was able to get past this, there was actually quite a bit that I found interesting or agreed with in this book. Sachs looks at many of the issues currently challenging our society, and I found the book a good addition to the recent literature exploring the challenges of declining social capital and trust in a post-modern world, as well as the challenges of inequality that is confronting the country

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Weekly Development Links – March 22

Some of these links are a little older, and I just hadn’t gotten around to reading them till this week. Any way on to the links:

  • White House Proposal Could Revolutionize Food Aid – From the Center of Global Development’s  Rethinking US Foreign Assistance blog, this blog post is a couple of weeks old. However, I think that it is an excellent piece especially considering that U.S. foreign aid and development budgets will almost certainly face cuts this year. This blog post points out that there are some low hanging fruit that could be picked to not only reduce spending but also to follow development best practices and potentially lead to improved outcomes. The article focus particularly on the extremely inefficient Food for Peace program, which is more of a subsidy to American Agriculture and Transportation sector than it is an effective development/assistance program. However, the preference towards U.S. producers and service providers are ingrained throughout the U.S. foreign assistance program. If we could move away from giving preferential treatment to U.S. producers and service providers, we could save money as well as encourage more local production. This could potentially build greater local resilience. Will there remain a role for U.S. produced food in creating a safety net in case of severe food emergencies? Probably, but we should try to source as much of the food aid as possible from the region, and thereby incur the double effect of boosting local economies, while reducing costs and trade distorting subsidies. Additionally, following through with this reform we could correct the farce of a foreign assistance program that largely benefits domestic sectors. If we want to assist domestic sectors it would be better to do so directly than covertly through U.S. foreign assistance.
  • Behind the Brands (PDF) – A briefing paper from OxFam looking at the role of the major food processors in the overall food production chain, and trying to assess how effectively these companies are towards promoting valuable social outcomes. On the whole their conclusion is that they are not doing enough to ensure that the global food chain is just. Overall the paper is interesting, but leaves a bit to be desired in terms of implementable policy solutions. Their main call is for increased transparency, which is probably a good starting point as there is terrifying ignorance about what goes on in the global food chain. This particular quote I found particularly insightful:
    This consolidation of the market-place has made it difficult for consumers to keep track of who produces which products and the “values‟ behind a brand… But perhaps more troubling is that since the global food system has become so complex, food and beverage companies themselves often know little about their own supply chains. Where a particular product is grown and processed, by whom, and in what conditions are questions few companies can answer accurately and rarely share with consumer

    As consumers and governments become more interested in the social aspects of production, and push for products that represent their own social values producers will feel monetary incentives to demonstrate to consumers the quality of their own supply chain, or at least this is the causal chain that OxFam is hoping for. OxFam makes a good case that it is in the best interest of companies to gain better control of their supply chains, if only to better protect their own brands from embarrassing negative publicity. On the whole I agree with this, but with some caveats. Demonstrating value in the way a good is processed in harder than showing value in the quality of the final good. Consumers and to a lesser extent producers cannot observe the whole production process (producers can’t observe everything their suppliers do), and must rely on others to confirm the value of the production process. To do this there needs to be better certifications that clearly explain to consumers (and producers) the intrinsic values of the way the good are made. Right now there are too many different standards (Green, Sustainable, Fair Trade, Organic, Shade-grown, Local, etc.), which imply certain social values in the production process. However, most consumers have trouble differentiating many of these standards, or knowing which is better. When consumers cannot effectively perceive the quality of the production process, then their actions are formed on poor information, which dilutes the market signals to producers to maintain socially beneficial production.  This paper is pretty timely considering the horse meat scandal in the United Kingdom, and some of the articles I’ve read recently about the mislabeling of seafood in the U.S.

  • The multilingual dividend – An interesting article from the Financial Times looking at the benefits of knowing more than one language. The benefits aren’t just limited to the language, but allow for more active brains, that allow people to look at the world from different perspectives. This improves problem solving, as well as making people more culturally aware and effective in teams. I thought it was particularly interesting that these benefits are not lost if you learn a language later in life, so for those of you interested in picking up another language go for it.
  • Quina: The little cereal that could (World Bank Blog) – Another post about my favorite pseudo-grain. This one has some good info about the global expansion of quinoa. It also speaks about the challenges producers in Bolivia are now facing in buying quinoa due to higher price.
  • ICTs and Literacy (World Bank Blog) – Interesting look at the role ICTs are currently playing in teaching literacy. I also really liked the point Michael Trucano made about the importance of 20th century skills (literacy and numeracy) and not to skip them in a rush to teach 21st century computer and technology skills. There are definitely opportunities to jump ahead to modern technologies, but without traditional skills like literacy people are not able to maximize the utility of these new technologies.

