Sunday, July 24, 2016

Throwing cold water on those who threw cold water

Recall the ice-bucket challenge?  I do.  I declined the challenge. And blogged (here, here, for instance) about why those stunts of feel-goodism are distractions.

Now, James Surowiecki writes in the New Yorker that people like me are mistaken.

But, I am not discouraged that I might be wrong.  This, too, is an example of what I love about the honest intellectual life--we constantly evaluate our own convictions with logic and evidence.  And then we let the proverbial chips fall where they may.  Btw, do not confuse this approach with the demagoguery behind changing one's position depending on the political fortunes.

Surowiecki writes:
Critics fretted that the exercise amplified people’s tendency to donate for emotional reasons, rather than after careful evaluation of where money can do the most good. Some argued that it would divert donations from diseases that afflict many more people than the six thousand who receive a diagnosis of A.L.S. every year. People even attacked ice-bucketeers for wasting water.
Yes, I was one of them.  Well, except that I did not complain about wasting water.

So, two years after the summer of people posting videos of pouring ice-cold water on themselves, Surowiecki reminds people like me:
All these critiques had the same underlying theme: the faddishness of the challenge undermined its value. This makes intuitive sense, but is it true? Actually, no. Silly though the Ice Bucket Challenge may seem now, it had far-reaching effects. 
Really?  I understand if money was raised in plenty for ALS research and other activities.  But, it didn't decrease contributions to other causes?
If the success of the challenge had come at the expense of other charities, ambivalence might be justified. But there’s almost no evidence that this was the case. According to Giving U.S.A., individual donations in the U.S. rose almost six per cent in 2014, which doesn’t suggest any cannibalization effect. Indeed, it’s likely that the very nature of the challenge, which belongs to a category known to anthropologists as “extreme ritual,” made people more openhanded. 
So, other giving continued on unaffected? Hey, I am relieved and excited.  One of the ways in which this human attribute was understood will interest Indian readers more than the rest, I would think:
Dimitris Xygalatas, an anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who has studied the effects of such rituals, ran a fascinating experiment with people who were undergoing kavadi—a Hindu ritual that commonly involves piercing the skin with sharp objects and then making a long procession while carrying heavy objects. Xygalatas found that people who did kavadi, and even people who just joined in the procession, donated more to charity than people in a control group. And those who gave the most painful descriptions of the experience donated the most. As a result, Xygalatas has suggested that the Ice Bucket Challenge, far from stealing from other charities, almost certainly increased the total size of the pie.
Imagine that!

If the ice-bucket challenge was successful in making people open-fisted, then how come we have not more such efforts towards charitable giving?
The campaign’s critics implied that, had people not been dumping freezing water over their heads, they would have been working to end malaria instead. But it’s far more likely that they would have been watching cat videos or, now, playing Pokémon Go. The problem isn’t that the Ice Bucket Challenge was a charity fad. It’s that it was a charity fad that no one has figured out how to duplicate.
Hmmm ... so, does it mean that we humans would be a lot more giving if it were not for wasteful distractions like Pokémon Go and cat videos?

Saturday, July 23, 2016

How rooted are you in this footloose world?

Switching over from electrical engineering to graduate school in an alien field meant that every single day I was encountering ideas and arguments that I had never ever come across in my life in India.  I suppose to some, this is the worst approach because the more one keeps going after new ideas, the less one specializes.  Well, unless one is talented and able like this person, for instance, and I ain't! ;)

"Footloose" was one of those new ideas that made an impression on me.  No, not that footloose. All these years later, it turns out that neither Donald Trump nor Bernie Sanders has had that concept explained to them!  If they looked it up on Wiki, they would have understood this about footloose industries: "an industry that can be placed and located at any location without effect from factors such as resources or transport."

Note the key idea there--located anywhere.

