Posts Tagged ‘economics’

Palm Oil and orangutans

September 2, 2009

In a quick little, but important news item that caught my eye, it seems that 20,000 orangutans were killed/poached or removed from their natural habitats in Indonesia over the last 10 years, all illegally, without one prosecution. According to the article, fewer than 50,000 of the endangered animals remain (of the Bornean variety, only 7,300 of the Sumatran orangutans).

International trade in orangutans is forbidden under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), and orangutans are protected in Indonesia, where it is illegal to kill, capture, transport or even injure one of the rare apes.

And yet, the killings continue. “The problem is, the law is never enforced, largely because the Ministry of Forestry has never shown any interest in serious wildlife or habitat protection,” says Sean Whyte, director of Nature Alert.

As to why so many orangutans have been killed, it basically boils down to one word: greed. It’s not the orangutans themselves that have commercial value. Rather, it’s the land that they live on, which is being burned down to make room for massive (and often illegal) palm oil plantations. Palm oil is a common ingredient in many processed foods. Around 90 percent of the world’s palm oil comes from Indonesia and Malaysia.

Processed foods? Well, that’s o.k., right? Not exactly. It doesn’t look like processed foods are healthy for you either, but that’s a different story.

What about the palm oil plantations? From the Scientific American article:

The palm oil plantations are “miles and miles long,” he says. To make matters worse, “it’s a monocrop that destroys the soil. When satellite imagery is taken of the region, you see scorched earth where the forests have been destroyed.”

Hardi Baktiantoro, director of the COP [Center for Orangutan Protection, puts that into context, with the following prepared statement: “The palm oil industry must be one of the worst, maybe even the worst, environmentally damaging industries in the world.”

Granted, I’d like to see some numbers that support Baktiantoro’s claim, but I suspect he is not far off. So, orangutans are destroyed to plant an environmentally damaging crop, largely to make foods that are likely not healthy for us. This doesn’t sound like a winning situation to me. Granted, there are probably people whose livelihoods may depend on the plantations, but with work, environmentally safer work could be found or created.

In the meantime, how can you help? As the article suggests, check the ingredients on the food you buy and stay away from palm oil. Cadbury’s has already promised to remove palm oil from their chocolate due to consumer pressure from Europe. We here in the U.S. can have certainly have an impact if we put our minds to it. The orangutans will thank you. That is, I’m sure they would if they could track you down and, well, speak.

Thanks for not using palm oil

Thanks for not using palm oil

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California education woes

February 24, 2009

A new report from UCLA shows significant problems with California’s education system.

The report, issued by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California All-Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (UC ACCORD), finds that systematic inadequacies and inequalities in the public education system leave California students from all backgrounds unable to compete with their counterparts in most other parts of the country.

Also From the report:

The research also reveals a “restricted flow” through the “mathematics pipeline.” The progress of California students through the middle school and high school math curriculum is hampered by students’ lack of access to small class size, rigorous coursework and well-trained teachers, according to the report. This restricted flow makes the No Child Left Behind Act goal of universal proficiency in math by 2014 nearly impossible to reach for most California schools.

Finally, the report reveals worse educational outcomes for California’s class of 2006 than for previous classes. The consequences of poor learning conditions were greater for young people in the class of 2006 because they were the first to face the California High School Exit Exam’s “diploma penalty.” California graduated a smaller proportion of its ninth-grade cohort in 2006 than in any year since 1997.

I also heard about this report on NPR during the drive home. One of the coauthors stated that fewer kids are also going on to colleges after high school, in spite of higher expectations from parents.

This is bad news, particularly in the face of budget cuts for education that recently passed (nearly 10 billion dollars of cuts for education).

Altogether, this does not bode well for the future of California. Given our tendency here in California to be trend setters, it probably doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country either. We need a well educated populace to further drive progress and the economy and to maintain a relatively healthy democracy. Of course, throwing money at problems doesn’t automatically fix them. In the same vein, one can look for creative solutions that require less money.

