Monthly Archive for March, 2008

Killing the worlds’ poor through good intentions

This sort of stuff makes me very, very angry.

Kerry Howley, writing at Reason, does an interview with Robert Paarlberg:

In May 2002, in the midst of a severe food shortage in sub-Saharan Africa, the government of Zimbabwe turned away 10,000 tons of corn from the World Food Program (WFP). The WFP then diverted the food to other countries, including Zambia, where 2.5 million people were in need. The Zambian government locked away the corn, banned its distribution, and stopped another shipment on its way to the country. “Simply because my people are hungry,” President Levy Mwanawasa later said, “is no justification to give them poison.”

The corn came from farms in the United States, where most corn produced—and consumed—comes from seeds that have been engineered to resist some pests, and thus qualifies as genetically modified. Throughout the 90s, genetically modified foods were seen as holding promise for the farmers of Africa, so long as multinationals would invest in developing superior African crops rather than extend the technology only to the rich. When Zambia and Zimbabwe turned away food aid, simmering controversy over the crops themselves brimmed over and seeped into almost every African state. Cast as toxic to humans, destructive to the environment, and part of a corporate plot to immiserate the poor, cutting edge farming technology is most feared where it is most needed. As Robert Paarlberg notes in his new book, Starved for Science: How Biotechnology is Being Kept Out of Africa (Harvard University Press), in 2004 the Sudanese government “took time out from its genocidal suppression of a rebellion in Darfur to issue a memorandum requiring that all food aid brought into the country should be certified as free of any GM ingredients.”

Starved for Science includes forwards by both Jimmy Carter and Norman Borlaug, the architect of Asia’s Green Revolution and the man credited with saving more human lives than anyone else in history. Paarlberg, a Professor of Political Science at Wellesley and a specialist in agricultural policy, wants the West to help small African farmers obtain promising technologies just as it helped Asia discover biological breakthroughs in the 60s and 70s. Instead, he says, a coalition of European governments and African elites are promoting a Western vision of rustic, low-productivity labor.

Do read the entire thing. Megan McArdle offers her comment here:

My understanding at the time was that this was even worse than ignorance: Africans keep out relief grain because they know that farmers will hold some of it for seed. They were afraid that if GM entered the food chain, they would that never, ever be able to export any plant products to Europe because of their stringent regulations (these have, I believe, been somewhat relaxed). So even if the president of Zambia knew GM was harmless, he couldn’t risk permanently impairing his country’s economic future.

In fact, let me quote some more from Howley’s interview with Paarlsberg:

reason: Can you give us a sense of what an average African farmer in, say, Zambia, is currently working with?

Paarlberg: It would be a woman and her children primarily, and they would plant not a hybrid maize, but a traditional openly pollinated variety, and they would time the preparation of the soil and planting as best they could for when they thought the rains would come. But the rains might not come in time, or they might be too heavy and wash the seeds out of the ground. It’s a risky endeavor. They can’t afford fertilizer, and it’s too risky to use fertilizer because in a drought the maize would shrivel up and the fertilizer would be wasted. They don’t have any irrigation. As a consequence, even in a good year their yields per hectare will be only about one third as high as in Asian countries, 1/10 as high as in the United States.

reason: Just as it used to be in Asia.

Paarlberg: Everywhere!

reason: No African government other than South Africa’s has made it legal to plant GMOs. You call this “out of character” for the same governments.

Paarlberg: They have not yet enacted the law, set up the biosafety committee, and granted approval, which is the laborious process that [the United Nations Environmental Program] and the European governments have coached them into adopting.

It’s interesting. In no other area are governments in Africa particularly concerned about hypothetical environmental risks. They know better than to invoke the precautionary principle when it comes to unsafe food in open air markets. They know that they need to first get rid of actual food shortages and raise income; then and only then can they afford to impose the same extremely high standards of food safety on open air markets that are imposed on supermarkets in Europe. Yet curiously when it comes to GMOs they adopt the highly precautionary European standard, which makes it impossible to put these products on the market at all. I take that as evidence that this is not an authentic African response, it’s a response imported from Europe.

reason: So the romanticization of bucolic farm landscapes unmarred by scientific advance has an American and European pedigree.

