Reindeer really know how to fly

I'll just slip Rudolf one of these
I’ll just slip Rudolf one of these

Today’s article is from John Hulls, of the Cambiant Project at the Dominican University of California that uses a fluid dynamics modeling concept he developed to simulate economic performance. John is also an affiliate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, working principally in the area of environmental applications of the LBL Phylochip microarray technology. And a pilot.

People often believe supposedly scientifically based “facts” that are simply not true.  Yet, if you trace things back far enough, you can usually find the grain of truth that started people down the wrong track.   The point came up in discussions with a friend who said that my position on the actual risks of cell phone radiation sounded pretty logical but they rejoined by asking, given the season, if my hypothesis about an initial truth were correct, I should then be able to explain the scientific facts behind flying reindeer and such.  Turns out the answer comes from pharmacology and anthropology rather than the science of flight.

It seems that in northern Siberia, the reindeer have developed a taste for those colorful red and white mushrooms, fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), and will eat them till they’re higher than a kite.  Anyone eating the meat of such reindeer will get equally high. The village shamans soon figured out how to reduce the toxicity of the mushrooms, while increasing the potency and claiming it helped them fly.  Folks in the far north had not yet discovered the art of fermentation, so the fly-in visits from the shaman with his mushroom treats were much anticipated.  A further point…many shamanistic arctic tribes such as the Koryaks of Siberia lived in semi underground yurt like structures, whose only entrance was a ladder through the smoke hole, or chimney, in the roof, down which the shamen would climb with his gifts, carried in a sack.

Then, in 1931, a young Swedish artist named Haddon Sundblom, obviously familiar with the tales, created a jolly round Santa Claus as a Christmas icon for his client, Coca Cola,  using the company’s familiar red and white colors.  Coke notes with pride that until that time, St. Nick appeared in any number of guises, from a somber man in priestly garb to a green-clad elf, and it was only after Haddon had developed the character over several years that the jolly fat Santa became our Christmas standard-bearer, shown drinking his first Coke in 1934.

There’s even a literary connection with Lewis Carroll, a well known experimenter with psychedelics and apparently a friend of anthropologists who studied the Siberian tribes.  In Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, we meet the Caterpillar, sitting on a mushroom,who tells Alice that eating one side makes you larger, and the other makes you small.  Size distortion is a characteristic of consuming Amanita.  However, with a British sense of propriety, Lewis Carroll’s illustrator showed the caterpillar sitting on a non-toxic, non psychedelic mushroom, rather than risk inspiring the young reader to follow Alice’s trip.

I should point out that I have not studied this tale of anthropological and mycological lore to the level of looking at the original studies, so the possibility exists that this is a wonderfully collective put-up job by several august scientific bodies such as the British Mycological Society and respected universities like the University of Oslo, but I doubt it.  It seems we have almost unlimited precedence for any number of ways to celebrate the Solstice.

So, here we are sitting on a pretty blue planet, warmed as we circle a rather typical type G star, located in a remote spiral arm of a nice, but unexceptional galaxy, and we’ve made it round one more time.  Regardless of your perspective on who, if anyone, really runs the show, it’s hard to find fault with Tiny Tim’ s last hopeful, redeeming and inclusive line from Dicken’s  A Christmas Carol:  “God Bless us all.  Everyone.”

Useful links

OECD work on reindeer

OECD work on mushrooms

Green growth and the future of aviation

The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) Tracks Santa

John Hulls’  Somewhat Logically blog

The sinister side of A Christmas Carol

Happy Migrants Day!

Click to see the publication
Click to see the publication

Manila’s main airport is rarely a quiet place. But it will be even busier than usual over the next week as some of the Philippines’ 10 million or so emigrants head home for the holidays. When they land, they’ll get the red-carpet treatment – literally. In a tradition dating back to the 1990s, returning Overseas Filipino Workers get to walk down red-carpeted lanes and are promised speedier processing at immigration and customs. They can also look forward to raffles and prizes and even a visit from the president. “This is the government’s tribute to the heroism of OFWs who come home during Christmastime to be with their families,” an official explained.

Emigrants are on the mind of many at this time of year, and not just because of holiday homecomings. For today – December 18 – also brings International Migrants Day, marking the anniversary of the adoption of – big breath – The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families.

Of course, it doesn’t take a special day to draw attention to migration – the topic is rarely out of the news. Just this week, for instance, we learned that two-thirds of Germans think immigrants “cause problems”; that at least 20 immigrants are feared dead after their boat capsized in the Mediterranean; and that there’s a rising level of anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe.

