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Saturday, January 31, 2004

Outsourcing again... 

I'm not up to speed on the outsourcing literature but I several points jumped (fell) out at me from Geoffrey's post below...

3) Amazing, too, how much more sympathetic people are when a job is lost to a foreigner versus to a machine. The huge increases in productivity made possible by IT, mechanization and other technological upgrades have always cost jobs, but few claim that we should role back that process analogous to protectionist arguments for roling back outsourcing.

I assume the first sentence is a bit of a typo: he intended to write "Amazing, too, how much less sympathetic people are when a job is lost to a foreigner than a machine." Beyond that, though, I think this is a good point. There seems to be no good reason why one type of productivty gain (job loss) should be seen as OK, or even good, while another should create such problems.

5) Not noted in the article, but perhaps as important, is expanding the base of shareholders, or owners of assets, within our economy. Many of the dividends of outsourcing accrue to these parties, so finding ways to distribute those benefits to a wider investing class would seem valuable. Wealth building strategies, such as targeted increased incentives for personal saving and investment, or perhaps the use of employee stock options triggered by outsourcing's productivity gains, might enable greater numbers of individuals here to profit. I wonder if it's possible to "protect" our workers not by cravenly holding onto jobs in a way that makes businesses less competitive and less capable of achieving the very success we want for them, but by making more owners out of our workers in the first place. There asset would be a useful hedge against potential disrupted employment.

In theory I think this idea is fine, in practice bogus. The basic problem is that you (an employee) needs a lot of equity in a company before this equity can be a significant hedge against job loss. Put another way, the amount of money I need to invest before my investment income exceeds my wage income is really significant. Stock options, unless you're a programmer at an early internet company, seem unlikely to match what most middle class folks mage in wages.

Friday, January 30, 2004

Anti-globalization has lost its voice while Outsourcing Roars? 

Tom Friedman writes that the Davos World Economic Forum was devoid of protesters' chaos this year for the first time in several years. This, he posits, is because developing countries (led by India and China) are beginning to grow quickly through economic integration and their own globalization in a way the anti-globalizers could never create through any alternative growth strategy.

Despite always sympathizing with the worries of the protesters, I feel like they are ultimately on the wrong side of this stuff: no matter how much the majority of the protesters decried the homogeneity of global capitalism or the assault on indigenous ways of life that seemed more dignified (in their poverty), it was never forgivable to promote policies that would deny countries the ability to secure a better life for their citizens through more and better jobs. Pieces of the anti-globalization agenda, such as debt forgiveness, concerns over the extension of intellectual property, protectionism in developed countries (see agribusiness) and concerns over the ability of poor countries to selectively protect emergent business sectors rather than throwing them to the wolves of global competition, these ideas were never misplaced. But too often, the movement for these important freedoms
(for which the fight need continue) got shunted into an anti-development rhetoric that was perversely paternalistic, not to mention at cross-purposes with their intention of constraining some of the power of developed economies in developing countries. As Nicolas Kristoff has noted in the Times, even "sweatshops" is a more complicated issue than the do-good multiculturalism of the anti-globalizers would allow. In this case, more "sweatshops" (or, if you prefer, a factory job attached to a definite wage) might be a good thing. Especially when compared with the typical life working to death while salvaging on a garbage heap.

I won't celebrate the silence of anti-globalizers. They have an important position and their presence has made a great deal of difference from the international institutions on down -- even if their theoretical position is at odds with the best chance for the global South. If anything, Friedman's point underscores how much of a difference it makes to global discourse when greater numbers of people share in the economic opportunity that the world's economy is able to generate.


Outsourcing is terrific?! 