Paarlberg: It’s not what we do at home—only two percent of agricultural products in the US are organically grown. And many of those that are organically grown are grown on industrial scale organic farms in California that don’t bear any resemblance to small bucolic farms. But it’s the image we promote in our new cultural narrative. It’s something that affects the way we give foreign assistance.

reason: Many of the anti-agricultural science gurus you mention in your book have a spiritual dimension. Can you talk a bit about Sylvester Graham?

Paarlberg: Sylvester Graham, the father of the modern graham cracker, was opposed to the modern flour milling industry. He didn’t like the industrialization of bread production, and he wanted women to go back to grinding flour. He was a religious man, a minister, and he had all of the narrow minded prejudices we might associate with a New England clergyman from the 19th century. He thought that women should stay in the home, he believed people should be vegetarians because that would keep their sexual appetite back. We sometimes forget what goes along with the food purist zealotry. It’s often zealotry about more than just a certain kind of food to eat.

In Zambia today there are expatriate Jesuits from the United States who have come to believe genetic engineering is against God’s teaching, though this is not a belief that is embraced by the Vatican. They believe that all living things, including plants, have a right not to have their genetic makeup modified. Of course we have been modifying the genetic makeup of plants ever since we domesticated them 10,000 years ago, but these particular fathers are focused only on genetic engineering.

reason: Isn’t it paternalistic to blame Europeans for the decisions of African governments? Is this something African elites are at least as complicit in?

Paarlberg: It’s a codependency. The African elites depend upon Europe for financial assistance, they depend upon European export markets, they depend on NGOs for technical assistance, it’s just easier for them to follow the European lead than to go against that lead. And to some extent the European governments depend upon having dependents in Africa that will, despite the difficult experience of colonization, continue to imitate and validate and honor European culture and taste.

reason: What exactly have European NGOs done to discourage productivity in farming? You quote Doug Parr, a chemist at Greenpeace, arguing that the de facto organic status of farms in Africa is an opportunity to lock in organic farming, since African farmers have yet to advance beyond that.

Paarlberg: Some of it is well intentioned. The organic farming movement believes this is an appropriate corrective to the chemical intensive farming that they see in Europe. In Europe, where prosperous consumers are willing to pay a premium for organic products, it sometimes makes sense to use a more costly production process. So they think, “Well it’s the wave of the future here in Europe, so it should be the future in Africa as well.”

So they tell Africans who don’t use enough fertilizer that instead of using more they should go to zero and certify themselves as organic. That’s probably the most damaging influence — discouraging Africans from using enough fertilizer to restore the nutrients they mine out of their soil. They classify African farmers as either certified organic, or de facto organic. Indeed, many are de facto organic. And their goal is not to increase the productivity of the organic farmers, but to certify them as organic.

I just find that to be lacking in moral clarity.

Should the World Bank promote human rights?

Victoria Stodden (blog, Harvard page) has an interesting post up on her own blog and that of the Internet & Democracy Group at Harvard based on a recent talk given by Galit Sarfaty on “why no mandate for human rights has been incorporated into the organizational culture at the Bank.”:

She sees the reason as resulting from a clash in ideology between the human rights people, which are largely the lawyers, and economists. Economists dominate the bank, hold most powerful positions, and have a unique and prestigious research group[, while] lawyers are seen as technocrats that aren’t directly involved in projects. The legal department has a culture of secrecy because of this.

Okay, that’s probably true. My question, though, is not over how to get the World Bank to promote human rights but whether they ought to in the first place.

[Sarfaty] suggests three reasons she expects the World Bank to have implemented a human rights policy:

1) peer institutions like UNICEF, UNDP, DFID, have one,
2) the Bank is subject to external pressure by NGOs and internal pressure from employees,
3) even banks in the private sector have human rights frameworks. ICS (the World Bank commercial banking arm) has a human rights framework based on risk management.

