Social Changes

Sunflower Movement in Taiwan

Article 1

Sunflower sutra

MA YING-JEOU, Taiwan’s president, is no doubt relieved. After three weeks occupying the debating chamber of the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan’s parliament, student protesters agreed on April 7th to end their sit-in within three days. Demonstrators have fought with riot police, and some have been injured; hundreds of thousands converged on the presidential office on March 30th. But signs of disunity are appearing in Mr Ma’s ruling party, the Kuomintang (or KMT). And relations with China are in danger of cooling.

The students’ occupation of parliament was in a bid to prevent the passage of an agreement allowing for freer trade in services with China. They argue that the pact was negotiated in secret and will allow China to gain greater political control over the island. One of their main demands was for a law allowing for greater public oversight of such cross-strait agreements, to be implemented before this particular services pact is passed. On April 3rd Mr Ma’s cabinet partially responded to this demand by approving a bill for monitoring such pacts with China—but still did not agree to the idea of enacting it first. It was only on April 6th, when Taiwan’s parliamentary speaker, Wang Jin-pyng, pledged to halt review of the services deal until such a law was enacted that the students agreed to call it a day.

Mr Wang’s promise (made, to much media fanfare, during a visit to the students in the debating chamber) was glaringly at odds with the stance of Mr Ma’s administration. Mr Ma’s spokeswoman, Garfie Li, said she had no idea that Mr Wang, a powerful figure in the KMT, had planned to say this. The cabinet’s spokesman, Sun Lih-chyun, did not agree with this pledge. It is unclear what will happen next. Officials say passage of the services pact, which opens sensitive industries including telecommunications and publishing to Chinese investment, is vital for Taiwan’s economic development and its participation in some regional trade blocs. But other observers say that Mr Ma risks isolating himself within the fractured KMT if he exerts more pressure on lawmakers to pass the contentious pact. The opposition and many Taiwanese, fearful of greater economic integration with China, still firmly support Mr Wang’s pledge. And not all students are ready to leave the chamber.

Some students say Mr Wang’s high-profile visit also generated expectations among the public that the protests would soon end. Even before his promise, a poll conducted between April 2nd and 3rd by TVBS, a broadcaster, suggested that many Taiwanese are weary of parliamentary paralysis. Fully 43% opposed the services pact—but more than half (56%) thought the students should either end their protest or take it to another venue. Oliver Chen, a student spokesman, says that their protest has now gained enough influence, but also that students are wilting. “Our comrades are really tired. We are physically and spiritually exhausted.”

Mr Ma and Mr Wang are bitter enemies. Their animosity intensified after Mr Ma attempted to expel Mr Wang from the party last September. Last month a court ruled in Mr Wang’s favour, allowing him to keep his party membership. Liu Bih-rong, a political scientist at Soochow University in Taipei, thinks Mr Wang is trying to win kudos for resolving the crisis in order to shore up his power. This would allow him eventually to challenge Mr Ma for dominance in the KMT ahead of presidential elections in 2016. If the monitoring bill is passed before the services pact, as Mr Wang has pledged, protracted parliamentary negotiations—and the possibility that the pact could be scrapped altogether—would seriously hurt Mr Ma’s credibility with China. Already nine months have passed since Taiwan and China concluded the pact.

Mr Ma, who has been in power since 2008, has staked both Taiwan’s economic recovery and his political legacy on the historic detente he has fostered with the mainland. A landmark visit by China’s minister for Taiwan affairs, Zhang Zhijun, planned for this month, has been postponed, say Taiwanese government officials. The trip would have been the first formal visit to Taiwan from a mainland official since 1949. The invitation to visit Taiwan was extended by Taiwan’s mainland minister when the two met in Nanjing nearly two months ago in the first meeting between Taiwanese and Chinese officials since the Chinese civil war. China watchers say the government in Beijing wants to see the services pact approved before it considers any other form of rapprochement, such as a proposed deal to liberalise the cross-strait goods trade. Mr Ma’s dream of meeting China’s leader, Xi Jinping, before the end of his presidential term in 2016, may have become a little more distant.

(Picture credit: AFP)

Article 2

Why Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement Will Fail

Adapted from (Article 1) and (Article 2)

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One missing jet, one sunken ferry, two responses

One missing jet, one sunken ferry, two responses
Prime Minister Chung Hong-won after announcing his resignation. In the two weeks since the ferry disaster, South Korea has been gripped by a paroxysm* of self-questioning, shame and official penitence. PHOTO: REUTERS


There are no ideologues in a financial crisis, former United States Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke once said. Clearly the same does not hold true for political crises, as a comparison of Malaysia and South Korea very quickly reveals.

Tragedy has struck both nations in recent weeks, their travails played out in horrifying detail on the world’s television screens.

Fairly or unfairly, the hunt for a missing Malaysian airliner and the desperate attempt to rescue and now recover victims from the sunken Sewol ferry are being viewed as tests of the governments in Putrajaya and Seoul, if not of Malaysian and South Korean societies.

The grades so far? I would give South Korea an A-, Malaysia a D.

In the two weeks since the Sewol tipped over and sank — almost certainly killing 302 passengers, most of them high school students — South Korea has been gripped by a paroxysm of self-questioning, shame and official penitence.

President Park Geun-hye issued a dramatic and heartfelt apology. Her No 2, Prime Minister Chung Hong-won, resigned outright. Prosecutors hauled in the ship’s entire crew and raided the offices of its owners and shipping regulators. Citizens and the media are demanding speedy convictions and long-term reforms.

And Malaysia, almost two months after Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370 vanished? Nothing. No officials have quit. Prime Minister Najib Razak seems more defiant than contrite. The docile local news media has focused more on international criticism of Malaysia’s leaders rather than on any missteps by those leaders themselves.

Both countries are democracies — Malaysia’s even older than South Korea’s. The key difference, though, is the relative openness of their political systems. One party has dominated Malaysia since independence, while South Korea, for all its growing pains and occasional tumultuousness, has seen several peaceful transfers of power over the past quarter-century.

Unused to having to answer critics, Malaysia’s government has responded defensively. Korean officials, on the other hand, are reflecting, addressing the anger of citizens and delving into what went wrong with the shipping industry’s regulatory checks and balances.

That is why South Korea is likely to come out of this crisis stronger than ever, unlike Malaysia.

The two nations responded similarly after the 1997 Asian financial crisis, too. Malaysia’s then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad sought to prove Mr Bernanke’s axiom wrong, bizarrely blaming some shadowy Jewish cabal headed by Mr George Soros for the ringgit’s plunge.

Malaysia did not internalise what had gone wrong or look in the mirror. It did not admit it had been using capital inflows unproductively and that coddling state champions — including Malaysia Airlines — was killing competitiveness. Never did the ruling United Malays National Organisation consider it might be part of the problem.

Contrast that with South Korea’s response to 1997. The government forced weak companies and banks to fail, accepting tens of thousands of job losses. The authorities clamped down on reckless investing and lending and addressed moral hazard head-on. South Koreans felt such shame that millions lined up to donate gold, jewellery, art and other heirlooms to the national treasury.

South Korea’s response was not perfect. I worry, for example, that the family-run conglomerates, or chaebol, that helped precipitate the crisis are still too dominant a decade and a half later. But the country’s economic performance since then speaks for itself.

Now as then, South Korea’s open and accountable system is forcing its leaders to look beyond an immediate crisis. Ordinary Koreans are calling for a national catharsis that will reshape their society and its attitude towards safety. Ms Park’s government has no choice but to respond.

Malaysia’s government, on the other hand, appears to be lost in its own propaganda. To the outside world, Acting Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein performed dismally as a government spokesman: He was combative, defensive and so opaque that even China complained.

However, Mr Hishammuddin is now seen as Prime Minister material for standing up to pesky foreign journalists and their rude questions. The government seems intent on ensuring that nothing changes as a result of this tragedy. As hard as it seems now, South Korea will move past this tragedy, rejuvenated. Malaysia? I am not so sure. BLOOMBERG


William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist based in Tokyo who writes on economics, markets and politics throughout the Asia-Pacific region.