That "anywhere" was China, for most manufactured goods.  Honest academics have known about this footloose nature for a long time.  But, we academics are mere buzzkills and we have no idea how to energize people like how demagogues can.  One of these days I should assume the name of Major Buzzkill, which describes me really well ;)

So, we now have a strange spectacle of Trumpeters from the right and Berniacs from the left yelling and screaming about China.  Meanwhile, China is also beginning to understand footloose:
In today’s China, however, workers face a more troubled outlook than Mr. Trump suggests. They are losing their jobs because of a slowing domestic economy, rising costs and stiffer foreign competition — including from the United States.
Presidential candidates “are screaming about yesterday’s problems,” said Jim McGregor, chairman of the consulting firm APCO Worldwide’s Greater China operations. “Manufacturing for export is getting harder and harder” in China.
Yep, they “are screaming about yesterday’s problems.”  But, you think you can explain these things to Trump and his maniacal supporters?
 Labor costs in China are now significantly higher than in many other emerging economies. Factory workers in Vietnam earn less than half the salary of a Chinese worker, while those in Bangladesh get paid under a quarter as much.
Gooooooooood Morning, Vietnam!  Or, even India, like in this case:
Taiwan’s Foxconn, best known for making Apple iPhones in Chinese factories, is planning to build as many as 12 new assembly plants in India, creating around one million new jobs there. A pilot operation in the western Indian state of Maharashtra will start churning out mobile phones later this year.
Now, it does not mean that the industry will always move only to lower labor cost countries.  My favorite way to explain this to students is this: If it were truly about the cost of labor alone, then every manufacturer would be based in countries like Ethiopia or Tanzania.  But then students, too, do not listen to me.  I write op-eds about the footloose economy and, well, nobody cares.  Story of my life! ;)

Anyway, back to China:
Rising costs have also significantly altered China’s competitive position compared with the United States.
In a 2015 study, the Boston Consulting Group said the costs of manufacturing in China’s major export-producing zone were now almost the same as in the United States, after taking into account wages, worker productivity, energy costs and other factors.
Oh, but don't jump up and celebrate thinking that this will bring in a gazillion jobs to the US.  Most manufacturing is and will be highly automated--machines can be awesomely cheap workers, if the technology is there.

BTW, you can now see why economic geography is such a fascinating intellectual field.  The intersection of economics and geography when viewed through how it affects the human condition, and what the policy implications can be is not only brain fodder but with immense real world implications.  If only our "leaders" had taken an introductory course in economic geography!    

Friday, July 22, 2016

I have not worked for many years now

I have officially become a part of the "old" generation.  I now have become old enough that the children of my undergraduate classmates are writing to me seeking my advice.  And I thought I am still the dashing young man with a whole lot of hair on my head! ;)

Of course, as always, I never did advise them on what they should do.  Whether it is students at my college who make the mistake of coming to me for advice, or the youth from the other side of the planet, my approach is no different: "What do you want to do, if there were no restrictions?" is what I typically ask them.

Almost always, it is a confused, stunned silence as an initial response.  Because, most never think about that.  You--yes, dear reader, you--too perhaps did not think about that when you were young.  When you were 17, or even 22, did you think long and hard about what you wanted to do in life, if there were no restrictions and constraints?  Did you use that as a starting point in order to attempt to define the rest of your life?  Chances are that most people do not.

In the email, after giving one a bunch of ideas on how to proceed, I wrote at the end:
I want to assure you that you will be on the right track as long as you keep thinking.  
It is a long life.  And life is not easy.  For the most part, life gets harder in many ways as we grow out of our childhood.  In that challenging context, imagine doing something that you really, really, really do not want to do, and having to do that day in and day out.  It will be a miserably long life, I would think.

