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What Was So Bad About the Last 8 Years?

A lot has been said about the “elite” – both liberal and conservative – being out of touch with the concerns of a huge swath of America. And I get it. Most people from Washington don’t spend too much time in rural Kentucky or Ohio, or factory towns that have been devastated by job losses. They think that growth from technology and globalization has been great, even though it hasn’t been great for EVERYONE.

But what I don’t understand is the LEVEL of just OUTRAGE, this sense that the country is totally broken and headed in the wrong direction. Objectively speaking, for most of the country, things have never been better, at least economically. The economy has grown steadily for the past 7 years. In that time we’ve created 14 million new jobs, without a single month of net job loss since early 2010. The unemployment rate is at 4.9% – half what it was when Obama took office. 20 million more people have health insurance. We have more gadgets and technology that make our lives easier than ever before.

Yet when you hear people talk about it, we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Fewer people than ever before in human history are being killed by war or terrorism, but many people are afraid of war and terrorism. Crime is at 20-year low, but many people think law and order is breaking down in our cities. Yes, a lot of working class white people have not shared in the fruits of recent economic growth (for the last 16 years, not just the last 8), and they have a right to be angry with the way things are going. But “white working class” voters are only perhaps half of Trump’s voters overall – what about the rest?

Maybe it’s because I’ve been in Africa for the last 5 years, so it’s easier to notice how big the improvements in America have been each time I come back to visit (sort of like how you don’t notice how a friend’s looks have changed if you see them regularly, but you can really notice differences when you go years without seeing them).

But I still don’t get it. Things seem to be pretty good for most people, so why change them?

So if you are a voter who has felt outraged over how things have gone for the last 8 years and felt like we needed a change so badly that you were willing to gamble on Trump, leave a comment explaining your thoughts. I am eager to hear from you!

What to Do Next if You’re Scared of the Election Results

trump-digs-coal

What a shock. 47% of the country is ecstatic, and expecting great things, although we are still  not sure what. But for the 53% of the country that did not vote for Donald Trump, we have a lot to be afraid of. Mass deportations, erosion of religious freedom, the growth of an overbearing security state, the loss of health insurance for 20 million people, trade wars, misogyny writ large—these are the demons driving most liberals’ anguish since yesterday morning.

But the biggest threat, the one that sent me into a serious depression this morning, is the one no one is talking about–and it could end up being the greatest consequence of this election: if a President Trump follows through with his pledges on climate change regulation, it could lock the planet into runaway global warming that threatens civilization and the planet for thousands of years.

There’s no way around it, stopping climate change is the great issue of our time. Aside from the (still remote) possibility of the use of nuclear weapons, the rapid deterioration of the climate that has made civilization possible is the only existential-level threat facing humanity today. And scientists have warned us that the next four years are crucial: if the planet heats up much more, irreversible feedback loops like melting permafrost will kick in, locking us in to a self-reinforcing cycle of warming: the hotter the planet gets, the more CO2 is released, which in turn heats up the earth even more, releasing more CO2, and so on. By the end of the century, the earth’s temperature could be as far above the average for the last 10,000 years as the last ice age was below it, and it will be too late to do anything to stop it. Collapsing agricultural systems, devastated ecosystems, and rising sea levels would threaten the livelihoods and lives of hundreds of millions, if not billions, of people around the world. Compared to that, all the other things that could happen in the next 4 years are small potatoes (though of course still devastating to the individuals affected).

President Obama had secured multiple policies which together were perhaps the planet’s last, best hope for staving off climate change’s worst effects: the Paris climate agreement, his Clean Power Plan that limited CO2 emissions from power plants, and big funding for renewable energy research that promised breakthrough technologies to wean us off fossil fuels. All we’d had to do was to make sure that the next President does not undo those things, and we might have a fighting chance.

But President-Elect Trump has vowed not only to pull out of the Paris Climate Agreement and scrap the Clean Power Plan, he’s even promised to eliminate all federal funding for renewable energy and basic climate research. In other words, all the hard work of the past 8 years is at risk of being undone and worse.

This looks pretty grim. As Brad Plumber writes at Vox:

These are decisions that will reverberate for thousands of years and affect hundreds of millions of people. We can’t easily undo the effects of all that extra carbon dioxide we keep putting into the air. Without drastic reductions in emissions (or possibly risky geoengineering), global temperatures will keep rising. The ice caps in Greenland and Antarctica will keep melting. Once that process gets underway, we can’t reverse it. The seas will rise. South Florida will eventually vanish beneath the oceans. Megadroughts will become more likely in the Southwest. For generations and generations.

This is the future of humanity. We’re at risk of departing from the stable climatic conditions that sustained civilization for thousands of years and lurching into the unknown. The world’s poorest countries, in particular, are ill-equipped to handle this disruption.

So if you care about this issue as deeply as I do, what next?

Well, there’s always the possibility that Trump might moderate on the issue, or we might be able to convince him – and certainly we should try. But I’m not hopeful that we’ll find solutions from our government during the next 2-4 years.

Barring a miracle, the private sector will need to step up to fill the gap. Private companies and investors of course can’t force coal-fired power plants to meet emissions standards, but they can help to develop and scale up the technologies to replace fossil fuels. In the long-run, this could even prove faster than regulation at reducing carbon emissions (as we’ve seen from relatively clean natural gas displacing coal as gas has become cheaper). Once solar and wind reach grid parity, renewables will just be common sense, and utilities could make the transition relatively quickly. Renewables are already cheaper than fossil fuels in many developing countries that don’t have significant existing grid infrastructure and can therefore electrify more cheaply by leapfrogging straight to solar.

