Tuesday, January 27, 2015

When to Say "When"

A certain concentration of wealth is a good thing -- the wealthy and the aspiring wealthy assure us -- because it creates incentives. This is probably true. I really do not mind being a bit wealthier than I was at a younger age, and I know that my modest wealth allows me to provide for the employment of others. So sure, let's have a bit of wealth concentration.
Image: The Guardian
But how much would wealth need to be concentrated in order for it to be considered too concentrated? What if everyone in the world had a dollar a day, except for one guy who had everything else ... would that be too much? How close to that perverse scenario will our economy get before people object? Apparently, as close as it is now.

The graphic is similar to the Top Ten I shared recently in my Untenable Gap post, but is perhaps all the more dramatic because it is comparing two groups of people -- one about the size of a typical college calculus class and the other group number more than all of the people in the world outside of Asia.

That is:
people now have as much wealth as
people. It cannot proportional to differences in work ethic, cleverness, or even luck.

For the results to be this skewed, the game has to be rigged. Not rigged likc an underinflated football, but rigged like an entire political system that has been taken captive.

For readers not familiar with Oxfam, it is a British non-governmental organization (NGO) that not only studies poverty, but actively works on strategies to alleviate it. Oxfam has, for example, been a leader not only in promoting the fair-trade model, but also in holding it to a high standard. The same Oxfam Report responsible for the 80-vs-billions graphic also found that the "bottom 99 percent" control as much wealth as the top one percent on a global basis.

In other words, as of this evening, the top
people control as much wealth as the
of us at the bottom (apologies to my highly wealthy readers for not including you among "us" but the reasons may be evident).

According to the Global Rich List, as a mid-career professional in the United States, I'm actually in the upper echelons of that lower 99 percent, but the wealth of working people cannot compare to those who actually operate the levers of the world economy. I have tried to capture this distinction in the very simple graphic of my own, shown at right.

The 73 million at the top are shown in pink at the top, and control as much wealth as those shown below in yellow.

At the moment, it remains popular to brand as "socialist" any suggestion that this is not a viable balance, but the pendulum is swinging away from that view, as a growing number of people recognize that this is not "capitalism" either, if by that we mean an economic system that rewards ambition and hard work.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Whose Ethics?

A few stories about ethics have emerged in recent days, the juxtaposition of which has me wondering a bit about ethics rules, and who they are really for. To whit:

Dorchester teacher Nicole Bollerman won books for all of her students and $150,000 for herself as a result of a recent essay contest. SHE GAVE ALL OF THE PRIZE MONEY TO THE SCHOOL. Massachusetts is the only planet on which this could have raised any legal concerns, since "gifts" to public employees are limited to a $50. Hearing of the teacher's generosity (it is almost redundant to call a public school teacher "generous" these days, given their generally shabby treatment), comedian Ellen DeGeneres heard about her generosity and gave all the kids in the school another round of supplies, all the teachers gift cards for school supplies, and Bollerman another $25,000. Still, the ethics questions continue, though it is not clear by whom or to what purpose.

The Boston Globe's article about Bollerman makes a few interesting points. First, she gave away the original prize money despite the student loans that most professionals her age now carry, thanks to the refusal of legislatures to continue funding higher education at the levels they had enjoyed. Second, Ellen's $500 gifts to teachers are being questioned, while the common practice of teachers spending that kind of money on school supplies is not.

Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Stoughton, it has recently come to light that superintendent Marguerite Rizzi has been running an education consulting business, along with several of her non-teaching colleagues. Many are questioning how this group of executives has the time to operate a business, but my real concern is that they are so shamelessly profiting from the good work of actual teachers, by extolling their accomplishments as if they were their own. I am also reminded of something I have written about quite a bit in this space -- the absolutely absurd number of absurdly paid upper administrators in Massachusetts schools -- and municipal government generally -- resulting from our refusal to regionalize services.

Another "event" is fictional, but very real to me. One of our guilty pleasures is binge-watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer, whose protagonist is a teenager who, well, slays vampires. In the Checkpoint episode from Season 5, the "Watchers" who oversee the work of such slayers all come together to tell Buffy how poorly she is doing according to their metrics and protocols. "Don't mess with the slayer!" we say, as Buffy deftly explains the difference between those who do, and those who manage.

