It'd be easier to illustrate this to Joe Camel if he had five fingers

This Economist daily chart last week shocked me:

I should point out, though, that it wasn’t so much the chart that freaked me out. Percentages can be deceiving as there’re two numbers involved, and in this case the denominator — total deaths in a country — is going to vary wildly between countries. African countries may have more smoking deaths than North America, and may even have more smoking deaths per capita than North America, but there are myriad other causes of death in those countries which mute the relative impact of smoking.

In my mind the most shocking part of the Economist’s post was in the preamble: “Nearly one in five deaths in rich countries is caused by smoking, according to new data released this week by the World Health Organisation.”  I found that hard to believe, but a quick Google search turned up some supporting evidence.

One in five…one in five. According to the list of leading causes of death in Canada in 1997, that’s twice as many deaths as accidents, diabetes, suicide, liver disease, cirrhosis and HIV account for put together. How tobacco companies haven’t been sued — or prosecuted — into oblivion yet is beyond me.

Seeing that list does put things in perspective though. No warfare in the top 15. No genocide or famine either. No earthquakes, typhoons or tsunamis. Instead, safe from the list of things that kill the rest of the world, we voluntarily stick cancer-causing chemicals in our mouths. Unbelievable.


Interesting chart in the Economist today:

Interesting, too, this line from the Economist’s blurb accompanying the picture:

“[A] shortage of jobs for the young means that political instablity, in many Arabic countries, is likely to persist.”

Here’s why this is worrying: remember that among the biggest enablers of the ascent of fascism in Europe in the 1930s was economic disarray due to astronomical inflation and then worldwide recession. It usually takes a confluence of economic factors to cause societal distress, one or more of which isn’t a typical part of economic cycles — in Weimar Germany it was the cost of the war and war reparation payments, followed by the Great Depression — and this chart points to the makings of another potential confluence in Arab countries.

By contrast, in the US or Europe today you have an economic downturn, which looks awful and feels awful and is treated on the news and in opinion columns as if it’s different from all the other downturns. It’s not, of course, except perhaps in magnitude. But economies will recover. It’s a natural part of the cycle — we flew too high, now it’s time to bend and scrape. Again, the differentiating factor in Germany’s case was the additional repayment due the Allies combined with the monstrous debt of the four-year war itself which drove hyperinflation, all later piled on top of a worldwide economic crisis. That disrupted the cycle and caused a kind of slow-burn chain reaction, leading to economic turmoil, which led to social unrest. The added political kindling of the threat of Bolshevism (a dictatorship, dressed as a left-wing movement) opened the door for Fascism (equally dictatorial, but perceived as the right-wing enemy of a left-wing enemy and therefore a friend) to take root.

So, back to the Arab countries. For years they’ve had little economic cycle to disrupt, as rich Western countries and corrupt political leaders have kept the wealth (primarily from oil) for themselves. Put another way, the average person hasn’t that much to lose. Still, that inequity in itself is a basis for simmering discontent, if not periodic crisis, and so it lies in wait for an accelerant. When you add in this impending economic crisis of unemployment driven by an incredibly high birth date in Arab countries, you have all the makings of a bomb waiting to go off: persistent economic imbalance and hordes of disenfranchised youth in a region rife with religious fundamentalism and armed conflict. All it needs is one last spark to push it over the edge.

So what happens if that final factor occurs, if the match is lit? In Germany, under such circumstances, desperation led the people to vote themselves a tyrant, and their manufacturing capacity made them a war machine again.  Presumably the reaction in Arab countries would be different. It’s unlikely they would elect a party who would mobilize for widespread war, though that must be precisely the scenario Israel dreads. I’m far from informed on the topic, but my feeling is that there would be a dramatic surge in terrorism, as well as targeted attacks against western workers and corporations in Arab countries, compounding the economic problem and creating a downward spiral.

The Nazis were the result of multiple compounding factors, some controllable, or at least foreseeable, like economic depression and war reparations, and some not, like hyperinflation and Bolshevism. Back to the present day: the economic draining of Arab countries is easy to spot…it’s been going on for decades, so that’s factor #1.  The Economist has made this demographic shift  (which will inexorably lead to mass unemployment) plain to see…and there’s #2. So what’s the unforeseeable event going to be? What unpredictable economic catastrophe would be big enough to light the fuse?

Peak oil, anybody?

