Despite all the pageantry of the last two days, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the British Empire ain't what it used to be. But economist Peter Hammond, guesting at Debraj Ray's blog argues that the old chesnut that "the sun never sets over the British Empire" is still technically true. There's always a little bit of sun shining on some piece of land controlled by the crown.
Nobody really refers to it as an "empire" anymore, but in addition to Britain and Northern Ireland, the U.K. still controls territories including "Gibraltar, Bermuda, numerous Caribbean islands, Ascension, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha, the Falkland Islands, and South Georgia." Some have argued that the sun finally set over the empire after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997. But Hammond argues this view ignores two tiny but crucial territories which bridge the gab: the Pitcairn Islands in the South Pacific and the British Indian Ocean Territory -- also known as the Chagos Islands, where Britain and the United States maintain a joint military facility at Diego Garcia. The question is "on midwinter's day in the southern hemisphere, does the sun set over Pitcairn before it rises over Diego Garcia?"
Here's what his calculations found:
[The] results allow for the refraction of the sun's rays when it is close to the horizon. They indicate that, on 21st June, the sun rises over Diego Garcia at 01:22 hrs GMT, more than half an hour before it sets over Pitcairn at 01:59 hrs GMT.
Thanks to Diego Garcia (uninhabited except temporarily by various U.K. and U.S. military personnel) and to Pitcairn (population now about 50), the British Empire appears safe from sunsets for the time being.
But this situation may be short-lived. The Chagos Islands are the subject of an ongoing legal battle between Britain and nearby Mauritius, who assert that the local inhabitants were illegally and brutally removed during the 1960s in order to make room for the military base. And of course, these islands are among the places on Earth most threatened by rising sea levels. Not to mention the political challenges to British rule over other territories including the Falklands and Gibraltar.
All this is to say that by the time the just-born heir takes the crown around 2082 or so, his sun may indeed set on his empire for at least part of the day.
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If you could time travel back to the last Ice Age, would you be able to speak with any of your distant ancestors? Well you probably couldn't discuss the mysteries of the universe but there might be a few words you could use to make yourself understood.
In research published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude, and Andrew Meade attempt to identify words shared between Eurasia's major language families -- implying that they may be relics of an older common tongue. Most words have a "half life," meaning there's 50 percent chance they'll be replaced by a new noncognate word every 2,000 to 4,000 words. But some words -- particularly numerals, pronouns, and adverbs -- tend to last longer.
Using a database of hypothesized ancestor words, the authors looked for words related by sound within the language groups in the map above. (An example: The Latin pater is obviously related to the English father.) They found "188 word-meanings for which one or more proto-words had been reconstructued for at least three language families".
The following list of words had cognates within four of the language families:
For the most part, commonly used words seem to decay more slowly, though comparatively rare words like "spit," "bark," and "worm" seem to be exceptions. The authors say the connections between these words provide evidence of a Eurasian "linguistic superfamily that evolved from a common ancestor around 15,000 years ago -- slightly before the beginning of the Holocene era.
So you may have some (limited) subjects to talk about with your ancient ancestors after all.
India's two most prominent economists have never really seen eye-to-eye. Amartya Sen, a Nobel Prize-winner and Harvard professor, believes in public interventions to alleviate extreme poverty and reduce inequality while Jagdish Bhagwati, a professor at Columbia and author of the bestselling book In Defense of Globalization, favors a more free-market, growth-first approach.
In recent weeks, the two have caused something of an uproar -- "Academic Brawl," proclaims the Economic Times -- with a terse back-and-forth in the letters page of the Economist. It started with a June 29 review in the magazine of a new book by Sen and frequent collaborate Jean Dreze, which contrasted the two views on Indian economic development:
Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, both professors at Columbia University, and long (and, at times, bitter) sparring partners with Mr Sen and Mr Drèze, argued forcefully in a recent book (see review) for more liberal reforms, notably to labour laws and land ownership. They say that pushing GDP growth back above the current 5% level, creating jobs, letting business flourish and raising revenue for government would all cut poverty.
