On Planet Money’s “just give the oil money away” report

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler. Used with a Creative Commons license.

My favorite podcast, Planet Money, had a great report last week on a novel idea for avoiding the resource curse: just give the revenues away to a country’s citizens. The report was prompted by the announcement of huge deposits of precious minerals in Afghanistan and the discovery of oil in the last couple of years in Ghana — a country that desperately wants to avoid having its economy or government end up anything like Nigeria‘s, where there’s been a decades-long oil bonanza.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of giving money away to poor people, if you’re at all sympathetic to the idea that welfare systems work to stimulate economies. Giving disposable income to people with pressing needs is great for boosting a country’s economic growth — a poor person who gets $100 will immediately inject it back into the economy by spending it on pressing needs, whereas a rich person might stick it in a savings account. Also, individuals may be better suited to decide what their needs are — and use money for innovative ventures — than bureaucracies, NGOs and government contractors (who might very well have corrupt relationships with those handing out the contracts).

But as you’ll see when you listen to the podcast, the idea is incomplete. Probably the biggest flaw is the fact that there are many collective ventures — schools, roads, hospitals — that individuals are in no position to take on, no matter how much extra income they have. (The advocates of the system would tax the transfers to pay for this, but it doesn’t seem like enough.)

Still, it’s funny to hear a Nigerian oil official in the podcast claim that individuals would do a bad job of allocating their payouts — it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse than it is when it comes to squandering the Delta’s riches.

It seems to me there’s a strong argument for having a big portion of oil revenues — but not all — earmarked for cash transfers. Whatever the solution to ending the resource curse and improving revenue transparency in extractive industries around the world, one important element is going to be getting more good journalism like Planet Money’s — but even more from local media — on the topic. Once again, I will shamelessly plug the report I wrote with several classmates on this subject: There Will Be Ink. Great title, huh?

More on convergence of war and gaming

Yesterday, I described two different perspectives about what it means to fight wars remotely and through computers. I’m not a gamer, so I wasn’t aware just how similar video games are to the video from Wikileaks. If you had the stomach to watch that clip (beware, it’s extremely violent and disturbing), you will probably shocked to see just how similar the game Call of Duty is to the actual experience:

My point here is not so much to slam video games, but to suggest there is something remarkable — and awful — about this convergence of technologies. Entertainment, since its earliest forms, has always used war as inspiration. But until now it has been impossible to have a simulated experience that is so nearly exactly like the real one.

And it’s not that entertainment has chased war as much as some experiences of war — the remote ones — are becoming more like entertainment. Part of the appeal of entertainment that shows killing is that it removes all the nastier aspects of the experience — from the humanity of an enemy to the feeling of immediate vulnerability. Old west gunfights were probably nothing like those in High Plains Drifter. Saving Private Ryan might be uncomfortably real, but it certainly can’t be a substitute for participating in D-Day. The similarity between coordinating drone strikes, though, and playing Call of Duty seems unprecedented.

Does this influence how we as a country decide which wars to wage? It’s hard to say for sure, but there are certainly some interesting parallels between our foreign policy and the experience the technology helps create: god-like feelings of omnipotence, invulnerability, superiority, cold detachment from others’ suffering.

It is awe-inspiring technology, but it is also dangerous — not just for journalists carrying video cameras around the streets of Baghdad, but, I think, for the people pulling the trigger (or pushing the buttons). Or maybe I just think that way because my parents read me Lord of the Rings when I was 10.

(Hat-tip MB.)

Video game wars -The Times vs. Wikileaks

The New York Times just printed a gushing (one might even say jingoistic) report on how the military is using new technology to tap into Generation Y’s social networking skills to nail insurgents and protect American troops, all from thousands of miles away. Read the Times’ account, and you’d think this is mostly an exciting technology, which earnest, freckle-faced youths can use to scrub bad guys while they befriend their tougher colleagues on the ground, via chat rooms.

But as even that article acknowledges, the technology sometimes goes awry, like the time in February when Predator drones in Afghanistan snuffed out the lives of 23 innocent men, women and children — just one of many such incidents.

Well, here’s another perspective on what it means to turn the enemy (or those assumed to be) into pixelated blobs: Wikileaks’ video of a U.S. helicopter annihilating as many as 12 people in 2007 on a Baghdad  street, including two Reuters journalists.