What’s needed is sustained funding and investment from commercial investors, impact investors, and private foundations like Gates, Chan-Zuckerberg, and Buffett, who should now make climate and energy their #1 priority. This means:

  • Funding research and development into renewable energy—both advanced research into “moonshots” as well as more mundane efforts to make existing technologies cheaper—to speed the achievement of grid parity for renewables. Again, if renewables are cheaper than fossil fuels, regulation becomes unnecessary.
  • Investing in the scaling up of existing renewable energy technologies—both in developed countries where they’ll replace existing fossil fuels, as well as developing countries where they’ll prevent fossil fuels from ever being used in the first place. Because renewables are cheaper than building new grid infrastructure in these environments, these are profitable investments with relatively short paybacks of 18-36 months.

The funding need is not even that great—after all, total federal spending on renewable energy research is only about $5 billion per year.

None of this is to diminish the huge blow this election has dealt to efforts to stave off climate disaster. If Paris and the Clean Power Plan are scrapped, we’re putting ourselves in existential danger. But hope is not all lost. And we have to move forward – the stakes are too high just to give up. And with government not likely to carry its weight, the best remaining way I see to get carbon emissions under control is deploying the huge amounts of private money that is available to develop climate solutions.

Simply put, if you have money and you care about this issue, it’s time to start putting your money where your heart is, because the government probably won’t be carrying its load. Donate to League of Conservation Voters or WWF. Invest in renewable energy research. Get a job with a renewable energy company.

And for those of us already working in the industry (as I am), we’ll need to work harder than ever.

K-Dexit: How Kevin Durant’s Departure from OKC Explains Everything Wrong with the Global Economy

First Great Britain voted to leave the European Union. Now Kevin Durant is leaving the Oklahoma city Thunder. Call it K-Dexit.

I’m not going to pretend that I’m some kind of OKC super fan. Sure, I grew up in Tulsa, just 90 miles away, but that was before the OKC Thunder existed; I haven’t actually lived in Oklahoma for 9 years, and I’ve barely followed the NBA in the 5 years I’ve been in Africa (hard to catch a game over here).

Still, I liked the Thunder, not least because of their likable and rock solid core of Russell Westbrook and of course Kevin Durant. It wasn’t just that they were good – REALLY good – but also that their blue collar humbleness in their devotion to the team and the state showed them to be that rarest of things in professional sports: genuinely good guys.

See, Oklahoma is a nice state, but it’s not exactly bright lights big city. And for two mid-twenties celebrity millionaires at the height of fame, you could forgive them for yearning for the glamorous lifestyle and flashy clubs of new York, Miami, or LA.

Instead, they made Oklahoma home, and stuck to building a team in a place that people on the coasts call “flyover country.” Here was a state that has never had an NBA team – and they made the new one great, basically from scratch (with apologies to Sonics fans). KD and Westbrook started to really become a part of the Oklahoma community that the whole state rallied around. When tornadoes struck, Kevin Durant was out helping victims; he even donated $1 million to the Red Cross for relief efforts. Whenever a game was on, even though I couldn’t watch it in Africa, my Facebook feed lit up with dozens of comments from friends back home. Thunder fans quickly became some of the NBA’s most diehard. The Flaming Lips (also from Oklahoma) even adapted one of their most awesome rock anthems for the Thunder.

Oklahoma City was once in a decline:
Home of the workin’ man,
But he was losin’.
But heard off in the distance came a roar out of the sky:
Thunder came thunderin’,
So determined.
Theirs is to win – we win with them.
They’ll keep fighting for Oklahoma!
Thunder up!

These were good guys building a good team in a place that really loved them.

So when I read that Kevin Durant was leaving Oklahoma City to form a super team with Steph Curry, I didn’t feel pissed so much as .. abandoned. Let down. Sort of gutted and empty, like an old factory whose boss has just announced it will be closing and shipping its jobs to China – and I’m not even a true fan! The reactions on Facebook from real fans were far more depressing.

And it’s not just that he’s leaving, it’s where he’s leaving from, and where he’s going to: from a small Midwestern flyover state that nonetheless gave him loyalty and devotion, to the beating heart of the nation’s biggest and richest state, on a team coming off the best regular season in history, that nearly repeated as champions.

The rich get richer, and the not-rich-enough can up and join them.

It’s the same reason I think there was so much vitriol toward LeBron 6 years ago when he announced his move to Miami. Do you think people would have reacted the same way if instead of leaving Cleveland, a hurting industrial town that hadn’t won a championship in 46 years (and his hometown at that), he’d been coming off a championship run with, say, the Lakers? Or what if instead of joining an already star studded team in a city known more for flashy clubs and plastic surgery than making things, he’d gone to try and build a struggling team in Memphis or Milwaukee?  People might have said WTF, but they wouldn’t have cared: no one would have begrudged him the right to go build something elsewhere, especially if he’d already finished what he’d started in Cleveland – and especially if he avoided the phrase “South Beach.”

Where people do have a problem is when you leave something you’ve been building to join something that’s already great: you become less of a hero and more of a mercenary.

But it’s not just the impact on our perception of the individual. When we see these super teams forming, players taking pay cuts to go wherever they have the best shot of winning a championship, we wonder, what kind of league are we making? As a friend posted on Facebook:

Bill Self left TU. Pujols left the Cardinals. OU was unbelievably bad for 10 years. Sometimes bad things happen in sports, but sometimes it turns out fine in the end. My only complaint is that I don’t like these “super teams” and think the NBA should do something to stop players manipulating the results.

