Category Archives: Government

Chinese rural farmers are a worry for centralized government control

The New York Times is running an interesting series of articles on how the Chinese government is working to accelerate urbanization, by moving rural farmers off of their land and into apartment blocks in new cities. The first one is titled Pitfalls Abound in China’s Push from From to City.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough and the edges, but independent. On the left we have a city-dwelling family, fully under government control.

On the right we have a rural small plot farmer. A little rough around the edges, but independent. On the left we have a polished-looking city family, fully under government control.

The stated intent of this move is to drive the Chinese economy and to improve the standard of living for rural Chinese. There are so many problems with this in terms of sustainability that I don’t even know where to start, although I’ll try anyhow.

The New York Times article points out several of the challenges that the residents themselves are facing, such as no jobs in these new cities, and no money to pay for the electricity in their fancy new apartments. And of course there’s a the very valid perspective that these are not really optional relocations, but rather something that the government is pushing people into. It’s enough to make me want to reread the US Constitution, especially the Fifth Amendment and the Second Amendment, especially now that we know that the US government outright lies to us, supposedly for our own protection. Thanks.

I see some serious problems with China’s plan:

This is about government gaining unhealthy power over people.

  • A city dweller needs the government badly, or they’ll starve.
  • A rural farmer who can feed themselves doesn’t need the government.

City people are rough on the environment.

  • A city dweller lives high on resources from “elsewhere” and is disconnected from the impact they’re having on the world.
  • A small plot rural farmer uses few resources to live (because they don’t have money to throw around) and takes care of their land so it keeps producing over the long haul.

City people survive on the whims of international trade.

  • A city dweller–and indeed a nation of city dwellers–is intimately tied to the fortunes of mass market farming operations that are often very far away.
  • A rural farmer doesn’t care about the whims of other countries, international spats, farming policy in far off continents. They just grow food locally, and set aside for lean years.

City living requires huge inputs of energy, that are already waning.

  • City dwellers live based on the flow of oil, gas, coal that fuels their unsustainable lifestyles. They are living in a way that will not be possible in a matter of decades.
  • Rural farmers know how to live based on what they have available, without needing these inputs. Having said that, recent years and creature comforts have likely made them somewhat reliant on fossil fuels however they are miles closer to knowing how to live with the land than a city person is.

Bottom line: the rural farmer, in spite of being less comfortable, controls their destiny, as long as the government stays the heck out of the way. The city dweller is a cog in a larger machine, in which they have very little say. No wonder the Chinese government wants a country of city people.

I can see why China would have a motivation to do away with small plot rural farmers. Looks to me like “Cultural Revolution Light, run in reverse.” I bet this road is also paved up and down with good intentions–too bad it’s a fully unsustainable path.

Look for Next San Mateo County Presidential Visit in 2092

Was just reading an article in the local community paper about President Obama’s visit last night to Redwood City, which is about 10 minutes south of where I live. Although I wasn’t there, I heard about the event on the radio, along the lines of “all the streets are closed! avoid Redwood City!” So I learn from the San Mateo Daily Journal that this is indeed a rare visit:

Obama is the first sitting president to spend any significant time in San Mateo County since Herbert Hoover came to town back in 1932.

Let me be clear–I know this is a big country, and I don’t expect every president to visit annually. HOWEVER isn’t this interesting that it’s been EIGHTY YEARS, 8-0 years, since any US president has spent more than 15 minutes (I’m making up the number) in our county?

What does this tell me?

  • First off, Obama has been one to do things differently, and so I’m not surprised to see him be the first to visit in 80 years. Consider that his staff could have scheduled the appearance in the same-old same-old places, and didn’t.
  • The electoral college system has made California irrelevant–other than as a brief fundraising stop–in national politics. Perhaps on a related note, the political movement to do away with the electoral college and move to a direct vote for president is headquartered in Mountain View, CA.
  • This is a VERY BIG country, so big that it gets me thinking of the push back on centralized, distant, federal control that’s happened many times in human history. It may turn out to be the big thing that the “red” and “blue” leaning areas agree on, although of course nothing is ever that simple.