And finally, all of this comes as we learn that a former state official happens to be the most qualified (it seems) to pull down $300,000 a year as the overseer of Boston's bid to secure the 2024 Olympics and we are reminded of the many ways in which the Massachusetts legislature ensures that it can continue to operate in secrecy.

Ethics, oversight, and accountability, it seems, are for the little people.


This is not a recent story, but one that still grates. At a time when the governor would not bargain in good faith with state-university faculty, Lt. Gov. Jane Swift was "earning" $25,000 to co-teach one course at Suffolk University. That is, she was on the syllabus while a real professor did most of the teaching for a small fraction of that salary.

Sip Locally, Imbibe Globally

Partner's Village in Westport is a cozy cooperative of  artisans, small retailers, and of course a coffee shop.
It is a great place to buy local.
We were probably on our way to or from our favorite vineyard when we stopped by Partner's Village a few months ago, and found a page-a-day wine calendar in its bookstore. Back before the diversions of the internet, we would often have several calendars of this kind, but have not used them so much in recent years. We could not resist a year of learning more about wine, though, especially since we could buy the calendar from a local merchant. Little did we realize that "local" would itself be a major theme of the calendar's individual pages. Within the first few weeks, we peeled off several cogent geography lessons, most of them about the delights of local wine.
January 17/18: The story of our summer weekends on the Coastal Wine Trail.
January 15 has this inviting photograph and the following advice: "Attending a housewarming party? Choose a local wine or, if gifting the bottle to a friend far away, seek out a winery in his or her area and attach a map with directions to visit the winery."
This can work even in places too cold for "real" grape-based wines. We have enjoyed visits to wineries specializing in other local fruits in Vermont and Wisconsin, so a little research can probably yield a bit of bottle terroir just about anywhere. Of course, some people do not drink wine, but the same idea can be applied to the providers of other local foods.
January 20: "In excess of 10,000 different kinds of grapes exist, though the wine-drinking public focuses on only a handful, approximately 230 prominent grapes."
In this way, wine is similar to other foods. Of the thousands of plants known to be edible, humans get the rely on just a few -- rice, corn, and wheat account for 60 percent of world caloric intake. More alarming is that within any given crop, we tend to narrow the gene pool through increasing reliance on just one variety of each.

And now for the global...

January 19: The terms New World and Old World are used throughout the wine industry. Old World refers to regions from Mesopotamia to the Atlantic, including North Africa and Europe. New World includes South Africa, Australia, and North and South America, where wine has been grown only for the past 200 to 300 years.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Crowd-Sourced Mapping of Uncrowded Places

Before describing the reason for sharing the map above, I want to point out that it is probably the first map I have seen that depicts the political divisions of Nigeria -- 36 states plus the federal district of Abuja. This is simply a reminder of how vast the world is -- full of places waiting to be discovered and understood.

And this reminds me that before going on I should share a locational map in order to situate this story about Africa's largest country in terms of economy and population.
This post is about a larger-scale (that is, more detailed) mapping project within three states in the north-central part of the country. Katsina, Kano, and Jigawa include 20,000,000 people spread in small settlements over an area of 100,000 square miles. But maps of these settlements are not sufficiently accurate to facilitate governance, planning, or humanitarian aid. Even tax collectors did not really know where to find the people of this region.

Of course, the area is covered by satellite imagery, but algorithms are not as good as humans at converting those images into reliable information about settlements. This turns out to be an excellent opportunity for crowdsourcing, and the Tomnod group developed a reliable protocol that it describes in Mapping Remote Settlements.

Untenable Gap

Among the end-of-year lists I noticed at the close of 2014 was The Top 10 Charts from the Economic Policy Institute. Each of the charts describes growing economic inequality in a different way, some of which are a bit complicated or nuanced -- though all are important.

I found the one shown above to be the most compelling and easy to understand. (Go to the article itself for the interactive version of this and nine other graphics.)

It really is this simple: workers keep producing more, but they do not receive more. That wealth is going somewhere, and our democracy really depends on figuring out how to make sure some of it stays with the people who create it.