*Paroxysm = refers to any sudden, violent outburst; a fit or violent action or emotion: paroxysms of rage 

Adapted from

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Shortage of Doctors

The Family Doctor, Minus the M.D.


Adapted from:

The Family Health Clinic of Carroll County, in Delphi, Ind., and itssmaller sibling about 40 minutes away in Monon provide full-service health care for about 10,000 people a year, most of them farmers or employees of the local pork production plant. About half the patients are Hispanic but there are also many German Baptist Brethren. Most of the patients are uninsured, and pay according to their income — the vast majority paying the $20 minimum charge for an appointment. About 30 percent are on Medicaid. The clinics, which are part of Purdue University’s School of Nursing, offer family care, pediatrics, mental health and pregnancy care. Many patients come in for chronic problems: obesity, diabetes, hypertension, depression, alcoholism.


“Doctors are trained to focus on a disease. Nurses are trained to think more holistically.” 

What these clinics don’t offer are doctors. They are two of around 250 health clinics across America run completely by nurse practitioners: nurses with a master’s degree that includes two or three years of advanced training in diagnosing and treating disease. A proposal endorsed by the American Association of Colleges of Nursing for 2015 would require nurse practitioners to have a doctorate of nursing practice, which would mean two or three more years of study. Nurse practitioners do everything primary care doctors do, including prescribing, although some states require that a physician provide review. Like doctors, of course, nurse practitioners refer patients to specialists or a hospital when needed.

America has a serious shortage of primary care physicians, and the deficit is growing. The population is aging — and getting sicker, with chronic disease ever more prevalent. Obamacare will bring 32 million uninsured people into the health system — and these newbies will need a lot of medical care. According to the American Association of Medical Colleges, the United States will be short some 45,000 primary care physicians by 2020.

The primary care physicians who do exist are badly distributed — 90 percent of internal medicine physicians, for example, work in urban areas. Some doctors go to work in rural areas or the poor parts of major cities, treating people who have Medicaid or no insurance. But they are few.

In part it’s the money. Primary care doctors make less than specialists anywhere, but they take an even larger financial hit to treat the poor. Particularly in the countryside — even with programs that offer partial loan forgiveness, it’s very hard to pay off medical school debt treating Medicaid patients, much less those with no insurance at all.

And the job of a primary care doctor today is largely managing chronic disease — coordinating the patient’s care with specialists, convincing him to exercise or eat better. Poor patients can be a frustrating struggle. Compared with wealthier patients, they tend to have more serious diseases and fewer resources for getting better. They are less educated, take worse care of themselves and have lower levels of compliance with doctors’ orders. Very few people start medical school hoping to do this kind of work. Those who do it may burn out quickly.

It might seem that offering the rural poor a clinic staffed only by nurses is to give them second-class primary care. It is not. The alternative for residents of Carroll County was not first-class primary care, but none. Before the clinic opened in 1996, the area had some family physicians, but very few accepted Medicaid or uninsured patients. When people got sick, they went to the emergency room. Or they waited it out — and then often landed in the emergency room anyway, now much sicker.

Just as important, while nurses take a different approach to patient care than doctors, it has proven just as effective. It might be particularly useful for treating chronic diseases, where so much depends on the patients’ behavioral choices.

Doctors are trained to focus on a disease — what is it? How do we make it go away?

Nurses are trained to think more holistically. The medical profession is trying to get doctors to ask about their patients’ lives, listen more, coach more and lecture less — being “patient-centered” is the term — in order to better understand what ails them.

“I’ve been out of nursing school since 1972 and I still remember that when faculty members finished talking about the scientific parts of the disease they would talk about the psycho-social part,” said Donna Torrisi, the executive director of the Family Practice and Counseling Network, which has three clinics in Philadelphia. “It’s not about the disease, it’s about the person who has the disease. While in the hospital you’ll often hear doctors refer to a patient as ‘the cardiac down the hall.’”

Younger doctors are no doubt better at this than their older peers. But the system conspires against them. The 15-minute appointment standard in fee-for-service medicine — which pays doctors according to how many patients they see and treatments they provide — makes it unlikely that doctors will spend time discussing a patient’s life in any detail. Physician reimbursement places a zero value on talking to the patient. But nurse practitioners are salaried, giving them the luxury of time. At the Family Health clinics, appointments last half an hour — an hour for a new diabetic or pregnant patient.

Jennifer Coddington, a pediatric nurse practitioner who is a co-clinical director of Family Health Clinics, said that she spends a lot of time teaching patients and their families about their diseases and how to manage it. “We want to know socially and economically what’s going on in their life — their educational level, how are they making it financially,” she said. “You can’t teach patients if you’re not at their educational level. And if a patient can’t afford something, what’s the point of trying to prescribe it? He’s going to be non-compliant.”

A physician might suggest that a patient lose weight and hand him a diet plan — or refer him to a nutritionist. At the Family Health clinics, nutrition counselors — graduate students at Purdue — will sit down with patients to talk about the specific consequence of their diet, and suggest good foods and how to cook them, Coddington said. “When you don’t have enough money to buy fruits and vegetables, so you go to the dollar menu at McDonald’s — we help those people put planners together for the week.”

Data has shown that nurse practitioners provide good health care. Areview of 118 published studies over 18 years comparing health outcomes and patient satisfaction at doctor-led and nurse practioner-led clinics found the two groups to be equivalent on most outcomes. The nurses did better at controlling blood glucose and lipid levels, and on many aspects of birthing. There were no measures on which the nurses did worse.

Nurse-led clinics can save money — but not always in the obvious way. Many are cheaper than comparable physician-led clinics. Suzan Overholser, the business manager of the Family Health clinics, said that their cost per patient was $453 per year — lower than the Indiana average for similarly federally qualified clinics (all the others physician-led) of $549. But nurse-led clinics aren’t always cheaper. Coddington examined published studies of clinic costs and found that in some cases, nurse-managed clinics had slightly higher per-patient costs than traditional clinics.

Although nurses are paid less than doctors (Medicare reimburses them at 85 percent of what it pays doctors,) nurse-led clinics are often very small, and so don’t have the variety of practitioners necessary to keep a clinic running at full capacity. They also serve the most difficult and expensive patients.

The biggest financial benefit, however, likely comes from offering patients an alternative to the emergency room. Coddington’s review cites studies showing large savings in paramedic, police, emergency room and hospital use. A traditional clinic in an underserved area would do that, too, of course — it’s just that nurses tend to go where doctors won’t.

There are about 150,000 nurse practitioners in America today. The vast majority practice in traditional settings — only about a thousand are in nurse-managed clinics. One reason these clinics are rare is that they may equal traditional clinics in health care, but not in business success.

Nurse-managed clinics have to overcome regulatory and financial obstacles that traditional clinics don’t face. Powerful physicians’ groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians oppose allowing nurses to practice independently. “Granting independent practice to nurse practitioners would be creating two classes of care: one run by a physician-led team and one run by less-qualified health professionals,” says a paper from the A.A.F.P., citing the fact that doctors get more years of education and training. “Americans should not be forced into this two-tier scenario. Everyone deserves to be under the care of a doctor.”

Only 16 states and Washington, D.C., allow nurses complete independence. In other states, some of the restrictions are bizarre — in Indiana, for example, nurse practitioners may do everything doctors do, with two exceptions: they can’t prescribe physical therapy or do physicals for high school sports.

Jim Layman, the executive director of the Family Health clinics, said he thought that nurse practitioners cared for the majority of Medicaid patients in Indiana. But if you look through Medicaid records, you’ll find only doctors — nurses are not allowed to be the primary caregiver of record. So the Family Health clinics, like others, employ a physician off-site from 4 to 6 hours a week who uses electronic health records to examine a sample of cases and consult when necessary. Medicaid is billed in his name.