These don’t seem like valid reasons to me, as they in essence argue that the World Bank should do something because other organisations are already doing it (the obvious omission is any mention of the IMF). There is also an important difference between merely having a stated policy on human rights and attaching human rights-related conditions to World Bank assistance. I’ll assume that Sarfaty and Stodden are speaking of the latter.

I suspect that this conflict turns on differences of opinion over what “development” actually is and which aspects of development each international organisation ought to seek to promote. It is a truism that nations can develop in a variety of different ways, including economically (both in aggregate and in distribution), socially, politically, educationally, or in public health.

The classic view of the World Bank Group is that its purpose is to promote and assist in economic development. Traditionally, which is to say up to and including much of the 1980s, it focused on aggregate economic development, but more recently it has indirectly expanded into distributive aspects of economic development by promoting and supporting smaller scale, non-infrastructure projects.

It seems to me that while everybody agrees on the importance of educational and public health development, human rights campaigners argue that social and/or political development is at least as important as economic development. Some members of that community go so far as to suggest that improving the social and political lives of people is more important than economic development and that the relative value of economic development has been over played.

I disagree with that last sentence, but I think that few people would disagree with the importance of social and political development in general, although there may some disagreement over what social and political development actually means. To my mind, then, there are two important questions:

a) What are the causal linkages between the different types of development? They clearly all positively reinforce each other, but does one aspect of development have a greater impact on the others?

b) Should a variety of international development bodies each focus on specific aspects of development or should a smaller number of organisations each take a more holistic approach?

I think it’s reasonable to say that the current global system assumes that the answer to (a) is “it’s long been believed that economic development has causal primacy, but this has been recently been brought into question” and that the answer to (b) is “the world cannot agree on the relative importance of each aspect of development, especially since what comprises social and political development is contested, so on a practical level it’s impossible to use a holistic approach.”

The upshot is that we have multilateral organisations to promote different aspects of development separately with the generally perceived legitimacy of each organisation clearly varying with how much international consensus there is on that aspect of development …

  • Economic Development: The World Bank Group
  • Public Health Development: The World Health Organisation, UNICEF
  • Educational Development: UNICEF
  • Social and Political Development: The UN Human Rights Council

… and individual governments pursuing unilateral aid programmes in areas of development where there is a conflict of opinion.

The push for the promotion of human rights to be embedded within the World Bank seems to be a change of tack by human rights campaigners after many years of failing to make headway through the extant organisation(s) created to serve their very goals. To cut to the chase, though, the fact that the UNHCR is lambasted as toothless ultimately originates from the fact that the world cannot agree on which human rights ought to be internationally enforceable. This is not just a difference between the “glorious, freedom-loving” West and the “ignoble, oppressive” (ex-)communist countries or the “ignorant, violent” Muslim nations. There are real differences of opinion between the Western nations, too. There are large differences of opinion between the USA and Europe on workers’ rights, for example. There is no guarantee of freedom of speech in Australia. Britain imposes restrictions on public protests within one kilometre of parliament.

So I’m not sure that attaching various human rights requirements to World Bank development loans will ultimately serve to help the situation. Telling Mozambique that it can’t get assistance to build a new port unless it guarantees the rights of its citizens to protest against the government or imposes upper limits to the length of the working day for the port’s employees is hypocritical preaching. It is, in effect, no different to USAID insisting that aid money will only go to HIV/AIDS charities that promote abstinence above all else.

On the other hand, if the purpose of the World Bank group is to promote economic development, it doesn’t seem entirely stupid to promote at least that subset of social and political development that is generally held to assist in economic development. This is where Sarfaty apparently sees a way of introducing the promotion of human rights in general at the Bank:

She concludes that the goal is to frame human rights issues for economists, rather than playing to the perception that it is a political issue. So the idea is to frame human rights goals for economists: presenting empirical data as to how they advance human development and thus is a relevant issue for the Bank and within its poverty eradication mandate.