There’s a negative feel to much of what the media says about migration. Less often reported – and surely worth noting on this of all days – are the positive stories. Did you know, for example, that migrants head up just over half of Silicon Valley start-ups? Migrants are also behind many household names in computers and technology – think of Sergey Brin at Google, Jerry Yang at Yahoo!, Pierre Omidyar at eBay. They’re also strongly represented in the arts and popular culture – think of Joni Mitchell, Junot Diaz, Rihanna. (OK, you can stop thinking of Rihanna now.) It’s no wonder that the authors of a book on migrants – and the source of most of these factoids – entitled it Exceptional People.

Away from the star names, migrants contribute to development. Worldwide, they sent home an estimated $325 billion in remittances in 2010, far more than what OECD countries gave in assistance to developing countries. As we noted recently here, their role as a source of ideas, innovation and investment through diaspora networks is also increasingly recognized. And, of course, they contribute to the economies of their adopted countries: A 2007 report from the U.S. Council of Economic Advisers estimated that immigrants contribute about $37 billion to U.S. economic activity every year.

Still, there’s no denying that, in many OECD countries, immigrants aren’t integrating as well as they could do. That doesn’t just mean “fitting in”; it also means the extent to which they match, or even exceed, locals in areas like employment, earnings, health levels and education. Failures in integration carry a high economic and social cost, which helps to explain why governments in OECD countries are increasingly interested in the subject. It was also recently investigated by the OECD in Settling In, which looks at the performance of immigrants in several areas, including household income, work and civic engagement.

Some of the factors behind success or failure to integrate are obvious. For example, countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada that essentially select most of their new immigrants tend to attract better-educated people, who, in turn, tend to integrate better. Other factors reflect everything from language ability to how long immigrants stay in their adopted countries. And, unfortunately, some of the factors relate to discrimination and racism. Numerous experiments have shown, for example, that employers are often more likely to choose a CV with a “native,” rather than a “foreign,” name.

Given the signs of tension over immigration, there’s likely to be growing pressure on governments to make a success of it, both for migrants and the countries they settle in. Understanding the reasons why migrants succeed – and why they don’t – will be an important part of that effort.

 Useful links

OECD work on international migration

OECD Insights: International Migration – The Human Face of Globalisation

Cinderella’s a girl, so why does she wear blue?

closing-the-gender-gapA friend has just bought glittery pink shoes for her sister’s children. Can you guess whether they’re boys or girls? Of course you can! Pink is for girls (and so is glittery). But that wasn’t always the case. In 1918, Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department (a magazine for retail professionals) explained that “The generally accepted rule is pink for the boys, and blue for the girls. The reason is that pink, being a more decided and stronger color, is more suitable for the boy, while blue, which is more delicate and dainty, is prettier for the girl.”

That’s why the Virgin Mary wears blue, as do Cinderella and Snow White in Disney’s 1950 and 1937 cartoons. On a far more sinister note, the Nazis made male homosexuals wear pink triangles, since the colour’s masculine connotations associated it with a preference for men. (Lesbians wore the black triangle of “asocials”, a group that included women who had had abortions and prostitutes).

You can find out more about when pink became girly in Jeanne Maglaty’s article for the Smithsonian. The point is, it happened recently and for reasons that are linked to commerce and other social behaviours, not genetics. Stereotyping, whether positive or negative, is insidious, helping to reinforce the idea that some kinds of discrimination and oppression are somehow “natural” – the mother not the father should stay at home to look after a sick child because women are better carers, for instance. Then if you have to choose between a man and a woman for a promotion you can say objectively that a man will be more available and take less time off.

Aaron Kay of Duke University and his colleagues have just published the results of an experimental study of how stereotypes influence judgement. They found that people exposed to positive stereotypes towards African Americans were more likely to apply negative stereotypes too, and to believe in biological explanations of group differences.

Combating stereotypes will involve “changing norms, culture, mindsets, and attitudes” as it says in the introduction to a session at today’s OECD Gender Forum on “Closing the gender gap”. The main theme of the conference is the economy, and the main argument is that discriminating against women is not only immoral, it’s a waste of money. Government ministers, business leaders and members of civil society will be talking about what they should do to “achieve gender equality in economic opportunities”.

The picture in the top left corner of this article is a good summary of the scale of the task. It’s the cover of the book being launched at today’s meeting and illustrates the fact that when you establish a dichotomy, you imply a hierarchy. Try it with some neutral-sounding pairs to begin with: above-below; written-spoken; inside-outside. Now have look at the book and frame what you see in terms of word couples. There are three adult males and three female children. The men are higher up. The one black person of the six is lower down. One of the men is either holding out a helping hand or warning the one girl actually doing anything that the ladder she’s using to bridge the gap is too short.