It is not easy for nurse-run clinics to win status as a Federally Qualified Community Health clinic, which would allow them to get federal grants. This is largely because most come out of universities, and most universities don’t want to cede control to the community — a requirement for this status. Purdue decided it would, and the Family Health clinics qualified in 2009. Before that, they received some money from the state, and raised the rest from local March of Dimes, United Way and Chamber of Commerce donations, plus fund-raising dinners and auctions. This was enough to support just one full-time provider at each clinic. Getting F.Q.C.H. status allowed them to hire more staff and move the Carroll County clinic into a modern new building — and probably saved them from collapse. “It would have been very difficult for us had we not gotten F.Q.C.H. status,” said Coddington. The Affordable Care Act — Obamacare — did authorize $50 million for five years for nurse-managed clinics. So far 10 clinics have gotten a total of $15 million.

In some ways, the nurse practitioner-managed clinic is a throwback to the small-town family practice, when your doctor asked about the schoolyard bully and your dad’s unemployment. Among the many changes needed in how America values and reimburses health care, it’s important to encourage and support these clinics. They may be old-fashioned, but that doesn’t mean they should be financed with bake sales.

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Adverse impact of urbanization

Casualties of Toronto’s Urban Skies

By Ian Austen

Published: October 27, 2012

Adapted from:

TORONTO — In the shadow of the massive black towers of a bank’s downtown headquarters here was an almost indistinguishable puff of dark gray fluff on the sidewalk.

It was the body of a golden-crowned kinglet, an unlucky one, that had crashed into the iconic Toronto-Dominion Center building somewhere above.

There is no precise ranking of the world’s most deadly cities for migratory birds, but Toronto is considered a top contender for the title. When a British nature documentary crew wanted to film birds killed by crashes into glass, Daniel Klem Jr., an ornithologist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., who has been studying the issue for about 40 years, directed them here, where huge numbers of birds streaking through the skies one moment can be plummeting toward the concrete the next.

“They’re getting killed everywhere and anywhere where there’s even the smallest garage window,” Professor Klem said. “In the case of Toronto, perhaps because of the number of buildings and the number of birds, it’s more dramatic.”

So many birds hit the glass towers of Canada’s most populous city that volunteers scour the ground of the financial district for them in the predawn darkness each morning. They carry paper bags and butterfly nets to rescue injured birds from the impending stampede of pedestrian feet or, all too often, to pick up the bodies of dead ones.

The group behind the bird patrol, the Fatal Light Awareness Program, known as FLAP, estimates that one million to nine million birds die every year from impact with buildings in the Toronto area. The group’s founder once single-handedly recovered about 500 dead birds in one morning.

Toronto’s modern skyline began to rise in the 1960s, giving it a high proportion of modern, glass-clad structures, forming a long wall along the northwestern shore of Lake Ontario. That barrier crosses several major migratory flight paths, the first large structures birds would encounter coming south from the northern wilderness.

Though those factors make Toronto’s buildings particularly lethal, Professor Klem was quick to say that the city also leads North America when it comes to addressing the problem.

After years of conducting rescue and recovery missions and prodding the city to include bird safety in its design code for new buildings, FLAP has recently begun using the courts to help keep birds alive. It is participating in two legal cases using laws normally meant to protect migratory birds from hunting and industrial hazards to prosecute the owners of two particularly problematic buildings.

Briskly walking on a recent morning with a volunteer bird patrol, Michael Mesure, who founded FLAP 19 years ago, pointed out many examples of killer buildings. As he neared one particularly troublesome spot, on the eastern edge of the financial district, he pointed to a gaggle of sea gulls sitting in trees across the street from an office building. They were waiting, he said, to dine on the smaller birds maimed or killed by the building.

The building has a glass facade that disorients birds by reflecting the surrounding trees. Perceiving the reflection as habitat, birds zoom at it full throttle without regard for the danger.

The victims are largely songbirds. Perhaps because of familiarity, the urbanites of the bird world, like house sparrows, pigeons and gulls, are much less prone to crashing into glass, Professor Klem said.

All the birds collected by FLAP, dead or alive, go into paper bags. Though there were no survivors that recent morning, the merely stunned or frightened would have been released in a park near the shore of Lake Ontario. The injured would have been taken to one of two animal rehabilitation centers outside the city.

The dead birds, with the location of their deaths marked on their bags, first end up in a freezer at FLAP’s headquarters, which is part of a sympathetic city councilor’s offices. Although the autumn migration was barely under way, the freezer was already close to full. Its contents ranged from owls to hummingbirds, and the vividness of their plumage was generally offset by the gruesomeness of their smashed heads.

“If the people were colliding with buildings at the same rate birds are, this issue would have been dealt with a long time ago,” Mr. Mesure said. “There’s a detachment in society about this.”

One especially effective, if unpopular, method of reducing the threat to birds, Mr. Mesure said, is simply to cover the outside of windows up to the height of adjacent trees with the finely perforated plastic film often used to turn transit buses into rolling billboards. The film can be printed with advertising or decorative patterns, although the group has found that a repetitive pattern of small circles made from the same adhesive plastic is both effective and less likely to prompt aesthetic objections.

For new buildings, the solution can be as simple as etching patterns into its glass. A German glass company is also developing windows that it hopes can take advantage of the ability of birds to see ultraviolet light, by including warning patterns that are invisible to humans.

But even after nearly two decades of drawing attention to the problem, Mr. Mesure acknowledged that the threat to birds was still rarely considered by architects and developers. Along the morning search route was a hotel that was one of the last buildings approved before Toronto’s new rules took effect. Its extensive use of irregularly shaped reflective glass will most likely make it “quite lethal to birds,” Mr. Mesure said.

Wryly, he also noted a statue at its base depicting a dragon covered in small birds.

The first decision in the court cases, which both involve office complexes outside downtown, is expected on Nov. 15. Though the charges were brought under federal and provincial laws, the cases are being prosecuted byEcojustice, a nonprofit environmental law group, rather than the government, which Canadian law permits.

The effect of the cases is already obvious at Consilium Place, a suburban complex of three office towers involved in the first prosecution. Consilium sits between a river valley that is a major migratory bird resting spot and Lake Ontario. The location and the reflective glass exterior on two of the buildings, which is helpful in reducing heating and air-conditioning costs, but deceiving to birds, make it consistently among the city’s most dangerous structures for birds, Mr. Mesure said.

The former owner, Menkes, consistently rejected proposed solutions on the basis of cost and aesthetics, he said. “We tried to get them engaged in this issue and really didn’t get anywhere.”

Menkes declined to comment for this article. But since the complex was sold this year, the new owner, Kevric Real Estate, has begun to apply a pattern of small white dots on the windows. While far from complete, the measure was already having an effect. A freezer for storing dead birds, which the new landlord had placed in an underground parking garage, contained only a dozen remains, far fewer than usual during a migratory period.

In the case of the Toronto-Dominion Center, however, the birds are also running up against aesthetic concerns. The soaring 1967 towers are the last major work of the modernist master Mies van der Rohe. The property’s owner, Cadillac Fairview, said that it recently applied a dot-pattern film on the windows to protect birds, but used a black pattern apparently to avoid detracting from the architect’s minimalist design. Because they blend in, Mr. Mesure said, the black dots are ineffective as a warning for birds.

The company declined an interview request, but in a statement said, “Bird protection is a matter we take seriously.” The activists’ final stop that morning made it clear that buildings do not have to be skyscrapers to be lethal. A dead chickadee and red-breasted nuthatch lay at the base of a small industrial building that featured mirrored blue glass that reflected an adjacent woodlot. As Paloma Plant, a FLAP employee, picked up the two dead birds, waves of chickadees swept overhead, narrowly avoiding collision.

“When you go through the freezer and it’s constant dead birds, it gets to you after awhile,” Ms. Plant said, holding the two casualties in her palms.

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Sponging boomers

The economic legacy left by the baby-boomers is leading to a battle between the generations


ANOTHER economic mess looms on the horizon—one with a great wrinkled visage. The struggle to digest the swollen generation of ageing baby-boomers threatens to strangle economic growth. As the nature and scale of the problem become clear, a showdown between the generations may be inevitable.