Even this would be politically difficult, though. Should the people of Yemen be denied new schools if they are unwilling to guarantee that half the students will be girls? It may also lead to some uncomfortable questions for some human rights campaigners. One of the movement’s defining attributes sometimes seems to be one of an all-or-nothing attitude. How would its supporters feel about a piecemeal adoption of human rights promotion by the Bank if the data suggest that one right assists economic development but another does not?

Update (5 April 2008):

Credit where credit is due:  My views on this are not entirely my own.  They also come from discussions with my wife, Daniela, who is much smarter than me when it comes to this sort of thing.

Understanding the credit crisis

Steve Waldman has done up a brilliant explanation of the credit crisis:

Alice, Bob, and Sue have ten marbles between them. Whenever one kid wants another kid to take over a chore, she promises a marble in exchange. Alice doesn’t like setting the table, so she promises Bob a marble if he will do it for her. Bob hates mowing the lawn, but Sue will do it for a marble. Sue doesn’t like broccoli, but if she says pretty please and promises a marble, Bob will eat it off her plate when Mom isn’t looking.

One day, the kids get together to brag about all the marbles they soon will have. It turns out that, between them, they are promised 40 marbles! Now that is pretty exciting. They’ve each promised to give away some marbles too, but they don’t think about that, they can keep their promises later, after they’ve had time to play with what’s coming. For now, each is eager to hold all the marbles they’ve been promised in their own hands, and to show off their collections to friends.

But then Alice, who is smart and foolish all at the same time, points out a curious fact. There are only 10 marbles! Sue says, “That cannot be. I have earned 20 marbles, and I have only promised to give away three! There must be 17 just for me.”

But there are still only 10 marbles.

Suddenly, when Bob doesn’t want to mow the lawn, no one will do it for him, even if he promises two marbles for the job. No one will eat Sue’s broccoli for her, even though everyone knows she is promised the most marbles of anyone, because no one believes she will ever see those 17 marbles she is always going on about.

Almost whatever happens, the trading of chores, so crucial to the family’s tidy lawns and pleasant dinners, will be curtailed for some time. Perhaps some trading will occur via exchange of actual marbles, but this will not be common, as even kids see the folly of giving rare glass to people known to welch [sic] on their promises. It makes more sense to horde.

A credit crisis arises when many more promises are made than can possibly be kept, and disputes emerge about how and to whom promises will be broken. It’s less a matter of SIVs than ABCs.

Steve later gives an example of the three balance sheets that count produce the situation he described:

Alice (equity: -19)

Assets Liabilities
Physical marbles: 4  
Marbles promised from Bob: 0 Marbles owed to Bob: 7
Marbles promised from Sue: 2 Marbles owed to Sue: 18
Total Assets: 6 Total Liabilities: 25

Bob (equity: 12)

Assets Liabilities
Physical marbles: 6  
Marbles promised from Alice: 7 Marbles owed to Alice: 0
Marbles promised from Sue: 1 Marbles owed to Sue: 2
Total Assets: 14 Total Liabilities: 2

Sue (equity: 17)

Assets Liabilities
Physical marbles: 0  
Marbles promised from Alice: 18 Marbles owed to Alice: 2
Marbles promised from Bob: 2 Marbles owed to Bob: 1
Total Assets: 20 Total Liabilities:

I really enjoy this sort of analogy, because I think that a lot of policy decisions can be enlightened by considering the actors to be individual people rather than the organisations (or entire countries) that they are. So what should Mum and Dad do? Steve also observes the three main possibilities:

Perhaps Mom and Dad will decide that the best thing to do is just buy some more marbles, so that all the children can make good on their promises. But that would mean giving Alice 19 marbles, because she was laziest and made the most promises she couldn’t keep, and that hardly seems like a good lesson. Plus, marbles are expensive, and everyone in the family would have to skip lunch for a week to settle Alice’s debt.