Clay Risen's most recent piece in The New Republic describes the current handwringing over increasing number of service industry and high tech skill positions migrating to developing countries. Politicians have begun to debate and demagogue this issue. He argues that things are not likely to turn out as bad as is being made out. Several points:

1) The IT industry was clamoring for more H1 visas for high-skilled foreigners for most of the Tech boom. There were numerous reports about a shortage of Americans qualified to fill such positions, nor did companies presumably mind foreigners' willingness to work as entry-level programmers at somewhat discounted wages. At the same time, as is pointed out, it's not at all clear that the pace of outsourcing during those years was any slower than it is now. In both cases, it's amazing how fear changes everything. When you're worried the pie is shrinking, all perspective goes out the window.

2) At the end of the article a comparison is drawn between the likely effects of a protectionist U.S. and the restrictive employment zones and aging populace of developed European economies. Such policies may lead to higher unemployment and economic stagnation in the medium to long run.

1) and 2) make me think that interesting work could be done around the connection between immigration policies, trade policies and growth/unemployment.

3) Amazing, too, how much more sympathetic people are when a job is lost to a foreigner versus to a machine. The huge increases in productivity made possible by IT, mechanization and other technological upgrades have always cost jobs, but few claim that we should role back that process analogous to protectionist arguments for roling back outsourcing.

4) Obviously replacing lost wages in the short term and worker (re)training afterward is important, and Clay's inclusion of a policy proposal to require, as with unemployment compensation, that outsourcing companies contribute to some of these costs seems sensible.

5) Not noted in the article, but perhaps as important, is expanding the base of shareholders, or owners of assets, within our economy. Many of the dividends of outsourcing accrue to these parties, so finding ways to distribute those benefits to a wider investing class would seem valuable. Wealth building strategies, such as targeted increased incentives for personal saving and investment, or perhaps the use of employee stock options triggered by outsourcing's productivity gains, might enable greater numbers of individuals here to profit. I wonder if it's possible to "protect" our workers not by cravenly holding onto jobs in a way that makes businesses less competitive and less capable of achieving the very success we want for them, but by making more owners out of our workers in the first place. There asset would be a useful hedge against potential disrupted employment.

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Last Summer's European Heat Wave and Why Global Warming Might Not Be the Big Problem -  

Last summer was one of the hottest in Europe in recent memory (about six degrees hotter than the average from 1960-1990) and the heat had all sorts of consequences -- not the least among which were the deaths of thousands of French citizens (mostly elderly). One school of thought might suggest that this heatwave is an inevitable consequence of global warming: that with globally averaged warming we should expect to see, you know, warm weather.

Christoph Schar and others claim this just isn't true. They argue that, even if you account for the general warming trend, you can only explain last summer's heat wave if the climate system is getting more variable while it warms m(see Reuter's story here . The paper is available here (it unfortunately requires a subscription to the journal Nature)).

So why is this important? While global warming gets alot of the press its important to remember that it's always globally averaged warming. Clearly humans don't live in a globally averaged world (perhaps unless your a business type who spends all his time travelling - in which case you probably principally experience the climate of office buildings/airplanes) so what we'd really like to know is what happens to local climate while the globe is warming. Schar's paper argues that what's happening to the climate now, and what will likely happen to the climate increasingly often in the future, is an increase in variability: on average warmer but a substantial increase in both really hot and really cool days. If this is true it has critical consequences. If you're a retailer trying to predict what sort of clothes you will stock for the winter clearly you'd like to have some sense of whether the winter will be blamy or bitterly cold. If you sell heating oil you may go bankrupt if you guess wrong and purchase a lot of oil during a particularly warm year. If you're a farmer, clearly a climate that oscillates substantially from year to year makes it much more difficult to decide what would be appropriate to plant. The list goes on, but you get the idea. Even though the U.S. economy isn't agrarian climate influences it in all sorts of ways. And mostly what's bad are the same sorts of events Schar thinks are already happening: strong year to year variability.

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Why US foreign policy in Iraq is much more difficult than most in the administration admit... 