After the end of the second world war births surged across the rich world. Britain, Germany and Japan all enjoyed a baby boom, although it peaked in different years. America’s was most pronounced. By 1964 individuals born after the war accounted for 41% of the total population, forming a generation large enough to exert its own political and economic gravity.

These boomers have lived a charmed life, easily topping previous generations in income earned at every age. The sheer heft of the generation created a demographic dividend: a rise in labour supply, reinforced by a surge in the number of working women. Social change favoured it too. Households became smaller, populated with more earners and fewer children. And boomers enjoyed the distinction of being among the best-educated of American generations at a time when the return on education was soaring.

Yet these gains were one-offs. Retirements will reverse the earlier labour-force surge, and younger generations cannot benefit from more women working. There is room to raise educational levels, but it is harder and less lucrative to improve the lot of disadvantaged students than to establish a university degree as the norm for good ones, as was the case after the war. In short, boomer income growth relied on a number of one-off gains.

Young workers also cannot expect decades of rising asset prices like those that enriched the boomers. Zheng Liu and Mark Spiegel, economists at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, found in 2011 that movements in the price-earnings ratio of equities closely track changes in the ratio of middle-aged to old workers, meaning that the p/e ratio is likely to fall. Having lived through a spectacular bull market, boomers now sell off assets to finance retirement, putting pressure on equity prices and denying young workers an easy route to wealth. Boomers have weathered the economic crisis reasonably well. Thanks largely to the rapid recovery in stockmarkets, those aged between 53 and 58 saw a net decline in wealth of just 2.8% between 2006 and 2010.

More worrying is that this generation seems to be able to leverage its size into favourable policy. Governments slashed tax rates in the 1980s to revitalise lagging economies, just as boomers approached their prime earning years. The average federal tax rate for a median American household, including income and payroll taxes, dropped from more than 18% in 1981 to just over 11% in 2011. Yet sensible tax reforms left less revenue for the generous benefits boomers have continued to vote themselves, such as a prescription-drug benefit paired with inadequate premiums. Deficits exploded. Erick Eschker, an economist at Humboldt State University, reckons that each American born in 1945 can expect nearly $2.2m in lifetime net transfers from the state—more than any previous cohort.



Boomers’ sponging may well outstrip that of younger generations as well. A study by the International Monetary Fund in 2011 compared the tax bills of a cohort’s members over their lifetime with the value of the benefits that they are forecast to receive. The boomers are leaving a huge bill. Those aged 65 in 2010 may receive $333 billion more in benefits than they pay in taxes (see chart), an obligation 17 times larger than that likely to be left by those aged 25.

Sadly, arithmetic leaves but a few ways out of the mess. Faster growth would help. But the debt left by the boomers adds to the drag of slower labour-force growth. Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, two Harvard economists, estimate that public debt above 90% of GDP can reduce average growth rates by more than 1%. Meanwhile, the boomer era has seen falling levels of public investment in America. Annual spending on infrastructure as a share of GDP dropped from more than 3% in the early 1960s to roughly 1% in 2007.

Austerity is another option, but the consolidation needed would be large. The IMF estimates that fixing America’s fiscal imbalance would require a 35% cut in all transfer payments and a 35% rise in all taxes—too big a pill for a creaky political system to swallow. Fiscal imbalances rise with the share of population over 65 and with partisan gridlock, according to other research by Mr Eschker. This is troubling news for America, where the over-65 share of the voting-age population will rise from 17% now to 26% in 2030.

That leaves a third possibility: inflation. Post-war inflation helped shrink America’s debt as a share of GDP by 35 percentage points (see article). More inflation might prove salutary for other reasons as well. Mr Rogoff has suggested that a few years of 5% price rises could have helped households reduce their debts faster. Other economists, including two members of the Federal Reserve’s policymaking committee, now argue that with interest rates near zero, the Fed should tolerate a higher rate of inflation to speed up recovery.

The generational divide makes this plan a hard sell. Younger workers are typically debtors, who benefit from inflation reducing real interest rates. Older cohorts with large savings dislike it for the same reason. A recent paper by the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis suggests that as a country ages, its tolerance for inflation falls. Its authors theorise that a central bank could use inflation to achieve some generational redistribution. Yet pressure on the Fed to cease its expansionary actions has been intense, and led by a Republican Party increasingly driven by boomer preferences.

The political power of the boomers is formidable. But sooner or later, it cannot escape the maths.

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How Chavez Does Business

After almost 14 years in office, and with an impressive record of electoral victories behind him, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez now faces the most challenging campaign of his political career. Venezuela’s economy is weak, and, for the first time since 1998, Chávez, who has cancer, could suffer defeat when the country goes to the polls, on October 7.

The conventional wisdom is that Chávez’s prospects will depend, as they have in the past, on his strong support from the country’s poor. He has spent years developing social programs to dole out state funds to those in need, and the tactic has made him wildly popular. But that strategy alone might not work this time around. Chávez’s electoral fortune today depends not so much on his connections to the poor but on his approach to Venezuela’s private sector.

Chávez has long undercut private enterprise, which has resulted in a weak economy that is hurting his appeal to voters. (Click the image to the right to see how.) But he can also use economic troubles to demonize the private sector and rally ideological voters. This complicated relationship to the private sector explains why, this this time around, Chávez’s candidacy is damaged but still afloat.


This round of voting is especially significant, because more than at any point in recent memory, stability is an issue: the ruling party is heavily armed, and the opposition is highly charged. (Last weekend, three followers of the opposition were killed; click here to see a timeline of Chávez’s rise to power.) Neither side trusts the other, nor the rules by which the other plays. The outcome could be close — the numbers vary, but two reputable pollsters have shown the opposition candidate, Henrique Capriles Radonski, to be closing the gap — and there is a risk that neither party will recognize unfavorable results. In other words, the threat of violence is very real in a country that is the fourth most important source of oil for the United States.

At least in theory, Chávez shouldn’t be having so many problems. In Latin America, incumbents have a huge advantage because the office of the president is often the most powerful branch of government; the fact is all the more true in Caracas. More, Chávez has presided over one of the most extraordinary oil booms in history, generating nearly $1 trillion since the early 2000s. Yet the president’s political prospects look very much like his physical health: he is not quite dying, but he is not thriving either.

Chávez’s main problem is that social spending may have reached a saturation point. Since the 2010 parliamentary elections, the urban poor have largely split politically. Some poor continue to trust Chávez as their patron saint, awed by his “missions,” as his varied social assistance programs are known. His latest project — handing out some 244,000 free houses to low-income Venezuelans — has captured headlines for its imaginativeness and grandiosity.

But the other half of the urban poor seems to have had enough. These people feel besieged by the worst crime wave in the world — this year, experts expect the homicide rate to reach 70 murders per 100,000 inhabitants (in the United States, the rate is about 4 per 100,000). They are frustrated by declining real wages and scarce job prospects. They are tired of empty promises; many of the new giveaway houses, for instance, are proving to be uninhabitable. And they are frustrated by infrastructure that is collapsing around them. In the last several months alone, a bridge on a major interstate highway collapsed, and an oil refinery exploded, killing 41 people. The electricity grid is in such disrepair that Caracas now schedules daily power outages.


Chávez’s real hope, then, is his relationship with the business class. Contrary to what conservative analysts claim, Chávez is no Bolshevik. He says that he wants to “pulverize” capitalism, but the truth is that he is not intent on obliterating the country’s private sector. He wants to keep it alive — but small, uncompetitive, and dependent on the state.