Perhaps the children could get together and decide that an unmet promise should be worth only a quarter of a marble, so that everyone is able to keep their promises after all. But then Sue, the hardest working, would feel really ripped off, as she ends up with a much more modest collection of marbles than she had expected. Perhaps Bob, the strongest, will simply take all the marbles from Alice and Sue, and make it clear than none will be given in return, and that will be that.

Or, perhaps Alice and Bob could do Sue’s chores for a while in addition to their own, extinguishing one promise per chore. But that’s an awful lot of work, what if they just don’t want to, who’s gonna force them? What if they’d have to be in servitude to Sue for years?

The ultimate answer is a combination of all three: Buy some extra marbles (but not all 30), declare each promise to be worth less than a full marble (but not as little as a quarter) and force Alice, and to a lesser extent Bob, to do some chores for Sue (but not full replacement).

The real question is this: Whose fault is it that Alice was able to continue running up debts she couldn’t pay? Should mum and dad been watching all along to make sure that everybody played nicely? Or should Bob and Sue have had more sense when Alice promised to pay them?

On the indispensability of (investment) banks

As might be expected, there’s a fair amount of questioning about the finance system as a whole going on.

The claim is that the market is best able to distribute this cash to the most worthy of projects, but at what point is their judgement questioned? How are these bastards allowed to be indispensable?

It’s true that the purpose of the finance industry is to, as efficiently as possible, allocate capital (i.e. savings), risk and returns; or, as the Economist puts it, to write, to “write, manage and trade claims on future cashflows for the rest of the economy.” In that regard, the industry as a whole plays a vital role in the economy. But that on its own doesn’t necessitate the indispensability of individual banks. That comes from a variety of inter-related factors:

  • There are banks and there are banks. Ceteris paribus, nobody cares if a Small-Town Bank (STB) goes bust because it is provincial: nobody other than its direct debtors and creditors are affected. Investment banks are (effectively, sort of) where the STB goes to borrow money, though. If they go down, so do all the little commercial banks that depend on them. To use a cheap analogy from The Wheel of Time series of fantasy novels, one might think of the central bank as the True Source, the investment banks as Rand al’Thor using one of those artefacts and all the little banks as power-wielders that are vastly powerful compared to civilians but insects next to Rand. Rand channels the hundreds of little power-wielders and adds his own enormous ability to suck down the juice in order to draw massively on the true source. If somebody were to kick Rand in his privates while he’s doing his thing, half the planet gets ripped asunder. Therefore, the protection of Rand while he’s doing his thing is paramount. He is genuinely indispensable. This analogy neatly explains why you don’t actually want a single investment bank, btw. Having a single, semi-god-like character that’s able to channel the über-load of the True Source is great in a novel, but bloody stupid in real life. Redundancy is key. You want several investment banks that are competing with each other so that if one goes belly-up, the others can take over.
  • Real innovation is rare, so when somebody has an idea, all the banks leap on it at once. That’s nominally fine in itself, but it unfortunately means that the actions of the (investment) banks are highly correlated, which makes for fantastic profits when it all works and a world of pain when it doesn’t. In essence, even though they’re are several investment banks competing with each other, since they all offer the same services at the same prices using the same strategies, they’re acting as though they’re a single investment bank.
  • The latest round of innovations has served to tie a lot of financial institutions together from the perspective of policy makers. This point really comes in two parts:
    • Securitisation and the splitting of those securities into tranches of risk exposure, in principle, allow financial institutions to spread and share individual risk between themselves so that if a Bad Event happens, they all lose a little rather than just one of them losing a lot.
    • There has been a general move away from transparency, with most of these securities being held off balance sheets and being traded in private sales instead of on open markets.

