Carving up the USA?

Equal Frags

I stumbled upon this creative but mad article that proposes cutting up the United States of America into 50 states of equal population size. The aim of this exercise is to equalise “congressional overrepresentation” from small states and rural areas. This would be quite important today considering that Congress representation is such that each state, regardless of population size, gets the same number of votes, which makes the small, rural states wield extra power. This extra power can come in handy to block bills unfavourable to them, as witnessed in the process to pass the cap-and-trade bill where small rural states, expected to be severely disadvantaged due to their agricultural economy, have used their votes to block the passing of the bill or try squeeze some concessions and caveats in return for votes. Neil Freeman discusses some advantages and disadvantages on his website.

Erasing the current borders of the USA is not a new idea. From as early as 1975, people have proposed the notion of carving up the USA into 38 states based on cultural and physical aspects of the territory. Professor C Etzel Pearcy realigned the boundaries based on newer and evolved concepts such as population density, urban sprawl and transport routes. Not quite how one normally decides a boundary (usually based on physical relief: rivers or mountain ranges for example), but still worth considering for the better of jurisdiction and administration. But of course, such measures are really controversial: will the people in power today want to yield their power to someone else, or have their powers curtailed? I am quite sure not.

And I am reminded of closer to home, when electoral boundaries are redrawn every now and then to accomodate for changing population sizes, according to the government.

Some entertaining ideas for you to think about this Lunar New Year.

The Tsunami’s Application to Haiti

All Gone Now...

An article in The Economist discusses the lessons learnt from the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004 which can be applied to the recent devastating Haiti earthquake. Apparently, aid agencies concur that it is not the matter of the amount of aid being delivered to Haiti, but more of the local capabilities and responses to the earthquake that will make or break the relief efforts.

Post-tsunami, 9 months later, only 39% of money promised to be spent has been dispersed. It is not that more money is needed, but the types of aid being donated must correspond with the need. When “Viagra, ski jackets and Father Christmas costumes” can be donated to the tsunami victims, it does indicate that there is the lack of sensibilities in terms of what people donate and how they provide aid. We cant really fault the kind-hearted for wanting to do something, but to donate such unsensible and insensitive stuff to people who need more than those seems to smack of sheer stupidity. Or is it just a chance to clear one’s home of junk?

In addition, local administration has to be strong and in charge during a disaster. Malaysia’s response to the tsunami (Penang was affected) contrasts vastly with Aceh’s response. Malaysia’s effective governance made relief efforts useful while the political conflict in Aceh made it even more difficult for relief efforts, even if we ignore the fact that the epicentre of the disaster was in Aceh. Even the proliferation of too many NGOs can create headaches, as each NGO fights to distribute aid and contribute to relief efforts, which can make control and management very messy for the local administration. This was proven in Aceh with 180 NGOs operating there at one point, and may prove to be another problem in Haiti which had “more NGOs per capita than anywhere else in the Americas”.

Another article by the BBC on the differences between Haiti and Aceh points out other problems that Haiti faces that Aceh did not face, such as the lack of coordination and information on security forces operating in Haiti, which made Haiti appear to be like a “war zone” as portrayed on TV. And considering that Haiti at its best of times is already a nightmare, one can imagine how the earthquake would make things so much worse.

So the Haiti government as well as other governments and NGOs helping out in Haiti have to make sure they learn some lessons from the tsunami response efforts, or else even more will suffer.

Your oil comes from… Venezuela?

Oil Pipes
Pipe Source Unknown...

Following up from my write-up on why petrol is expensive in oil-producing Alaska, another article written by The Green Conservative Jim DiPeso in The Daily Green argues that pumps should feature where their oil comes from. And the reason for such features are not just for the geography student like me keen to know where my products come from.

