Sunday, December 27, 2009

Off to Africa

Well the blog is probably going to be pretty quiet for the next couple of weeks as I am going to be traveling through Mozambique, Malawi, and South Africa. My girlfriend and I will be looking around for good places to start up a Backpacking Hostel and meeting up with old friends in SA. If anyone has any suggestions about "must see" places in either Moz or Malawi then drop me a comment.
We bought a camera so hopefully I will have some good pictures to post up here in the near future.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Book Twelve of the Wheel of Time: The Gathering Storm

I've been reading the Wheel of Time fantasy series since high school. Although I am not a huge fantasy genre follower, this series is fantastic. Tragically the author, Robert Jordan, died before he could finish all the books. For several years now his fans have been eagerly awaiting the next installment under a new author, Brandon Sanderson, who was chosen by Mr. Jordan's wife to finish off the series.

It was well worth the wait. I am a very slow reader and still finished the 784 page book in 2 and a half days. If it is not blasphemous to say so, I think Sanderson does an even better job of pacing the story than Jordan, who had a tendency to drag things out, ever did.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

South Korea, and Aid success story, or not?

South Korea is often cited, generally by aid supporters, as an example of an aid success story. Many, it seems primarily due to their lack of personal knowledge of the subject, are careful not to assert a direct causation between aid received and development made, but nonetheless heavily imply such a link. Most recently Owen Barder, in a very thoughtful article, cited South Korea in just such a manner. He stated that “Some of the most striking examples of growth in the 20th century were in countries such as Korea and Taiwan, which were supported by large amounts of aid.” In response to his article I called such implied assertions “laughable” and “offensive.” Although perhaps a bit harsh, I stand by this criticism. Here is briefly why.

I’ll start with a quote from David Steinberg former USAID official and expert on Korea’s development. Writing in 1982 he said that:

“AID policy now emphasizes the equitable distribution of goods and services, but Korea for almost twenty years paid little attention to the rural sector-the majority of the population at that time. The act stresses the importance of the role of women, but they have essentially been ignored in Korea except as low-cost, light industrial labor receiving wages that are clearly discriminatory. Free labor unions are advocated, but those in Korea are government-controlled; human rights are stressed, but they essentially have been ignored in Korea. Thus, whether nations today could emulate a Korean model with U.S. assistance is questionable.

From reading this quote one might assume that the “Korean model” had been singularly ineffective in promoting development. Knowing that for the twenty years in question Korea had also been ruled by a military dictator, Park Chunghee, might further confirm this assumption. Knowing that prior to the Park dictatorship the Rhee administration was infamous for its corruption and mismanagement of aid money, prompting the US government to threaten suspension of its aid, one might make be even more sure that Korea had been a developmental disaster for 30 years.

And yet you would be deeply mistaken. By 1982 Korea’s economy had grown by an average of nearly 8% per year for roughly 30 years, a feat virtually unmatched in modern human history. Furthermore, contrary to what one might expect from near total dictatorial rule, the fruits of Korea’s economic expansion were more equally distributed across the population than in many Western democracies. Its gini coefficient in the early 80s was in the low 30s and continued to decline throughout most of the 1990s.

And yet Steinberg was/is not alone in his general pessimism about the applicability of this astoundingly successful “Korean model” to other aid-recipient countries. Most Westerners who have studied Korea’s development have been equally pessimistic, especially following Korea’s 1997 market crash and subsequent IMF bailout. Kleptocrats and dictators rarely inspire Western admiration. My personal view is that pessimism for a variety of reasons, none of which is a sympathy for dictators or kleptocrats, is largely misplaced. But that is the topic for another post. The point here is simply to show that even aid supporters who have carefully studied Korea’s development acknowledge that other factors, many of which the international community disapproves of and hence is unwilling to promote internationally, were central to the success of Korea’s development. In summation Steinberg states

Could the Koreans have accomplished all they did without United States assistance? The answer is probably yes…but at a slower rate… The Koreans attained the economic growth they have achieved basically on their own by formulating their own policy framework and implementation systems.”

For more discussion of how Korea accomplished this read Steinberg’s review article from which the above quotes have been pulled (sorry I couldn’t find an ungated copy).

To wrap up it should be readily admitted that this is a huge topic and that this post has at best merely scratched at some of the important issues. If you care to argue about its specific points in more detail, or about ones I have not mentioned, please leave a comment and I will address them.

Bottom Line: Korea benefited from aid. However many of the fundamental causes of its economic expansion were antithetical to most aid prescriptions that were, and still are, promoted by international development agencies. Therefore citing it as an aid success story, even implicitly, is inappropriate and misleading.


Friday, December 18, 2009

The not often enough repeated call for civility and distinctions.

