Monday, June 20, 2011

Robert Heinlein: Poverty is the normal condition of man

We know enough about poverty and development to know the broader policies that work, but more importantly the many that do not. As Glenn Reynolds points out, this is a dictum worth repeating (Instapundit):

Throughout history, poverty is the normal condition of man. Advances which permit this norm to be exceeded — here and there, now and then — are the work of an extremely small minority, frequently despised, often condemned, and almost always opposed by all right-thinking people. Whenever this tiny minority is kept from creating, or (as sometimes happens) is driven out of a society, the people then slip back into abject poverty.

This is known as “bad luck.”

Friday, June 17, 2011

A definition of "work" to strive for

Response to question from the SwissMiss by iconic Swiss Designer Jost Hochuli:

Swissmiss: “What’s your definition of work?”
Jost Hochuli: “70% pleasure!”

Paul Graham: Ignore Competition, Focus on Improving Lives

I suspect there's a bit of a selection bias (in that he's only ever invested in one company that was ultimately killed off by a larger competitor), but it's a point that I agree with and a video worth watching: YouTube (Video embed on this disabled - 14 minutes).

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Bjorn Lomborg: Our lifestyle is unsustainable but that's irrelevant

An interesting read - Lomborg argues we consistently underestimate our capacity to innovate (Newsweek via Instapundit):

Climate alarmists and campaigning environmentalists argue that the industrialized countries of the world have made sizable withdrawals on nature’s fixed allowance, and unless we change our ways, and soon, we are doomed to an abrupt end. Take the recent proclamation from the United Nations Environment Program, which argued that governments should dramatically cut back on the use of resources. The mantra has become commonplace: our current way of living is selfish and unsustainable. We are wrecking the world. We are gobbling up the last resources. We are cutting down the rainforest. We are polluting the water. We are polluting the air. We are killing plants and animals, destroying the ozone layer, burning the world through our addiction to fossil fuels, and leaving a devastated planet for future generations.

In other words, humanity is doomed.

It is a compelling story, no doubt. It is also fundamentally wrong, and the consequences are severe. Tragically, exaggerated environmental worries—and the willingness of so many to believe them—could ultimately prevent us from finding smarter ways to actually help our planet and ensure the health of the environment for future generations.

Because, our fears notwithstanding, we actually get smarter. Although Westerners were once reliant on whale oil for lighting, we never actually ran out of whales. Why? High demand and rising prices for whale oil spurred a search for and investment in the 19th-century version of alternative energy. First, kerosene from petroleum replaced whale oil. We didn’t run out of kerosene, either: electricity supplanted it because it was a superior way to light our planet.

For generations, we have consistently underestimated our capacity for innovation. There was a time when we worried that all of London would be covered with horse manure because of the increasing use of horse-drawn carriages. Thanks to the invention of the car, London has 7 million inhabitants today. Dung disaster averted.

Monday, June 13, 2011

On Inspiration and Just Getting Things Done

via swissmiss, Chuck Close:

Inspiration is for amateurs; the rest of us just show up and get to work.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

On the enlightenment of organic farming

From a comment on SmallDeadAnimals:

One German organic farm has killed twice as many people as the Fukushima nuclear disaster and the Gulf Oil spill combined.
Time to invoke the precautionary principle? (Washington Times via SmallDeadAnimals)

Friday, June 10, 2011

On the lightbulb ban

Yep, pretty much (Virginia Postrel @Bloomberg via Instapundit):

The bulb ban makes sense only one of two ways: either as an expression of cultural sanctimony, with a little technophilia thrown in for added glamour, or as a roundabout way to transfer wealth from the general public to the few businesses with the know-how to produce the light bulbs consumers don’t really want to buy.

Foreign Aid in Haiti: Oops

I didn't plan this juxtaposition - but this highlights the difference between aid and commerce. The lack of development is not from the lack of resources.

For private firms, the money runs out and they try something different, charities, not-for-profits often don't have similar constraints - or are at least not bound to the same level of accountability and often do the same things. What's worse is that the impact of botched aid are so much worse than failed firms. One aid practitioner in Haiti argues it's time to give up and after 200 years of attempted assistance, Haiti is a "massive debacle" (TakesfromtheHood via Beata):

I think it’s time for Aid to leave Haiti.

I’ve certainly defended Aid enough on this blog, including different things about the earthquake response in Haiti. In this case, though, I see the earthquake response in Haiti as simply the icing on the cake. Many have said that Haiti was a disaster before the earthquake, and I’d agree. What is said less often, is that Aid also was broken in Haiti before the earthquake. Depending on which numbers you crunch, and how you crunch them, Haiti is only incrementally worse off now than it was on January 9, 2010. I do not say this to in any way compliment the combined, inter-agency relief response, but rather to highlight just how bad things were pre-earthquake, despite decades of foreign assistance. It’s time to call this what it is: a massive debacle.

I honestly think that the very best thing for Haiti would be for us all to leave. I do not (yet) believe that Aid is broken globally. But it is certainly broken in Haiti. I sincerely believe that in the grand scheme of things we are not doing Haiti any real favors by staying on. We need to get out. All of us. All of the foreign governments with their incentives and their politicians who visit and make speeches about “Haiti’s bright future.” All of the UN and INGOs with their massive compounds and their VHF radios and their strategies. All of the hippy architects with their houses made out of recycled trash, the BOGO entrepreneurs with their GIK dumping, the bright-eyed innovators with their “platforms” and their earth-friendly gadgets. For heavens’ sake, all of the church groups with their matching T-shirts and their pet orphanages.
I should note that having worked in development, I recognize how difficult this conclusion is. It's advocating effectively abandoning friends and people who you have struggled to help. It's also recognizing what a failure your time has been in building something sustainable. But it is doing so in hopes of something better.

