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The 2016 Gates Letter is all about power

Suvojit Chattopadhyay's picture
Solar energy is used to light village shop, Sri LankaThe Gates have now made an annual tradition of publishing their development manifestos – they are in the form of letters that they write early in the calendar year. These letters contain not only their personal vision, but presumably, that of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF). Broadly, my reaction to the letters in 2014 and 2015 were that they reflected an inordinate focus on technology-driven solutions. By those standards, I was in for a surprise this year as I read the 2016 Gates Letter.

In his section, Bill Gates outlined his dream of an “energy miracle”. This is easily one of the most important priorities for the globe. Experts are united that clean energy is the way forward. Falling oil prices might just present a serious challenge to this push, but hopefully this is a temporary glitch that will not derail investments in research and development in the search for clean energy. This search also ties in with the Gates’ traditional areas of strength, which are science and technology-driven, looking to extend the frontiers of knowledge in an effort to improve human welfare.

As critical as advances in science and technology are, Gates does well to remind us of the power that governments have and thereby, points to the importance of generating a political consensus:
 

“Governments have a big role to play in sparking new advances, as they have for other scientific research. U.S. government funding was behind breakthrough cancer treatments and the moon landing. If you’re reading this online, you have the government to thank for that too. Research paid for by the U.S. government helped create the Internet.”

Quote of the Week: Brad Pitt

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Brad Pitt“I get enraged when people start telling other people how to live their lives.”

- Brad Pitt, an American actor and producer. He has received a Golden Globe Award, a Screen Actors Guild Award, and three Academy Award nominations in acting categories, and received three further Academy Award nominations, winning one, as producer under his own company Plan B Entertainment. Most recently, he produced The Big Short (2015), a biographical comedy-drama based on the 2010 non-fiction book of the same name by Michael Lewis about the financial crisis of 2007–2008 that was triggered by the build-up of the housing market and the economic bubble, which garnered a nomination for Best Picture.

Liberals behaving badly in the public sphere

Sina Odugbemi's picture
Local politician making an appeal at demonstration against default data traffic surveillance proposed lawLiberals, as defined below, often like to shame their opponents in public debate by calling them extremists. They say this about right wing campaigners, for instance, who hold uncompromising views on gun control, or abortion, or the ruthless and prolific use of force as an instrument of power politics. Liberals also describe as extremists sundry religious fundamentalists: Hindu, Christian, Islamic, whatever variety of a religion refuses to embrace tolerance, balance, and modernity and so on. Clearly, you’d think, to be an extremist, is something that liberals really abhor. But do they really?

Before we get into the key issue that I want to raise, it is important to ask: what is liberalism? The question matters because depending on where you are in the world today to be called a ‘liberal’ could mean very different things. It is important to point out that I refer to liberalism in the context of political philosophy.

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy [1]helpfully points out that:

One of the major political ideologies of the modern world, liberalism is distinguished by the importance it attaches to the civil and political rights of individuals. Liberals demand a substantial realm of personal freedom – including freedom of conscience, speech, association, occupation, and, more recently, sexuality – which the state should not intrude upon, except to protect others from harm. (p. 514)

…the basic language of liberalism – individual rights, liberty, equality of opportunity – has become the dominant language of public discourse in most modern democracies. (p. 516)

I am a conviction liberal of this kind, so what I am about to point out are the things some prominent liberals are saying in the global public sphere that make one wonder if they know what they are doing. To be blunt about it, quite a few loud, particularly doctrinaire liberals are becoming extremists too, and they seem totally unaware of this. I won’t name names, let’s just focus on the positions that they are taking.

Keeping the lights on– workable and unworkable approaches to electricity sector reform

Brian Levy's picture

Lethaba Power Station, South AfricaTwo decades ago, when I was working on utility sector reform we knew the answer. Here (using the example of electricity) is what it was: unbundle generation, transmission and distribution; introduce an independent regulator; rebalance prices; privatize. Two decades later, we have learned the stark limits of orchestrating reforms on the basis of ‘best practice’ blueprints such as these.