Blogger Juan Cole (who spends most of his time as Professor of Modern Middle East and South Asian History at the University of Michigan) wrote an excellent piece on the Iraqi Shiites last fall. The gist is that there are fairly good historical/cultural reasons why the Iraqi Shiites (supposedly the linchpin of the administration's policy in the Middle Eaat) may be bad US allies.

Thursday, January 22, 2004

I'm getting off my cell phone right now!!!! -  

According to these Swedish researchers talking on a cell phone for as short a time as two hours produced brain damage in rats (link via Chris Genovese).

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

The Distance Between Priests and Laity in the Catholic Church -  

Based on survey work he conducted over the past 20 years, Andrew Greeley (priest and sociologist) argues in this months Atlantic Monthly that the american priesthood is characterized by two intersecting social phenomen...

1. A younger priesthood, which came of age in a post Vatican II world, who is relatively conservative/reactionary (i.e. believes strongly in the importance of clerical authority and is socially conservative).

2. A priesthood which is generally distant from the concerns of the laity. The money quote along these lines...

Priests as a group are simply not in touch with the laity. In the 2002 Los Angeles Times study only thirty-six of 1,854 priests identified clericalism as one of the major problems facing the Church's laity. Astonishingly, only forty-seven priests thought the sex-abuse scandals worth mentioning. For some reason, priests of all generations are unable or unwilling to see the clergy as responsible for the departure of disaffected laypersons—a problem that today plagues the U.S. Church.

To explain the laity's dissatisfaction with the Church, priests from all generations tend to trot out the usual litany: individualism, materialism, secularism, lack of faith, lack of prayer, lack of commitment, media bias, hedonism, sexual freedom, feminism, family breakdown, lack of education, and apathy. The advantage of such explanations is that they free priests from any personal responsibility and put the blame on factors over which the clergy cannot be expected to exercise much control. The rectory thus becomes an isolated citadel battered by cultural forces, which encourages precisely the sort of closed, band-of-brothers mentality that the Vatican II reforms were designed to break down.


I went to a Jesuit high school (Jesuit's being historically liberal Catholic priests) from 1988-1992 and observed the first point then: younger priests tended to be relatively dogmatic and socially conservative, older ones the opposite. The second point is much more complex, but I think, something I have felt since numerous sexual harassment charges against priest started surfacing as well. I felt then that if only the church could have made an institutional admission of guilt, coupled, perhaps with internal sociological studies to try and understand whether something in the culture of the priesthood was causing the problem, that much of the anguish of the laity could have been avoided. It's tough, even now, at least for me, to see anything but Greeley's "band of brothers" in the Catholic hierarchy and it seems a tragic waste.

Annals of Philanthropy 1. -  

I dislike what McDonald's (and fast food franchises more generally) has done to american cultural life but the money the Krocs made has sure been well spent. Most recently it became clear that Joan Kroc (who died last fall) has left 1.5 billion dollars to the Salvation Army. This is great.

Friday, January 16, 2004

Driving Across the Tundra -  

Artic oil exploration and extraction is conducted (mostly) over seasonal roads of ice. In theory this allows construction of the infrastructure necessary to get oil out of the ground and too market without the ecological consequences of really long roads.

In what is one of the larger ironies of the new year (yes I know it's a young year but I expect this one to stick around) global warming (which is particularly acute at high latitudes), presumably caused by increased oil consumption, seems to lead to a smaller season in which the ice roads are solid and, thus, oil can be extracted. If you're pro oil exploration, but just interested in minimizing its impacts, you're obviously interested in developing criteria to understand the influence of vehicles on tundra. This effort has lead to some interesting (but bloody cold) work in the artic which made it into a recent New York Times here.

Wednesday, January 14, 2004

Challenges to contemporary ethics in no particular order (almost none of which will be addressed by the academy) 

Perhaps Our Take will develop some kind of preliminary primer on the following:

1) Business ethics. Corporate governance is just one issue. The whole foundation of a shareholder system in which owners’ liability is limited, growth is emphasized over profits, and workers share unequally in the profits needs to be analyzed and challenged.