On that score, he has succeeded. Since the mid-2000s, Chávez has nationalized approximately 100 major firms and almost 900 minor ones, while expanding public-sector employment from 15 to 19 percent of the labor force. He has saddled the private sector with onerous regulations and price controls, overburdening firms with heavy costs. He deliberately overvalues the country’s currency, which discourages exports and overstimulates imports. To survive, private firms have had to become import retailers rather than local producers. Thus, imports have increased and private-sector exports have virtually collapsed, down in 2010 by 55 percent since 1998. And finally, firms can’t access dollars on their own because they are not exporting; the only way for them to get cash is to go knocking on the government’s door. But Caracas sells dollars only at very high prices and under strict controls. Businesses are forced to maintain very good connections with the state.

The result is a reduced, highly unproductive, increasingly state-dependent yet very profitable private sector. The Venezuelan stock market says it all — the bourse has skyrocketed during Chávez’s tenure, appreciating by 870 percent between 2000 and 2010, far outstripping stock markets in the more avowedly capitalist countries of Chile (275 percent), Brazil (299 percent), and Mexico (554 percent). Firms make profits by acquiring import licenses or a privileged exchange rate, or by bribing the state for contracts and exemptions to regulations. Few firms seek profits by investing in their own businesses.

The Venezuelan stock market outshines not just stock markets in other countries but, ironically for a socialist state, workers’ earnings at home. Real wages in Venezuela have collapsed by almost 40 percent since 2000 (see the interactive graphic). Elsewhere in the region, real wages have either improved or remained stable.

This odd relationship with the private sector explains both Chávez’s not-so-high electoral ceiling and his not-so-low electoral floor. Whereas in most countries governments experiment with different forms of partnerships with the private sector to advance development, in Venezuela the state tries to go it alone. Consequently, Chávez cannot tout achievements in job growth, salary growth, infrastructure improvement, expansion of the middle classes, and jumps in education seen elsewhere in emerging markets. This is a burden on his campaign.

But the underperformance of the private sector works wonders ideologically, as it allows Chávez to bluster on with his anti-capitalist rhetoric. On the campaign trail, he regularly accuses the private sector of predatory hoarding. He complains that businesses are not producing enough or creating jobs fast enough. He blames them for relying on imports and expatriating profits (and thus being in cahoots with international capitalism). His rhetoric about a faltering private sector allows the state to portray itself as the only hope for the poor. To move the masses into the ranks of the middle class, the state cannot act alone — the private sector must also generate well-paying jobs. But that is not happening in Venezuela, despite the fact that it has everywhere else in Latin America. In many ways, of course, Chávez is correct. The private sector is atrophied. What he fails to mention is the problems are government-induced.

So Chávez’s strategy has been to keep the election discussion at the ideological level, emphasizing the problems of capitalism. Since these problems are so visible in Venezuela, his ideological attack resonates. And because there has been some poverty alleviation but not enough growth of the middle class, there is still a constituency for Chávez’s self-description as the country’s greatest-ever welfare provider.

But in this campaign, Chávez is pushing new boundaries. On the stump, he has portrayed his regime as the country’s guarantor of order, and thus, the best choice for business and business-friendly voters. On several occasions this year, Chávez has actually said that to vote for him is to vote for stability and, in turn, more profits. In Latin America, the argument that the state exists to protect the country, and especially businesses, from political unrest dates back to the military juntas of the 1970s. It is the essence of reactionary ideology.

Chávez is campaigning not just on ideological grounds but also, schizophrenically, on both extremes of the ideological spectrum: he is portraying himself as Venezuela’s savior from capitalism and as Venezuela’s savior of capitalism.


This puts the opposition in a corner. The 40-year-old center-left Capriles Radonski, known as el Flaco (the Skinny One), has run a successful campaign. He has united a fragmented opposition, avoiding getting personal when responding to the government’s ad hominem attacks. (When Chávez accused him of being a Nazi sympathizer and thus betraying his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, Capriles Radonski simply responded, in so many words, I’ve never messed with your family; don’t mess with mine. Last Sunday, he led one of the largest marches ever to take place in Caracas. Capriles Radonski has widened the appeal of the opposition with a conciliatory, rather than vengeful, discourse. He has forced the government to recognize some of its own failings, including an admission by Chávez in June that crime is a “serious problem” that social spending alone cannot cure — an admission that not long ago would have been unimaginable.

But when it comes to the business class, Capriles Radonski is stuck. He understands that the foremost curse on Venezuela today is not so much the tyranny of oil but the noncompetitiveness of the private sector. To say as much openly, however, would only play into Chávez’s accusation that this newcomer is out to serve the elites.

So Capriles Radonski has focused on the next best tactic. Rather than promising better management of the business sector, he is promising better management of the state’s businesses: improving garbage collection, ending power outages, easing traffic jams, ensuring water provision, making social spending more transparent, and, of course, fighting crime. Anyone who has visited Venezuela recently knows the dismal state of its public services, and a campaign built around making things better resonates widely.

The election will come down to a showdown between a relentlessly ideological incumbent and a man running as the handyman-in-chief. Chávez wants to be all things ideological while his adversary wants to be all things competent. Chávez’s strategy is risky and desperate, and it will not win over the millions of Venezuelans who long for a better-functioning state. Such voters might go with Capriles Radonski. But he faces his own risks — of overstating his powers as a repairman and of disappointing those who want to know which tasks he’ll address first, and how. Thus, Chávez’s ideological approach won’t convince everyone, but he could end up convincing at least half of Venezuelan voters. And that’s all he needs to eke out one more victory.

Categories: Economics, News Article, Politics, Social Changes | 1 Comment

Columnist’s Opinion on US Presidential Election: Poverty is this election’s invisible issue

President Obama and Mitt Romney ignore the problem. For the sake of the poor, and the country, they need to take action.

4:59PM EST October 7. 2012 – Last week’s first presidential debate was largely about the economy, but I didn’t hear either President Obama or Mitt Romney say how they would help the poor.

Until recently, in fact, the poor have barely been an afterthought during this presidential campaign. A study released this month by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting found that news coverage of poverty from January through June comprised no more than 3% of election stories compared with the 18% that reported on the “debt” or “deficit.”

Then former governor Mitt Romney dragged the poor into the campaign with his inaccurate, sweeping indictment of the 47% of Americans who don’t pay federal income tax. (He admitted Thursday he was wrong.) But even that gaffe hasn’t prompted him or Obama to engage in a more substantive debate about poverty. We’ve heard precious little about how either candidate would help the 15% of Americans living below the poverty line. The latest Census figures show that 17 states saw an increase in poverty rates from 2010 to 2011.

Romney may assume that focusing on the poor will not win him votes. But a Pew Research Center poll this year showed that 57% of lower-income Republican voters say the government does not do enough for the poor.

Obama cannot take low-income voters for granted, either. They might not show up at the polls for him as they did in 2008. The poor, like many in the middle class, are hurting, and many blame the president for not doing more to address poverty, pump up the economy and create more jobs.

Many people hurting

“We knew that the old permanent poor were catching hell, but it was the new middle class that hit us hard,” said Princeton professor Cornel West when I interviewed him and PBS talk show host Tavis Smiley during their “Poverty Tour 2.0” in September. “(We’ve seen) folks who had been making $150,000 a year and (were now) living in their cars.”

The progressive think tank Center for American Progress found that from 2001 to 2007, profits and productivity went up but poverty increased. During the past three years, the poverty rate hasn’t improved and middle-class income has declined.

“Poverty is threatening our democracy, our very way of life,” Smiley said. “This is an American catastrophe.”

The conservative Heritage Foundation doesn’t think so. It published research this summer that suggested the federal definition of being poor should be changed. The study questioned whether families have a place to live, aren’t hungry and enjoy various amenities — refrigerators, microwaves, televisions, air conditioning — are actually impoverished.

But amenities, which can be gifts, second-hand purchases or rented, don’t reflect financial stability or a safe environment. As for hunger, it can be quelled by inexpensive, unhealthy foods. And merely having a place to call home doesn’t mean the living conditions are healthy or safe.