They are surely right. But Mr Sen and Mr Drèze hope to go much further, faster. The lesson of just about every emerging economy-China and Brazil today, Europeans before-is that as economies grow, big public interventions aimed at lifting health, education and other standards result in rapid social gains. India, however, is the exception. Worse, its lagging social problems actually serve to drag down economic growth.
Bhagwati and Panagariya countered in a letter to the editor:
Your claim that Messrs Sen and Drèze wish to go “much further” leaves us puzzled.
The truth of the matter is that Mr Sen has belatedly learned to give lip service to growth, which he has long excoriated as a fetish. He did not explicitly advocate any pro-growth policies, such as opening India to trade and to direct foreign investment, in practice before or after the 1991 reforms. Nor does he recognise that significant redistribution to the poor without growth is not a feasible policy.
Sen then responded last week:
I have resisted responding to Mr Bhagwati’s persistent, and unilateral, attacks in the past, but this outrageous distortion needs correction.
Their letter says that, "Mr Sen has belatedly learned to give lip service to growth." On the contrary, the importance of economic growth as a means- not an end-has been one of the themes even in my earliest writings (including "Choice of Techniques" in 1960 and "Growth Economics" in 1970). The power of growth-mediated security outlined in another book I co-authored with Mr Drèze in 1989, "Hunger and Public Action", is a big theme in the present book. Economic growth is very important as a means for bettering people's lives, but "to go much further, faster" (as your reviewer commented) it has to be combined with devoting resources to remove illiteracy, ill health, undernutrition and other deprivations. This is not to be confused with mere "redistribution" of incomes, on which Messrs Bhagwati and Panagariya choose to concentrate.
Ordinarily a fundamental philosophical disagreement between two economists, even such prominent ones, whose positions are pretty well established at this point wouldn't get that much attention, but the Indian press seems to be treating the feud as a proxy battle ahead of next year's general election, with Sen taking the side of India's Congress-led government and Bhagwati Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the nationalist BJP.
LiveMint's Niranjan Rajadhyaksha writes:
"Indeed, if Sen and his long-time collaborator Jean Drèze are supporters of the entitlement-led public schemes launched by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, then Bhagwati and his long-time collaborator Arvind Panagariya are admirers of what they call the Gujarat model. Sen is a strong supporter of the proposed right to food law while Bhagwati has lashed out at it. Drèze is a member of the powerful National Advisory Council that has the ear of Congress president Sonia Gandhi. And Panagariya has written in support of the economic policies of Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.
According to the Economic Times, Bhagwati has repeatedly challenged Sen to a public debate, which the Harvard economist has declined, saying, "Jagdish has tried it many times, but I have never said a thing about him." Indians may get a chace to weigh in indirectly on the argument next year at the ballot box.
Further reading: I interviewed Sen for "Epiphanies" in 2009.
As Marc Lynch writes, "Even longtime observers of Egyptian rhetoric have been taken aback by the vitriol and sheer lunacy of the current wave of anti-American rhetoric," with "fliers, banners, posters, and graffiti denouncing President Barack Obama for supporting terrorism and featuring Photoshopped images of Obama with a Muslim-y beard or bearing Muslim Brotherhood colors" and Amb. Anne Patterson bizarrely accused of acting in league with both the Brotherhood and Israel.
It's clear there's a healthy degree of paranoia and conspiracy thinking on both sides of Egypt's political divide right now, which given some recent developments is understandable. But a provocative recent political psychology paper suggests that conspiracy thinking may have actually played a role in helping Egyptians -- and others -- overthrow their dictatorship in the first place.
In Speaking (Un-)Truth to Power: Conspiracy Mentality as a Generalised Political Attitude, Ronald Imhoff of the University of Cologne and Martin Bruder of the University of Konstanz attempt to define conspiracism as a "monological belief system" associated with "disliking powerful societal groups and perceiving them as responsible for political and economic events with negative implications. For instance, individuals high in conspiracy mentality will attribute the present financial crisis to the coordinated actions of greedy managers and bankers rather than systemic dynamics in a complex economy."