What would a more ‘with the grain’ approach to electricity sector reform look like? To explore this, I asked my Johns Hopkins SAIS and University of Cape Town students to review how a variety of country efforts unfolded in practice – focusing specifically on efforts to introduce private sector participation into electricity generation. Some striking patterns emerged.  Here I contrast South Africa’s experience with those of Kenya, Peru and Lebanon. The former illustrates powerfully the hazards of ‘best practice’ reforms; the latter point to the promise of  more incremental, cumulative, with the grain approaches.

In 1997, an official South African report signaled that in 2008 the lights would go out if there was no new investment in electricity generation; the report proposed that the country embark on a far-reaching effort to implement the ‘best practices’ template for electricity sector reform, constraining the dominant parastatal, ESKOM, and turning to the private sector for new investment in electricity generation. In 1998, the government adopted the report’s recommendations. In her richly-researched Masters dissertation (available on the link that follows), Nchimunya Hamukoma detailed what happened next.

Contestation over the agenda among competing factions within the ruling African National Congress and its allies interacted with a hugely-ambitious reform design — one for which almost none of the requisite political, institutional, economic and organizational capabilities were in place. The result was that after six futile years of trying, the effort at restructuring and private participation was abandoned, and ESKOM was given a green light to invest in new capacity. But the six lost years – the result of futilely pursuing an unachievable ‘best practice’ chimera – had an inevitable consequence. In 2008, as predicted, the lights went out.

Quote of the Week: Tony Blair

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Tony Blair at WEF“One of the strangest things about politics at the moment – and I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now, which is an odd thing to say, having spent my life in it – is when you put the question of electability as a factor in your decision to nominate a leader, it’s how small the numbers are that this is the decisive factor. That sounds curious to me. Surely it should be a major factor because if this is not about you, but it’s about the people you want to serve, then selecting someone who is electable is really important because otherwise you can’t help people; you’re powerless.”

- Tony Blair, a British Labour Party politician who served as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1997 to 2007. In May 2008, he launched the Tony Blair Faith Foundation, and in July 2009, the Faith and Globalisation Initiative. He also served as official envoy of the Quartet on the Middle East from 2007 until his resignation on May 27, 2015.

The things we do: The dark side of empathy

Roxanne Bauer's picture

Portrait of children, GuatemalaMost people agree that the ability to empathize with others is part of what makes a person good.  If we can put ourselves in another’s shoes and walk a mile in them, we can better understand their joy and misery, right?  Well, the answer may be a bit more complex.
 
While empathy can push us to help others, it can also exhaust our emotional bank or push us to retaliation.  And, importantly, it can cloud our judgment.
 
The word “empathy” is used in many ways, but the most common meaning corresponds to what eighteenth-century philosophers such as Adam Smith called “sympathy.” It refers to the process of experiencing the world as others do, or at least as you think they do. Some researchers also use the term to encompass the more practical process of assessing what other people are thinking, their motivations, their plans, and what they believe. This is sometimes called “cognitive,” as opposed to “emotional,” empathy.  The two are distinct and involve very different brain processes, but most discussions of the moral implications of empathy focus on its emotional side.
 
In a speech before he became president of the United States, Barack Obama stressed how important it is

to see the world through the eyes of those who are different from us — the child who’s hungry, the steelworker who’s been laid off, the family who lost the entire life they built together when the storm came to town. . . . When you think like this — when you choose to broaden your ambit of concern and empathize with the plight of others, whether they are close friends or distant strangers — it becomes harder not to act; harder not to help.

Obama is right about this last part; there is considerable support for what the psychologist C. Daniel Batson calls “the empathy-altruism hypothesis” which states that "feeling empathy for others, makes you more likely to help them. In general, empathy helps dissolve the boundaries between one person and another; it works against selfishness and indifference.

Quote of the Week: Janan Ganesh

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Occupy movement"Playing on people's fears is not just effective it is also right. Fear is a respectable emotion that is hard-wired into us as a design feature, not a glitch. We are meant to feel it."