David Zetland over on Aguanomics has a makes a great post about why it is important, but difficult, to maintain distinctions between personal and professional relations. It is too easy to attach our self-worth to exterior indicators like grades or money or popularity. But doing so rarely has beneficial effects in the long or even short term.

A Global Welfare System? I hope not.

Owen Barder, who is a thoughtful, articulate, and measured supporter of the current system by which the developed world aids the developing world, has written an interesting article here on the OpenDemocracy blog. One of his larger points is that we need to re-conceptualize what aid is meant to do and what it is capable of doing. He seems to be advocating for some sort of permanent global welfare system. Although I am sympathetic to a lot of what he says, aid surely helps some people, such a system would not be a step in the right direction. Here are a few of my concerns.

1. A global welfare system implies a global welfare provider, and even then welfare systems are extremely tricky to implement well. We don’t even have a provider however. The “international community” (as Copenhagen is showing) is a very divided and dysfunctional one. We should not have confidence that it can run such a system well.
2. Somewhat counter-intuitively, I think such a global welfare system would be immoral. We cannot treat roughly 2/3rds of the world as if they were incapable of surviving in the global economy, and therefore in need of a welfare system. This is dehumanizing and simply wrong. Welfare systems in developed countries typically take care of 10 to 20% of a population and even at this level we encounter all sorts of dependency issues.
3. Such a welfare system would shift our focus away from fixing our horrid international economic system to simply taking care of those whom it excludes. This is also immoral. “Perserving livelihoods” while excluding people from competing, i.e. giving them a fish rather than teaching and allowing them to fish for themselves, is not a second-best approach which we should embrace.
4. (And this a more pedantic concern arising from my current doctoral studies in Korea) The idea that South Korea can be held up by aid supporters as an example of their success is laughable, and worse, offensive to the Koreans who have worked determinedly for the past 50 years to develop their country.


Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Interdisciplinary Connections, Complexity Theory, Classical Liberalism, Integrated Coastal Management, Sociology of Science, and Symbolic Anthropology

As my doctoral studies slowly advance I am beginning to perceive ideological connections between various disciplines that have not, at least from my reading of the literatures, obviously influenced each other very much. I can think of a few reasons why I might be drawing these connections where others have not.

The first, and most unlikely, explanation is that I am a really clever fellow who has managed to stitch together some unified threads that coherently tie all of these seemingly disparate disciplines together.

A more likely explanation is that my relative isolation from academic interactions, (living on an island in the middle of the Yellow Sea) has resulted in a much more random, almost hodgepodge, journey through the major thinkers in academia than is typical for doctoral students. This lack of guidance has allowed me to wander about, so to speak, with greater freedom through the thoughts of academics from diverse disciplines and backgrounds.

The final explanation is that this aimless wandering has caused me to see mirages. Like a man lost in a desert without a guide and water Ive started seeing connections that arent really there.

So as a corrective I thought I would briefly list why I think the above disciplines are connected by common philosophical or ideological sympathies.

1. All of the disciplines understand the world to be a deeply complex place about which we can have only partial and imperfect knowledge.

2. None of the disciplines think that this complexity can be made unproblematic, mastered, or overcome.

3. All of these disciplines are skeptical of centralized and distanced authority and hierarchy.

4. All of these disciplines recognize and value diversity and believe it to be very deeply seated. Believing the world to be ontologically one thing, while admitting the existence of multiple epistemologies, is not sufficient. Rather they all argue, without necessarily retreating into relativism, that one should have a very humble opinion of ones own opinions.

Does anyone else who is familiar with these disciplines agree, or not?


Monday, December 14, 2009

Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, more thoughts on Libertarianism

Ive finally gotten around to reading some Hayek. He is something of a founding father of Libertarianism. Although I find his writing stylistically questionable, run-on sentences abound, the content of those sentences is much more appealing. The Road to Serfdom provides a convincing account of why Socialism is inimical to freedom. Therefore my love of freedom makes me skeptical of Socialism. I particularly like this excerpt in which he discusses the foundations of the opposite of Socialism, namely Individualism.

This is the fundamental fact on which the whole philosophy

of individualism is based. It does not assume, as is often asserted,

that man is egoistic or selfish, or ought to be. It merely starts

from the indisputable fact that the limits of our powers of

imagination make it impossible to include in our scale of values

more than a sector of the needs of the whole society, and that,

since, strictly speaking, scales of value can exist only in individual

minds, nothing but partial scales of values exist, scales

which are inevitably different and often inconsistent with each

other. From this the individualist concludes that the individuals

should be allowed, within defined limits, to follow their own

values and preferences rather than somebody else's, that within

these spheres the individual's system of ends should be supreme

and not subject to any dictation by others. It is this recognition

of the individual as the ultimate judge of his ends, the belief that

as far as possible his own views ought to govern his actions, that

forms the essence of the individualist position.”