Players used to go to whichever team paid them the most. We never liked it, but at least greed was a sort of leveler (at least in sports with a salary cap): a bad team could always lure a star with dollars in the hopes of turning things around. But if superstars opt to ignore money and instead chase wins by joining other superstars (after all, when you’re already rich, a few million more starts to have less value than a championship), you start to worry that the league will be less of a competitive field where everybody’s got a shot, and more of an elite club for a few dominant superteams to go around destroying everyone else.

And that just sucks.

That bitter taste that Oklahoma City fans (and NBA fans in general) are feeling right now is pretty much the same one leaving so many people frustrated with the way the global economy is working.

KD leaving isn’t just about a loss of talent on someone’s favorite team. It’s the loss of an institution. “Wait, Kevin Durant left? How can he leave Oklahoma City? He was Oklahoma City! How can there be an Oklahoma City Thunder without KD?” That feeling must be similar (though of course smaller and less consequential) to the alienation and dislocation people are feeling with job losses and factory closures. When a long standing factory suddenly announces it is closing or moving overseas, it’s not just the calculable economic hurt of loss of income that stings – it’s the loss of permanence. Here was an institution that was part of the community, where everyone worked, that gave back, and just like that they decided to up and leave? What went wrong? And if they can do it, what’s stopping anyone else?

For individuals too, movement isn’t always good. Players used to spend their entire careers with one team, maybe two. Nowadays though, players jump around for more money, get traded, and may end up playing for four, five, or six different clubs during their career. And even though there’s no real reason why one situation is better, most of us just feel that it’s more honorable to play for one team.

But there is a reason, and it’s that most humans value belonging just as much as, if not more than, individual achievement. We want to be part of a family and community, but nonetheless feel pressure to move to wherever we can find the best job and make the most money, leaving friends and family behind. So instead of lifelong friends, we have happy hours with people we may know for 4-5 years, then leave. Instead of extended family to take care of the kids, we have daycare. Then we wonder why despite the fact that we’re richer as a country than ever, we don’t feel much happier, and instead just feel busy.

The other thing the rise of these hated superteams shows us is that equality matters a lot more than we think. Neoliberalism, as a caricature, tells us that constant growth, innovation, and achievement are the highest ends of any society. Apply neoliberalism to basketball, and you might get a philosophy like this:

The market for talent in basketball should not be restrained; the dynamism created by free movement of capital and players allows some teams to reach new heights of greatness, allowing fans to consume ever more amazing feats of basketball prowess, which is the most important thing the League is meant to achieve.

But we all know that’s not the most important thing in basketball. We all know that it’s a more fulfilling, entertaining, and fun league when everyone has a chance to win – if not this year, maybe next year – than one where we get to see ever more amazing, dynamic basketball performances.

For 50 years economists have favored a “superteam” theory of economics: as long as the total size of the pie is growing, it doesn’t matter how the slices are distributed, because in the long run, everyone will get richer. And if you are 5% richer, isn’t it irrational to be mad just because someone else got 500% richer? You’re still better off!

That’s a little like saying that 76ers fans should be happy with their 10-win 2016 team because those players are still vastly more skilled than players from 50 years ago. But of course it doesn’t matter if the 2016 76ers could beat the 1966 Celtics. What matters is if you’re winning now, or have a chance to win in the near future. In the same way, it doesn’t matter if my income has increased 5% over the last 30 years, when the guys at the top have increased 500% – I still feel like I’m losing.

I know it’s great that we have a dynamic economy that produces so many wonderful things to buy, so much faster than it used to. But all that dynamism and growth has cost us a lot: less leisure and family time, more fragmented communities, and a lot of people who have been left behind.

Maybe it’s worth it in the NBA to put some restrictions on stars’ ability to move around and form superteams; the great teams may not be as great, but more people would get a chance to win. Likewise, maybe it’s worth sacrificing some of the dynamism (a meaningless word anyway to anyone who’s ever read a resume/CV) and high-growth upside of the global economy to get back some of what we’ve lost: time, community, and a shot for everyone to do meaningful work.

The only thing is I’m not sure there’s actually a way to do either one. And I’m betting Kevin Durant’s Golden State Warriors will be getting some of the highest TV ratings ever.

Thank God for Donald Trump

Who’s a greater fool: the fool, or the fool who follows him?

I’m taking a break from Africa posts to ask this question, which has become quite timely in the last couple of days.

I’m the only American at my office in Kigali.  The rest are all Europeans or East Africans.  Several months ago, the day after Donald Trump announced his intention to bar all Muslims from entering the United States, there was not a single person who did NOT greet me by asking about Donald Trump.

“Man, did you hear what Trump said this time?”

Yes.

“Could he really win the Presidency?”

No.

“But could he even be the Republican nominee?”

Yes.

Then a pause.

“…Who ARE these people who would vote for Trump anyway?”

I’m glad you asked.  Because by forcing us to answer this question—who ARE these Trump voters?—Trump’s apparent nomination, far from tearing our democracy apart, is actually performing a valuable public service: revealing the modern GOP’s true colors.

Now, I’m not scared of Trump.  At least not THAT scared.  For a couple of reasons:

  1. Trump is still highly unlikely to win the presidency. As numerous writers have already noted, the electoral map would not have been easy for any Republican, much less one that has made the comments Trump has about growing constituencies like women and Hispanics.  Come November, this should be a landslide for Hillary.
  2. Even if he were to win, I don’t think a Trump presidency would be as bad as people fear, because the US’s “engineered-to-prevent-radical-change” political system would probably block most of Trump’s extreme proposals. Barring Muslims from entering the United States, building a wall with Mexico, etc. would all have to pass Congress—and even if they got through, each would be swiftly challenged and ruled unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The American system of checks and balances is designed exactly for this possibility we’re facing of an insane demagogue being elected president: to prevent someone from “shaking things up” too much.  As much as gridlock has often prevented good governments from doing good things, we will be thankful for this same gridlock in the case of a President Trump.