So folks, get your grand kids to pencil in the next visit for mid 2092. By that time the Fox Theater may be on water-front property. 🙂

Rare Insight into Solutions for Afghanistan

In 2007, Clare Lockhart gave an amazing talk at the Aspen Ideas festival. You can view the talk from the festival website. (Clare starts her talk at 4:45 of the video.)

I first saw this video several years ago, when I knew a lot less about international development, and I was duly impressed. I have to tell you that even now I still reflect on and return to this talk regularly.

Lockhart speaks with extraordinary clarity about her experiences in Afghanistan, and skillfully relates several surprising stories of success—and failure—of international development efforts.

They include:

  • How they efficiently switched Afghanistan to a new currency, in a very creative way, much more quickly and cost-effectively than if it had been done using a traditional UN frame.
  • How they got mobile phone service, for somewhat less than the originally quoted corporate price of $1M, PER PHONE.
  • How $100M of aid money literally went up in smoke.

The talk is related to the book Fixing Failed States. Although the book has a lot of good ideas, I found it to be a dense read. The video is fantastic, though–check it out.

De Soto on how and why institution building works

Photograph of Hernando de Soto, which he had t...

Hernando de Soto

Hernando de Soto is a very intelligent economist from Peru who has had a great positive impact on development in Peru, and around the world. Building from his cornerstone book The Other Path (to contrast with The Shining Path), he advised the government of Peru on over 178 institutional reforms related property rights, democracy, and constitutional reforms for freedom.

In this nicely produced video interview with de Soto, he eloquently describes his major ideas about how to best support the healthy growth of a developing country.

Early in the interview de Soto shares an interesting “metric” of how he knew he was having an impact on Peru, saying “If we hadn’t been shot at, it would have been an indication that we weren’t having an impact. We had an impact.” Talk about standing by your ideas.

Was it worth it? Consider that Peru’s GNI per capita PPP grew 37% between 2005 and 2009, compared to 6% growth for the United States. I bet institutions played a key role in Peru’s rapid growth. Watch the interview to learn more about de Soto’s ideas—definitely food for thought.

Egypt: Democracy is interesting, but ownership is critical

Egypt: Register your land in just 14 years and 77 easy steps!

Don’t get me wrong—I’m excited and optimistic about the historic events of the past several weeks in Egypt, and the potential for the country to get onto a real path of renewal. And furthermore, I think that democracy can be an important force for bringing about citizen engagement, transparency, and hope to the people.

However as many people have pointed out, history tells us that Egypt’s success is far from certain. The book At War’s End by Roland Paris makes a strong argument for first investing in strong state institutions, before rushing to hold elections. He makes the point that democracy and freedom of speech are often held out as a panacea for transforming a society, although too often historically such an approach hasn’t worked.

And so it was with great interest that as I watched online as the government of Egypt fell, I happened to be reading Hernando de Soto’s classic book The Mystery of Capital. Much of De Soto’s work revolves around the power of capital, and shows how in many developing countries people are hamstrung by how difficult it is to officially register their land. As a result of this lack of official ownership, they are not able to use their land as leverage for investing in business or education. His work has led to reforms—and progress—in Peru, among other places.

In Egypt, however his team found that it takes anywhere from 6 to 14 years to officially register a piece of land for building purposes, navigating 31 agencies and 77 procedures. Wow.  Furthermore an Egyptian who goes ahead and builds a house, and then tries to register it after the fact, faces large fines and even demolition of the house. Not surprisingly, a lot of Egyptians live on “illegal” land, and are left with property that they can’t leverage. De Soto calls such land “dead capital.”

Consider that in many countries, home ownership is a common path to not just building wealth, but also to “dealing people in” to society. In fact in Lee Kuan Yew’s book From Third World to First he talks about how in the 1960’s Singapore decided that it was critical to bring home ownership to as many people as possible, as he put it “to give every citizen a stake in the country and its future.”

Incidentally, Singapore’s per capita income as a percentage of the USA’s per capita income has gone from 18% in 1965 to 82% in 2010. Apparently they are doing something right.

And thus it’s fascinating to note that the protesters in Egypt have taken pains to clean Tahrir Square, saying things like “For the first time, we feel now that this homeland is ours.” There is clearly something powerful about ownership.

Democracy is interesting, but feeling like a true stakeholder of your country? Now that’s powerful. And remaking Egypt’s institutions, such as land registry, is a critical step towards progress.