Most of the OECD recommendations on what to do are consensual (address cultural barriers, provide affordable, good-quality childcare for all parents…) but I imagine there’ll be a lively debate around others, including what some see as flagship reforms. For example, the Financial Times reported in September that many businesses and some governments oppose EU plans to have quotas of women directors on the boards of listed companies. Katja Hall, chief policy director at the CBI employers’ group, backed the UK government’s line, saying: “We are not convinced that EU quotas will be anything other than a token gesture.” Others argue that women at the top would act just the same as their male colleagues anyway and that for somebody losing their job, knowing there was a woman’s touch to getting fired isn’t any comfort.

In other words, the division between men and women is one of many in our society and any victory in the fight against sexual discrimination will only be partial if it’s achieved in isolation from efforts to overcome other forms of inequality.

Useful links

OECD Gender Initiative


Regional power

Click to read the book on OECD iLibrary

Today’s post is from Kate Lancaster, editor in charge of publications on regional development at the OECD.

“Vous venez d’ou?” (Where are you from?) is not an unusual question in a large city like Paris. People come here from all over the world, for a holiday, for a business trip, for a temporary posting, or even to stay permanently. Ask them where they are from and they’ll probably tell you their nationality.  But talk to a French person in Paris and many will say that they aren’t really Parisian. They’re Alsatian or Breton, Basque or Norman. Even if it is their great-grandparents who came to Paris from the provinces, these people still claim a connection to the French region which their ancestors left to seek a better life. As the French singer Charles Aznavour memorably put it: “At 18 / I left my province / Determined to seize life with both hands … I was sure to conquer Paris”.

This story of migration from the provinces to the city, and the idea of the city as wealthy pinnacle of opportunity and the country as a sleepy, poor backwater, is an old one, seen in life and literature alike. But what are the economics behind this cultural trope?

Data show economic activity tends to concentrate in large cities and metropolitan regions. Indeed, a handful of such regions tend to account for a disproportionate share of total national growth in OECD countries. Typically, around 4% of regions generate about one-third of total growth, while the rest of the regions collectively account for the other 66% of growth, but individually do not contribute much.

Governments have long grappled with what to do about these underdeveloped regions. Do such regions even have anything to offer to the rest of the country?  At first glance, the answer might seem to be “no”. Very underdeveloped regions can impose high costs on national budgets, often in the form of quick-fix subsidies. And it has too often been assumed that there is no growth potential in these regions; they have been seen as a drag on national performance, not as potential assets.

The OECD believes otherwise. The recent report Promoting Growth in All Regions argues that relatively underdeveloped regions can in fact potentially be important sources of national growth and challenges the widespread view that rural is synonymous with decline.

Drawing on statistical analysis and a set of 23 case studies of OECD regions, the report shows that all regions have growth potential, particularly those that are currently lagging behind. It argues that promoting growth in all regions – whether rural or urban, underperforming or economic powerhouse – can drive total national economic growth and make economies and individuals alike less vulnerable to external shocks.

So, what should policy makers do? While there is no “one size fits all” solution, a few major themes emerge from the case studies.

First, education pays off and not just in the usual ways. We all know that the return on a university degree can be substantial, but these case studies demonstrate that improving skills of lower achievers – by reducing school dropout rates, focusing on marketable skills, and strengthening vocational training programmes – is equally important.

Second, infrastructure is not a cure-all. While building new roads, bridges and ports may create jobs, focusing only on improving infrastructure will not bring economic success. Big infrastructure projects do have a role to play – as a part of a larger policy package that brings improvements in a number of areas, from human capital to governance.

Third, the old saying “give people fish and they eat for day, teach them to fish and they eat for a lifetime” really is true. The case studies illustrate how dependence on top-down solutions and subsidies limits regional growth. Interestingly, the report also points out that the ways in which policy makers “frame” the challenges they are facing can make a big difference. As long as regional policy makers regard external subsidies as the main response to local difficulties, growth is unlikely to be substantial or sustainable. But reframing the policy challenge, looking at it in terms of local partners, institutions and investment, will encourage real growth and for the long term.

This doesn’t mean that regional underdevelopment is all in our heads, far from it. But it does mean that we must all put our heads together to help lagging regions to catch up with their better performing peers. This not only benefits national economies, but also contributes to a more inclusive and sustainable growth model. It helps to build a fairer society, in which no region and no one is left behind.

