Grid growth and wealth

A recent article about the impact of electric grid power expansion in India and Africa peaked my interest and so reviewed some of the papers on the topic spanning decades. While I obviously can’t declare definite conclusions they seem to point to problems with base assumptions made by advocates of broad electrification.

The blog post was a quick review of a couple of recent studies discussing the expansion of electric power to villagers in rural India and Kenya. The studies are very different looking for different things. But they both show that the expected economic boost from the build out of the electrical power grid has not arrived, at least not yet, and some of the data indicates a net negative impact.

In general it appears that the cost of the service is too high to pay off for these poor farmers/villagers is modest at best and in some ways is a net negative.

This is contrary the experience in places and times, most specifically the US where rural electrification was a vast boost to the economy.

The situation needs study but the thing that comes to my mind is that the served populace needs a certain amount of wealth to make use of electricity.  On its own electricity does nothing, its what it enables that is the important thing.  Many of the areas that have already electrified were both relatively wealthy and had existing in service infrastructure that could be made more productive powered by electricity rather than the prior human, animal, steam or wind power.

Today the urge is to spread the grid out into the poorest rural areas, these are subsistence farmers not commercial farmers and these people have little or no infrastructure to make more productive. Not to say that they cannot move up the chain with time but the move from subsistence to commercial farming is non trivial. Transportation infrastructure and marketing/sales infrastructure are critical while cell phones are a huge enabler the rest of the picture is still fuzzy at best.

Also one has to wonder if this uplift isn’t facing a very stiff counter wind from the global economy. It is very cheap to move products in bulk across the major transport networks it could be that farmers, selling a local staple product will find it very hard to compete even if the distance to market is relatively short.

Though this is only one data point, it seems to point out that implementation of small scale solar/battery systems for light and telecom are the most important stepping stone for these subsistence farming communities.  That the improvement of transportation infrastructure might be of value before a major build out of electrical grids.

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Limitations of Pay Pal and how it’s side stepping them

I’ve used PayPal for several years now on my iDevices and PC’s, mostly for paying a few monthly subscriptions and moving money between bank and credit union. It also enables me to pay for my minor excesses out of my ‘monthly money’ rather than the family general account. I have bought a couple of big-ticket ‘toy’ items using the credit account and then paying back over a few months, or better saving up then using PP to buy the lusted after item over the net. I think PP is a useful service and I trust it more than I do big bank credit card services though that’s a little player vs. mongo player preference rather than real in-depth analysis.

Pay Pals weakness has been the network effect. In general the more members any network has the more useful it is. While PP is pretty widely spread these days it’s not getting bigger quickly enough and I have continued to use other methods of paying for most things.

PP has solved at least part of this growth problem by moving into the credit card world. Establishing a PayPal Master card in place of its own credit account. This enables users to pay through the immense existing credit card infrastructure but use the PP ‘back office.’

In one sense it’s a bit sad that PP had to just become another credit card. But they do provide a lot of other services and a way to manage and move your money around in the banking system.

Government lying to itself Again..

20140201-223217.jpgGovernment Says You Can’t Overcome Addiction, Contrary to What Government Research Shows, Why does the National Institute on Drug Abuse contradict its own research? from Reason, Stanton Peele | February 1, 2014

The truth is, the vast majority of people quit addictions on their own. Every population study (that is, research with people not in treatment) tells us this. There is no ambiguity, no doubt, no scientific questioning of this truth. Only the neuroscientific, “chronic brain disease” crowd—represented by the new official medical subspecialty, the American Board of Addiction Medicine (ABAM)—strives to convince us of the opposite, even as a never-ending flood of data tells us otherwise.

By reinforcing the myth that addiction is uncontrollable and permanent, neuroscientific models make it harder to overcome the problem, just as the 12-step disease model has all along. Telling yourself that you are powerless over addiction is self-defeating; it limits your capacity to change and grow. Isn’t it better to start from the belief that you—or your spouse, or your child—can fully and finally break out of addictive habits by redirecting your life? It may not be quick and easy to accomplish, but it happens all the time.

12 step programs do help people (my opinion) but I can well see that they may in fact be bad for some. I also agree that addiction is something you can grow out of or shake yourself, most of us have done it, even if it’s just chewing your fingernails, everything is on a spectrum and we all live on different arcs so different levels of self healing are bound to exist. This author makes the right points but I think let’s individualism blind him to the fact that some will need help.
The other point is that in all likelihood the American Puritanical War on Drugs, has all but certainly been a horrific waste of resources and souls…

Anthropic principle and our finely-tuned Universe

Anthropic principle and our finely-tuned Universe Ethan Siegel at Starts With A Bang!

How the mis-application of the Anthropic Principle has led factions of scientists away from the search for a natural, physical explanation of our Universe, and why that’s bad for everyone.