So I’m not scared of Trump.

But I am scared of his voters.  11 million and counting.

Everyone is hurling criticism at Trump the person.  “Trump is a racist.”  “Trump is a bigot.”  “Trump must be condemned.”

But a candidate can only be as crazy as the people voting for him.  The ominous reality of this campaign is not that there’s a candidate spewing xenophobic and misogynist nonsense—it’s that this candidate’s support has actually grown stronger as he’s spewed more and more of it.  Trump’s campaign kicked off with his calling Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers, which immediately catapulted him into the lead in national GOP polls.  That should have told us something.  But that turned out to be just the beginning.  After each new comment that supposedly should have turned people off—we should increase the use of torture, Muslims should be barred from entering the US, John McCain is a fraud—his lead in polls has increased.  Indeed, exit polls showed that Trump did best among voters whose top candidate quality was “tells it like it is.”

trump polls and quotes

Correlation is not causation, and you can’t say that these extreme quotes caused Trump’s rise in the polls.  However, at the least this chart shows that his extreme statements have not stopped the consistent rise in his numbers.  Certainly there are no major dips in his support after extreme comments indicating such quotes had given his supporters cause for second thought.  (source for poll chart: FiveThirtyEight 2016 National Primary Polls, http://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/election-2016/national-primary-polls/republican; dates and lines for quotes are my addition)

Pundits are offering all sorts of explanations for how Trump pulled it off in spite of his inflammatory rhetoric and questionable credentials:

“The primary calendar favored him.”

“Party elites waited too long to rebuke him.”

“There was a crowded field that split donors and prevented rivals from mounting a strong campaign.”

But I’m going to offer a simpler, more fundamental—and far scarier—explanation for why Trump won: Republican voters agree with the things Trump says (a significant plurality at least, if not a majority).  It’s not Trump’s fault that he’s winning.  He’s just a savvy businessman giving the customer what he wants.  And what the customer wants is terrifying.

Let’s let that reality sink in.  A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe all Muslims should be barred from entering the US.  A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe its fine to deride female journalists for being on their period.  A significant plurality, if not majority, of Republican voters believe we should build a wall between the US and Mexico.

This isn’t just me making wild assertions: the data backs this up.  For example, an overwhelming majority of Republicans supports what is probably Trump’s most extreme proposal, to temporarily ban all Muslims entering the US: 66%, 65%, and 59% according to polls by Rasmussen, Bloomberg, and ABC News-Washington Post, respectively.  In fact, more than twice as many Republicans said Trump’s proposal made it more likely they would vote for him (37%) than less likely (16%), according to the Bloomberg poll.  Similarly, 67% of Republicans support the idea of building a wall with Mexico, according to a recent Pew poll.  And beyond these specific examples, political scientists in multiple separate studies on voters’ general temperament have consistently found an almost perfect correlation between support for Trump and various measures of racial hostility, white racial identity, and opposition to women’s rights.

And those issues are just the headline grabbers.  The truly terrifying issues are the ones on which Trump’s positions are in line with the other former candidates’.

The issues that have animated this campaign are not ones that will matter on a centuries-timescale—they’ve mainly been about identity politics, terrorism, and inequality.  But ISIS is not going to destroy the US, and decisions about who can enter bathrooms and cross borders will not end human civilization.  There are only two events within a government’s ability to control that could really do that: nuclear war and climate change.

And on these issues, Trump pretty much speaks the party line.

Yes, Trump says he would not take the use of nuclear weapons “off the table” even in Europe.  But other candidates have been equally extreme.  Ted Cruz advocated “carpet bombing” the Middle East, and Scott Walker—a supposed moderate—said he’d be willing to go to war with Iran “on day one”.

Yes, Trump says climate change is a hoax.  But so does the Republican Chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, 4-term Senator Jim Inhofe.  And it’s not Trump travelling the world trying to undercut the Paris climate agreement, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

So Trump’s positions on many issues are actually pretty much in line with where the Republican mainstream has moved in recent years, to the chagrin of many.  The question is, why are so many people who have held positions nearly identical to Trump’s now reacting so vehemently against him?

It all comes down to the power of language, I think.

When I was researching my senior thesis in 2006, I would always ask interviewees what they thought was the biggest issue facing the country.  I’ll never forget the response one housewife told me: “Immigration,” she said.  “I’ve been reading that with birthrates the way they are, pretty soon white people are going to be a minority in this country.  And I’m pretty uncomfortable with that.”  Then she paused and thought a moment.  “You know, now that I say that out loud, it actually sounds kindof racist!”  And she reconsidered her position.

What I think had happened is, it was not until she heard the words spoken out loud, in stark terms, that she was forced to confront the fact that some of her beliefs about right and wrong—“racism is bad”—conflicted with other beliefs about certain policies—“we should restrict immigration because otherwise white people will become a minority.”  She’d always held these two contradictory positions, but it was only upon hearing them spoken side by side that she was forced to reexamine some of her views to resolve the contradiction.

I don’t know for sure, but I think a lot of moderate Republicans and conservative intellectuals are perhaps in a similar position: being faced for the first time with the contradictions between positions they have accepted in solidarity with the base, and what they actually believe is right and wrong.