I’m not embedding the video on this site because it makes me feel physically sick to watch it, and there’s really no commentary I can give that will add to its value. You will note, however, how much the clip looks like a short segment of Grand Theft Auto. Right down to the dialogue: After the first round of shooting is finished, a voice says, “Oh, yeah, look at those dead bastards” and another begs a dying man to pick up a weapon, implying that he’d then have a license to kill.

In some sense, this is just a raw dispatch from war. I’ve never been in a war, and I can only assume that its dialogue has been and always will be full of the most unpleasant things imaginable.

There is a particular coldness to this killing, though, and I think the technology has something to do with it. I hardly think we should celebrate it. The military says that rules of engagement were followed. If that is true, that is an indictment of the technology.

To see a sanitized version of the Wikileaks video, take a look at this BBC report on the detention of a US military analyst, possibly for leaking the tape.

Credit where it’s due — second NY Times article on Shahzad

It’s always easy to criticize. Let me offer a bit of praise. Last Sunday’s Times article on Faisal Shahzad was a massive improvement — from the perspective of implied narratives — over the previous week’s article on the influence of Awlaki, which I criticized. Mainly, it’s better because it focuses on the personal travails of Shahzad and their intersection with larger forces, which to me gives a more complete — if less scary — account of why he did what he did. (I can only assume the editors read this blog and responded accordingly!)

Mao and the Facebook Panopticon

Photo by Clemson on Flikr. Click for attribution.

I read this passage in a biography of Mao Zedong (yes, I am making my way through all the major historical figures) and started having nightmares about Facebook. This is from the early 1940s, when Mao was consolidating his base for war against the Nationalists. According to Mao: The Untold Story, the Party chairman interrogated vast swaths of his young recruits in order to instill in them feelings of submission and control, and to foster an atmosphere of deep mistrust, as friends informed on each other.

“One supreme accomplishment of the terror campaign was to squeeze out every drop of information about any link whatever with the Nationalists. Mao introduced a ‘Social Relationship’ form: ‘Tell everyone to write down every single social relationship of any kind [my emphasis].’ At the end of the campaign, the regime compiled a dossier on every Party member. The result was that Mao knew every channel the Nationalists might use to infiltrate in the forthcoming showdown. Indeed, during the civil war, while the Nationalists were penetrated like sieves, they had virtually zero success infiltrating the Communists. Mao had forged a machine that was virtually watertight.”

That blew my mind a little. Facebook could do for free what took Mao huge expense and organized brutality. It’s a Stasi/KGB/mukhabarat/CIA dream come true.

As this blog’s sidebars should prove, I love social media. But at its worst, can it be a voluntary Panopticon? Maybe the point is irrelevant in a mostly functioning democracy (actually, I don’t think it is), but certainly this historical perspective on state surveillance is relevant to all the arguments boosting social media in, ahem, more controlled atmospheres.

One thing’s for sure: no more pictures of any substance on Facebook for me.

Frisco

I just came back from a 10-day visit to my hometown, San Francisco. There’s a lot I want to write about San Francisco. And by a lot, I mean a book’s worth.

Sidewalk graffiti on San Bruno Avenue, San Francisco. "SFC" stands for "Sucka Free City."

But while I struggle to form my Grand Theory of San Francisco, I’ll settle for a collection of tidbits, which sometimes are the best way to describe an unquantifiable entity. Here’s one: an enduring discussion about whether or not “Frisco” is a legit nickname.

Common knowledge says that it’s off limits. Herb Caen, San Francisco’s most famous columnist, published a book called Don’t Call it Frisco in 1953, which Wikipedia says was taken from a 1918 San Francisco Examiner article. The subject has been on steady rotation in local media for years — especially since San Francisco street culture has resurrected the term. (Read more about the whole debate in this 2003 Chronicle article, whose author seems to have read this San Francisco State publication’s article from 1997.) Continue reading

Land and conflict in Africa

It is rare that I read an article about Africa that successfully intertwines a rich understanding of history with current events, politics and human lives. Jina Moore‘s article about African land disputes this week in the Christian Science Monitor does it. The article is especially impressive because, although scholars of Africa know that conflicts over land are a fundamental element of wars, upheaval and disagreements from Darfur to Tanzania to Nigeria, it’s not usually a subject that makes for great headlines. It’s also a difficult topic to bring to American audiences that are used to being fed the facile story of “ancient hatreds” — tribe, ethnicity and race — as explanations for African conflict (and behavior in general). Visit Moore’s story through the Scarlett Lion, where Glenna Gordon has posted more relevant links and the photography she did for the piece.