We need to be thinking about what form those solutions may take. Certainly, as Obama constantly stresses, parental involvement needs to play a significant factor. In addition, perhaps a volunteer tutoring program could also be something many of us could do. There are also mentoring programs in which one can be involved. We should also think of ways in which we can show kids that math and science are relevant to their lives and be able to convey some of the excitement one can get by being able to use them to solve other problems. To tie the various subjects together to show how they can solve larger problems.

Of course, we now have this problem to solve about fixing education. Let’s see some ideas flowing.

Speaking of 21st century opportunities

February 13, 2009

As I’ve mentioned previously, science and technology funding can play a vital role in helping to stimulate the economy (it also looks as though NSF and DOE science funding was mostly restored in the stimulus package, which is a very good thing). Along those lines JPL will be hosting a high tech conference March 3-4. From the link:

Attendees can participate in “how-to” workshops, meet with industry representatives from companies and agencies such as NASA and Lockheed Martin, and make use of individual counseling to discuss potential business opportunities with exhibitors.

More information on the conference can be found here. At previous conferences, about 900 small business owners were in attendance. So, if you think you or your business can make some high tech contribution (transportation, computer technology, aerospace, etc.) for the future and make some money doing it, definitely think about checking this out. At $140 per person, it is not entirely cheap, but a lot less expensive then other conferences I’ve been attended.

Science funding crisis

February 8, 2009

It turns out that just because Obama won the presidential election, we can not just sit back and rest. The stimulus package from the House was not totally bad, but the one that came out of the Senate mercilessly slashed factors important to an economic stimulus and towards laying the groundwork for long term economic growth. From the Talking Points Memo, we have the details. From the detailed view of the package, we have the following:

Nasa Exploration: Cut 50%
NSF funding: Cut 100%
NOAA funding: Cut 34.94%
Alternative Vehicle Tech Procurement: Cut 100%
DOE Efficiency and Renewable Energy: Cut 38%
DOE Office of Science: Cut 100%
DHS Cyber Security Research: Cut 100%
IDEA (Education): Cut 50%
Title 1 Funding: Cut 50%
Teacher Quality Partnership Grants: Cut 50%

There are other cuts of course, but I see a tendency to focus cutting on science, technology and education. This is unacceptable and irresponsible. It shows that our government still has not worked out what ought to be priorities for a well functioning society, or realized that science funding does help stimulate the economy. More stimulus bang for the buck than tax cuts.

Granted, for funding graduate students or postdocs, one wants a more sustained source than a one shot stimulus deal, but there are all sorts of of ways in which a shot in the arm for science funding will help. Of course there are the obvious long term benefits that furtherance of research and development brings in new and better products, methods, and all that. There are also the money that goes back into the economy as a result of lab equipment, computers, etc. As a graduate student, I would go out all the time in the departmental truck to buy this or that component from Home Depot, or whoever else had whatever it was we needed for the lab. This was NSF money going directly into the local economy (with the side benefit of allowing us to continue pushing research, which had another side benefit to helping us get our degrees). Not to mention the purchases of vacuum gauges, pumps, metals to machine, oscilloscopes, and many other research and infrastructure items.

More discussion on this important issue can be found at Cosmic Variance and following one of the embedded links to here which goes more into why science funding is one of the best deals for economic stimulus.

Just for the record, I do not stand to directly benefit from this as I am not currently in academic research or academia. But I do recognize both the importance of research and development, and how it will help with the economy both in the short term and long term.

So, contact your Senators now! From The Questionable Authority we have some pretty good talking points.

A) Science & technology have produced half of the economic growth of the United States since WWII.

B) Spending on basic research is the single greatest economic engine this country has ever known.

C) Funding to federal granting agencies is about as “shovel-ready” a stimulus as you can get. If the granting agencies lower their score thresholds for awards across the board the money will be flowing within months, leading to rapid hiring and increased purchasing from technical service and supply companies that are largely American, and creating thousands of the kinds of high-quality jobs the country needs.