The money pit

The Economist‘s most recent daily chart surprised me. From the blurb accompanying the chart: “Comparisons with other rich countries and within the United States show that its [health-care] system is not only growing at an unsustainable pace, but also provides questionable value for money and dubious medical care.”

This runs counter to what I’d always assumed: that the US federal government spent very little on health care, and that the private consumer spent a great deal. Certainly American citizens pay an enormous amount per person, but their federal funds spent per capita is still the highest in the world, odd considering America is notorious for not having socialized medicine. Why is this?

I don’t know the answer, obviously, but I suspect that treating a necessity of life — medical care — as a for-profit enterprise has led to exorbitant prices. Then, if the government increases federal spending to support the poor, injured veterans and so on, they’re throwing good money after bad.

Does a socialized system help prevent that? Maybe. It’s harder to profit from health-care in, say, Canada or the UK than in the US. But I can see why some Americans are so opposed to more federal dollars going into health-care. If it really is good money after bad, then they have reason to oppose spending more tax dollars on it. But the graph above just shows me even proponents of American health-care reform should be opposed to putting more money into the current system.

The reform being discussed isn’t enough. As long as saving lives is a for-profit concern, Americans won’t get their money’s worth.


It’s data! It’s pictures! It’s learning!

First up, from The Economist, we have the rate of new AIDS infections plotted next to condom use.

Not to sound disrespectful or anything, but…suck it, Pope Benedict.

Next, the NY Times shows (or showed, about a month ago I guess) in several countries the relationship between the speed with which we eat (controlling for the average amount eaten, I assume) and the obesity rate.

That gap between the obesity rate in Canada and the US seems about right, matching the representation in this (rather long) graphic courtesy of Mint:

Wow…do the suicide rates and murder rates balance out?

By the way, you should click through to see the rest of that Mint post to see similar charts on the economy, environment and military of these three countries.

"Insidious" might be a stretch…slightly devious, perhaps.

I’ve been meaning to write about an Economist blog post from December about MBAs which points to a debate between three professors from MIT and Harvard about whether MBAs are the cause or the cure (or something in between) of the current economic troubles:

The reaction of many budding financiers and consultants when faced with an economic downturn is to pack it in and go to business school. Business school applications soar in number during recessions. A lively debate between Andy Lo and Jay Lorsch and Rakesh Khurana questions if business schools are actually to blame for our current turmoil.

Messrs Lorsch and Khurana, professors of human relations and leadership at Harvard, think so. They believe business school can encourage the “culture of me”, or individuals solely out for their own self-interest.

An interesting debate, but I was more interested in a subsequent point made by the Economist blogger. Emphasis is mine.

This reminds me of a discussion I once had with one of my professors, the dean of a prestigious business school. Shortly after the Enron debacle he asked me how business schools could better teach ethics to help reduce such behaviour in the future. I told him you cannot teach ethics to MBAs. By the time you’re an MBA student (typically mid to late 20s) you’re either an ethical person or you’re not. No business school class can make you realise embezzling money is wrong if that’s your inclination. Most MBA students are ethical; they learned from their parents long ago.

I know where he’s going with that, but I don’t think I entirely agree. I don’t think there’s an on/off switch marked ‘ethical’ in the brain that’s either a 1 or a 0; I think it’s a scale, like all other traits and characteristics defined by a single word or concept. I think that trying to teach ethics gives students tangible examples that may later prevent them from doing something overtly unethical…so while it’s not making students think more ethically per se, it might make them act more ethically, and that’s just as important.

When I was in the software industry I worked with enough sales people to know that some individuals:

  1. are so far down the ethical scale that they wouldn’t recognize normal business ethics anymore;
  2. have jobs where incentives structures reward unethical behaviour;
  3. have received no ethical teachings which may have staved off unethical behaviour, as described above.

In all three cases I can see ethical training helping, or at the very least doing no harm. In my undergraduate business degree we were compelled to take a business ethics class (which I actually quite enjoyed, but then, I am a socialist) but had no such requirement in my MBA courses. We could have used some, certainly; I heard some truly astounding moral rationalizations during discussions on child labour, advertising and the like.

What do you think? Can ethics be taught?

"Both the country and, ultimately, the Republican Party are left the worse for it."

With America’s eyes (and the eyes of others here in Canada and around the world) focused squarely on Washington for Barack Obama’s inauguration, some have taken a break to wonder about outgoing President Bush’s legacy. By the way, I hereby declare “outgoing President Bush” to be the finest three-word combination in the English language.