- Janan Ganesh, the principal political columnist for the Financial Times. Previously, he was a political correspondent for The Economist. He regularly appears on BBC1's Sunday Politics television show, and he wrote a biography of George Osborne, the UK chancellor.
 

Quote of the week: Angus Deaton

Sina Odugbemi's picture

Angus Deaton at a press conference at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences"Statistics are far from politics-free; indeed, politics is encoded in their genes. This is ultimately a good thing."

- Angus Deaton, a British-American economist. In 2015, he was awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences for his analysis of consumption, poverty, and welfare. The Nobel Prize website writes, "To design economic policy that promotes welfare and reduces poverty, we must first understand individual consumption choices. More than anyone else, Angus Deaton has enhanced this understanding. By linking detailed individual choices and aggregate outcomes, his research has helped transform the fields of microeconomics, macroeconomics, and development economics."

The Great Gatsby government discourse — carelessness and its consequences

Brian Levy's picture

This is a three-part series from Brian Levy on the manner in which the media, activists and politicians talk about the role of government. This post focuses on the importance of engaged democratic debate and the rhetorical traps that can derail political discussions.

morning dressI’ve been thinking a lot in recent months about how we talk about government. So, spurred on in part by the truly appalling tone of discourse in the Republican Party’s nomination contest, I’ve decided to write a few United States-centric blog posts on the subject (though I’ll stay away entirely from chauvinistic slurs, or comments about ‘walls’ or ‘roads to serfdom’).

Somehow, in the area of governance, our usual ways of measuring (and honoring) human endeavor don’t seem to  apply. Ordinarily, working and playing in teams teaches us how to master the challenges of  co-operative, collective achievement — which can be way, way harder than striving alone. Governing is a quintessentially collective endeavor, especially in democracies.  Yet all too often  the discourse (and not only by nameless plutocrat presidential candidates…..)  is resonant  of   F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom and Daisy in The Great Gatsby:

“They were careless people…..  They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In a series of complementary blog posts — on Washington’s Metro on Obamacare;, and on South Africa’s public sector — I explore some consequences of our carelessness in the way we speak about the public sector.  Here I focus on the underlying logic of the conversation. A good place to begin is with the analysis of institutions.

The great institutional economist, Douglass North, defined institutions formally as “humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction”. (‘Rules of the game’ is his classic, informal definition.) Another Nobel-prize-winning economist, Oliver Williamson, built on North’s definition. “Governance”, Williamson suggested, “is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains”.   Crafting governance arrangements for the public sector is hard – much harder, Williamson emphasizes, than governing a private firm. Yet, somehow, seduced by high-sounding bromides, we  trivialize the challenge. We gloss over the complexities, imply that what is extraordinarily difficult should be straightforward, and end up fueling disappointment and despair. The result is the pervasive distrust of government evident across much of the industrialized world.

Do polls capture public opinion or manufacture it?

Jing Guo's picture

Proud Iraqi Women Vote in NasiriyahIn 2012, U.S. Gallup polls predicted that Mitt Romney would beat Obama in the presidential election with a slight edge in public support. More recently, in 2015, public opinion surveys in Turkey predicted only trivial gains in vote for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) during the country’s November general election.
 
In both cases, the polls missed the mark. President Obama blindsided Romney, winning a second term by five percentage points—a result even Romney’s own polling experts did not see coming. Turkey’s AKP won back its parliamentary majority with 49.5% of the vote and an unexpected 8.5% rise in public support, a rebound even the best polling companies in the country had barely foreseen.   
 
Inaccurate poll results are not rare nowadays. An increasing number of disproven poll predictions, particularly in the context of elections, fuels the growing scrutiny over political polls. Cliff Zukin, Professor of Public Policy and Political Science at Rutgers and past president of American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) said in his article for the New York Times, “election polling is in near crisis.”

Is polling facing some major challenges? And what are they?


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