Trump has not actually changed what the Republican base believes.  The truth is, they’ve always wanted to deport Mexicans, bomb Muslims, and have women stay home from work 5 days a month (which is why, of course, they are voting for a candidate who advocates these sorts of things).  But before Trump no one was willing to say these things out loud.  Few honest politicians could actually want to build a wall with Mexico, or actually believe that climate change is a vast conspiracy, but they needed the votes of people who do.  So they couched their positions in euphemism: the proverbial “dog whistle” politics.  And as long as extreme words were never spoken, politicians and thought leaders could pretend that extreme positions were never taken.  Maybe they were even convinced by their own words.  Likewise, the media could pretend that both sides were equally wrong: if one of the two major parties took an extreme position, by definition it had to be mainstream.

Well, the words have now been spoken, and Trump has broken the seal to let reality out into the open.  It’s plain now for all to see that the Republican Party has for several years now been hijacked by a base whose views are dangerous and extreme by any measure, and need to be treated as such.  Certainly I can sympathize with the underlying reasons for the fears of Trump’s voters—the working and middle classes really have been hollowed out, economic elites really do have too much money and power, and poor whites really are falling behind—but it’s no excuse for accepting or encouraging the more extreme fruits of these fears.  I can also sympathize with those Trump supporters who don’t agree with his more racist and misogynist comments but who want to “shake things up”—the Washington establishment really is dysfunctional—but let’s sit down first and think about how much shaking we want to do.  The US government is, after all, a pretty big thing, and would crash hard if it came down too fast.

Trump is not winning in spite of his extreme statements, he’s winning because of them.  He’s not some charismatic aberration who, once gone, will enable agitated Republican voters to settle down and go back to voting for reasonable moderates—he’s the new normal.  After all, the #2 vote getter was Ted Cruz, whose views are even more right-wing than Trump’s.

For moderate Republicans, conservative intellectuals, and the mainstream media, Trump should be a wakeup call that the GOP has changed for good and should perhaps no longer be taken seriously as a mainstream party—on par with fringe groups like Britain’s UKIP or France’s National Front.  As the conservative Federalist notes, “What Trump represents is the potential for a significant shift in the Republican Party toward white identity politics for the American right, and toward a coalition more in keeping with the European right than with the American.”

I’m not saying you need to join the Democrats.  America needs a third party.  Most people I talk to in my generation (admittedly a limited and unrepresentative subset) seem to want someone who’s socially liberal but economically moderate, who believes in markets more than handouts and trade more than aid, but also knows that government is needed to regulate externalities, support infrastructure and research, and provide a basic safety net.  The Dems are moving in that direction, but there’s probably still time to outflank us.

Whatever the outcome, the important thing is that we do not individualize the Trump phenomenon.  We shouldn’t be scared of the fact that one of our presidential candidates says crazy, racist things.  We should be scared of the fact that there are millions of people who actually agree with him.

And we should all thank Donald Trump for finally revealing that.

What if Billionaires were African Countries?

I watched The Big Short last night.  It’s hard to picture just how much money, say, a billion dollars really is.  Ryan Gosling’s character at the end of the movie gets a check for $47,000,000—a lot of money to be sure, but then you think, that’s probably around what the real Ryan Gosling makes in a year or two with 4-5 movies.  Many of the characters walk away with $100 or $200 million.  Again, that’s a lot of money, but when you start comparing it to the likes of Mark Zuckerberg, as Wait But Why has, you start getting into territory that is hard to picture because, quite simply, you start running out of things that you can’t buy.

When we talk about billionaires, we often find ourselves scoffing that with so much money, you’d have to start buying countries.  I’ve sometimes joked that it’d be fun to have my own “banana republic.”  But just how realistic would that be?

More realistic than you might think, it turns out; the world’s richest people could probably buy several banana republics.  Indeed, Oxfam recently released a study which found that the world’s richest 62 individuals possessed as much wealth as the poorest 50% of humans.

So what does that actually look like?

To try to picture this, I started comparing the GDPs of African nations to the fortunes of the world’s billionaires, assigning nearly every African country to a billionaire whose net worth nearly approximates that nation’s annual GDP.  Data for GDP comes from the World Bank, and billionaires’ net worth from Forbes.  What I got was this map:

Africa billionaires final

Now before we go on, a quick disclaimer, and word on methodology.  First, I’m aware that comparing net worth to GDP is not an apples to apples comparison.  Net worth is a static summation of a person’s wealth, whereas GDP is an annual figure of production.  (As David points out in the comments, wealth is a stock while GDP is a flow [updated 01 May 2016]).  So these billionaires couldn’t actually buy most of the countries in question—that would require them to sum up the value of the countries’ discounted future GDP over the next 10-30 years.  (Though Bill Gates actually could buy Rwanda if you assume a startup-like valuation of 10x revenues.)  It’s more accurate to say that the billionaires on this map could buy all the goods and services produced in their respective countries in a single year.

And that’s still pretty impressive.  Most of us could not afford to buy all the inventory in a single Target store at any given time, but Mark Zuckerberg could walk into the Democratic Republic of Congo and buy everything that country produces in an entire year.

Congo has 85 million people.  About the same as Germany.

Second, note that the person listed on each country is not necessarily the very closest match between GDP and net worth.  When there were several billionaires of similar net worth—say, $12.5 billion compared to $12.9 billion—I would usually go with the better-known person to make it easier to visualize.  So even though Mauritania’s $5.06 billion GDP is slightly closer to Kirsten Rausing’s $5.1 billion than George Lucas’s $5.0 billion, I went with Lucas because you’ve probably heard more about Star Wars than Tetra Pak.

So what’s interesting on this map?

First, you’ll notice just how full the map is of billionaires’ names.  There were only six countries whose annual production could not be topped by a single individual’s wealth.  Those were Angola, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Nigeria, and South Africa.  (And if you were to add together the fortunes of the Walton heirs, they would top Angola and Morocco).  Billionaires are really rich, and African GDPs are really small.