“Country of origin labels on gas pumps” are being advocated in the USA, the land where federal regulations dictate that agricultural products be labeled for their country-of-origin and customers like to demand for the right to knowledge about the products they consume. It helps people choose which country’s oil they want to use, and hence avoid supporting “despots” like Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or Vladimir Putin of Russia. But it will be too complicated, as much as it sounds like a really cool idea. As mentioned in my previous write-up, all that oil from different countries are pooled together then sold, so chances are the gas / petrol in your tank comes from all over the world literally. An alternative he suggests is the proportion of oil coming from which country, so consumers get to know.

And perhaps choose to boycott petrol stations that buy oil from “evil” countries to sell. (Venezuela, Iran & Russia for starters…) Not that they would have much of an option, considering that coincidentally many oil producing countries happen to be rather undesirable in aspects ranging from democracy and freedom of expression to living standards, so if you wish to make a statement you’d probably have to stop driving to stop using petrol.

Drill, baby, drill… not!

Oil Derrick
Just keep digging...

I subscribe via email to The Daily Green, a website that advocates green consumption as well as champions environmental initiatives by the green movement. I chanced upon this article on high gas prices in Alaska one day in my email. It took me by surprise because one would think that since Alaska produces quite a significant amount of America’s gas (gasoline, referred to as oil or petrol in the Singaporean context), one would be surprised by how expensive petrol can be in Alaska. And what caught me by greater surprise is that this article was written by a green Republican! Jim DiPeso, The Green Conservative of The Daily Green, is policy director of Republicans for Environmental Protection, and if you, like me, used to think that Republicans do not believe in saving the environment, then you thought wrong.

Coming back to this article, in the “Land of Sarah Palin”, to have oil prices higher than the rest of the country and to have stage legislators calling for fuel price regulations would be a surprise given our assumptions that Alaskan oil would fuel the state and that Republicans are against price controls or regulation. The article highlights the components of the cost of petrol, and highlights that essentially all that crude oil pumped out of Alaska goes into the global market, subject to global market pricing, which is subjected to influence by OPEC (Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries) as well as influence by global events that will affect demand and supply of crude oil worldwide.

In addition, Alaska’s petrol market is described as oligopolistic, i.e. players have more pricing power in a relatively-small state with little competition in supply of petrol compared to other states. Given that competition in refining and distribution of petrol is limited in Alaska, the prices would probably already been higher even if Alaskan oil went straight to Alaska. The fact that petrol producers in Alaska even need to import crude oil from other countries will debunk the myths about Alaskan-produced oil.

So essentially, the “drill, baby, drill” lobby who claim that the answer to lower petrol prices would be to open up more oilfields in Alaska are quite mistaken. Looks like The Green Conservative is pitting himself against other Republicans who belong to that lobby. And perhaps the solution might turn out to be more competition instead, which is something the Republicans should focus on instead of drilling their way out of an energy crisis in America (and give the environment a reprieve!)

Monikers aka Generalisations

Frustrated by Intricacies

An article in The Economist raised a rather interesting but oft-neglected problem: the proliferation of labels and categories where countries are haphazardly shuffled in, without consideration for historical or geographical accuracy. I first encountered this in JC Geography, when we were taught to evaluate (it’s amazing though that we have to be taught how to evaluate, but this is the A-levels for you) the tendency of geographers to pigeon-hole countries into monikers like the North and the South or Third World, Second World and First World, which can be highly inaccurate and neglects discrepancies or outliers. In the topic of Globalisation, we were taught that to divide the world into a simplistic North-South divide would be to forget about what it really means to be geographically in the Northern hemisphere or Southern hemisphere. Developed countries like Australia and Singapore, for instance, would be technically south of what is in the North in the divide but that does not mean these countries are economically comparable to other countries in the South.

Pardon if what I just described to you sounds confusing, but you will get a better idea if you read The Economist article, which gives many more examples of blatant generalisations in history and geography. Even labels we consider absolutely normal or acceptable might hint of insensitivities. We often refer to South America as Latin America, but this term smacks of colonialism, and the continent while still speaking mainly Spanish and Portugese is certainly wielding its own influence rather than continue to be within the Latin or European sphere of influence.