So, your assignment, and you really should accept it, is to email, write, or phone your Senators and complain vociferously about these cuts. Let’s get our priorities back on track and get this economy moving again.

Energy conservation and taxing gas

January 15, 2009

Well, we have some good news about Americans. A recent survey indicates that we Americans are concerned about and motivated towards energy conservation. These are the results of only 2164 and I don’t know how the sampling was done, but it does seem encouraging nonetheless. The reasons for the motivation are two-fold. Cost savings (especially in this economy) and a moral obligation to do things such as reduce the contribution to climate change. From the article:

While saving money is by far the most common reason why people take energy-saving actions — including insulating their attic, caulking and weather-stripping their home, setting their thermostats to more energy-efficient levels and buying a more fuel-efficient car — large numbers of respondents said they were also motivated to reduce global warming, by the desire to act morally, and by taking energy-saving actions that made them feel good about themselves. By more than a 2-to-1 margin, respondents also said they believe that making changes to reduce their energy use will improve — not diminish — the quality of their lives.

The main barrier to towards taking positive steps is the start up costs. I can supply a personal example. I carpool right now, but would rather take the train to reduce dependence on gas and oil and to not have to sit in traffic. However, the train is considerably more expensive than just carpooling and so unfortunately the financially sound decision is to keep using the car. On top of that, the other member of the carpool does not have convenient access from the train station to work, so at least one person has to drive anyway.

One interesting idea one of my family had was related to gas prices. The idea was a flexible gas tax. When gas prices are lower, as they are now, a higher tax rate kicks in, with money going towards infrastructure and mass transit. When prices go up, the rate automatically falls accordingly. This would have the benefit of keeping what people pay for gas relatively stable (I don’t know, say around $3.00 /gallon) and provide incentive to use less (effects on pollution, some on oil supply, traffic, etc.), either through driving less, carpooling, or mass transit. One problem with this idea is that when gas prices are high, less money will be coming in from this source towards mass transit. That’s something that would need to be addressed. But overall, I think this tax idea is a pretty good starting point on which to base some discussion on stabilizing gas prices, providing incentive to use less, and raising money for infrastructure. Maybe we should send Obama this idea. Any thoughts from readers?

Sunday Sermonette — Economics of religion

January 11, 2009

Recently the unemployment rate has hit 7.2%, the worst it has been since 1945. If I recall correctly, an IBMer not long ago told their employees that the key to survival in this global economy was not lifetime employment, but lifetime employability. It is important to keep the skills and knowledge sharp to be able to maintain your position or to easily move into better positions while taking advantage of opportunities. Small consolation when the layoff comes though. Having been there, I know that full well. Psychologically, it is tough because for many; the job comes with a sense of identity and a sense of belonging.

So it didn’t surprise me when I caught a snippet on NPR not too long ago when they had a story about religious organizations reaping the benefits from job loss and the uncertainty that environment entails. I’ve blogged about this before. One pastor, I believe it was, said, without apparent awareness of the irony, that churches are good for economic bad times because churches understand money. I think it is more to the point that churches provide a sense of certainty, a sense of identity, and a sense of belonging. No doubt some also feel that they are developing a personal relationship with some fictitious being, but I suspect the security and personal fellowship is really the stronger pull.

What is the humanist/free thinker/atheist response? Although true, it is probably not enough to say that putting trust in imaginary beings to make things alright simply doesn’t work. That doesn’t give one the sense of security or a feeling that somehow things are under control. If you are one of the unfortunate to get laid off, I would suggest keeping in mind that, as a human, you have in your possession one of the most powerful and complex instruments in the universe. Honed over millions of years of evolution, the brain, although very much susceptible to fooling itself, is nonetheless capable of much when used correctly. Use it. Analyze what happened. It may have been out of your control, but were there ways you could have been more secure? How can you build yourself so that you are stronger next time? Learn from this. One is never too old to learn new things. Perhaps now is the time to take some classes, if you can. Increase your skills and knowledge.