20140105-114648.jpgImage credit: ESO / T. Preibisch, via http://www.eso.org/public/images/eso1208a/

One of the first things you notice — and it’s self-evident if you think about it — is that the Universe is full of stuff. This in itself is a wondrous thing, because it didn’t need to be that way.

The US’s (Asia’s) Worst Nightmare: a 4th China-Japan War

Asia’s Worst Nightmare: A China-Japan War by James Holmes | National Interest | January 5, 2014
20140105-111808.jpg

A fight over seemingly minor stakes, then, could mushroom into a major conflagration arraying China against the US-Japan alliance. How much passion would an East China Sea imbroglio rouse among the combatants? China and Japan would be all in. Disputes involving sovereignty — particularly territory and resources — tend to drive the perceived value of the political object through the roof. Tokyo and Beijing, moreover, are acutely conscious that the post-1895 status quo is in play. In Clausewitzian parlance, goals of such value merit open-ended efforts of potentially vast magnitude.

Given President Obama’s history of feckless dithering on foreign policy issues this could get really ugly. It seems likely that China will push to take advantage of our real if self inflicted weakness. In effect the administration’s habit of appeasement makes war more, not less, likely.

Institutional Decay American Style

The Decay of American Political Institutions
FRANCIS FUKUYAMA Published on December 8, 2013
We have a problem, but we can’t see it clearly because our focus too often discounts any political

institutions in the United States are decaying. This is not the same thing as the broader phenomenon of societal or civilization decline, which has become a highly politicized topic in the discourse about America. Political decay in this instance simply means that a specific political process—sometimes an individual government agency—has become dysfunctional. This is the result of intellectual rigidity and the growing power of entrenched political actors that prevent reform and rebalancing. This doesn’t mean that America is set on a permanent course of decline, or that its power relative to other countries will necessarily diminish. Institutional reform is, however, an extremely difficult thing to bring about, and there is no guarantee that it can be accomplished without a major disruption of the political order. So while decay is not the same as decline, neither are the two discussions unrelated.

Theories of aging and senescence look at build up of damage in DNA, build up of poisons in cells, build up of damage in limited repair tissues, etc. I see government as a living entity with the same sorts of problems. This is why to a large extent progress has occurred with the birth of new governments (and often the death of the prior one.) The US was set up to purposely operate in a sort of continuous creative destruction and did well till the forces of ‘progress’ figured out how to jam a spoke in this wheel of change. For about fifty years things kept going, even got better because competent first generation operators were in place and constant change is not always very pretty. Now we are well into senescence and things are going to hell because this is not an era where sclerotic systems are treated gently.

The truth is always so much more interesting than the crap I learned in school

The Truth About the “Robber Barons”
Mises Daily: Saturday, September 23, 2006 by Thomas J. DiLorenzo
It’s long but interesting, after reading it think about what has been going on around us for decades, longer really, since what is discussed in this fascinating piece has only gotten worse since the long dead protagonists passed from the stage:

The American economy has always included a mix of market and political entrepreneurs — self-made men and women as well as political connivers and manipulators. And sometimes, people who have achieved success as market entrepreneurs in one period of their lives later become political entrepreneurs. But the distinction between the two is critical to make, for market entrepreneurship is a hallmark of genuine capitalism, whereas political entrepreneurship is not — it is neomercantilism.

In some cases, of course, the entrepreneurs commonly labeled “robber barons” did indeed profit by exploiting American customers, but these were not market entrepreneurs. For example, Leland Stanford, a former governor and US senator from California, used his political connections to have the state pass laws prohibiting competition for his Central Pacific railroad,[1] and he and his business partners profited from this monopoly scheme. Unfortunately, the resentment that this naturally generated among the public was unfairly directed at other entrepreneurs who succeeded in the railroad industry without political interference that tilted the playing field in their direction. Thanks to historians who fail to (or refuse to) make this crucial distinction, many Americans have an inaccurate view of American capitalism.

As a header for the article, DiLorenzo has this quote:

Free-market capitalism is a network of free and voluntary exchanges in which producers work, produce, and exchange their products for the products of others through prices voluntarily arrived at. State capitalism consists of one or more groups making use of the coercive apparatus of the government… for themselves by expropriating the production of others by force and violence.
— Murray N. Rothbard, The Logic of Action (1997)

So the taxonomy here is:

  1. Free market capitalism
  2. Political ( crony) capitalism
  3. State capitalism

But the whole story is much more complex than this article outlines, since all of the actors in the dance, (‘good’ guys and ‘bad’) were acting out of self interest, enlightened self interest, altruistic self interest and more darkly unconscious self interest, based on very, ( by today’s standards, very, very) poor information and worse theories of cause and effect. It is all but certain they were trying to do the best they could for the audience they cared about (sometimes but rarely, just themselves.) Even monsters think they are doing the right thing (sometimes via massive self delusion admittedly) whatever outside observers perceive.