Now, of course the main problem with this worldview is that it's generally wrong. Major political events generally happen through a confluence of often impersonal forces, not because a small group of elites wants them to. Plus, conspiracy minded people are often able to believe inherently contradictory things about the world. The authors note that "individuals who thought that Princess Diana was assassinated were also more (not less) likely to believe that she faked her own death". Or consider those who believe that President Obama is both a secret Muslim instituting Shariah law and a pawn of the gay agenda.
And of course, while conspiracy theorists believe their targets are the rich and powerful, they can often turn their suspicion on vulnerable groups in society, with anti-Semitism -- the "socialism of fools" -- being a noteworthy example.
But as the old line goes, "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you.” Sometimes there are powerful elites acting in secret for their own gain, and as Imhoff and Bruder argue, when you're fighting the power, it can really help to have a few conspiracy theorists on your side:
We speculate that believing in a critical causal role of conspirators in bringing about
negative events may make it easier to take a firm stand on complex issues such as nuclear
power or the global economy. Instead of being overwhelmed by the complexities of these
issues (potentially resulting in anomia), the mental shortcut of blaming individuals or groups may facilitate social action aimed at undermining the actions or goals of those perceived to be conspirators. Our research reveals an important but often neglected effect of conspiracy thinking: Challenging the status quo – even if for potentially misguided reasons and irrational ideas about the goals and influence of specific groups. This may empower disadvantaged groups to take action and actively pursue their goals even in opposition to those in power.
To take another recent example, Edward Snowden may frequently come across as paranoid and not all of the programs he's revealed may be as sinister as he suggests, but without people of his mindset, genuinely important secret information that should be made public would rarely be brought to light.
Conspiracy theories can sometimes be useful in challenging the status quo. Though when they're the ones in power, it's usually not great for their citizens.
MARWAN NAAMANI/AFP/Getty Images
The MIT Technology Review reports on a study by the mobile security startup Lookout, which found a key vulnerability in Google's new wearable computer, Glass. The hack exploits QR codes to gain access to Glass's systems:
The Lookout researchers found that by creating a QR code that caused Glass to connect to their own wireless access point, they could control traffic coming on and off the device, Rogers said. In theory, this would allow a hacker to spy on a user's uploaded photos, or direct him to malware on the Web.
Similarly, the researchers found that a QR code could force Glass to connect via Bluetooth to a device of the researcher's choosing, without the Glass wearer's knowledge.
The problem was reported to Google and was fixed within two weeks. But as Lookout points out on its blog, this is just one example of new security challenges posed by the so-called "Internet of Things," the hacking of wireless-connected insulin pumps being among the most troubling.
China's birth gender imbalance remains stubbornly large, despite public efforts to address the problem. In 2010, the sex ratio at birth was 1.19 boys for every girl -- the biological norm is around 1.05 -- meaning there were about 500,000 extra male births. The imbalance is blamed for a wide variety of social ills.
It's often assumed that the imbalance is driven by China's official One-Child Policy, which was introduced in the late 70s, combined with access to ultrasound and abortion. If a couple can only have one child -- or two in the case of rural families -- they tend to opt for a boy. Sex-selective abortion is illegal in China but difficult to enforce.
But an NBER working paper by economists Douglas Almond, Hongbin Li, and Shuang Zhang makes the case that the roots of the gender imbalance go back farther than the OCP. Specifically, they argue that it was the pro-market land reform policies and breakup of collective farms following the death of Mao Zedong that drove the trend in rural areas -- 86 percent of the country's population at the time. For rural couples, who were allowed to have two children and generally preferred at least one of them to be a boy, the second child was 5.5 percent more likely to be a boy after land reform was introduced in a given area. The introduction of the OCP, which happened around the same time, had an effect as well, but the authors find that it's almost entirely eliminated when you control for the effect of land reform.
Why exactly land reform had this effect is less clear. The authors consider a number of possibilities including gender bias in land distribution, increase in the demand for male labor, increase in demand for old age support, and the collapse of the rural medical system, but don't find empirical support for any of them. There is evidence to suggest that better educated, more affluent families are more likely to opt for the practice.