A Cornell University economics professor writes about such matters and more in this piece, where he has a clear bottom-line:
Resist the soul-crushing job’s promise of extra money and savor the more satisfying conditions you’ll find in one that pays a little less.
Before reaching that bottom-line, he writes:
The happiness literature has identified one of the most deeply satisfying human psychological states to be one called “flow.” It occurs when you are so immersed in an activity that you lose track of the passage of time. If you can land a job that enables you to experience substantial periods of flow, you will be among the most fortunate people on the planet.
Have I told you enough times that I am one of the most fortunate people in this regard?  I often comment to students that I would do what I do even if I don't get paid and, thankfully, I get paid as well.  I get paid to read, think, write, and--most importantly--help young people understand the world.  How fantastic, right?  "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life" is true--if we can find that job.

I am behind on a few bills though; wanna help me? ;)

Thursday, July 21, 2016

El Pollo Local?

Among people walking around with smartphones that were made in China, wearing clothes that were made in Bangladesh, and planning their dream vacations abroad, there are plenty who seem to be uber-maniacal about eating food that is locally produced.  As if everything else foreign is ok, but the cucumber shall not be from more than a few miles away!  An illogical and unrealistic fixation on "local":
While local food has emerged as an alternative to industrial food, many people have simply transferred their expectations from the grocery store to the farmers’ market. Consumers still expect a global array of products, despite natural restrictions in season or geography. Additionally, emotional expectations surrounding food have increased. People want to imagine chickens free-ranging in a pasture without knowing anything about their deaths. They want their farmers to be simple, iconic food heroes.
It is all emotional. Indeed.  Thinking, as opposed to merely going with emotions, is hard work:
Consumers should be dogged in insisting that food be represented accurately. This includes asking questions and requesting labelling programmes at farmers’ markets. It also helps to know about crop seasonality in your region. Watermelons appearing at winter farmer’s markets were not likely grown anywhere in North America, much less locally.
It’s up to consumers to advocate for policies that allow farmers to succeed. If you care about artisan cheese wheels, you should care about dairy prices.
When it comes to smartphones, we do not care about how the phones are made, and the conditions in which the labor works in order to get us those phones.  This disconnect then helps us not even think about the harsh impacts on the environment in those countries where the manufacturing happens, or about the terrible working conditions.  If we did, then we would want to act on it,  But then the smartphones will be more expensive, and the tshirts won't be available for $5.99.

With the "local" food, while we might prefer the connection between us and the growers, we rarely ever look into the realities of the local food.  With romantic notions, we developed the idea of CSA--community-supported agriculture.  
It was a private transaction in which all the money went directly to the farmer. It did not rely on distributors or brick-and-mortar stores, and it gave farmers a crucial infusion of cash for the winter, used to buy seeds, repair equipment and expand into new growing methods.
The goal was for C.S.A. farmers and members to build a mutually supportive long-term relationship. Members would get straight-from-the-farm produce from a farmer they knew and trusted, and farmers would get financial stability.
But then strange things happen:
Now, online hubs are using sophisticated distribution technology to snap into the food chain, often using “C.S.A.” to describe what they deliver.
The term is not regulated in most states, so companies can define it as they wish. Peapod, the online shopping service owned by the international grocery giant Ahold, delivers farm-sourced boxes throughout the Northeast; FreshDirect offers a variety of C.S.A. options in and around New York City.
In case you thought that this somehow helps out the farmers:
Depending on how and where these new businesses buy their produce, consumers can receive all the benefits of C.S.A. membership, while the farmers get only a fraction. Some farmers say that after years of steady growth, their C.S.A. memberships have dropped since the arrival of services like Local Roots or Farmigo.
As I often remind students, it takes a lot of work to be an engaged consumer and an engaged citizen.  That means a whole lot of critical thinking day in and day out.  
Taking the time to tease out whether buying granola made in Brooklyn qualifies as supporting local agriculture can test the patience of consumers
A "patient consumer" is an oxymoron in this world of instant gratification.  I read a sarcastic comment the other day that instant gratification takes too long!   Oh well, maybe we humans were always impatient and unthinking and it is I who have been living with an unrealistic fixation on a world of critically thinking consumers and citizens.  It is a good thing that I am also on my way to extinction ;)