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the case for intervention in the bottom billion

In the Bottom Billion, Paul Collier focused on the various traps that ensnare the poorest of societies, preventing the development that much of the world has enjoyed over the past thirty-odd years. Collier continues this line of thinking in War, Guns and Votes, where he emphasizes that the rise of democracy in the bottom billion nation-states does not help these societies, but rather often hurts: “competitive elections without restraints will frustrate internal cooperation, and presidential sovereignty will frustrate external cooperation.”  The political economics of the bottom billion dictator/president provide perverse incentives for state leaders, leaving little hope for the small, fragmented societies to enjoy the public goods of security and accountability.

Paul Collier, in War, Guns and Votes:

The overarching problem of the bottom billion is that the typical society is at the same time both too large and too small. It is too large in the sense that it is too diverse for cooperation to produce public goods. It is too small in the sense that it cannot reap the scale economies of the key public good, security. Read the rest of this entry »


Filed under: General Welfare, World

why you’re stuck in traffic, nowhere to park

Tom Vanderbilt, from Traffic:

In other words, cities should set prices on parking meters at a level high enough so that an area’s spots are only 85 percent occupied at any time. The ideal price, says Shoup, is the “lowest price that will avoid shortages.” Spaces with no meters at all, in a city like New York, are total anathema to Shoup. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economic Policy,

ascent of money in two paragraphs

Niall Ferguson covers a vast number of topics in The Ascent of Money (to a fault in the book’s latter half), but below I have two paragraphs that sum up what I took from his book:

For example, the Renaissance created such a boom in the market for art and architecture because Italian bankers like the Medici made fortunes by applying Oriental mathematics to money. The Dutch Republic prevailed over the Habsburg Empire because having the world’s first modern stock market was financially preferable to having the world’s biggest silver mine. The problems of the French monarchy could not be resolved without a revolution because a convicted Scots murderer had wrecked the French financial system by unleashing the first stock market bubble and bust. It was Nathan Rothschild as much as the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. It was financial folly, a self-destructive cycle of defaults and devaluations, that turned Argentina from the world’s sixth-richest country in the 1880s into the inflation-ridden basket case of the 1980s. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Economic Policy, General Welfare, World,

the hot-hand fallacy

Of all the things that people are terribly wrong about, sports may reign supreme. Perhaps because most have played a sport (at a terribly uncompetitive level), or because of the ubiquitous media commentary by fat, uneducated former players, the average American is thoroughly convinced he understands how their game of choice works, why a team is losing, why a player is struggling, etc. What’s more, the fan’s understanding will sound a lot like an ancient mystic reading tea leaves.  “Of course the Lakers won the NBA championship, did you see the look on Kobe’s face in the finals? He’s not smiling and has a meaner look than last year.” (While a made-up quote, that was indeed a real topic of discussion for those who missed it.) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Cognition,

normal accident theory: explaining outliers

Leonard Mlodinow explains outliers better than Malcolm Gladwell ever could in The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives. For example:

That string of events spurred Yale sociologist Charles Perrow to create a new theory of accidents, in which is codified the central argument of this chapter: in complex systems (among which I count our lives) we should expect that minor factors we can usually ignore will by chance sometimes cause major incidents. In his theory Perrow recognized that modern systems are made up of thousands of parts, including fallible human decision makers, which interrelate in ways that are, like Laplace’s atoms, impossible to track and anticipate individually. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Cognition,

making the grade(s)

Leonard Mlodinow’s The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives (NY Times review) takes on the absurdity of the grading process below.

For instance, a group of researchers at Clarion University of Pennsylvania collected 120 term papers and treated them with a degree of scrutiny you can be certain your own child’s work will never receive: each term paper was scored independently by eight faculty members. The resulting grades, on a scale from A to F, sometimes varied by two or more grades. On average they differed by nearly one grade. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Cognition, Education

bad education: math edition

My primary and secondary school teachers are very lucky that Paul Lockhart didn’t write his Mathematician’s Lament when I was still in school. I can only imagine the hell I would have raised with his article in-hand. Lockhart is a mathematician at Saint Ann’s School, where he teaches K-12. Recently, a blistering critique of mathematics education he wrote in 2002 was re-published. I would say that much of his criticism could be applied to a varying degree to ALL classes, but math may indeed be the most egregious offender. (I really hope that in 100 years we look at our current educational system the way we look back at the practice of medicine from 100+ years ago.)  Below are my favorite passages; believe it or not, I tried to parse them, but there’s a lot there. I’d suggest reading the original, as the whole thing is good. For example, I have ommitted the part where Lockhart theorizes what art class would look like if taught like math, as well as the type of mathematicians the current system creates (Lockhart’s not a fan).

Lockhart believes mathematical ideas to be “beautiful little poems of thought … sonnets of pure reason.”

This is why it is so heartbreaking to see what is being done to mathematics in school. This rich and fascinating adventure of the imagination has been reduced to a sterile set of “facts” to be memorized and procedures to be followed. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Education

option value of peace

Post-conflict situations are fragile; in the past around 40 percent of them have reverted to violence within a decade, accounting for around half of all the world’s civil wars. (See earlier Collier book byte: Violence, Growth and Liberalism.)

Paul Collier, in War, Guns and Votes:

I could think of two other possibilities. The first is what is known as over-the-horizon guarantees. It is what the British government is doing in Sierra Leone. For the past few years there have been only eighty British troops stationed in the country, but the government has been given a ten-year undertaking that if there is trouble, the troops will be flown in overnight. Perhaps this has helped stabilize the society. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized,

city growth as a function of transport time

If cities power economic growth, then technological improvements that allow for larger cities just may be important. Tom Vanderbilt offers some historical insight in Traffic:

The noted Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti has taken this idea one step further and pointed out that throughout history, well before the car, humans have sought to keep their commute at about one hour.

When walking was our only commuting option, an average walking speed of 5 kilometers per hour meant that the daily commute to and from the cave would allow one to cover an area of roughly 7 square miles (or 20 square kilometers). This, remarks Marchetti, is exactly the mean area of Greek villages to this day. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized,

snippets from savannah

General James Oglethorpe settled Savannah in 1733 as a slave-free colony with the idea of giving the “worthy poor” of Britain — many of whom were in debtor’s prison — a second chance. Oglethorpe would die soon thereafter (and slavery would be instated), but not before the philanthropist initiated construction of Savannah on a grid system, oriented around more than twenty squares (one of which you saw Forrest Gump sitting aside with a box of chocolates.) Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Uncategorized,