Whether or not land reform is actually the culprit, it shouldn't be too shocking that the OCP isn't -- or isn't exclusively -- to blame. Sex-selective abortion is common in parts of India, where no such laws exist. And as Mara Hvistendahl wrote for FP in 2011, "Once found only in East and South Asia, imbalanced sex ratios at birth have recently reached countries as varied as Vietnam, Albania, and Azerbaijan."
This doesn't mean that the policy isn't still a bad idea for other reasons, but scrapping it may not be the answer to bringing back China's missing women.
When I discussed Bowling Alone the other day, I didn't realize that political scientist Robert Putnam had recently received a National Humanities Medal at the White House. Putnam also has a recent op-ed in Politico (via the Monkey Cage) discussing Sen. Tom Coburn's recent amendment limiting NSF funding for political science research.
Putnam writes of his highly influential work on social capital that "if the recent amendment by Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) that restricts NSF funding for political science had been in effect when I began this research, it never would have gotten off the ground since the foundational grant that made this project possible came from the NSF Political Science Program."
He notes that at the time he began, it would have been difficult to justify his research as being in any way beneficial to the national interest.
Forty years ago, it was impossible to foresee the far-reaching results of the research — certainly I didn’t! It was not at all clear that the research would have any practical implications for American citizens and policymakers — the nominal topic, after all, was local government in Italy. But my disciplinary peers carefully scrutinized the theoretical framework and the scientific methodology of the proposed work, just as they did with scores of other proposals that year.
The poorest, least developed, and least governed countries and regions in the world are the most prone to violent conflict right? Perhaps not.
"Asia has by far the highest number of conflicts, and the longest running conflicts," according to according to a new study of subnational conflict on the continent from the Asia Foundation. The authors, Thomas Parks, Nat Colletta, Ben Oppenheim, identified 26 subnational conflicts, ranging from Kashmir to Aceh to southern Thailand, affecting 50 percent of the countries in South and Southeast Asia between 1992 and 2012. But when you look at where these conflicts are taking place, a lot of preconceived notions about the relationship between development and violence don't hold seem to hold up.
For one thing, the authors find that "it is clear that economic development at the national level has little or no impact on subnational conflict in Asia," and the majority of conflicts actually took place in middle-income countries.
The relationship between national-level state capacity and conflict also isn't as clear as you might think. Using scores from FP and the Fund For Peace's Failed States Index, the authors find that "While the weakest capacity states have the highest frequency of subnational conflict occurrence, most ofthe subnational conflicts in the region are found in moderate capacity states, such as Thailand, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, and India."
Regions where conflicts occur do tend to be poorer than the rest of their countries, though "in a few cases, notably the conflict areas in India, poverty rates are actually lower than the national average."
On other development indicators, the disparity doesn't seem to be that great. For instance, "for infant mortality rates, the majority of conflict areas are within 10% of the national average or better than the national average". Conflict areas are also generally equivalent or better than the national average" in terms of literacy.
It's also not the case that conflict areas are underdeveloped in terms of infrastructure:
In southern Thailand, for example, 64.2% of villages have all-season roads, a percentage which is well above the national average of 50.7%, and the average for other border provinces (49.2%). Aceh has similarly high levels of road infrastructure, with nearly double the national average for total length of road per land area. In India, most of the conflict-affected provinces are above the national average for road length per land area.
So what does distinguish conflict-prone areas? The main factors seem to be geographic and cultural rather than economic. "Subnational conflicts are primarily found in remote, border regions of the country that are home to ethnic minority populations with a history of autonomous self-governance," the authors write.
It's possible these findings only apply to Asia, though as Overseas Development Institute's Marta Foresti writes in a blog post on the report at the Lowy Interpreter, "these were also the factors underpinning recent violence and conflicts in relatively stable African countries such as Mali and Kenya."
While it's often comforting to think that measures human well-being all rise or fall together, it doesn't seem to be the reality here.
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War of Ideas is a blog on the theory behind the practice of global politics. Foreign Policy associate editor Joshua E. Keating brings you the latest research, data, and intellectual debates from around the world.