These labels are certainly convenient, but we should never forget that they must be questioned every now and then to check their relevance. Like, even the oft-used ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ countries could be questioned in terms of the spheres they cover and how to categorise countries. For instance, would Singapore be a ‘developed’ or ‘developing’ country? And based on what indicators?

Something for the GP (General Paper) and Geography student to think about.

Ruin & Farms

Years Back...

As The Economist reports on the need for a whole scale re-invention of the state of Michigan, an investor in Detroit has come up with an interesting proposal to utilize the unused land in the largest city of Michigan and attempt to restore economic activity in the city that is hollowing out.

There is much potential in building up engineering capabilities of the population of Michigan to kick-start newer, more tech-intensive industries. The small start-ups may be slow to hire and would begin with the best brains, subsequent growth would help raise employment figures. Like what is mentioned in The Economist article, the state has no quick-fix to return to prosperity and will have to toil long and hard to develop newer industries. This could be considered a punishment for having lobbied so hard to maintain the inefficient automobile industry and the refusal of firms in the state to carry out restructuring.

On the other hand, the urban farming idea in Detroit might be a good start given that it might offer the chance to warm up the construction industry. Nevertheless, reviving Detroit would do little to help the state of Michigan if the other towns and cities don’t come up with new ideas on how to rise again. Moral of the story of procrastinating change: Someone will have to pay the bill someday.

Benefits of Procrastination

Stop Procrastinating
Might not always be the right way...

Our views towards climate change are often tinted with a veil of emotions – fearful of our children’s safety, the prospects of more disasters and such. As a result, we proceed as cautiously as possible when studying it and would rather we err on the side of exaggerating the effects of climate change than to downplay it. Robert P. Murphy, an economist specialized in climate change economics, gave the whole story a more objective treatment in his article, The Benefits of Procrastination: The Economics of Geo-engineering

The article mentions some interesting geo-engineering schemes that are currently explored, but the main issue of the article is not the technologies involved but the cost-benefit analysis for the choice between waiting for more options to fight climate change and fighting it now through emission reductions. He argues for wait-and-see approach towards climate change and encourage geo-engineers to get on with their innovations and research.

Murphy believes that procrastination might give us a better assessment of the effects and extent of climate change our economic activity is resulting in and thus allow us to respond with more effective initiatives without compromising our economic growth at present and paying too high a cost from preventive measures such as reducing emissions.

Interestingly, discount rates isn’t even the issue. The significant idea Murphy is after is that we could buy time to refine our assessment of climate change and also the means to tackle them. And that it’s worth it. I’m not sure if the potential life loss from the risk is accounted for but his suggestions would sound insane to those who are suffering at the frontline of climate change, like the Inuits in Arctic region.

Even as an economist-to-be, I know that these issues is not always about economics and when we are thinking about global issues and aggregating cost, we almost definitely will leave out the non-monetary cost borne by the fringe groups. Perhaps Murphy could re-do his calculations and analysis after he reviews the cost of the effects of climate change even using more conservative estimates of the effects.

Meaningful, I’m not so sure

The clock is ticking.

Key states have announced what they call a “meaningful” agreement at the Copenhagen Climate Summit to tackle climate change. The agreement between the US, China, Brazil, India and South Africa would set a mitigation target to limit warming to no more than 2C and, importantly, to take action to meet this objective.

The five-nation brokered deal promised to deliver $30bn of aid for developing nations over the next three years, and outlined a goal of providing $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poor countries cope with the impacts of climate change. The agreement also included a method for verifying industrialised nations’ reduction of emissions. The US had insisted that China dropped its resistance to this measure.

However, it seems that only the US and China are supposedly “happy” from a meeting which seemingly had a “positive result”, or rather, what I term as a poor return from the 2 weeks worth of discussion.

In the face of a globalized world and the many challenges that we face, what the US and China put forth together seemingly only benefits them. For instance, nothing is done about limiting carbon emissions and on a legally binding treaty, something which sort of “liberalizes” the major powers in the form of US, China and India. With US out of Kyoto and the lack of a legally binding contract, China and India can be said to be free to do whatever they want, with all three nations insisting that national sovereignty comes first.

