The Illusion of Relevance

I’m not a big fan of the human intellect.      In fact I think one of the most obvious points in science – too rarely addressed – is how inadequately evolution has prepared us for the challenges of modern technological times.     A simple example is the fact many of us eat too much, and die early from diseases that we’d rarely get if we maintained a healthy lifestyle of modest calorie intake and modest exercise.

Every year *billions* of life years are lost simply due to minor deviations from our evolutionary designed healthy lifestyle recipe.   This is not to suggest that recipe of modest calorie intake + modest exercise is a health panacea, but those two factors dwarf most others in the developed world.    Poor countries, on the other hand, suffer more from *too few” calories and vices like smoking, war, and poor health standards.      In fact it is in this arena where humanity could have a stunning impact on raising the standard of living for about a billion people with a modest investments in health, water, and infrastructure.

Yet a combination of dictatorial regimes, inept bureaucracies, human ignorance among the victims, and widespread indifference from the affluent countries condemns an extraordinary number of people to a lifetime of relatively poor health and poverty.

What does this have to do with the illusion of relevance?     I think one aspect of our intellectual inadequacy is that we often assign importance to the wrong things.      Why is the death of Michael Jackson so much more interesting to so many than the deaths of some 125,000 children that have happened since Jackson’s untimely demise?   Every week sees hundreds of thousands die – often painfully and miserably – from diseases like malaria, rotoviruses, and malnutrition that are all easily preventable at relatively low cost.     This is NOT to suggest the people dying do not have responsibilities here – they do and I think a key component of bringing higher global health standards is to treat parents in the third world more harshly when they ignore the needs of their children in favor of their own bad habits and bad decisions.   Political correctness prevents using some marketing tactics that might prove effective in combating the profound, pervasive ignorance that often creates irrational aversion to great programs like vaccinations, health, condoms, schooling for girls, and other standard western rights that are currently beyond the grasp of so many in the developing world.

The tragic circumstances of the third world are not generally our *fault* as suggested by the naive who fail to see that it is the *lack of US participation*, not the presence of it, that has condemned so many poor economies to failure.

Still, solving these problems remains a large part of our *responsibility* as global citizens.    Partly due to the moral imperatives that are a product of the worldview most of us share but I think more importantly simply because we *can* solve these problems if we can extract ourselves from the foolish concerns that plague so many otherwise intelligent people.

More importantly, solving these problems requires us to dispense with the illusion of relevance about so many topics that have so little meaning to the collective humanity.     Britney Spears news vs Clean water for a billion people news.

You decide.

9 killings over the weekend. In Iraq? No, Chicago.

As somebody who believes that real math and reason should govern our perceptions about the world, it is difficult to reconcile how people become almost obsessively concerned with certain categories of death or destruction while ignoring others.

For example regardless of how you view the war in Iraq, the death toll appears to be comparable to …. shootings in the USA.    Obviously  there are caveats needed for this simplistic comparison – US is larger, civilian deaths in Iraq are not as well documented and down from the past, etc.   But my point is that if deaths are what bother you then you should familiarize yourself with key death statistics, and you should advocate US spend accordingly.   The most important stat is that *tens of thousands* of  people die around the world every day from easiily preventable illnesss such as Malaria, AIDS, Intestinal viruses, and more.  Unlike violent deaths, which often spring from irreconcilable ethnic, economic, religious, or cultural tensions, deaths from disease are almost universally considered to be “undesirable”.   Also, research has made it clear that lowering death rates generally lowers the birth rate.  The notion that saving people just creates more people to save is …  not supportable.   Yet we (yes, I mean YOU!) continue to pour *trillions* into military and low ROI social programs while a fraction of that amount would create massive infrastructure improvements and save tens of millions of lives.  

I don’t understand the aversion to sensible spending, but I think it stems from some key defects of our human species:

1) We are programmed and designed to respond more to single instances of things rather than massive instances, and to respond locally rather than globally.  Thus we will work harder to save a single child in need of a heart transplant than a whole village in India dying from lack of sanitation.   This focus was functional evolutionarily but now is breaking down in our big world where disaster can loom large for huge numbers of people.

2) We (yes, I mean YOU!)  suck at math.   Many people in power don’t even grasp the chasm of difference between a million and a billion dollars.  Contractors in the military exploit this fundamental math ignorance of people in congress and military decision makers on a daily basis.   The answer of course is to follow the advice of the founders (and even Gen Dwight Eisenhower!) and take this massive and inappropriate military spending out of the hands of bureaucrats and politicians.   In fact the answer is to massively curtail military spending immediately by 50% to 90%.   The security implications are minimal, but people refuse to do the analyses.  I’m absolutely *stunned* by how ignorant and sheepish most of my fellow fiscal conservatives are about the waste in the military.  It is glaring, massive, and preventable – even more than the massive levels of waste in the US social services sector.

