Thomas Sowell retires from column writing

The great Thomas Sowell retires from political column writing this week, with his last “Farewell by Dr. Thomas Sowell” column. He’s turning off the flow of news and intends to spend the time saved in photographing amid the great wild places of North America. His latest capstone book is a new edition of Wealth, Poverty, and Politics for which he recently did a 43-minute interview with the Hoover Institution.

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The best introductory overview of his intellectual ideas is The Thomas Sowell Reader (2011). His introductory Basic Economics: A Common Sense Guide to the Economy is well regarded, but I admit I found it heavy-going even as an audiobook. The fault was not Sowell’s, but mine. Those who just can’t absorb hours of solid economics, even when expertly explained and grounded, might instead look at his more approachable mix of real-world economics and recent history — his excellent book The Housing Boom and Bust: Revised Edition (2010). This is still one of the most readable accounts of the root causes of the recession. It leaves one with a great many memorable lessons in real markets and the unforeseen perils of leftist market interventionism in a highly interconnected world. It could be one of the best samples of Sowell’s work, for many, if you only have the time to read one.

For Sowell’s own very remarkable life story, look to his A Personal Odyssey (2002). This would make for an excellent Ken Burns-style documentary mini-series, or even a long graphic novel, if there are creatives out there in 2017 who are looking for a worthy new project in tune with our newly conservative times.

All the books mentioned above are available as unabridged audiobooks.

Millennials tilt toward optimism?

ManpowerGroup has surveyed 26,000 millennials in 18 nations around the world and found surprising levels of optimism across most such youth. Establishment western media often portrays millennials as fearful narcissistic wannabee-victims, failed by schools and unfit for the workplace. People who, at the slightest flicker of disapproval, need to leap into the ‘safe room’ to have fondle-sex with their therapy puppy. But they are remarkably optimistic about the future, especially in terms of jobs and careers…

“at least six in 10 millennials in countries such as China, Mexico, Australia, Norway and India, were confident of their career prospects. 70 percent see [the world] as full of opportunities, versus only 30 percent who see it as full of struggles; 86 percent see technology creating jobs, while only 14 percent see it destroying them.”

Of course these days opinion polls, even with a sample of 26,000, are hardly worth the paper they’re written on. Having been proved worthless time and time again by recent events. Nevertheless, the survey offers an interesting hint that millennials may be maturing a little, or at least some of the more reachable ones may be presenting a more optimistic face to opinion pollsters.

This change in outlook, re: unemployment, may in time impact on their politics. I often read columnists casually assuming that millennials of the Great Recession will stay the same whiny pseudo-socialist narcissists into their 30s and 40s. No, I think many of them will change, mature, learn, and break free of the smothering blanket of peer-pressure (as many people do, around age 26-27). This may be especially true of the most intelligent ones, and especially if Brexit and Trump prove to both be a mutually-sustaining success. Actually, I think many millennials may be far more small-c conservative than opinion polls and focus groups can discover — if ever there’s a post-war generation which has internalised the danger of speaking ‘on the record’ about one’s real opinions, it’s this one. They’ve learned to tell adults what they want to hear, which means parroting back at adults the accepted mantras and pessimisms. If they really believe these, or not, is another matter.

Also, if one were to exclude the especially gloomy Singaporean and Japanese youth from the ManpowerGroup figures, and those stuck amid the unemployment of the basket-case Greek economy, then the above aggregate figures would become even more positive. Note also the complete absence of Africa, where many nations currently have millions of young minds who are brimming with optimism for the future.

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Is Africa about to see mass starvation again? Not on present trends.

According to a new end-of-year FAO report “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”

“Global cereal production in 2016 received a further boost, owing to generally favourable growing conditions for the crops harvested later in the season.”

That’s great, and adds to boosts from a host of other factors. Obviously the FAO can’t commit climate heresy by saying so, but you have to suspect this may be a result of the positive effects of global warming and the global greening that arises from it.

There are some interesting insights into Africa in the report, and unlike most international reports the figures are sound. Since the agricultural inputs and outputs are hard for corrupt regional statistics-fiddlers to manipulate, unlike many educational and development aid outcomes, or things like wildlife counts.