There’s also a conspicuous absence: the world’s richest man is nowhere to be seen on the map.  That’s because #3 richest Warren Buffett’s $73 billion net worth was a near perfect fit for Sudan’s $73.8 billion GDP, and the next country up—Morocco, at $110 billion—was too far out of Bill Gates’s league to compare the two.  You can see it on this chart:

Billionaire bar chart

But even without Gates, the top billionaires do quite well for themselves in Africa.

If the infamous Koch brothers pooled their wealth ($43 billion each), they could buy Sudan’s economy for a year and still have enough left over to rank in the top 100 billionaires.  If they choose to keep their fortunes separate, they’ll have to make due with Tunisia and Tanzania, which are much lovelier countries anyway.

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos gets all of Ghana’s gold, oil, and cocoa beans, and his Chinese counterpart Jack Ma gets Uganda’s coffee and fish.  Meanwhile casino magnate Sheldon Adelson can buy up everything Cameroon has to offer in a year.

Facebook is booming among young Africans, and its founders’ fortunes have grown bigger than the economies of most of the countries where these new Facebook users live.  Congo produces the lion’s share of the rare minerals that most of the world’s cell phones depend on, but Zuckerberg could buy up all of it, plus everything else Congo produces, for an entire year.  If he doesn’t want to bother with a security detail, he could camp out next door in safe and secure Rwanda with co-founder Dustin Moskovitz, whose $7.9 billion is just about equivalent to Rwanda’s $7.89 billion economy.  (But they’d better have good tax lawyers.  Rwanda charges a 30% tax on expats—which if levied against Zuckerberg’s and Moskovitz’s fortunes would bring in a one-time windfall of nearly double the country’s entire economy.)

africa billionaires - facebook

Some of the most recognizable names can be found out in West Africa.

Luke Skywalker’s home world of Tatooine was not filmed in Mauritania’s deserts, but it probably wasn’t due to the expense of filming rights: the wealth generated by George Lucas’s two film franchises is bigger than the country’s economy.  Richard Branson and Ralph Lauren don’t need to worry about ebola anymore—Sierra Leone and Guinea have recently been declared ebola-free.

africa billionaires - celebs

South African-born Elon Musk made his first fortune selling PayPal to Ebay, so it’s fitting that he and Ebay-founder Pierre Omidyar are neighbors in Mali and Niger.  What I like about these two is how they demonstrate the growth of the global renewable energy industry.  Much of Musk’s wealth nowadays is tied up in Tesla Motors and Solar City, two of the leaders of the clean economy, while Omidyar has invested in one of BBOXX’s competitors, Off-Grid Electric.  While these companies are still not as big as the global oil giants, it’s nice to see renewable energy starting to create country-sized fortunes.

Professional sports franchises are some of the most profitable businesses around, and to own one you need to be as rich as a small country in Africa, though not necessarily a well-off one.  Burundi and Malawi are perennially some of the world’s poorest countries: their economies are smaller than the bank accounts of just two Dallas sports team owners, Mark Cuban and Jerry Jones.  Swaziland is technically a middle-income country, but with only 1 million people, its economy is still smaller than the wealth of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

africa billionaires - sports

Africa has billionaires too.  With a net worth of $15.4 billion, Africa’s richest man, Aliko Dangote, has a fortune roughly the size of Gabon’s oil-rich economy.  Gabon actually has one of Africa’s highest per capita GDPs (around $11,500 per head), though with a low population its total economy is still relatively small.

africa billionaires - africas richest

Finally, you’ll notice some colored-in countries that don’t have any billionaires’ names on them: for example, Lesotho, Eritrea, Liberia, and the big green country smack in the middle, Central African Republic.  Each of these countries has a nominal GDP of $2 billion or less.  At this level, the list of billionaires becomes so big that the Forbes’ site starts slowing down trying to load them all, and I got tired of scrolling through the list.  Sorry guys.

Considering all of this, there are two things that jump out at me.

  1. Billionaires are REALLY rich. The countries on this map are not, for the most part, small and sparsely-populated.  Ethiopia, Congo, Tanzania, and Kenya are all in the world’s 30 most populous countries (#13, #16, #24, and #29 respectively); taken together, the populations of all the countries with billionaires’ names on them total to 674 million.  But Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s wealth is so immense that you’d have to get all 92 million Ethiopians working for an entire year just to produce as much.  When you go to Mombasa port and see thousands of cargo containers stacked in huge piles, or drive for hours through the Ugandan countryside passing thousands of acres of coffee fields and tea plantations, alongside hundreds of trucks laden with produce, minerals, animals, and oil for an entire country, a single individual like Amancio Ortega or Jack Ma could buy all of it.  (Then again, two-thirds of the world’s countries have gross domestic products smaller than annual sales of the iPhone, so perhaps it’s not THAT surprising).
  1. The amount of aid or investment needed to build these countries’ economies is actually not that much. Though many Americans complain about how much of their tax money is going to foreign aid, it’s not so much that all those funds couldn’t be provided by a single person.  In fact, there are 34 individuals who could afford to provide the entire $22.3 billion requested for USAID in 2016—and #34 would still be left with $300 million.  That $300 million would get the company I work for halfway to our goal of electrifying 20 million households by 2020.  It can feel a little galling when you work so hard to raise $20 or $30 million to fund your company for a year, and there are individuals on this planet who could pull that cash out of their pockets!