    The securitisation and tranching may have gone too far over the last few years, but that on its own isn’t the problem. The problem is that it was combined with a lack of transparency, meaning that it has become enormously difficult to pick apart the pieces when somebody falls.  To quote the Economist again, “Bear Stearns may not have been too big to fail, but it was too entangled.”  While they could have let Bear Stearns fall rather than be swallowed by JP Morgan, doing so would have required the careful unpicking of all of Bear Stearn’s positions, which would have taken months.  That would then have fed into the final point …

  • People are nervous lemmings. Even if the investment banks were properly competitive and transparent and each employed different strategies so that if one fell, there wasn’t so much risk of the others falling, a major bank collapse is still a problem because we’re all idiots. We panic. Then we see each other panicking, which helps us justify our own panicking and makes us wonder if maybe we’re not panicking enough.  The panic can then develop a momentum of its own, causing other banks to collapse when they otherwise didn’t need to.

So … that’s why they’re indispensable. But that doesn’t mean that we should be paying them the way we do.  Judgement of bankers’ performance is really only measurable after we pay them, which is stupid.  I’ve written briefly on bankers’ pay before here.  It is worth noting, though, that calls for bankers’ pay to be made in the form of stock have to face up to the fact that many employees of Bear Stearns had a huge share of their savings invested in Bear Stearns stock.

Believing the “experts”

One of my favourite topics – indeed, in a way, the basis of my current research – is looking at how we tend to accept the declarations of other people as true without bothering to think on the issue for ourselves.  This is often a perfectly rational thing to do, as thinking carefully about things is both difficult and time consuming, often resulting in several possible answers that serve to increase our confusion, not lessen it.  If we can find somebody we trust to do the thinking for us and then tell us their conclusions, that can leave us free to put our time to work in other areas.

The trick is in that “trust” component.  To my mind, we not only tend to accept the views of people widely accepted to be experts, but also of anybody that we believe knows more than us on the topic.  This is one of the key reasons why I am not convinced by the “wisdom of crowds” theory and it’s big brother in financial markets, the efficient market hypothesis. I’m happy to accept that they might work when individual opinions are independent of each other, but they rarely are.

Via Greg Mankiw, I’ve just discovered a fantastic example of a person who is not an expert on a topic, but definitely more knowledgeable than most people, who nevertheless got something entirely wrong.  The person is Mark Hulbert, who is no slouch in the commentary department. Here is his article over at MarketWatch:

I had argued in previous columns that inflation might not be heating up, despite evidence to the contrary from lots of different sources …

I had based my argument on the narrowing yield spread between regular Treasury bonds and the special type of Treasuries known as TIPS. The only apparent difference between these two kinds of Treasury securities is that TIPS’ interest rates are protected against changes in the inflation rate. So I had assumed that we can deduce the bond market’s expectations of future inflation by comparing their yields.

… My argument appeared to make perfect sense, and I certainly was not the only one that was making it. But I now believe that I was wrong. Interpreted correctly, the message of the bond market actually is that inflation is indeed going up.

… My education came courtesy of Stephen Cecchetti, a former director of research at the New York Fed and currently professor of global finance at Brandeis University. In an interview, Cecchetti pointed out that other factors must be introduced into the equation when deducing the market’s inflationary expectations from the spread between the yields on TIPS and regular Treasuries.

The most important of these other factors right now is the relative size of the markets for TIPS and regular Treasury securities. Whereas the market for the latter is huge — larger, in fact, than the equity market — the TIPS market is several orders of magnitude smaller. This means that, relative to regular Treasuries, TIPS yields must be higher to compensate investors for this relative illiquidity.

And that, in turn, means that the spread between the yields on regular Treasuries and TIPS will understate the bond market’s expectations of future inflation.

Complicating factors even more is that this so-called illiquidity premium is not constant. So economists have had to devise elaborate econometric models to adjust for it and other factors. And those models are showing inflationary expectations to have dramatically worsened in recent months.

I have never met Mr. Hulbert, nor read any of his other articles.  I cannot claim that I wouldn’t have made the same mistake and I have to tip my hat to him for being willing to face up to it.  There are remarkably few people who would do that.