There’s one especially positive set of statistics. In the west many people will casually assume that Western Africa and the Sahel nations are mostly desert. But now these nations are…

“about to achieve record production of cereals” in 2017 and rice is also doing well… “growing conditions have also proven conducive across Northern Hemisphere Africa, where the rice output is seen at a fresh peak of 19.8 million tonnes”

While back in the European Union, curiously…

“Significant production declines are estimated in the European Union, with the wheat output falling by 16.5 million tonnes on a yearly basis”.

The trade journal AgriMoney attributes this trend to urbanisation and afforestation of the countryside, and it affects many other crops such as potatoes. According to this trade journal…

“the downward trend in EU crop area [increases] as towns and forests expand, a decline which stretches back to the 1990s.”

The decline may also be something to do with the ageing and declining demographics of the continent, I’d guess? Old people tend to eat less, in aggregate. This rather startling comparison between the EU and the Sahel evokes the surreal image of a future starving elderly Italian pensioner opening their Christmas food aid parcel, to find it stamped: “From the people of Mali”.

But seriously, the FOA report of course reveals hotspots of food stress in the southern hemisphere part of Africa. These are almost all due to the expected local areas of El Nino‑induced drought, but sometimes to socialist politics or some vicious (usually religious) insurgency. Though it can’t be long now before some journalists start lazily eliding the droughts with global warming.

The FAO’s report suggests that the main serious problem areas for 2017 are:

* Malawi where the corn crops failed repeatedly, and where 6.5 million people sound like they could use some regular subsidised corn supplies as food aid in 2017;

* The basket-case nation of Zimbabwe will likely see even more hardship in 2017, with the FOA saying the nation’s dire politics and the 2016 drought will place a biggest-ever 4.07 million people at risk due to severe food shortages. The FAO talks ominously of “large declines” in its cereal production.

* Localised droughts in the far south of the island of Madagascar “have resulted” [in] “up to 850,000 people requiring emergency assistance”, though the rice production there actually increased. It seems unclear if food aid is still needed, or if the local government can keep handling it.

* There is even western media talk of possible problems in a couple of war-torn and inaccessible towns of relatively prosperous Nigeria, following some recently NGO press releases. But the government there rejects the tin-rattling rhetoric being used: “Nigeria accuses aid groups of exaggerating hunger crisis”, stating that…

“aid agencies had been attempting “to whip up a non-existent fear of mass starvation.”

…in order to bring in funds at Christmas. Food prices are high at present in Nigeria due to some exporting, but the Nigerian government’s complaint is clearly supported by the above FOA report which states that…

“above‑average cereal harvests are expected [for 2017] in most coastal countries including Nigeria where the aggregate cereal output is forecast to remain close to last year’s above‑average level.”

* The Horn of Africa is generally stressed, and major food aid may be needed in the spring in some war-torn parts of it such as parts of Sudan and Somalia, but The World Bank is saying of places such as Ethiopia that…

“Economic growth remained at a respectable 8% in 2015/16, which is impressive especially compared to previous drought situations … said Carolyn Turk, World Bank Country Director for Ethiopia, Sudan and South Sudan.” … “growth momentum will still remain and since 2016 rains arrived as expected, the recent drought will not likely affect Ethiopia’s medium-term economic growth.” (my emphasis)

Overall, the central and southern parts of Africa appear to have coped relatively well with the El Nino‑induced droughts, the worst in several decades, which have in places provided a bitter ‘stress test’ of Africa’s continuing development and growth. From my reading of the FOA report it seems that, with some relatively modest and targeted food aid in early 2017, the dozen or so very real hardship spots in Africa should pull through without mass starvation. None of these hotspots have arisen due to global warming.

The largest ongoing real risk in 2017 appears to me to be a Venezuela-style systemic collapse in Zimbabwe, and a few conflict zones.

There are reasons for optimism, beyond the next few months. Africa’s weather and rains in the south should be back to normal in 2017, and there are now plans and money on the table to try to make future African droughts even more survivable. Such as:

* grain marketing boards made to work in such a way that everyone can see exactly where any corruption or price-fixing is.

* better management of water access, better access to Africa’s huge river systems for generally increased water supply.

* better long-term weather forecasting of drought, and seed distribution systems that enable small farmers to switch crops quickly in response.

