Monthly Archives: July 2013

Singularity and the End of Poverty

poverty-ball-and-chain-940px  In his book The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs discusses the global poor and how to eliminate poverty within a generation.  The idea is that global poverty, described as those who live on less than a dollar a day, could be eliminated by the year 2025 with the careful use of development and aid.  He describes the problem as a poverty trap in which the global poor are unable to reach the “bottom rung” of the economic ladder; once that rung is reached a country and a people could pull themselves out of poverty and into the market economy.  The dilemma that Sachs attempts to tackle is how to boost the world’s poor to reach that rung.

Economists love simple theories and the poverty trap is no exception.  The mechanics of it are very straight forward…your income today influences your income in the future. What you have today directly impacts the food you can buy, the medicine you can buy, what you can invest in your children’s education, the seeds you can buy to grow more food these are all determined by current income and thus determine what you will have tomorrow. If you cannot buy enough fertilizer to improve your crops, generate more income, and increase spending power you are trapped in poverty.  Imagine the game “Shoots and Ladders”, but every ladder leads directly to a shoot.   To deal with the poverty trap dilemma Sachs advocated for a clinical economics stating that countries like people require a unique diagnosis to treat poverty.

I am not entirely convinced that the poverty trap exists as I don’t typically put stock in the rational actor model, which is implied by the poverty trap for reasons I will not address here but is discussed in the book Poor Economics.  However, for the sake of argument lets say that it does exist and the world’s poor really do need a boost to get out of poverty.  Enter the singularity…

In math and physics the “singularity” means something not behaving as it did, but instead growing by leaps and bounds.  It is the threshold in the predictability of human development where past and present models can no longer be used to give reliable descriptions of the future due to the creation of a strong A.I. or enhancement of human intelligence.

Sound to outlandish? The expanse of technology is exponential as each piece builds upon the advances of the last. Think about the advance of technology in your own life. In the 1969 the U.S. put a man on the moon and one of the biggest expenses was being able to fit a computer into one room, forty years later your iPhone is thousands of times more powerful and at a fraction of the price. Not to mention it fits in your pocket.  It’s not unreasonable to think that the iPhone 20 will be the size of a red blood cell, connect to a new internet we haven’t imagined and cost 50 dollars. This is also known as Moore’s Law.

So whats this got to do with macroeconomics and the global poor? Simple. This is the next technical frontier that represents a post industrial economy.  Nanotechnology represents the ability to make things very cheaply. Nanotech could produce food, building materials and fuel without the energy intense process of the Industrial Revolution because it builds on an atomic level, thus, is the best form of recycling.  Give me your tired, your poor. Your broken and used molecules yearning to be free…and I’ll make you a house and a hamburger.

In short the singularity allows the global poor to climb out of poverty traps that Sachs mentioned because food, shelter, clothing and medicine will be no cost.  In the post industrial economy the productivity (GDP/hoursworked) is hugely greater  because technology has radically reshaped our global society.


Dune: What SciFi Can Tell Us About Why Nations Fail


The Science Fiction masterpiece written by Frank Herbert was largely based on the Bedouin and Arab cultures throughout the Middle East and the extractive political economics that drive conflict today. For those of you unfamiliar with the story here is a brief description….

On the desert planet Arrakis, there is a very precious commodity called the Spice.  This commodity is only found on the inhospitable planet and is necessary for interstellar travel.  The intergalatic trade guild, CHOAM, requires it and uses a baron from another planet to extract it. There are two warring families the Atreides and the Harrokens, both competing for the rights to the spice and the native inhabitants are the Fremen, tribal nomads who have learned to survive the harsh environment.  The Emperor sides with the Harrokens, Paul Atreides father dies and Paul is exiled, where he allies with the Fremen. From there they wage war and Paul eventually becomes their just ruler.

It borrows much from Islam such as Hajj and Jihad (the Bulterian Jihad against sentient machines) and Paul Atriedes character is clearly modeled after desert prophets like Jesus, Moses and Muhammad. Furthermore off shoots of of Islam develop including Zensunni and Zenshia which are hybrids of Zen Buddhism Sunni Islam and Shia Isalm respectively.

The Arab language is very prevalent throughout the book, such as the Aba, a loose robe worn by the Fremen and is typically black, can be loosely translated to the Abaya, the traditional female dress for centuries. Some have argued that the word Arrakis, the planet of Dune is derived from the Arabic word Raqs meaning to dance, however this is only true in some dialects and seems to be a remote possibility.

From a economic development stand point, Dune represents an excellent example of extractive economics.  While the spice is a valued commodity and arguably the most important export in the galaxy as it is required for travel, the Arrakis natives remain improvised.  The largest threat to their lives seems to be a lack of water, something that could be easily traded for given the balance of trade. All technology on Arrakis had been built around saving water, even the dead were drained and their fluids given back to the tribe. They are shocked to hear that Paul comes from a planet where water falls from the sky into giant pools of water that surround land. A student of economics would ask why something that has low demand in once place, Paul’s planet, and has such a high demand in another is not being traded?  Why is it that people with access to such an amazing natural resource like spice, are deprived of something that could be traded so cheaply?

The answer comes down to good governance and self rule something James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu discuss here. By establishing extractive institutions such as the Baron or Western Oil companies, you have stymied development and laid the ground work for corrupt governments.  The Fremen are unable to capitalize on the trade imbalance simply because they are not governing themselves, the trade guild governs them with no interest in building an economy only extracting a commodity. This is similar to economics of Egypt under Hosni Mubarak who was supported by western powers for decades while the economic opportunities of the Egyptian people crumbled.