However Hayek, at least in this book, does not lay out a how those who are skeptical of Socialism, like me, should go about organizing a government, or seek to reform the one that they are a part of.

For as even Hayek admits everyone needs a plan, not just Socialists. He does say that such a plans main goal should be to promote fair competition. But he doesn't say how you do that. Perhaps his later book, The Constitution of Liberty will be more forthcoming on this topic.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Beware the of 아주머들 (Ajummas)

"Ajummas" in Korea are famous for their brusque strength and determination. The literal English translation is "aunt" but this fails utterly to capture the nuanced and rich imagery that the word evokes in Korean minds. According to this article it looks as if the North Korean government's latest currency swap policy, known as "Kim Jong Il's Great Confisication," has led to an Ajumma Revolt of sorts.

Hell hath no fury like an Ajumma scorned.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Go shopping China!

Maybe a year or so ago I remember watching a press meeting in which the then U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Paulson, chided the Chinese for not spending enough. This week David Brooks, who I often like, repeats this sentiment saying that the Chinese consume too little.

I have several problems with this. First, these statements are simply arrogant. Who are we (Im American) to tell the Chinese people what they should do with their money?

Second, these statements are perverse because they are simply bad counsel. Since when was American-style profligate consumerism something to be promoted internationally? Our economy is in shambles partly because people recklessly spent too much by taking easy credit that they couldnt reasonably expect to pay off.

Third, such statements are plainly driven by naked American self-interest. We need the Chinese to spend more to help us, not because of some impartial need to, as Brooks puts it, address global imbalances.

America has sunk pretty low if it has to try and pull other countries down (like China) in order to pull itself up.


Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Orthopraxis vs. Orthodoxy, more from Baker's Korean Spirituality

Here is another great insight from Baker's Korean Spirituality. He states that until the introduction of Christianity into Korea most Koreans were more concerned with orthopraxis (acting correctly) rather than orthodoxy (believing the correct thing). Here is an excerpt,

"[Confucian] privileging of performance and emotion over belief was
challenged by Korea’s first Christians, who refused to participate in
traditional ancestor memorial services. They argued that bowing before
tablets representing the ancestors was a form of idolatry, because
it implied that the ancestors were actually present in those tablets. In
the ritual-based worldview of traditional Korean religion, such an
objection to ancestor memorial services missed the point. Bowing
before the tablet was not making a statement about whether the spirits
of the ancestors were present in those tablets. It was not a physical
expression of faith in the actual presence of the ancestors. Rather,
bowing was a way for the descendants to show that they still loved
and respected those who had brought them into this world. Moreover,
participation in an ancestor memorial service reinforced family

What do you think? Is orthopraxis or orthodoxy, more important? Vote at the poll on the right.


The anti-individualism of Korean Spirituality

Ive written before about how Western culture seems to be unique in the world in its promotion of individuality and independent thought. There is much literature on how Asian societies are much more sensitive to context and relationships than Western Ones. Don Bakers book on Korean Spirituality (see book list for link) is an easy read and helped me immensely to clarify some of the spiritual reasons why this might be.

He talks about how the Korean concept of evil is better translated as a feeling or state of disharmony. Begging the question of disharmony with what, Baker replies, disharmony with other people and spirits. So at a very fundamental level Koreans traditionally have believed that avoiding evil requires one to be aware of, and get along with, those around them. Being in harmony with a group, rather than with a God or with some religious book, is the ultimate goal.

Though certainly only one piece of the puzzle, it is a good insight.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Page 295 "The Absence of Evaluative Data on ICM Programs." Page 297 "Successful Practices Related to ICM Processes" Cognitive dissonance anyone?

These quotes are headings from the otherwise very informative, and widely used, book Integrated Coastal and Ocean Management (see my Book List for a link) by Biliana Cicin-Sain and Robert Knecht, who are probably the two top experts on, and developers of, ICM in the USA.
But everyone has a weak spot and this is theirs. How, I must ask, can one know what is "Successful" if one has not bothered to collect any data by which to make that evaluation? To their credit they spend the 2 pages between 295 and 297 talking about the biases that cause this absence of data. But disappointingly they spend a mere two paragraphs calling for improvement in this area and offer no suggestions on means to overcome anti-evaluation biases or methods by which data could be collected.
Their book was published in 1998 and over the past decade a few people in the field have started making more calls for greater M&E and produced methodologies towards that end, but I have yet to see one really rigorous evaluation performed.


