Government, energy & environment

How strong are the BRICs?

In 2003 the investment bank Goldman Sachs listed Brazil, Russia, India and China as the four (BRIC) countries that would dominate the global economy by the year 2050. However, Brazil is not growing as fast as many people predicted and Russia, India and China are all fighting internal issues of one kind or another. In India’s case growth is running at 8 to 9% per year and the country has a middle class of 300 million people who are looking for new ways to spend their money. However, the country is straining due to 60 years of under-investment in critical infrastructure such as roads, water and power. There is also the issue of ponderous bureaucracy and rampant corruption. The services sector is doing well but it is still small (employing 1.6 million people) and further development in both services and manufacturing is critically dependent on reliable power and a modern transport network. In the case of China things are different partly because the leadership has the power to steamroller development. However, while the growing Chinese middle class is becoming more assertive about property rights, the fact is that the new Chinese property law does not meet many of the most basic criteria. For example, the new law does not give peasants marketable ownership rights and does not prevent their expulsion from ‘their’ land. Instead it (together with a corrupt and compliant judicial system) protects the rights of land grabbers and developers. Admittedly the Chinese government is becoming more attuned to the voices of its people but the fact still remains that the government is a law unto itself and does its very best to silence dissent of any kind, including Internet censorship. As for Russia, it’s pretty much the same but with a vodka twist.
Ref: Various including; The Economist (UK), 10 March 2007, ‘China’s next revolution’ and ‘Caught between right and left, town and country' (same issue) Business Week (US) 19 March 2007, ‘The Trouble with India’, S. Hamm, N. Lakshman, and Business Week (US) 5 February 2007, ‘China: Boom Today, Bust Tomorrow’, See also The Economist (UK) 14 April 2007, Special Report on Brazil.
Search words: BRICs, China, India, Brazil, Russia, growth, risks
Source integrity: various

Democracy 2.0

Will web 2.0 and social networks change the face of politics? In theory, yes.For example, Congresspedia is a Wikipedia-style site onto which hundreds if not thousands of volunteers post information about everything from which bills a politician is sponsoring to where his or her political donations come from. The result is information and transparency at the click of a mouse – in theory. This may indeed change the face of politics and make everything from present funding to past promises open, searchable and honest. Indeed web 2.0 is perfect for politics in that it encourages participation and allows individuals with similar attitudes and beliefs to find each other and then agitate for what they want to happen. But, of course, Internet access isn’t limited to developed nations. Connections are now spreading to even the remotest villages in countries around the world, many of which, like Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, are controlled by rulers with authoritarian tendencies, so it will be interesting and important to see how this develops. The key point here is obviously that the Internet allows voters to be heard and can aggregate opinion almost instantly. It also allows politicians to by-pass the press barons and other forms of traditional media and conduct a conversation directly. At least that's the theory. In reality many of the social media sites are owned by the same people that own newspapers and TV stations and ordinary voters will still have their voices drowned out by the online majority. A final point is that the vast majority of people that are currently online are younger people. This is good news because for the past few decades this generation has either been silent or ignored. However, what’s generally missed is that from now on it will be the older generations that will have a stronger political voice.Research conducted by MORI during the 2005 UK election, for instance, calculated that people aged 55+ had 4.2 times the voting power of 18- to 35-year-olds.
Ref: Forbes (US) 7 May 2007, ‘Wikipartia: How the web is restoring democracy to politics’, H. Dean., The Economist (UK) 14 April 2007, ‘Bloggers may be the real opposition’,, New Scientist (UK) 10 March 2007, ‘Get ready for democracy 2.0’, C. Biever.
Search words: democracy, voting, government, web 2.0, social networks, Internet
Source integrity: ****

Homework – why bother?