Useful links

OECD Regional Outlook 2011

OECD Regions at a Glance 2011

Regions and Innovation Policy



Zealots, assassins and insurance companies

The face of the future?

When asked whether Jews should pay taxes to the Romans, Jesus is said to have answered that you should give God what belongs to God, and Cesar what belongs to Cesar. That can be seen as a reasonable separation of the material and the spiritual, but some members of the audience would have interpreted it as support from the Prince of Peace for their uncompromising hostility to the occupying army. For the Zealots, nothing in Israel belonged to Cesar, and they were prepared to free the country by any means necessary, including what we now call terrorist attacks. They failed, and it would be a thousand years before another terrorist sect left its mark on history, again in the Middle East, when the Assassins started to carry out attacks in full public view to reinforce their fearsome, fearless reputation. The Zealots and Assassins targeted individuals and the military. The politically-motivated killing of large groups of civilians was a French invention, when the revolutionary government used “la Terreur” to eliminate or intimidate opponents in the early 1790s.

Since then, this kind of state terrorism has killed millions, but when we talk about terrorists, it’s usually to refer to violent, politically-motivated non-state groups. In fact there is no internationally agreed definition of terrorism, although various attempts have been made since the League of Nations first tried and failed in 1937. Even so, it’s clear that some terrorist acts of recent years represent a new kind of terrorism judging by their aims, targets, agents, and means.

Traditionally, terrorism was the work of organised groups with identifiable political goals, and was used to attain a clearly defined objective, such as freeing prisoners. The new terrorism has declared open-ended war on the “Western system” and its values, citizens, organisations and institutions. Its targets are no longer the military or symbols of the state. Large numbers of civilians may be targeted.

Unlike traditional, nation-based terrorists, modern terrorists are difficult to localise. They do not need to rely upon permanent structures for financial, technical or logistical assistance. Networks such as al-Qaeda can link together numerous highly-autonomous units of varying size and composition. They may still enjoy the backing of states for which encouraging, using and sometimes even organising terrorism is seen as a way to gain diplomatic influence, or a low-cost, low-risk alternative to war.

The vast majority of terrorist acts are committed with conventional means, but critical infrastructures that rely on information and communication technologies offer a new kind of target. Last week, the CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta warned against “the potential for malicious disruptions to the payments system in the form of broadly targeted cyberattacks”. Cyberattacks offer a number of advantages: expertise is readily available; the benefits of a successful attack, in terms of damage inflicted, can be very substantial; the costs, in terms of terrorist lives, risk of capture and even funding, are limited; and a successful attack would gain worldwide publicity whereas failure would go unreported (unless governments and corporations develop a specific communication strategy based on reporting attack failures).

Terrorism in different forms will remain a key feature of conflicts in the coming decades and better understanding and assessment of the threat it poses is imperative. However, terrorism differs from most other types of risk in two ways that make its assessment difficult. First, its risks cannot be quantified using historical data, not least because of the deep changes they have undergone in the past years. Second, they are generated by human behaviour. In other words, the context of terrorism risk is one where damage is not caused by an outside event such as an earthquake or even an accidental human error, but by the deliberate action of persons resolved to exploit every breach in security, and who may be ready to sacrifice their lives doing so.

One of the characteristics of terrorism is that its objectives can be attained while leaving most potential victims untouched and even if most attacks fail. As one IRA member put it, “We only have to be lucky once, you have to be lucky every time”. All forms of terrorism are similar in this respect. States that use terror against their own citizens can’t arrest everybody, but everybody must feel that they might be arrested, so arbitrary imprisonment is a common weapon against dissent. Islamic terrorism has mostly killed Muslims in Muslim countries, but the Eisenhower Research Project calculates that it has cost the US alone $3.2 to $4 trillion for the War on Terror, while according to a report by the International Commission of Jurists’ Eminent Jurists Panel some countries resort to secret detention, imprisoning children and other actions that “undermine cherished values as well as the international legal framework carefully developed since the Second World War”.

Because of terrorists’ ability to continually change their tactics according to the opportunities and obstacles they face, the risk of attacks and the effectiveness of security systems built against them are continuously reassessed. The Second International Meeting on Terrorism Risk Insurance at the OECD on Wednesday will look at how the terrorism threat is evolving, whether organisations are anticipating this risk, and asking if current insurance solutions are adequate. We’ll report on the discussions later in the week.

Useful links

Terrorism Risk Insurance in OECD Countries

Reducing systemic cybersecurity risk

OECD work on insurance