Now, I’m not saying national sovereignty should be ignored, but as we attempt to tackle a problem that we should have been engaged in long ago, we realize that the Copenhagen Accord, as Jo Leinen, chairman of the European Parliament’s environment committee described, is a completely “disappointment and below our expectations”.

Selfish interests of the global powers dominated the discussion table in Copenhagen, while the rest of the world are let down by their inability to co-operate and come up with a more radical approach to the problem. Yes, this is progress from what has come before, a necessity, but whether it will truly solve the problem, no. The roots of the problem ultimately lie in the countries’ inability to break out of their shell – their inability to come to a solid-enough compromise, and their covert belief that the economy should come first. This inability to commit to this cause from the US, China and India seemingly portrays them in a green limelight.

Progress has been made, yes, but it’s no longer about the ability to make progress, that almost didn’t happen, but rather, how fast we can reach humanity’s goal.

The clock is ticking.

Copenhagen, Hopenhagen, Nopenhagen

Climate Change
Save a few trees

It saddens me to read in The Straits Times that at the end of the whole Copenhagen COP15 summit, the only statement issued was just a whimper, a short simple declaration that does not commit anything very much promising. The US$30b fund is an improvement that I found encouraging, but otherwise all the wrangling and politicking was disgusting and disappointing.

As an environmentalist, I guess I always had greater expectations about COP15 and what governments should be doing. But even as my expectations were lowered by the day as I tracked the summit through the newspapers, I am still disappointed that there will not be real leadership and guts to tackle climate change. Reading The Economist, in particular, seems to increase that pessimism. Local politics ultimately rules the day, and sadly local politics are heavily influenced by lobby groups like the oil industry, as well as naysayers who do not believe in the concept of climate change.

It does not help matters that recently there were <a href="leaked emails of data collected on climate science being ‘massaged’. It only proves the skeptics and naysayers that climate change is an agenda usurped by those against capitalism and the Western world, against development and industrialisation. It was already difficult to convince people, or to convince even ourselves, that the economy would not be affected by measures to fight climate change. This ‘Climategate’ might only sour perceptions about environmentalists, environmental scientists and those who support the climate change notion as rogues who are trying to stop the world from getting wealthier.

Very hard to feel very optimistic. I visited the Hopenhagen website, and on its index page it asks for input from visitors to its website for what hopes the visitors have for the environment / climate and what is it that keeps them optimistic. I could not think of anything positive to write about, knowing that the legal, political and economic hurdles were so huge. I closed the website window without typing anything.

So tell me, what keeps you optimistic about resolving climate change?

Parcel Here!

Heavy but weighs zero grammes
Heavy but weighs zero grammes

This week’s read/watch/listen parcel starts with a little introduction of a new book The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins and a Q&A session that follows under Berkeley’s Arts & Letters programme on The site holds a wonderful collection of intellectual and academic videos from different events and places.

The book itself was recently published and praised by The Economist for its educational value. To be frank I’ve never read Richard Dawkins but from his readings of The Greatest Show on Earth in the video, I reckon I’d enjoy his style of demonstrating his arguments using long analogies that are probably closer to the heart of readers (rather reminiscent of Abraham Lincoln’s speeches).

He compares Creationist to Holocaust Deniers, those who argues that Evolution is full of gaps to a stubborn lawyer who declares that more evidence is less. He questions the plausibility of Marsupials engaged is some sort of migration programme where they emigrate en masse from Mount Ararat to Australia – such was the witty humour that Dawkins use to entertain readers and frustrate those who believed in the literalism of Noah’s Ark. Dawkins is critical and knows clearly what exactly he is out defend in the book.

Next, some readings on the fertility decline around the world in The Economist, something I wrote about previously as well as an article on price wars on The New Yorker by James Surowiecki. There’s a video accompanying the article from The Economist about population.

Finally, find out more about Vincent van Gogh’s life from The Economist’s Editor Highlights Audio.