That ends my rant for the day.  We now return you to our regularly scheduled blogging…


Wal-Mart for Nobel Peace Prize!

Wow, this clever article by John Tierny  in New York Times Op-Ed (what a great news source now that the paywall is down!) suggests maybe the Nobel Peace Prize should go to Wal-Mart for lifting more people out of poverty than pretty much any other organization on earth.  He notes a notion that the best route out of poverty for the developing world is to make stuff for Wal-Mart to sell to … those of us who live in the developed world.

This is a provocative piece but it cleverly *should* get people to realize the complexity of economics, and the fallacy of ideas that prosperity in the developed world comes from exploitation in the developing world.  This last notion is one of my pet peeves because it is a very naive and inaccurate view of the way international economics works.   Systems that avoid capitalism and avoid interacting with capitalism don’t thrive.   In fact they perform abysmally as indicated by the experiences of early communism, and present conditions in North Korean and Cuba.    Prosperity comes from becoming part of the developing world through economic interactions.    This is not the whole solution to poverty, but it is an important part of that solution.   If well intentioned people would work to understand the importance of getting poor folks *involved* with the globalized economic experience  it would be easier to bring the billion+ in extreme poverty to a higher standard of living.     It does NOT end there of course.   I’m happy to see organizations try to force corporations to greater levels of worker responsibilities.  But that needs to happen *after* workers and countries show that they want to play the big game.   

As Tierney suggests, making stuff for Wal-Mart is probably one of the fastest ways an Indian or Chinese guy can feed their family.  What’s wrong with that?  (I’m serious – there are some problems with that approach, but I’ve gone on long enough here for now ….)

Bill Gates’ Critics – they just can’t handle the truth!

I get so tired of reading the innane drivel criticizing Bill Gates’ excellent vision of global prosperity through more innovative approaches to global capitalism.    Gates is right on, and this should be obvious to those who care about capitalism OR who care about bringing prosperity to the billions who suffer in developing countries.

Over at TechCrunch people are ranting irrationally about bootstrap prosperity in the selfish and foolish way US technophiles often do, oblivious to the causes and circumstances of poverty in the developing world and without any compassion for the *hundreds of millions* of children mired in poverty around the world.  

Here’s how I vented over there:

Bravo to Gates. Many of the comments here floored me with their lack of insight.
First, to suggest Gates is not sincere is nonsensical. His record of philanthropy is clear, focused, and brilliant. Whatever you think of Microsoft’s history of sometimes ruthless corporate dominance you simply are not paying attention to think Gates vision of global prosperity is not genuine. I’d even go so far as to suggest Gates fortune was made largely through the purchases of other affluent people, and now he’s giving most of it to the poor. That is a virtuous cycle if I ever saw one.

Second, the notion that unfettered capitalism is the most expeditious way to feed the poor and improve the infrastructures of poor countries is naive and dangerous. Even Adam Smith noted that types of intervention are needed to preserve the integrity and power of free market forces. In nations that suffer from corrupt or short sighted leadership and cumbersome bureaucracies (that is to say, all nations), we need to bring modified capitalism to bear ASAP if we want to stabilize prosperity and lift the billion+ people who are simply out of the virtuous globalized capital loop. Gates point is that more innovative approaches to capitalism will benefit everybody, and he’s spot on.

Meanwhile Open Sourcer Matt Asay is conflating open source issues and Microsoft with global development, seeming to suggest that the fastest way to global prosperity is to bring Open Source to the world and kill Microsoft.   Here’s what I wrote over there:

No. Emphatically. You are correct that Open Source is great, and also that Microsoft has strategically fought against open source. But Gates is correctly working to reallocate personal and corporate responsibilities. He’s saying that more of the big profits and big innovation should be focused on improving the lot of those in the developing world. This is a profound approach and a virtuous one.

I don’t think it is reasonable to ask Microsoft to be a key player in dismanting decades of their corporate dominance, even though I’m happy to see that fade. It’s also unreasonable to suggest the benefits of Open Source development will necessarily flow to the world’s poorest people. More likely they’ll flow to those of us in first world who are able to take advantage of them. I’m big on Open Source, but hardly think Microsoft should be a leader in that space. I’m even bigger on focusing attention on developing world problems and the kind of conflation of issues here simply confuses people.

Gates is speaking today at the Davos conference.   It would be nice if  people actually listen to what he is saying.