Income equality Instead of poverty, Obama and Romney have dueled over the tax rates of the wealthy and middle class — as they did Wednesday night — often packaged as a debate about income inequality. Obama has called it “the defining issue of our time.” Though it certainly matters to the middle class, and arguably is integral to the nation’s overall economic health, it hardly seems “defining” when one in seven Americans are suffering at or below the poverty level. Romney dismissed the income inequality debate as more of the “politics of envy,” a canard that ignores the huge income disparities and stark distinctions in the financial realities of those he cavalierly calls the makers and takers.

Both campaigns need to pledge to move beyond political rhetoric and help the poor through government programs and by fostering entrepreneurship through microloans, training and partnerships with businesses, churches and non-profits.

What troubles me is if Romney is elected president because he has said that he isn’t “concerned about the very poor.” And if Obama wins, the former community organizer for the needy has said the middle class is priority No. 1. What we need in these tough economic times is leadership for all the people.

So who will speak for the poor?

Categories: News Article, Politics, Social Changes | 1 Comment

Family and Gender Essay Outline

The author of this post has kindly mapped out the thinking process:

Does tradition still have a role to play in modern societies?

Key words

Tradition: set of (cultural) beliefs, customs, practices, values long-established and passed down from generation to generation
Still: It is assumed that it had a role to play in the past. Consider the changes in society that might have led to the above viewpoint.
Role to play: Consider if it still serves a purpose, or if it is of value.
Modern society: Identify the distinguishing features of modern society and explain how they might have diminished or enhanced the roles played by tradition.

Possible stands:

Yes, but (acknowledge the effect globalisation has on attempts to maintain a unique culture/traditions)
(Yes) Prove that tradition still has strong value (for whom? In what ways?) even in our modern society (don’t merely list benefits and disadvantages)


Argument: Even as societies develop, they do not completely abandon their sense of right and wrong. Traditional value-systems are an important tool for government systems to keep people in check and a vehicle for passing on certain moral values

Reason: Pure reliance on a legal system to police a state is not always effective The use of value systems and the emphasis of traditions can become an educational tool that helps to breed pro-social behaviour in society, aiding the government in maintaining order.

Explanation: Asian, Confucian values ensure a disciplined, orderly and stable society and inculcates a healthy respect for authority and the state.

Evaluation: Furthermore, such traditions can keeps peace in society especially when sexual depravity, child abuse, theft, murder and other disruptive issues are reaching very worrying levels in more liberal societies.

Conclusion: If traditions are not harmful nor do they strip away any fundamental rights, if maintained and abided by, tradition helps to maintain proper social conduct in society.

Other possible arguments (agree)

Tradition makes us unique (provides us an identity) and adds variety to a world that celebrates diversity.
+ An economic argument: maintaining tradition adds to uniqueness  tourism.
Traditional values and practices help us to better appreciate our ethnic cultures and understand the workings of our own societies

Traditional value-systems have been present in societies for centuries, keeping people in check and passing values on to the young. E.g. Asian, Confucian values ensure a disciplined, orderly and stable society. If maintained and abided by, tradition helps to maintain proper social conduct in society.

Balance (BUT)

Show that unique traditions tied to a country may not hold much value/purpose in a rapidly changing, borderless /globalised world

In a globalised world, tradition continues to put in place differences that are barriers that impede development and global co-operation (economic, social, even educational reforms)

An over-dependence on traditional values may inhibit the growth and dynamism inherent in national cultures – especially in younger, still changing nations.

Traditional values can continue to discriminate women in a patriarchal society. (or lead to other forms of intolerances and disapproval)

The strict maintenance/laws/censorship to “protect” conservative traditional beliefs may preserve the integrity and good behaviour of the people but may restrict expression and growth in some of the arts.

Categories: Essay Questions, Gender, Guidelines, Social Changes | Leave a comment

To what extent should freedom of speech be a guaranteed right?

Adapted from:

Basic rights, basic civil, human and political rights are the cornerstone of every democracy, from America to India, Singapore to South Africa, as set out in their various constitutions and in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. For examples, the right to live, the right to vote, the right to a life free from fear and the right to freedom of speech, have all been clearly set out as intrinsic rights which are inalienable and should be duly accorded to every human being. However, the right to freedom of speech has long been the subject of much controversy as to the extent to which this particular right should be guaranteed and to whom.

Freedom of speech, like all other rights, has intrinsic value. It, in particular, allows an individual the liberty to express his thoughts without fear of reproach, regardless of what he says. This has important implications for a country in the social and political arenas for it is only when citizens are able to freely express support for or speak up against certain ideas, be they political policies or even social norms, that progress can be achieved. For example, in a totalitarian or dictatorial state, it is only when people are allowed to speak freely and come up with their own political parties, that there can ever be political reform and progress within a country. This is something that is widely accepted to be true and this can be seen in the global community’s support of Burma ‘s possible release of opposition leader Aung Sung Su Kyi as a move steeped in foresight and with progress in mind.

Similarly, in the social sphere, it is highly beneficial to accord people their right to free speech because it not only breeds a more thinking, more creative societybu it also reduces dissatisfaction and may bring about social reform. If people are not allowed to speak their minds and can only meekly accept whatever comes their way, this is not only detrimental in terms of the type of society being bred, it also gives cause for worry in that citizens may feel deprived of their rights or suppressed, and this could breed latent dissatisfaction in the country. This latent dissatisfaction may result in violence and anger, disrupting stability within a nation. Conversely, if citizens are accorded the right to freedom of speech, this latent dissatisfaction would then have a constructive outlet and backlash would be more peaceful and less antagonistic in nature. This could lead to peaceful social reform, in contrast to the extreme measures that people would otherwise have to undertake in order to successfully put their point across. For example, Martin Luther King, a champion of equal rights in America was allowed to speak up for the rights of the minority, and this was pivotal in bringing about the paradigm shift away from white supremacy to that of equal rights for all. Hence we see that free speech can indeed improve society and enrich people.

However, despite its obvious benefits, we cannot be myopic or overly optimistic by failing to recognize the propensity for such a right to be abused. As such, we see that rights are not absolute and they cease to be ‘rights’ as soon as the exercise of that right infringes on the rights of another. Hence, we cannot assess individual freedom in a vacuum and must put it into a real world context. Free speech, like any other freedom, has the potential for abuse and such abuse results in a clash of interests between societal good and individual liberty. An obvious illustration is extremism. Extremists, who hold views widely divergent from those of mainstream, conventional thinkers, are famous for inciting violence, resulting in social upheaval and hence disrupting law and order. This occurs because certain individuals choose specifically to prey on simmering feelings of resentment, which may exist beneath the surface. This could shake the fabric of society and cause great confusion and possibly violence. This happened in Britain . In 1989, a new political party quickly gained popularity in areas north of London such as Birmingham and Westhampton. Being strongly nationalist, they managed to bring to the surface racist sentiments which ultimately culminated in wide-spread racial violence, the worst witnessed in England in twenty years. Hence we see that the abuse of freedom of speech threatened the security of the country and this is something that cannot be condoned, much less thinly veiled by the argument of it being a ‘basic right’. In such instances, it is in the best interest of society to contain, to some extent, the right of the individual for the good of society.

Thus, it is evident that while the intrinsic value accorded to rights is not entirely imagined, it is sometimes over-hyped and exaggerated and therefore must be taken with a pinch of salt. We cannot then blindly protect the right to free speech without properly taking stock of the wider implications of the actions of the individual. So, while it is a great injustice to deny people of their basic right to freedom of speech, it is justifiable to choose to curtail the rights of some for the good of society, and to avoid the case of possibly bringing about a breakdown of societal cohesion and a disruption of law and order and peace.

Categories: Essay, Social Changes | Leave a comment

Determining factor for Power

Latitudes not Attitudes: How Geography Explains


Many reasons have been given for the West’s dominance over the last 500 years. But, Ian Morris argues, its rise to global hegemony was largely due to geographical good fortune.

A schematic showing the spreading of humans in history. The schematic is made based on an image in the magazine "Natuurwetenschap en techniek", October 2009. By KVDPA schematic showing the spreading of humans in history. The schematic is made based on an image in the magazine “Natuurwetenschap en techniek”, October 2009. By KVDP

I am wearing your clothes, I speak your language, I watch your films and today is whatever date it is because you say so.