* better access to market prices and trends, via a farmer’s mobile phone, encouraging the sort of businesses literacy that will make swopping to drought-resistant crops easier.

* free or very cheap school meals.

* large national grain reserves (such as those held by Morocco and Zambia).

* reserve government funds, held in corruption-free escrow in dollars — for quickly buying and shipping emergency grain to short-term food not-spots and refugee camps. Such as that currently being deployed by Kenya to help people hit by drought.

* better roads for quick transportation of aid, which will also offer more efficient transport of crops to market.

* drought-resistant and GMO crops.

* simply bringing more land under the plough, as Africa’s population grows and young workers are available, thus boosting overall local production.

* increased open access to global markets, such as the UK after Brexit, opening up the possibility of having rows of high-value crop types growing alongside staple crops.

* cutting bio-fuels production, through which the West diverts a significant part of its field crops to make motor fuel. A reduction in bio-fuels would generally decrease global food prices.

Digital Kenya – new and free, a major academic book

A new Open Access book from Palgrave, just published: Digital Kenya : An Entrepreneurial Revolution in the Making.

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Positive and optimistic, but what a gloomy front cover it has. I can only assume that the off-putting cover was chosen by some annoying ‘anti-capitalist’ intern at Palgrave who disapproved of the book’s fact-based message. Anyway here’s the book’s upbeat intro, to whet your appetite…

This is not your usual run-of-the-mill entrepreneurial business book. The authors are going after nothing short of a transformation in the African business environment, specifically in Kenya. There are scores of books on innovation and entrepreneurship, but this one is clearly focusing on what could make Kenya tick in an age of innovation and rapidly evolving technology.

Wired Australia

Good news for the Anglosphere, Australia is getting online. But isn’t it online already, you might ask? One would assume so, but from the news it appears ‘not so much’. Apparently Australia currently doesn’t even have Amazon, either.

The Australian National Broadband Network is aiming to fix the lack of fast Internet access and is finally starting to make headway, after becoming a political football and suffering the usual mis-selling and teething problems. The effort to wire this vast and mostly-desert country seems to have been punishing on the ground, and the struggle there is obviously still ongoing. But the reports this week say that 4.4 million premises (30%) either have broadband or are wired up for it, and…

“The NBN has sparked a mini-spending spree on internet-connected devices.”

It seems we can be optimistic that after another couple of years of work the whole country will be wired up, even the deep outback places. And that will mean a whole lot more educated English-speakers able to fully and freely interact with the rest of the Anglosphere.

“Life shouldn’t be ugly just because you’re poor”

Excellent article recently by Clare Foges in The Times ($, 7th Nov 2016). “Life shouldn’t be ugly just because you’re poor”. Sadly it’s behind the heavy paywall, but here are a few highlights…

There is a kind of inequality that few mention in this country — an inequality that is as stark and dispiriting as the rest. Let’s call it aesthetic inequality.

Many deprived areas are horribly ugly — and we should take more seriously the effect this has on people’s spirits and lives. … how does it corrode aspirations and limit horizons if everything around you is grey, decrepit, rubbish? … What if your constant visual diet is the wind-whistling plazas in fifty shades of grey, the corrugated retail warehouses; the blank, depressing faces of municipal buildings; the graffiti and litter; the asphalt and concrete; the brutalism and boxiness? When driving through parts of Wembley, Blackpool, Coventry and Luton, I have raged at the fate of those stuck there without hope of a change of scene, at the thoughtlessness that has condemned them to constant ugliness. [all of which] that tell you this is where you belong, this is what you’re worth …

[We need] a planning system that demands more thought, subtlety and beauty. Why, for instance, do we only insist on elegant shopfronts along listed high streets in leafy, wealthy areas — while everywhere else there is a garish corporate free-for-all that assaults the eyes? Why not make every high street a listed high street? It needs more imaginative civic leaders [and we] need to squash the notion that caring about aesthetics is trivial, marginal, unimportant in the scheme of things.

The context was a speech by John Hayes, the current Transport Minister in the UK. It doesn’t seem to be online as audio, but the text of the speech is here. Predictably it was condemned from the left by the usual lumpen Tory-bashers, who can’t see beyond the end of the snivelling noses when it comes to the economic ramifications of policy.