And even when we start talking about truly big money – climate agreements, for instance, frequently cite a figure of $100 billion per year in clean energy investment that rich countries should transfer to poor ones – it’s still only Amancio Ortega plus one half of the Koch Brothers.

When you compare $100 billion to African economies, it sounds like a lot of money.  But when you compare it to the world’s richest, $100 billion just ain’t that much.

Reverse Culture Shock, Winter 2015 Edition (#36-43)

Another trip home is almost come and gone.  Each time I come back, I like to write down a few new items of “reverse culture shock” I’ve noticed about home—whether it’s the United States or the West in general—that I’ve only been able to notice by virtue of having been in Africa.  You can check out the master list here.

This time around the list is small—I have been gone for 4.5 years after all—but there are always a few.  Starting from #36…

36. Ice Water.

America is obsessed with ice water.  It doesn’t matter that it’s winter and 35 degrees F (about 1 degree C) outside and you’re sitting next to the door so every time it opens you get a gust of cold air.  If you order a water, it’s going to come with at least 50% ice.  Don’t get me wrong, I like my water nice and cold, but the water that comes out of the fountain is already chilled: you don’t need to make it even colder by adding ice to it.  Not to mention harder to drink—don’t you hate all those ice cubes clinking up against your teeth?

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Thoughts on Paris, Terrorism, and Refugees: Why We Don’t Need to Step Up Counter Terrorism and Why Refugees are on Our Side

Taking a break from the usual Africa focus.  It’s been nearly two weeks since terrorists from the Islamic State massacred 130 people on the streets of Paris, and 40 more in Beirut.  Since then there’s been an outpouring of support on Facebook and from governments around the world, a lockdown in Brussels, intensified military action in Syria, and of course the inevitable calls to close the borders to scary refugees.

But there’s also been something else: Paris, at least from a distance, seems to have largely returned to life as usual.  And it’s beautiful.  Scenes of Parisians flocking back to cafes show more defiant patriotism than all the bombing raids we can ever do; I never thought it would be possible to feel patriotic by drinking coffee, but that’s exactly how I felt when I sat down at the ArtCaffe at Westgate Mall in Nairobi, scene of some of the first shots of that horrendous mass murder, a few days after it had re-opened.  Returning to the scenes of violence to eat dinner, drink coffee, and listen to music sends a clear message: terrorists’ goal in committing such violence was to change us, to goad us into doing something stupid, and they failed.

Here’s what I think we can learn from the attacks in Paris and other places around the world.

  1. There is no moral equivalency between terrorist massacres and Western military actions in the Middle East or elsewhere.

One article circulating on Facebook was a Guardian piece pointing out that perhaps 450 civilians have been killed by US- and European-led airstrikes in Syria and Iraq.  The implication is clear: yes the terrorist attacks in Paris were evil, but we’re not so great ourselves—just look at all those civilians our drones have killed.

Yet comparing the two is to conflate results with intent.  When a Western country’s actions result in civilian deaths, there was no intent to kill civilians.  Quite the opposite: we consider civilian deaths in war to be a tragedy, and actively try to minimize such casualties.  For example, a friend of mine’s mother works as a “humanitarian mapper” in the RAF: a position whose job it is to find where all the civilians live so air strikes can avoid killing them.  Think about that for a second: a military organization is employing someone whose job it is to stop it from killing people.  Indeed, Western militaries spend billions every year developing precision strike technologies to minimize civilian deaths, and it seems to be working: according to the Guardian piece, there have been more than 5,700 air strikes since the air campaign against the Islamic State began, but only 52 of these strikes have resulted in civilian casualties—in other words, 99% of Western air strikes have NOT resulted in civilian deaths.

In terrorism, of course, the intent is precisely the opposite: to maximize civilian casualties.  To gun down unarmed, defenseless people, exactly because that is what will create the most fear.  (For that matter, pretty much all other societies in human history—including western ones pre-1945—have been willing to inflict broad civilian casualties on enemy populations if it advanced the aims of the war.)

Of course we don’t always succeed in protecting civilians, and of course it is true that Western armed forces have sometimes been implicated in atrocities.  But the fact that we consider them to be atrocities matters: they are atrocities because they go against our own values, not because of them.

  1. There’s not much we can do to entirely prevent terrorism – and we probably wouldn’t want to do much more than we’re already doing.

Although reporting on the Paris attacks frequently described them as “sophisticated” and “coordinated,” I am struggling to see what is so sophisticated about eight guys getting guns and shooting unarmed people in crowded public places.  In fact, it seems incredibly easy: as long as you can get a gun (especially a fully automatic one), it’s very, very easy to walk into any crowded area and start killing people.  Indeed, lone wolves like the Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook gunmen managed to kill more people per shooter than the Islamic State terrorists in Paris.

terror deaths

While the ISIS terrorists killed more people in total, there were at least 8 attackers – the lone wolves involved in America’s own mass shootings have killed more per gunmen

Could intelligence agencies have acted faster on information indicating the possibility of an attack?  Perhaps.  But of course any information before an attack is, by definition, imperfect, and can only be known to be accurate in hindsight.  So intelligence officers must make judgments about how real or likely a potential threat is based on the information they have at the time.  And inevitably, that judgment will sometimes be wrong—unless, that is, we are willing to require our intelligence agencies to act on any possible threat, which would be hugely disruptive to life and civil liberties.

If we don’t want to give indiscriminate power to intelligence agencies, what about beefing up security at “soft targets”?  For example, one conservative commentator said he was too scared to see the new Star Wars movie because there are no metal detectors at theaters.