2) All science-related ethics. Just because we can, should we? And whose responsibility is it to ensure that someone is performing research that tackles the problems of the day? There are risks when technical know-how outpaces normative understanding, or when understanding takes a back seat to current deleterious practices, or when public health is not understood as a public trust.

3) Global vs. local. An eternal conundrum in practical ethics, perhaps, but somehow this seems a more urgent question in a rapidly globalizing, post terror-attacks-within-the-United-States world. In any event, many of today’s policy questions hearken directly back to this nagging issue.
a. Ethical content of proximity? Is the guy on my street corner more worthy of concern than a guy in Cambodia? What about 10 Cambodians?
b. Statecraft and the basis for a just society. Where should the idea of sovereignty be headed? Is the state the appropriate guarantor of human rights and opportunity? Special status/obligations for superpowers?
c. Open society vs. security?
d. Protectionism vs. Free trade (our workers/farmers or theirs? Or, how the world will look once everyone’s exploited, all exotic vacation spots look eerily the same, and none of us have social security? Just kidding. This is a big issue, also linked to (1) I think.)
e. Environmental protection and/or labor standards vs. development and/or profit/rising standard of living?

4) The ethics of planning for the future and making up for lost time. What do we owe future generations? To what extent are we obligated to right past wrongs even if we really didn't have much say in the matter at the time?

Tuesday, January 13, 2004

Climate Change and Future Extinction -  

Based mostly on empirical observations of species density in existing habitat, Chris Thomas and others have offered (through three different methods) model results which suggest 18-35% of extant species may be extinct (or irreversibly commited toward extinction) in the next fifty years (see also this perspective on the research appearing in the same issue of Nature). These are big numbers and further butress my suggestion, in response to Michael Crichton, that there is a compelling social interest in mitigating climate change.

As might be expected the Thomas paper has been the subject of a lot of controversey. Some of the relevant issues have already been raised in this excellent post by Carl Zimmer. I'll flesh out a few more of the relevant issues in subsequent posts.

Thursday, January 08, 2004

Michael Crichton: a well meaning guy gone astray on consensus science and our changing climate... 

Several days ago Glenn Reynolds linked to a talk Michael Crichton had given at Caltech early last year. The same talk was quoted by George Taylor over at TechCentralStation late last month. So what gives? Why the sudden run on Crichton in these libertarian quarters?

Crichton's speech, called Aliens Cause Global Warming (a kind of cute title which made global warming skeptical types much more likely to cite the speech), is a rebellion against the notion of consensus science. He views such science as the SETI project (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) and predictions of nuclear winter as cases in which policy goals managed to intrude into the realm of science before (or in the absence of) any factual knowledge. This fundamental dishonesty, construing issues about which uncertainty exists as definite, profoundly hurts both science and the relationship between science and the larger culture in which it is immersed. Global warming comes into the picture because he views it as the intellectural progeny of SETI and nuclear winter science: special interest groups/desirable policy aims have succeeded in politicizing the scientific playing field to such a degree that individuals who dispute global warming scenarios are professionally demonized.

Where to begin...

I take large issue with the specifics of Crichton's claims regarding the degree to which we know humans are warming the globe. I don't want to address that here, though, mostly because you can hear that argument elsewhere too (David Appell spent a large chunk of this fall posting on some of these related issues). The point I do want to make lies in Crichton's ignorance of probabilities.

First, though, an admission. Intellectually honest (as in my experience are most) climate scientists tell you that we don't know what the climate is going to do. We certainly don't understand the climate as well as mechanical engineers understand, e.g., how to build a house that doesn't fall down. There's fairly good reasons why this is so which can be boiled down to two main points: 1. The climate is much more complicated than a house. 2. We have only one of them so we can't experiement with the climate and gain some empirical sense of how it behaves (or rather we can - we're doing it right now -- but it's slow and we can really only do it once).