This is what Shad Faruki, a Malaysian lawyer, told the British journalist Martin Jacques in a 1994 interview. And he was right: for 200 years, a few nations clustered around the shores of the North Atlantic – ‘the West’, as we normally call them – have dominated the world in ways without parallel in history.

Most people, at some point or another, have wondered why the West rules. There are theories beyond number. Perhaps, say some, westerners are just biologically superior to everyone else. Or maybe western culture is uniquely dynamic; or possibly the West has had better leaders; or the West’s democratic politics and its Christianity might give it an edge. Some think western domination has been locked in since time immemorial: others that it is merely a recent accident. And, with many westerners now looking to China’s double-digit economic growth to pull the world out of recession, some historians even suggest that western rule has been an aberration, a brief interruption of an older, Sinocentric, world order.

When experts disagree so deeply, it usually means that we need fresh perspectives on a problem. Most of those who pronounce on Western rule – economists, political pundits, sociologists – tend to focus on recent times and then make sweeping claims about the past. Asking why the West rules, though, really requires us to work the other way round, posing questions about history, then seeing where they lead. As the masthead of this magazine puts it: ‘What happened then matters now.’

The shape of history

Explaining why the West rules calls for a different kind of history than usual, one stepping back from the details to see broader patterns, playing out over millennia on a global scale. When we do this the first thing we see is the biological unity of humanity, which flatly disproves racist theories of western rule.

Our kind, Homo sapiens, evolved in Africa between 200,000 and 70,000 years ago and has spread across the world in the last 60,000 years. By around 30,000 years ago, older versions of humanity, such as the Neanderthals, were extinct and by 10,000 years ago a single kind of human – us – had colonised virtually every niche on the planet. This dispersal allowed humanity’s genes to diverge again, but most of the consequences (such as the colour of skin, eyes, or hair) are, literally, only skin deep and those mutations that do go deeper (such as head shape or lactose tolerance) have little obvious connection to why the West rules. A proper answer to this question must start from the fact that wherever we go – East, West, North, or South – people are all much the same.

So why have their histories turned out so differently? Many historians suggest that there is something unique about western culture. Just look, they say, at the philosophy of Socrates, the wisdom of the Bible, or the glories of Leonardo da Vinci; since antiquity, the West has simply outshone the rest. Such cultural comparisons, however, are notoriously subjective. Socrates, for instance, was certainly a great thinker; but the years in which he was active, during the fifth century bc, were also the age of the Hebrew prophets in Israel, of the Buddha and the founders of Jainism in India, of Confucius and the first Daoists in China. All these sages wrestled with much the same questions as Socrates (Can I know reality? What is the good life? How do we perfect society?) and the thoughts of each became ‘the classics’, timeless masterpieces that have defined the meanings of life for millions of people ever since.

So strong are the similarities between the Greco-Roman, Jewish, Indian and Chinese classics, in fact, that scholars often call the first millennium bc the ‘Axial Age’, in the sense of it being an axis around which the whole history of Eurasian thought turned. From the Mediterranean to the Yellow Sea, larger, more complex societies were facing similar challenges in the first millennium bc and finding similar answers. Socrates was part of a huge pattern, not a unique giant who sent the West down a superior path.

From a global perspective, Christianity, too, makes more sense as a local version of a broader trend than as something setting the West apart from the rest. As the Roman Empire disintegrated in the middle of the first millennium ad and new questions (Is there something beyond this life? How can I be saved?) gained urgency, the new faith won perhaps 40 million converts; but in those same years, in the wake of the Han dynasty’s collapse in China, Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism offered their own answers to the same questions and won their own 40 million devotees. Soon enough Islam repeated the feat in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Even such astonishing Renaissance men as Leonardo and Michelangelo, who refined the wisdom of the ancient West to revolutionise everything from aeronautics to art, are best seen as Europe’s versions of a new kind of intellectual which societies needed as they emerged from the Middle Ages. China had produced its own Renaissance men some 400 years earlier, who also refined ancient wisdom (in their case, of course, the East’s) to revolutionise everything. Shen Kua (1031-95 ad), for instance, published groundbreaking work on agriculture, archaeology, cartography, climate change, the classics, ethnography, geology, maths, medicine, metallurgy, meteorology, music, painting and zoology. Even Leonardo would have been impressed.

Over and over again, the triumphs of western culture turn out to have been local versions of broader trends, not lonely beacons in a general darkness and, if we think about culture in a broader, more anthropological sense, the West’s history again seems to be one example of a larger pattern rather than a unique story. For most of their existence, humans lived in small, egalitarian hunter-gatherer bands. After the Ice Age some hunter-gatherers settled down in villages, where they domesticated plants and animals; some villages grew into cities, with ruling elites; some cities became states and then empires and, finally, industrialised nations. No society has ever leaped from hunting and gathering to high technology (except under the influence of outsiders). Humans are all much the same, wherever we find them; and, because of this, human societies have all followed much the same sequence of cultural development. There is nothing special about the West.

Location, location, location

You may have noticed that all the historical examples I have mentioned – Italy, Greece, Israel, India, China – lie in a narrow band of latitudes, roughly 20-35° north, stretching across the Old World. This is no accident: in fact, it is a crucial clue as to why the West rules. Humans may all be much the same, wherever we find them, but the places we find them in are not. Geography is unfair and can make all the difference in the world.

When temperatures rose at the end of the last Ice Age, nearly 12,000 years ago, global warming had massive consequences everywhere, but, as in our own times, it impacted on some places more than on others. In the latitudes between 20° and 35° north in the Old World and a similar band between 15° south and 20° north in the Americas, large-grained wild grasses like wheat, rice and teosinte (the ancestor of maize) and large, relatively tame mammals like wild goats, pigs and llamas went forth and multiplied in the warmer weather. This was a boon for humans, who ate them, but in the process of managing these other species – cultivating and tending the plants, herding and culling the animals – humans unintentionally domesticated them. We unwittingly altered their genomes so much that they became new species, providing us with far more food. Genetically modified organisms had been born. Potentially domesticable plants and animals existed outside the lucky latitudes, but they were less common. Indeed many places, such as large parts of Western Europe, sub-Saharan Africa and Australia, had no domesticable native species at all. The consequence, given that humans were all much the same, was predictable: the domestication of plants and animals – farming – began in the lucky latitudes long before it began outside them. This was not because people in the lucky latitudes were cleverer or harder-working; nature had just given them more to work with than people in other places and so the task advanced more quickly.

Nor was nature even-handed within the lucky latitudes. Some places, above all the so-called ‘Hilly Flanks’, which curve from what is now Israel through Syria, southern Turkey, northern Iraq and western Iran, were extraordinarily well endowed; China between the Yellow and Yangzi rivers and the Indus Valley in Pakistan were somewhat less so; Oaxaca in Mexico and the Andes in Peru somewhat less still. Consequently, the Hilly Flanks were the first to see farming firmly established (by 7500 bc); then came China and Pakistan (around 5500 bc); then Oaxaca and Peru (by 5000 bc); and then, over the next 7,000 years, most of the rest of humanity.

Farming spread from its original cores because it could support more people than hunting and gathering. The lives farmers led were often harder and their diets poorer than hunters’, but that was beside the point. The farmers’ weight of numbers, nastier germs (bred by crowding and proximity to domestic animals), more efficient organisation (required to keep order in larger villages) and superior weapons (necessary to settle constant quarrels) steadily dispossessed the hunters, who either took up farming in their own right or ran away.