The time off may also provide opportunity to deepen your personal relationships with family and friends. You probably also have friends from your old place of work. Keep up and grow a network. Perhaps something like LinkedIn or maybe something more specific for your career. Talk with your old colleagues. Perhaps there may be a business idea you all could explore. By the time you’ve gone over it, put together a business plan, etc., the economy may have started on the road to recovery. Hopefully during this time you are getting unemployment. So, there’s a lot of things to do instead of giving up and counting on a fictitious being with a really poor track record of actually helping people.

For those of us fortunate enough to still be working, remember, there is a lot of hurt out there now. The official season of giving may be over, but the real season of giving never is. I and others have posted on charities before, but just in case, here’s here’s another list. There’s lots of good causes. If you are unemployed now and would like to donate time towards helping, there are probably quite a few organizations that would welcome your help. For example, another great organization, FeedAmerica, has a volunteer link to help in your local community. Another good group to which to contribute is Oxfam. I would be remiss to not mention the Secular Humanist Aid and Relief Efforts (S.H.A.R.E.) organization. I highly recommend this one.

What about that sense of community offered by religious organizations? Compared to them, we free thinkers and atheists are fairly new at developing community. Check out Atheist Meetup Groups to see if there is a local group near you. If you want your group to become part of something even larger, you can also have it become part of Atheist Alliance International.

If you know of any other good ways to cope with the economic meltdown, good charities to which to contribute, or have any thoughts on community building, feel free to leave them in the comments.

Good times, bad times

December 15, 2008

you know I’ve had my share. Alright, this isn’t really about Led Zeppelin (although the economy is sinking like one). But apparently bad times in the economy translate into good times for evangelists. A recent article in the NY Times reports how evangelicals seem to be actually happy about this economic downturn as it means more addition to their flocks. From the article:

A study last year may lend some credence to the legend. In “Praying for Recession: The Business Cycle and Protestant Religiosity in the United States,” David Beckworth, an assistant professor of economics at Texas State University, looked at long-established trend lines showing the growth of evangelical congregations and the decline of mainline churches and found a more telling detail: During each recession cycle between 1968 and 2004, the rate of growth in evangelical churches jumped by 50 percent. By comparison, mainline Protestant churches continued their decline during recessions, though a bit more slowly.

So we may have a ratcheting effect causing the more evangelical (and possibly more fundamentalist) churches to grow possibly at the expense of more moderate churches. It is simple to figure out why, but I’ll let someone from the article explain it in his own words.

Frank O’Neill, 54, a manager who lost his job at Morgan Stanley this year, said the “humbling experience” of unemployment made him cast about for a more personal relationship with God than he was able to find in the Catholicism of his youth. In joining the Shelter Rock Church on Long Island, he said, he found a deeper sense of “God’s authority over everything — I feel him walking with me.”

Of course, we atheists realize that this reliance on a god gives only a false sense of security based on wishful thinking. We also realize that the market does have periodic ups and downs and so, in all likelihood, there will be an eventual recovery (though it may take a while in this case). We also know that there will be some who will likely see a “divine hand” in the recovery in spite of all the hardship and suffering preceding and that the recovery was likely anyway based on the evidence of history.

But simple logic and reason, for many people, does lack the emotional impact of having a special connection with the creator of the cosmos. To have a feeling that you are part of something bigger than all this and that this creator guy is watching out personally for you. It gives one a sense of hope in dark times. It is quite easy to defeat this spirituality with reason, but what constructive approach can we humanists and atheists offer as an emotionally positive alternative in times like this?

I don’t have any ready answers for this. I can see why saying “There is no god, rely on yourself and society.” may not seem like an emotionally satisfying alternative to someone like Frank O’Neill. But perhaps I can relate something from my own personal experience.