The question, then, is given what we know about the physics and chemistry of the earth's surface is there reason to think that it's possible that we're changing the climate? Is there reason to think that the fashion in which we're changing the climate is serious enough to demand policy changes? Serious in this context can mean two things: firstly whether the changes we can induce are large enough in magnitude to matter and secondly whether they're abrupt enough to matter. Clearly our choice of the correct policy response to changing climate has to hinge on some evaluation of these two questions: a strong policy reponse to global warming might be justified if the harm were very likely, but only moderate magnitude, or if the harm were less likely but the consequences much more serious. This logic is the same sort of logic that underlies insurance premiums. We pay the same sort of premium (roughly) for protection against a really serous hazard that is relatively unlikely (e.g. hurricaine induced property damage in Virginia) as for a less serious hazard which is much more likely (e.g. a car accident).

Look. Crichton's right that scientists should never stop asking questions (there are no facts in science after all, just theory which agrees with observation). But this doesn't mean we shouldn't take out insurance on our changing planet. This doesn't mean we shouldn't ackowledge that humans have it pretty good (climate wise) for the last 10,000 years and that it is in our interest to keep it that way.

MORE LINKS: For years climate change skepticists contended that most climate change was too slow to concern humans (thousands of years). Thankfully that view has now mostly been put to rest through examination of chemical records of climate change over the last 450,000 years (changes of large magnitude 5-30 degrees C happen in decades). Much of that work is summarized in a National Academy of Sciences report available here (pay no attention to the purchase options, you can print out the book chapter by chapted after clicking on the link if you'd like).

Tuesday, January 06, 2004

Dept of Earth Shattering Revelations: 1. Skipping Stones -  

Let's say you wanted to skip a stone. Let's say you wanted to set a new world record for number of skips (let's just further say, while we're saying, that your ambition is limited). You might be curoius as to what is the best angle for your stone to strike the water. If you had access to some resources one thing you might do is to build a machine which would fire metal (stone like) disks at a tank of water at different angles or velocities and monitor the results. Christophe Clanet and friends did so and found that 20 degrees is the magic angle.

It might be fair to ask, in light of this empirical revelation, what's actually going on here. Clanet et al. don't have a theoretical argument that explains the 20 degrees but it is clear that this angle allows a stone to hit the water for the least amount of time (they measured this with a high speed video camera). Hitting for the smallest time period allows less of the stones energy to dissipate with each collision, therefore giving it more energy to continue moving parallel to the water and into skipping glory.

UPDATE: Chris Genovese writes about the same paper here with a couple of interesting extra links.


Thursday, January 01, 2004

Just when I thought I wouldn't read NRO -  

I get suckered in by a link from Oxblog who are tooting their own horn (but I enjoy their stuff so I think they should) to Dennis Boyles Europress Review Best of 2004 column. The key part of the column , at least from my point of view, comes at the end under the generic heading The worst's best. The worst's best is, apparently, the BBC car show Top Gear. I don't see this show in central Pennsylvania but after checking out the show's web site and Boyles' description (follows below) I'm now a believer...

...One recent program had British scientists doing tire burns — "the smartest men in Britain doing the dumbest thing known to man" or something similar — and another was devoted to testing the durability of a Toyota pickup — the sort of trucks that, fitted with a set of wooden grates, serve as public transport in much of Africa. The Toyota was bought used for a song, and looked it. It was then driven into a tree, down a set of concrete steps, tied to a boat ramp, washed out to sea, left on the sandy beach when the tide went out, and set afire. After each event, the truck started up and ran. Finally, the thing was parked atop a high-rise building, which was then demolished. When the dust cleared, the Toyota drove off into legend...

Some Advice to Paul Bremer -  

Michael Degnan has some advice for Paul Bremer at McSweeney's. His key insight is that it would be easier to govern Iraq effectively if someone temporarily installed a despot in the US (we can switch back to democracy later). His argument is a bit more empirically based than most on this issue.

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