The agricultural cores developed increasingly complex institutions as they expanded. Within 3-4,000 years of the start of farming (that is, by 3500 bc in Southwest Asia, 2500 bc in the Indus Valley, 1900 bc in China, 1500 bc in Mesoamerica and 1000 bc in the Andes) the first cities and states were taking shape. Within another few centuries, most had bureaucrats keeping written records and by 2,000 years ago a continuous band of empires, with populations in the tens of millions, stretched from the Mediterranean to China. By then imperialists and traders had exported agriculture, cities and writing beyond the lucky latitudes as far afield as cold, rainy Britain in the northwest and hot, humid Cambodia in the southeast. These great empires – the Han in the East, the Mauryan in India, the Parthian in Iran and Iraq and the Roman further west – had many similarities; but the biggest, richest and grandest by far was Rome, the descendant of Eurasia’s original, westernmost agricultural core in the Hilly Flanks.

Geography explains why farming first appeared towards the western end of the Old World’s lucky latitudes; and, if the West had simply held on to the early lead that nature’s unfairness had given it, geography would be the obvious explanation for why the West now dominates the world.

But that is not what actually happened. The West has not always been the richest, most powerful and most sophisticated part of the world during the last ten millennia. For more than 1,000 years, from at least 600 to 1700 ad, these superlatives applied to China, not the West.

After the fall of the Roman and Han empires in the early-to-mid first millennium ad, China was reunited into a single empire while the West remained divided between smaller states and invading Arabs. By 700, China’s capital at Chang’an had probably a million residents and Chinese literature was enjoying a golden age. Woodblock printing presses churned out millions of books, paid for with the world’s first paper money (invented in the 10th century). By 1000 an economic revolution had joined the cultural explosion: 11th-century China produced almost as much iron each year as the whole of Europe would be doing in 1700, on the eve of its Industrial Revolution. Chinese ironmasters produced so much, in fact, that they clear-cut entire forests to feed their forges, and – six centuries ahead of the West – learned to smelt their ores with coke.

For centuries, Chinese wealth and power dwarfed the West’s. Between 1405 and 1433, while little Portuguese caravels tentatively nosed down Africa’s west coast, Chinese emperors dispatched gigantic fleets across the Indian Ocean under the leadership of the eunuch admiral Zheng He (who, according to legend, was nearly three metres tall and 230 cm around the belly). Zheng’s flagship was on the same scale as its skipper. At 80 metres long, it was the largest wooden ship ever built. When Columbus set sail in 1492, his own flagship was shorter than Zheng’s mainmast and barely twice as long as the big man’s rudder. Columbus led three ships and 90 sailors; Zheng led 300 ships and 27,870 sailors. His fleet extracted tribute from the cities of India, visited Mecca and even reached Kenya, where today Chinese archaeologists are diving to locate wrecks of Zheng’s ships.

The power of place

The glories of medieval China seem, on the face of it, to disprove any geographical explanation for why the West now rules. After all, geography has not changed very much in the last 500 years.

Or maybe it has. Geography shapes history, but not in straightforward ways. Geography does determine why societies in some parts of the world develop so much faster than others; but, at the same time, the level to which societies have developed determines what geography means.

Take, once again, the example of Britain, sticking out from Eurasia into the cold Atlantic Ocean. Four thousand years ago, Britain was far from the centres of action in the Nile, Indus and Yellow River valleys, where farming had been established for millennia, great cities had grown up and labourers by the thousand broke their backs to immortalise divine kings with pyramids and palaces. Distant Britain had few of these things, which spread only slowly from the Mediterranean core to the Atlantic periphery. Geography made Britain backward.

But, if we fast-forward to 400 years ago, the same geography that had once made Britain backward now gave the island nation wealth and power. Britain had been drawn into a vastly expanded and more developed core, which now had ships that could reliably cross oceans and guns that could shoot the people on the other side. Sticking out into the Atlantic, such a huge disadvantage 4,000 years ago, became a huge plus from the 17th century.

The first sailors to the Americas were Italians (Christopher Columbus was from Genoa; the famous ‘British’ explorer John Cabot, who reached Newfoundland in 1497, actually grew up as Giovanni Caboto, in Florence). They were soon shoved aside by the Portuguese, Spanish, British, French and Dutch – not because the Atlantic littoral produced bolder or smarter adventurers than the Mediterranean, but simply because Western Europe was closer to America.

Given time, the 15th century’s greatest sailors – the Chinese – would surely have discovered and colonised America too (in 2009 the Princess Taiping, a replica of a 15th-century junk, came within 20 miles of completing a Taiwan–San Francisco round trip, only to collide with a freight ship within sight of home). But in much the same way that geography had made it easier for people in the Hilly Flanks to domesticate plants and animals than for people in other parts of the world, it now again stacked the odds in the West’s favour. The trip from England to New England was only half as far as that from China to California. For thousands of years this geographical fact had been unimportant, since there were no ocean-going ships. But by 1600 it had become the decisive fact. The meaning of geography had changed.

This was just the beginning of the changes. In the 17th century a new kind of economy took shape, centred around the North Atlantic, generating massive profits and driving up wages in north-west Europe by exploiting the geographical differences round its shores. In the process, it enormously increased the rewards for anyone who could explain how the winds and tides worked, or measure and count in better ways, or make sense of the secrets of physics, chemistry and biology. Not surprisingly, Europeans began thinking about the world in new ways, setting off a scientific revolution; they then applied its insights to the societies they lived in, in what we now call the Enlightenment. Newton and Descartes were geniuses, but so too were Chinese scholars like Gu Yanwu (1613-82) and Dai Zhen (1724-77), who also spent lifetimes studying nature. It was just that geography thrust new questions on Newton and Descartes.

Westerners answered their new questions, only to find that the answers led to still newer questions. By 1800 the combination of science and the Atlantic economy created incentives and opportunities for entrepreneurs to mechanise production and tap into the power of fossil fuels. This began in Britain, where geography conspired to make these things easier than anywhere else; and the energy windfall provided by fossil fuel quickly translated into a population explosion, rising living standards and massive military power. All barriers crumbled. British warships forced China to open to western trade in 1842; Americans did the same in Japan 11 years later. The age of western rule had arrived.

The lessons of history

So what do we learn from all this history? Two main things, I think. First, since people are all much the same, it is our shared biology which explains humanity’s great upward leaps in wealth, productivity and power across the last 10,000 years; and, second, that it is geography which explains why one part of world – the nations we conventionally call ‘the West’ – now dominates the rest.

Geography determined that when the world warmed up at the end of the Ice Age a band of lucky latitudes stretching across Eurasia from the Mediterranean to China developed agriculture earlier than other parts of the world and then went on to be the first to invent cities, states and empires. But as social development increased, it changed what geography meant and the centres of power and wealth shifted around within these lucky latitudes. Until about ad 500 the Western end of Eurasia hung on to its early lead, but after the fall of the Roman Empire and Han dynasty the centre of gravity moved eastward to China, where it stayed for more than a millennium. Only around 1700 did it shift westward again, largely due to inventions – guns, compasses, ocean-going ships – which were originally pioneered in the East but which, thanks to geography, proved more useful in the West. Westerners then created an Atlantic economy which raised profound new questions about how the world worked, pushing westerners into a Scientific Revolution, an Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution. By the mid-19th century, the West dominated the globe.

But history did not end there. The same laws of geography continued operating. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the vast resources of North America, converting the USA from a rather backward periphery into a new global core. The process continued in the 20th century, as the American-dominated global economy drew in the resources of Asia, turning first Japan, then the ‘Asian Tigers’ and eventually China and India into major players.

Extrapolating from these historical patterns, we can make some predictions. If the processes of change continue across the 21st century at the same rate as in the 20th century, the economies of the East will overtake those of the West by 2100. But if the rate of change keeps accelerating – as it has done constantly since the 15th century – we can expect eastern global dominance as soon as 2050.

An age of rapid change

It all seems very clear – except for one niggling detail. The past shows that, while geography shapes the development of societies, development also shapes what geography means; and all the signs are that in the 21st century the meanings of geography are changing faster than ever. Geography is, we might even say, losing meaning. The world is shrinking and the greatest challenges we face – nuclear weapons, climate change, mass migration, epidemics, food and water supply – are all global problems. Perhaps the real lesson of history is that by the time the East overtakes the West, the question of why the West rules may have ceased to matter very much.

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