There’s a lot of talk these days about work-life balance but one large section of our community seems to have been ignored in this debate is kids. Case in point is the case for and against homework, especially for younger children. One recent survey of 1178 primary school kids found that in 22% of cases, parents did their kids’ homework.Another survey has found that homework contributes to mental and physical exhaustion. In theory homework is meant to contribute to the discipline of learning, especially the discipline of study that will be required at university and later, perhaps, at work. In senior school, the case for homework seems pretty water tight but for students at junior school there seems to be no evidence whatsoever that it contributes in any meaningful way to development or intelligence. So why do we endorse the practice? One explanation is that certain parents regard homework as free childcare. Another is that parents mistakenly believe that homework will give their children an advantage that ultimately translates into a long and happy life. But of course the setting of excessive homework, especially for younger children, means that parents have less time to spend with their kids and kids have less time to play around and just be kids. So perhaps rather than setting obscure mathematics problems that parents can’t help with, we should be setting proper ‘home work’ – getting kids to help around the house, learn to clean and cook and perhaps even help with the family budget. Of course this won’t happen. The trend is set and what will probably happen next is homework for preschoolers.
Ref: Sydney Morning Herald (Aus) 1 May 2007, ‘Homework is robbing young people of life’s real lessons’, D. Donahoo. The Australian (Aus) 10 April 2007, ‘Call for better homework-homelife balance’ J. Ferrari
Search words: Homework, education, schools, kids, work, time, parents
Source integrity: ****

Age related politics

The ageing of most western countries is a well-documented trend but what’s sometimes missed is the impact of an ageing citizenry on the political landscape.In the UK there will be more people aged over 40 than under by the year 2012.By 2031, the average age in the UK will be 44 (up from 39 currently) and 25% of the UK population will be over 65. 70% of private wealth over GBP 500,000 is held by people aged over 55 in the UK and just 17% of pensioners are classified as poor compared to 27% ten years ago. The same is roughly true is countries like the US, Japan, Germany and Australia, to mention just a few. But so what? Surely older people have always has more money simply because they have been around longer to earn it? And anyway, as a society we are obsessed with youth not wrinklies. One implication is that the older generations will have a much stronger political voice and that politicians will start to amend and invent policies to please these generations.For example, a study by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research in Britain found that since 1945 the British tax system has slowly been changed to benefit older voters. For instance, older voters tend to be asset-rich and income-poor so it’s interesting to observe that the tax system has shifted from a tax on assets such as property (generally owned by older people) to a system based in salary and work (generally younger people). A further and final point is what else these generational differences might translate into. One scenario is that class differences will be replaced by generational differences and there will be open hostility by the young towards the old, especially over access to services like healthcare.
Ref: New Statesman (UK) 5 March 2007, ‘The great generational robbery’, F. Islam. www.?????
Search words: Gen Y, generational conflict, debt, housing
Source integrity: ****

In pursuit of happiness

News that a group of Hedge Fund managers recently took home US$260 million probably made a few slightly rich people very unhappy. People tend to think that more money will make them happy. This is true up to a certain level, but after that happiness has less to do with how much money we have and more to do with how much more money we have relative to other people that we know. Happiness, in case you didn’t know already, is shaping up to be a contender for the defining political idea of the 21st century. The only problem is that nobody can define what happiness is or how to measure it. One of the hottest fields in economics, for example, is happiness economics and opportunist politicians the world over are rushing to think tanks and researchers to help them deliver it. For example, Thailand now has a happiness index linked to the country’s five-year plan and China is soon to deliver something similar. Over in the UK, there’s a Whitehall Well-Being Working Group (don’t laugh) and there have even been happiness conferences in Rome and Sydney recently. So what does make us happy? As I’ve already said, the term is rather fuzzy but having a job, especially one with meaning, seems to help. Equally, not having a job makes most people very unhappy indeed. Other potential factors include the weather, genes, more play and less work. The latter is hardly unexpected but it’s also quite possibly wrong. If this is true, for instance, then why are hard-working Americans ranked 17th on the happy nations list while the fun-loving French come in at 39th? (Answer: Perhaps the list and the formula upon which the list is derived is total rubbish?) One finding that is potentially interesting is the fact that economic growth isn’t necessarily at odds with happiness. Traditionally politicians have aligned income with happiness – the more income a nation has, the happier it will be. As a result, measures such as GDP evolved. So guess what? According to the latest research this might be true after all, although one suspects that it all depends on how wealth is distributed or spent. By the way, in case you are wondering, the happiest countries on earth are – allegedly – Denmark, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland and Finland.
Ref: Newsweek (US) 7 May 2007, ‘The Joy of Economics’, R. Foroohar.
Search words: happiness, economics, wellbeing
Source integrity: ***