When I was laid off for a short time during the tech bubble crash, I saw this as an opportunity for growth. I took advantage of the time to learn new things, some of which turned out to be useful in the next step in my evolving career. One should be able to, amidst the ruin, evaluate and lay the foundation of a stronger structure, having learned from the experience. There was also time to further nurture personal relationships. To me, this seems much more useful than developing a “relationship” with something that doesn’t exist. One thing mentioned in the article was that people also are more able to contribute personal time to charitable functions, such as soup kitchens. I agree that is a worthwhile cause, and I’ve mentioned previously there are a number of notable secular charities and causes to which one can contribute as well. By doing so, we can do the groundwork for making a more progressive society where the needs of all can hopefully be met. I realize that the concept of humanity as a whole might, to some people, seem more abstract than some concrete cosmic entity looking out for everybody. But if we can help people to think at this higher level, I think society will be on a much more solid footing with more opportunity for success when the recovery finally takes effect.

I would be interested to see what anybody else thinks are positive things we, as humanists and atheists, can offer.

A Very Merry Christmas to Wall Street

November 22, 2008

A quite amusing little article has been unearthed in the Opinion Section of the Wall Street Journal. Apparently, we atheists, what with our War on Christmas and all, are responsible for the current financial meltdown. From the article:

What really went missing through the subprime mortgage years were the three Rs: responsibility, restraint and remorse. They are the ballast that stabilizes two better-known Rs from the world of free markets: risk and reward.

Responsibility and restraint are moral sentiments. Remorse is a product of conscience. None of these grow on trees. Each must be learned, taught, passed down. And so we come back to the disappearance of “Merry Christmas.”

It has been my view that the steady secularizing and insistent effort at dereligioning America has been dangerous. That danger flashed red in the fall into subprime personal behavior by borrowers and bankers, who after all are just people. Northerners and atheists who vilify Southern evangelicals are throwing out nurturers of useful virtue with the bathwater of obnoxious political opinions.

The point for a healthy society of commerce and politics is not that religion saves, but that it keeps most of the players inside the chalk lines. We are erasing the chalk lines.

The pseudo-reality in which Henninger seems to live seems like a scary place. Without God there to draw in the chalk lines, people just go all willy-nilly, no personal responsibility, no sense of morals, cut the brakes, no restraints in place! If the only thing keeping Henninger from a murderous rampage and defaulting on his loan payments is his belief in God, I’d be worried. When my wife and I bought our house, we made sure we had adequate down payment and would be able to meet the monthly payments. It was that strong faith in God I have that made me able to behave in a responsible fashion. Oh wait, I’m an atheist. In China, there is a strong cultural attitude towards saving money and not spending beyond your means. It must be that strong Christian heritage in China. Wait just a minute.

I’m also quite curious what are these useful virtues that Southern evangelicals are espousing? Was it the divisive attacks against atheists by Elizabeth Dole? Is it the perennial attempts to undermine science education by including creationist nonsense? Is it allowing business interests to overrun the environment?

It strikes me that the deregulation that helped fuel this mess was brought on in part by politicians from both sides of the aisle, who by the way, are declared Christians (one of whom said Jesus was his favorite philosopher). Since the majority of Americans are Christians, it also stands to reason that the many of the people who took out these subprime loans were also Christians. It also stands to reason that many of the bankers and financiers writing the horribly complex investment products containing the bad loans are also Christian. I don’t say though that their Christian beliefs caused them to behave in an irresponsible manner (indeed, there are many home buyers who were not aware that they were getting into bad loans). I don’t recall the Bible saying anything about hedge funds. It was simple human greed. A fairly well known trait that has been around since homo sapiens first evolved and probably even before that.

That’s the reason for government regulation. To help keep the playing field level for competing companies and to keep the chalk lines drawn. Critical thinking is also a necessary component for a well functioning society. At the time many of these bad loans were going through, housing prices were going up. Not a good assumption, but many blithely assumed this trend would continue. Better regulation that kept up with the latest financial instruments would have kept such gambling in check.

Oh yes, it’s still too early for it, in my opinion, but Merry Christmas! We’ll be putting up a Christmas tree again this year, visit family, and generally have a great time celebrating Newton’s birthday.