Extra! Mainstream Media Downplays Hysteria!

I was happily shocked to see yesterday’s cover story in Parade Magazine, “What Are We Afraid Of?”

what-are-you-afraid-of-in-2015

What surprised me was that a mainstream, read-by-millions, middle-of-the-road, USofA kinda magazine was talking Americans out of their panic room mentalities toward a crazy thesis: You’re pretty darn safe.

Well, the article didn’t say that exactly, but nowadays we worry more about highly unlikely things like ebola and terrorism than real dangers (like texting while driving and the flu). People who should know better, like Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey*, think we live in a dangerous time despite the fact that death by tuberculosis, murder, natural disaster, smoking, fire, war, polio–even heart disease and stroke–are becoming less and less likely.

The Parade article breaks down in simple ways how we evolved for threats on the East African savanna–dangers that don’t exist for us anymore–not for our current threats, most of which are self-made (like obesity, being inside moving automobiles, and suicide). But if we don’t use the rational part of our mind, fear can rule us, especially with a media environment that can report every bit of bad (though rare) news in gory detail.

So remember that flu, not ebola, might kill you. Gluten won’t cause you health problems (barring celiac disease), but make sure you get enough fiber. And for heaven’s (and my family’s) sake please get all your shots. No one gets autism from vaccines.

*”I can’t impress upon you [enough] that in my personal military judgment, formed over 38 years, we are living in the most dangerous time in my lifetime, right now.” from Cato Institute website

 

Millions of Children’s Lives, Simple Solutions

“In the category of stunning, heartening, woefully underreported good news: In 2000, an estimated 9.9 million children around the world died before age 5. In 2013, the figure was 6.3 million. That is 3.6 million fewer deaths, even as the world’s population increased by about 1 billion.”

This stat, from Michael Gerson’s article in the Washington Post, reflects the continuing avalanche of positive health trends of the last few decades. Gerson gives a shout out to Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, an organization that supports vaccinations for some 60% of the world’s children. Gavi does what government programs try but usually fail to deliver–a successful program with low overhead that shuts down when the job is done. Gavi tapers off its subsidization of vaccines over time as local vaccination infrastructure scales up.

We all know how deep and detailed the reporting of the Ebola crisis was. (Now that it’s getting under control we hear much less.) But this much more important story–think of the thousands of children saved from death for every Ebola death–yet stories about vaccinations saving millions never make it to the front page.

http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/michael-gerson-a-global-conspiracy-of-health/2014/12/18/dc79da7c-86f9-11e4-9534-f79a23c40e6c_story.html#b12g22t20w14

So Much to Be Grateful For!

Significant decreases in extreme poverty, hunger, child labor, child mortality, death in childbirth, teen births (US), smoking, war, homicide, violent crime, nuclear weapons, and share of income spent on food.

Significant increases in life expectancy, leisure time, literacy, IQ scores, democracy and internet access.

People are getting taller and staying in school longer. Guinea worm is almost eradicated–and Guinea Worm is a really bad parasite–Homelessness in the US is down.

Check out 26 Charts and Maps to Be Grateful for on Vox.com

Happy Thanksgiving!

http://www.vox.com/2014/11/24/7272929/charts-thankful

The Burning Cuyahoga and the Environmental Kuznets Curve

Ah, the aroma of burning river, a whiff of our idyllic past.

Between 1868 and 1969, the Cuyahoga River burned at least 13 times (Wikipedia), the worst of which occurred in 1952, although the 1969 fire (much smaller than 1952) inspired a Time article that catalyzed the environmental movement. The cause of these fires were heavy oil slicks and other flammable materials, including trash, floating on the river’s surface. For those who think that terrible pollution is a 20th and 21st Century problem, it is interesting to note that the first recorded fire on the river was witnessed three years after the end of the American Civil War.

Today the Cuyahoga River is doing much, much better. “River reaches that were once devoid of fish now support 44 species. The…survey in 2008 revealed the two most common species in the river were hogsuckers and spotfin shiners, both moderately sensitive to water quality. Habitat issues within the 5.6 miles (9.0 km) navigation channel still preclude a robust fishery in that reach. Recreation water quality standards (using bacteria as indicators) are generally met during dry weather conditions, but are often exceeded during significant rains due to nonpoint sources and combined sewer overflows.” (Wikipedia)

While not perfect, this improvement reflects general improvements in most environmental indicators of pollution in developed countries like the United States, Japan, Australia and Western Europe. In the early days of industrialization, these countries poured the excrement of their factories in the most convenient river, lake or ocean. But as citizens got richer and wealth spread–basic needs met by a growing economy–rampant pollution became unacceptable. Citizens wouldn’t stand for it.