Book Review: Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence

Fist Stick Knife Gun: A Personal History of Violence, by Geoffrey Canada

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think the book brings some interesting points to the table, especially on the impact of the proliferation of firearms, and the way they destroyed the previous order. He makes some good points about how firearms don’t really provide deterrence to violence, but instead increase chaos and instability, which breeds more violence. I do think Canada is a bit too nostalgic about the old days. While he readily accepts the brutality of the streets before the entry of firearms in mass, there is still a nostalgic sentiment of the supposed honor and controls that once existed in the pre-gun society. I think this book is a good companion to Evil: Inside Human Violence and Cruelty, which is a more in depth psychological look at the human roots of violence and cruelty.

Canada doesn’t go into great detail on the solutions to the challenges of poverty and violence and of breaking these vicious cycles. However, this is more due to the shortness of the book, and not due to a lack of practical knowledge of the policies that are being tried and are having some successes. He highlights some of the work that he has done in Boston and New York, but what you get from these positive stories is more an insight into Canada’s overall philosophy of community-centric investments focused on education and responsive services, than a concrete policy proposal. He seems happy to share his experiences as examples of ideas that might work, but is more interesting in trying to get the reader off the sidelines and involved in finding a solution to the problem.

Overall, this is a good look at issues surrounding violence in inner-cities in the U.S. Canada draws on a wealth of personal experiences having grown up in Brooklyn and having dedicated his life to trying to reclaim inner-city communities from endemic violence and poverty. It is interesting and easy to read.

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Identity: Nationality, Race, and Language

Self identity is a complex concept that is difficult to summarize in simple generalities. This reality is especially true when we start thinking about how we self identify, and which communities we believe we belong to. We draw many of our values and traditions from our peers and the communities that we are born into and/or chose to join. Some of these communities are chosen for us. For example, one cannot choose our biological parents, or what country we are born and raised in, and yet these circumstances play a vital role in an individual’s formation. Other communities we are born into, but can change, such as religion, socio-economic class, nationality, and to a certain extent race/ethnicity. Each person is a layered combination of these different communities, and depending on specific circumstances, which of these characteristics we highlight can change dramatically.

For example, I was born in Colombia, but was raised mostly in the US. Although, I grew up in a multicultural and multilingual household with direct familial ties to both countries. Since I can remember, Spanish and English have played a role in my life, but in very partitioned ways. English has for most of my life been  my primary language. I used it both in private and in public, whereas Spanish was at least until my early 20s a private language, which I would use only with family and for my own personal pleasure (reading literature, watching movies, maintaining cultural ties). While I have always identified myself as bilingual, with few exceptions the people I speak English with do not overlap with those I speak Spanish with, even when they too are bilingual, which means my bilingual relationships are fairly limited. This feeling of being a bridge between different communities is undoubtedly a common thing and I’m sure that just about everyone can think examples of where they are the only bridge between 2 different sets of friends/acquaintances. But I find it interesting in the moment, how very different parts of who we are can come out in interactions with different communities.

So what got me thinking about this? A couple of blog posts that I’ve read this past week. The first is a short, but interesting blog post by David McKenzie looking at some of the issues in international politics with dual citizenship (Dual Citizenship and Development). The second is an blog post on the Economist looking at the role of language in immigrant groups (Economist: Immigration and Language).

McKenzie’s piece I think speaks directly to some of my musings about issues of identity. It is easy to feel at home within different identities, and while we share loyalties with different communities this really isn’t a zero-sum game, and nationality is one of many communities within which we can belong.

The post on the Economist I thought was interesting, in that it tries to shine some light on some common misconceptions with respect to language and immigration. I think it is fascinating how generation after generation seem to react to new immigrant groups in almost the same xenophobic way. Afraid that this new incursion will somehow upset an idyllic past that didn’t used to include whatever new group is entering the picture. Of course what is amusing is that each generation glosses over the fact that the current idyllic past was once one considered an unacceptable future by many who did not want to allow the previous wave of immigrants in. Currently, there are many who fear the new Latin invasion and what it would do to the US. There is fear that the US identity will be changed. And there is truth to this fear. The US identity will undoubtedly change, but this change is inevitable. Cultures are fluid and constantly changing as new problems and ideas arise, societies adapt and evolve. I don’t believe there is much concern for the U.S. becoming a permanently bilingual country, as I expect that over a couple generations Latin immigrants like immigrant groups before them will try to maintain cultural ties to their past, but will adopt English for most of their needs. While I don’t think that the US is in any risk of becoming a dual language nation, I do wonder if that is such a great thing. Wouldn’t it be a competitive advantage for the country as a whole to be multilingual. In a world that is becoming more connected, I would think that speaking multiple languages would something to strive for and not reject out of hand.