Ubiquitous security is essentially the approach taken in many East African countries—and trust me, it’s not worth it.  Imagine having to go through airport security every time you wanted to enter your office or go shopping.  Just walking into a supermarket in Kampala, Nairobi, or Kigali usually requires a pat down and a trip through a metal detector.  At higher end shopping malls, you can face as many as three security checks: a security guard opening each car door to check inside as you enter the parking garage, followed by a metal detector and a rummage through your backpack when you enter the mall, followed by a pat down when you enter whatever store you are going to.  The car checks frequently cause traffic jams as it takes 2-3 minutes for each car to enter the garage: if there are only 10 cars, that’s a 30 minute wait.  I was happy to endure these small hassles for a few weeks after the Westgate massacre, but after a while you realize it’s not possible to live life under lockdown.

And really, does this added security actually do anything?  If you post a guard and a metal detector at the entrance to a shopping mall, all it does is force a terrorist to take out his gun outside the mall instead of inside.  The Economist points out that even airport security allows a lot to slip through, partly because the job is just so repetitive that humans checking metal detectors become numb to the routine; “A lot of what passes for security at airports is more theatrical than real.”

Unless we’re willing to go all the way and make every soft target a hard one—to require armed guards and metal detectors at the entrance to every shop, train, and bus, to post snipers on the perimeters of every mall, to subject ourselves to random police checkpoints on every road—it will always be easy for terrorists to attack.  And such a security state is not one most of us would want to live in.

  1. This huge gap between ease and frequency shows how little we have to fear from terrorism, not how much.

So it begs the question: if these attacks are so easy, and the world is full of terrorists trying to carry them out, then why aren’t these attacks happening all the time?  While I’m sure some of this has to do with the few dozen terrorist attacks that are foiled every year by our intelligence agencies, I think there’s a simpler explanation: there just aren’t that many terrorists out there trying to kill us.  If there were, you’d see a lot more Westgates and Parises.

The CIA estimates that there are 31,500 ISIS fighters in Iraq and Syria.  That would just about fill the visitors’ side of Cowboys stadium.  Even if you quadruple that estimate, you’re getting into the realm of The Big House—certainly a lot of people signed up for an evil ideology, but not much compared with the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims, and certainly nothing that can threaten the economic and military juggernaut of the US, Canada, and Europe.

And the results show.  With so few terrorists in the world who are trying to kill us, there are just not that many of us being killed by terrorists.  In fact, terrorism is about the least likely thing in the world to kill you—you’re more likely to be struck by lightning.

death-and-dollars

Anti-terrorism spending per death is 50,000x greater than spending on leading causes of death like heart disease and cancer.  source: thinkbynumbers.org

So why worry?  As the wild dog sparks panic in the gazelle, causing the herd to flee and leave behind or trample the vulnerable to make a tasty meal for the dogs, the only way terrorists can actually damage our societies is by panicking us into causing self-inflicted wounds: goading us into foreign wars that deplete our resources and push more Muslims into ISIS’s camp, or curtailing our civil liberties in the name of the illusion of security.  Indeed, more Americans have died avenging 9/11 in Iraq and Afghanistan than died in 9/11 itself.  How does that make any sense?

If the gazelle just stayed in their herd and kept grazing, the dogs would get close, then get scared of the herd’s sheer size and run away.  Likewise, in response to terrorism, the proper amount of change required of our societies is surprisingly close to zero.

(Yes, I know it’s a bit annoying to refer to ourselves as a herd of gazelle.  Perhaps a better analogy would be a couple of mangy hyenas trying to attack a pride of lions).

  1. The Paris attacks show us why we should let refugees in, not keep them out.

I know that several of our Presidential candidates, despite their tough talk, are actually scared of widows and orphans.  But the truth is, numerically and ideologically, the refugees are on our side.

There were at least 8 attackers in Paris, and out of them 1 had possibly posed as a Syrian refugee.  But that means the other 7 were French or Belgian.  If we’re going to ban Syrian refugees from entering the US, by this logic shouldn’t we be 7x more eager to ban the French and Belgians from our shores?

Nationalities of paris attackers

More than 700,000 refugees have entered Europe in the past year, and out of them one maybe turned out to be a terrorist.  Should we really be basing national policy on 1 in 700,000 chances?  Those seem like pretty non-scary odds to me.

But more than the numbers, look at the nature of the people who are fleeing to the West.  Two months ago I was skeptical of the calls to allow migrants into Europe; their habit of complaining that Hungary wasn’t rich enough, they wanted Germany or Sweden, sure seemed like looking a gift horse in the mouth.  But as I’ve read more, both stories from the refugees themselves and the arguments of those opposing them, I’ve become more sympathetic.  Like this one about three widows who had been forced to marry ISIS fighters and join the religious police, then fled because they couldn’t abide its cruelty or the suicidal ideology of their husbands.

The people who flee from Syria and Iraq aren’t the ISIS supporters—otherwise they wouldn’t have left.  The people who flee are the ones who hate ISIS so much that they are willing to risk everything to get out.  Finding ways to cross ISIS checkpoints.  Leaving families behind and having to figure out how to keep them alive from afar.  Searching for better lives in the West.  These guys are on our side.

It’s the people traveling the other way we need to be worried about.  And the best way to maximize that flow of people is to do exactly what many politicians are now calling for: closing the borders, bombing more indiscriminately, and isolating communities.  Such actions are sure to breed the resentment and economic stagnation that ISIS recruiters feed on.

Instead, we should be welcoming refugees who want to escape repression, integrating immigrant communities so they can join in our societies, and fostering trade with Muslim countries to promote economic opportunities beyond the $100 a month young men can earn as a fighter.

If someone is willing to risk it all to escape ISIS and settle in the West, that’s someone I want to welcome to my shores.