So rivers burn and people become outraged…and a Republican president creates the Environmental Protection Agency. Today there is much less pollution in the developed world then there was 50 years ago (C02 and other greenhouse gasses being important exceptions). Today pollution problems are much worse in rising countries like China and India. And it should be no surprise that China, especially, is making environmental cleanup a major priority. Forty years ago China was still gripped in its self-destructive Cultural Revolution. Who cares about air pollution when hundreds of thousands of people are dying? Now the notorious Beijing air is a top priority as most Chinese no longer just eke out a living.

This pattern–develop, pollute, enrich, reform–is described by the Environmental Kuznets Curve (EKC). While controversial, it has been studied quite a bit and makes intuitive sense. At the start of development, countries focus on production at any costs. Tire factory in a poor country? Just blast the noxious smoke into the air to float away. But as the tire workers became richer and their children went to school, survival was not longer the number-one priority. The persistent hacking of family members led to complaints to a local bureaucrat, and thus, usually in fits and failures and eventual successes, an environmental movement emerges.

Yes, this is too neat, and Bhopals and Chernobyls loom large in the story of pollution in developing countries. Nonetheless, the clean-up of the Cuyahoga and thousands of rivers like it in developed countries speak to some important truths. People complaining to officials works. And one source of the complaints is relative affluence.

How the EKC works–When per capita Gross Domestic Product reaches somewhere in the neighborhood of $4000, pollution decreases as the pressures from the “rising” locals force better environmental protections, especially for improved air quality (dioxides and particulate matter). However, the EKC is a moderately crude model. Rising wages is not the only, or even primary, driver of environmental change; access to property rights, rule of law, fair elections–civil society–are crucial. Chernobyl happened in a totalitarian state. Nuclear energy has caused very few deaths in rich countries yet strong environmental groups and constituencies keep nuclear energy relatively small. That’s power.

As Yandle et al. point out in an paper about the EKC: When ordinary people have political power, civil rights as well as economic rights, air and water quality improves in richer and poorer countries.

So the affluence brought by development is a powerful driver of eventual environmental improvement, but political power and civil rights are virtually necessary for these improvements, too.

Renewables Where They’re Needed

Rational centralization was an organizing paradigm of the 20th century. Our age of innovation is all about decentralization. In our pockets we carry access to far more information than that contained at the Library of Congress. And phones (smart & dumb) now allow banking and ecommerce even for the poorest of the planet. Right now I’m blogging on my iPhone as I wait for a hot dog at a baseball game. Nowadays you can do everything anywhere.

For many, renewable energy is all about saving the planet, but for others it’s a way to get power to remote places that are off the grid. That’s much of the developing world. For example, the school and orphanage I help support in rural Kenya has several solar panels. This helps them charge computers and turn on some lights for evening study time, but its most important benefit is the recharging of cell phones, the great connectors and agents of positive change in places like Kenya, the rest of Africa, Asia, and Latin America.

Renewables get cheaper and cheaper, and thus more and more feasible for remote places in the developed world and remote and off-the-grid places in the developing world. Is getting on the grid impossible or prohibitively expensive? Install (increasingly cheaper) solar or wind power.

Check out this NYTimes article about the many benefits of renewables in remote places: http://nyti.ms/1nCghmU

Better Government, Bit by Bit

“The United States government has historically been good at the big stuff, from fighting wars to breaking new scientific ground. It’s everything else that tends to present a problem.

David Leonhardt’s sweeping assessment of the performance of our government over the last 200+ years is, well, sweeping, but it captures the heart of the problem of big government: Even if well-meaning programs help people in need, these efforts are often slow, inefficient and not very effective.

Progressives deem government programs worthy ipso facto, while the far right wants to vivisect the government–the good and the bad.

A third way is to set ideological assumptions aside and put programs to the test via the gold standard: the randomized study.

Leonhardt, in today’s New York Times, reports on a small but growing trend in testing government programs:

“Less than 1 percent of government spending is backed by even the most basic evidence of cost-effectiveness,” writes Peter Schuck, a Yale law professor, in his new book, “Why Government Fails So Often,” a sweeping history of policy disappointments. As Mr. Schuck puts it, “the government has largely ignored the ‘moneyball’ revolution in which private-sector decisions are increasingly based on hard data.”

A solution? “The explosion of available data has made evaluating success – in the government and the private sector – easier and less expensive than it used to be. At the same time, a generation of data-savvy policy makers and researchers has entered government and begun pushing it to do better. They have built on earlier efforts by the Bush and Clinton administrations.

“The result is a flowering of experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t.”

While I strongly doubt that this sensible approach will be taken up quickly given our current political environment, the trend bodes well.

http://nyti.ms/1shwl4U