Groupon in China: Oops

Remarkable - am sure this would make a great textbook case study of what not to do at some point. No idea what they were thinking, but I have to imagine they have some amazing offices (TechCrunch):

This all matters greatly for potential investors, because as the S1 showed, much of Groupon’s warchest of venture capital has gone to its aggressive international expansion. As we reported last week, Groupon’s U.S operations lost only $10.4 million last year, whereas the international operations lost $170.6 million.

Much of that has gone to China. Five days after Groupon’s January near-$1 billion venture round was raised, a job board advertising Groupon positions in China boasted “near endless” resources from that round to build out the office. Reading that ad and looking at how Groupon has done in China, one could argue not all that money was, shall we say, judiciously spent. A more blunt way of putting it would be Groupon’s China team made drunken sailors look fiscally responsible.

Despite Mason’s blithe statements to the contrary on stage at All Things D, China is not going well for Groupon. In fact, by all accounts, Groupon has made every classic Silicon-Valley-Web-company-enters-China mistake in the book: Sparring with its local partners, putting foreigners who have little understanding of the local market in charge, and focusing hiring on bankers and international MBAs, not locals.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

TED: Redefining Success, Finding Happiness

A thoughtful (and witty) TED Talk by Alain de Botton who points out among many other things, that our increasingly egalitarian society means that we're also more likely to be envious of others (via swissmiss):

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

(Unintended?) Consequences...

A study in what happens when you have a government and bureaucrats brazenly and opportunistically take over private assets for personal gain - How to Steal a Russian Airport (NYT):

In truth, as long as the plutocrats thumb their noses at the rule of law and steal corporate assets with impunity, no Russian company is going to get the price their assets may deserve. That’s the real market condition. It won’t change until the practice ends.

For that to happen, though, the plutocrats would have to start caring about their country — and not just themselves.
Meanwhile in related news - The Washington Post factchecks President Obama's speech on the auto industry bailout (via Instapundit).

Monday, June 06, 2011

World Bank: Economic Freedom, Civil & Political Liberties Cause Better Economies

Color me not shocked. From a study at the World Bank Dan Mitchell (via Instapundit):

Reviewing the economic performance—good and bad—of more than 100 countries over the past 30 years, this paper finds new empirical evidence supporting the idea that economic freedom and civil and political liberties are the root causes of why some countries achieve and sustain better economic outcomes. For instance, a one unit change in the initial level of economic freedom between two countries (on a scale of 1 to 10) is associated with an almost 1 percentage point differential in their average long-run economic growth rates. In the case of civil and political liberties, the long-term effect is also positive and significant with a differential of 0.3 percentage point. In addition to the initial conditions, the expansion of freedom conditions over time (economic, civil, and political) also positively influences long-run economic growth. In contrast, no evidence was found that the initial level of entitlement rights or their change over time had any significant effects on long-term per capita income, except for a negative effect in some specifications of the model. These results tend to support earlier findings that beyond core functions of government responsibility—including the protection of liberty itself—the expansion of the state to provide for various entitlements, including so-called economic, social, and cultural rights, may not make people richer in the long run and may even make them poorer.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

Contrasts in courage

For those who may have not have seen the story of the 21-year old parliamentary page who, following the recent federal election where the Harper government achieved a majority government, decided to stand up with a sign that said "Stop Harper" and called for an "Arab Spring", a contrast in courage (Terry Glavin via SmallDeadAnimals):

Brigette DePape: The 21-year-old graduate from the University of Ottawa made headlines for holding up a protest sign that read 'Stop Harper' at the start of the Throne Speech: "This country needs a Canadian version of an Arab Spring." DePape has since received several job offers and is considering taking a position with the Public Service Alliance of Canada.

Hamza Ali al-Khateeb: A 13-year-old Syrian boy who tagged along at an antigovernment protest in the town of Saida a few weeks ago, was arrested, was burned, beaten, lacerated and given electroshocks. His jaw and kneecaps were shattered. He was shot in both arms. When his father saw the state of Hamza’s body, he passed out.
Yes, because a Canadian Conservative government is exactly like the Syrian dictatorship. In a way I hope that DePaper gets hired by PSAC (a union) - as the precedent has been set - though by the very job offer I wonder if it has been set already and that in the coming years PSAC will get everything they deserve. Perhaps in a truly just world DePape would be exported to protest in a similar way in Syria though I don't think I would be so cruel.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Taking the Capital out of Capitalism

Technology is making prices and value more transparent allowing for the development of new business models that rent out excess capacity, and as a corollary, making the need for capital less important than it was before (WSJ):

A second wave of online rental sites is catching fire with consumers and investors, with start-ups like spare-room market Airbnb Inc., textbook lender Chegg Inc. and fashion outfit Rent the Runway following the success of pioneers like Netflix Inc. and Zipcar Inc.

While many of the companies took off during the frugal days of the recession, they are continuing to do well in a climate where consumers remain cautious about paying full price for things they don't need or want to own.
More on how the web is bringing liquidity and transparency to previously illiquid assets (TechCrunch).