Some would argue that the spice lead to a paradox of plenty, or a resource curse where natural resources are more of a curse than a blessing to a nation’s economy.  Primarily OPEC countries are used to make this argument by comparing their GDP with their vast resources in oil, but little is taken into account of the extractive institutions that plagued the region for many years. Without examining institutions that govern whether it be interstellar empires, western oil companies, or corrupt governments we cannot understand the struggles of people today.

Whether Frank Herbert foresaw the debates of transparency or the political uprisings in the Middle East today, we will never know as he is dead. However, Dune remains one of the best examples of Arab culture and political economy in Science Fiction today.

Political Power and Sexual Violence: Not Just Egypt’s Problem

Cairo Tense As Preparations Continue For Elections    The world is fixated on the political turmoil in Egypt, but one aspect continues to simmer with little attention.  These protests have also seen a sharp rise in sexual attacks on women in Tahrir Square, the epicenter of the protests.  Since November 2011 the police have avoided Tahrir Square especially during the bigger protests to avoid clashes with protesters which has left women unprotected and the gangs of men secure that they will not be arrested for their attacks or rapes. Women’s rights groups report 19 cases of sexual gang violence in January including 6 women who required urgent medical care one of whom was raped with a bladed weapon that cut her genitals.

Sexual harassment and violence is an epidemic in Egypt with over 80 reports of mob violence in June and 99.3% of women claiming to have suffered some form of it. However Egypt by no means has a monopoly on sexual violence.  We tend to view other societies gender violence as the problem of the “other.”

When a 23-year-old woman is brutally gang raped and beaten in Delphi, the headlines speak of India’s women problem but when a 16-year-old girl is raped and filmed by peers–who share the images on the internet–we treat it like an unfortunate but isolated event.

Need more evidence of a prevalent rape culture? Look at the recent pop songs from artists Robin Thicke and Kayne West.  In his latest single  “Give it 2 U” Thicke soulfully croons about giving women what they really want…his big dick. Kayne goes further by describing today’s leaders by saying, “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”

When we brush our own inequality under the rug and view sexual violence as the problem of the “other” we dismiss the need for protests or investigations in the nation where 26,000 military service members reported sexual assault in 2012.  There are no cultural inquires into the nation that ranks 13th for rape and our Vice Presidential candidates discuss “legitimate rape.” Not to mention the coaches and priests that go on for decades hiding their own sexual abuses and eventually become their own victims.

The sexual violence in Egypt is as abysmal as it is unique, but like the acts of rape in the U.S. it did not emerge overnight.  It is the product of years of our leaders, both political and social, ignoring the real causes of sexual abuse…power.  In the act of violating someone’s person there is a search for power and control.

Syria: Military Intervention or Realist Chess Game?

I’m a little late to the party, but I feel the discussion on Obama’s strategy in Syria could use some revising. The death toll in Syria has reached 100,000 and 1.6 million refugees have fled the area. The Obama Administration has evidence of nerve gas used by Assad.  Obama has even stated the Administration will provide weapons to the opposition forces. But to what end?

Arguments abound in the media, both for and against, in predictable points of view for our involvement in Syria. Citing the awful death toll,  the hard drawn line of the use of chemical weapons, and, on the other hand, the dangers of military intervention in such a mission.  While these are all valid arguments, I feel they miss the larger point and therefore the real goal of the Obama White House.   

Obama has long been an adherent to Realism the political theory where states primary goal is the obtainment of resources, act on self interest through military build up, often leading to a security dilemma.   

On paper, Obama has a very clear goal — to support a rebel victory that results in Assad’s removal. He believes that opposition forces are the best way to go about achieving that goal.  He may also be attempting to balance the power in the region with Iran and drain Russia and Hezbollah of resources. In a classic Realism when your enemy gains, you accelerate supplies; when your enemy faces loses, ease back gain.    

If Syria has become a Realist chess board then Obama will have accept some rather dubious claims including that arming the opposition forces will:

1)   Halt the regime’s gains and give the forces a fighting chance

2)   Win influence over the groups and the people they defend

3)   Balance the power that Iran, Al Nursa or any Sunni forces may have gained

4)   Unite the more secular forces and drive out Al Qaeda backed groups

What’s wrong with these points? A few things…

· The Syrian Army uses attack helicopters and tanks to bombard towns from far away so small arms will not help the Syrian forces make gains nor improve defenses

·Interventions like this tend the prolong conflict  

·Research shows that external support generally fractures groups 

·No research has ever proven that a patron or country can reliably “buy” influence from a group or groups 


In order for Iran to lose this chess match, the rebels have to make political and military gains.  For Iran, a victory would just be avoiding an outright U.S. win.  If Obama’s gamble fails it will only reinforce just how weak U.S. influence in the region has become. And then, checkmate.    

Despite the tragedy that is the loss of life, culture and history of Syria, a greater one awaits the Syria population if this power game continues.  They will not be collateral damage. They will not even be pawns. They simply will be the board on which this game of power struggle continues.  

Many commentators, including David Brooks, have made comparisons to a Post 9-11 Iraq. This is folly. Instead, I recommend we view this situation as Afghanistan in the 1980s where President Reagan made the decision to arm opposition forces to combat the Soviet Union. A choice that birthed some the same forces we face in Syria today in the form of Al Nursa and Al Qaeda.

Limiting the discussion of whether or not to intervene not only misses the underlying issue but is short sighted.  Why limit your tools to only rooks and bishops that attack in straight predictable lines?  Predictable military strategies result in a lot of time being wasted attacking and defending positions instead of looking at all the players on the board and seeing what is happening.

Acknowledging where this great chess game is going and getting the players to sit down for diplomatic talks requires a more flexible strategy with more flexible players. If Obama wants to reach any end game in Syria he needs to release his knights. Jump over near by obstacles and get to the heart of the matter. U.S. foreign policy has been here before, a diplomatic response would go a long way improve relations with Gulf States and U.S. standing.