Monday, December 7, 2009

The Power of Property Rights

I've been reading Hernando de Soto's The Mystery of Capital and am very impressed. For a good summary of his basic message you can watch this 30 minute talk he gave at conference this past July. His basic message is that getting people legal property rights will go a long way towards lifting them out of poverty. I agree.
The hard part is actually accomplishing this.
When I was working in the Gambia I remember talking with a man who was trying to get his village to work together on a project. For this project they needed some land. As I was living in the village at the time and familiar with project's goals, the guy asked me where I thought might be a good place. I counseled him to pick a plot of land farther from the village because there would be fewer hassles over conflicting property claims if the project eventually ever started making a profit. I had a few other concerns about the project, mostly stemming from its communal nature, which in practice meant that most of the work would fall upon the women of the village who already had plenty to do. But in any case the guy (who was really well-intentioned) basically ignored my advice and together with other villagers decided on a plot that was closer to the village because it would be more convenient for the women.

Within a couple days two families were physically assaulting each other because they both claimed ownership of the land in question.

Thats the problem with informal ownership, which is part of de Soto's point. But formalizing ownership isn't easy. Many, especially politicians, would probably rather let sleeping dogs lie while those who are benefiting from what de Soto calls "extralegality" will actively oppose attempts to shine light on their dark and fuzzy dealings.
Its been nine years since de Soto published his book and his organization, the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, gained a wider audience. I'm looking forward to reading about what progress (if any) they have made in helping developing countries with this formalization process.


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Coporations, Big, Mean, and UnGreen? Think again.

This is an interesting piece by Jared Diamond about how many (though of course not all) big corporations are actually making big strides towards being more environmentally friendly. Diamond particularly congratulates some of the corporations that greenies typically love to hate, Walmart and Chevron. I'm not entirely convinced, but I do welcome any article that dares to complicate the black and white world that many radical environmentalists love to live in.

Hat tip to Marginal Revolution for the pointer.


Liberalism, Krugman style

Getting off the island this weekend to hang out with my brother I found Paul Krugman's The Conscience of a Liberal (see my book list for a link) book lying around. As a Nobel winning economist and leading Democratic intellectual I thought he might have something interesting to say. So I read it. Here is a list of a few things I liked and didn't like.


1. He is right to be annoyed at the excessive decadence of the top 1% in America who unapologetically "earn" ridiculously large sums of money.
2. He is also right that progressive taxes are perfectly justifiable.
3. He is also probably right that racial and anti-immigration prejudices, even in the last fifty years, have continued to play a shameful role in American, and particularly Republican, politics.
4. Most broadly his distrust of large monopolizations of power by small minorities is well-founded.


1. He is too big of a cheerleader for the Democratic party. The arguments made in the book are not intellectually rigorous but rather blatantly politically charged and full of unbalanced scrutiny.
2. His obsession with achieving greater economic equality is philosophically shallow and unappealing.
3. Attached to #2 he presents American politics as very black (Republicans) and white (Democrats) and refuses to meditate on the tough philosophical questions that might blur, add a little gray, to this stark picture.
4. He is over-confident about the government's ability to manage economies and legislate social norms.


Thursday, December 3, 2009

Amazing video of a very 'clear-headed' fish

Hat tip to Environmental Economics for this link to a video at the National Geographic Website of a really cool looking fish. You can see its brain. What was the evolutionary trajectory that brought this one about? Perhaps the sheer and obvious awesomeness of having a clear head was enough?

The Worldly Fisherman

Winter out on Heuksando means wind, rain, and consequently high waves. However the fishermen out here are pretty confident. I caught a ride with one of them to a nearby island today and had a great little chat. As he was barreling through the waves up to the dock I knew I was in for quite a ride. One of the first things I noticed when I started taking rides with these guys was the speed with which they dock their boats. It is as if they are playing a game with themselves to see how fast and close they can get their boats to the dock before having to throw their engines into reverse so as to avoid smashing themselves to bits against the concrete. The fisherman I was with today was no exception, even with the high waves.
But as I jumped onto the filthy, slippery, seaweed covered boat and crammed my way into the tiny wheel room to avoid the rain and waves, I was surprised when the fisherman asked me my name in English with a very good accent. Only about a hundred people, of whom he was one, live on the island to which we were headed and it is about as far out into the blue as you can get so I wasn't expecting such fluency.
And as it turned out his English ability was quite limited and broken. But as we spoke, primarily in Korean, he told me how 20 years ago he had worked on the big cargo boats and spent some considerable time in Spain and all over the globe. Our conversation wasn't long but I was impressed to find such a worldly fellow so far out.

There goes one more (of a too long list of) shattered stereotypes.