Anyway, The Economist‘s take on the Bush years — entitled The Frat Boy Ships Out — is probably the best and most comprehensive yet.

Other facets of Mr Bush’s personality mixed with his vaulting ambition to undermine his presidency. Mr Bush is what the British call an inverted snob. A scion of one of America’s most powerful families, he is a devotee of sunbelt populism; a product of Yale and Harvard Business School, he is a scourge of eggheads. Mr Bush is a convert to an evangelical Christianity that emphasises emotion—particularly the intensely emotional experience of being born again—over ratiocination. He also styled himself, much like Reagan, as a decider rather than a details man; many people who met him were astonished by what they described as his “lack of inquisitiveness” and his general “passivity”.

This take in the Globe and Mail is hard to take seriously, as it asks the question ‘Has Bush been judged too soon?’ and turns for an answer to David Frum, Bush’s former speech writer, who may be just the tiniest bit biased — though no more so than the two quoted counterpoints: an historian at the James Baker Institute for Public Policy, and Jimmy Carter.

A failed presidency, two unfinished wars, an economic mess unmatched in decades, America’s reputation sullied and most of his party, the nation and the world glad to see the back of him. When George W. Bush boards the big blue-and-white Boeing 747 that will fly him back to Texas tomorrow, the conventional wisdom will deem him among the worst of presidents.

Yet history tends to soften the harshest of early judgments. Even Richard Nixon, who after the Watergate scandal became the only president ever to resign in disgrace, has been partially rehabilitated by the passage of time and sober second thought.

Could it happen to Mr. Bush?

His admirers think so. Former Bush speechwriter David Frum expects the “assessment of history will be surprisingly positive.”

It all turns on Iraq, which far more than the economy, hurricane Katrina or anything else defines the Bush presidency.

I think that to hang Bush’s legacy solely on Iraq is wishful thinking, a hope I’ve heard repeated elsewhere among Republicans and conservative commentators. This seems less about logic than it does about pinning all hope for Bush’s reputation on his one endeavour that may have a fighting chance at turning out well. I actually think that, over time, Bush’s handling of Katrina will become even more damaging to his legacy…that he ineptly presided over the worst natural disaster in his country’s history will haunt him for decades.

However, what Bush may eventually be best known for bungling is the economy, and the infallible reputation of capitalism he inherited from past presidents like his father and, most especially, his hero Ronald Reagan. As The Economist puts it:

Finally, Mr Bush also demonstrated the limits of capitalist triumphalism. The Bush administration was as business-friendly as any in American history: Mr Bush was the first president with an MBA (from Harvard) and he appointed four CEOs to his cabinet, more than any previous president. The administration was also wedded to the fundamental tenets of Reaganomics: cut taxes and free the supply side and everything else will take care of itself. Mr Cheney even argued explicitly that “Reagan taught us that deficits don’t matter.”

Mr Bush now leaves behind a tax system in some ways less efficient than the one he inherited, in need of annual patches, and unable to fund the government even in good times. He also leaves behind a broken budget process. Any economic triumphalism is long gone. Many of the CEOs, most notably Donald Rumsfeld and Paul O’Neill, proved to be dismal administrators. Reaganomics helped to produce a giant deficit. The financial crisis has made re-regulation rather than deregulation the mantra in Washington, while government has acquired a much bigger role in the economy through its backing of banks and car companies.

“I inherited a recession, I’m ending on a recession,” he noted at his press conference on January 12th. He wasn’t asking for pity, only to be judged on what happened in between. Unfortunately, that economic legacy is littered with wasted opportunity, bad judgments and politicised policy. The budget surplus he inherited is now a deficit, the fiscal hole in America’s retiree programmes is bigger than ever, the tax system is an unstable, patched-up mess.

All that to say, he was a rubbish president. Good riddance. To put a soundtrack on this trip down memory lane, here’s my favourite story so far about Bush’s legacy: Eight Years Gone, in which blogger (and rock god) Carrie Brownstein lists

the music that arose during the last eight years — the bands and songs that wrestled with the fear, uncertainty, disenchantment and frustration that for many people defined the Bush era and the events that unfolded during his tenure.

My favourite song from her list was Bright Eyes‘ performance of “When The President Talks To God” on the Tonight Show, a sharp and caustic swing at the man Conor Oberst could scarely believe was leading his country, in the Dylan-est moment of his somewhat Dylan-ish career. If you haven’t heard it, you can hear it over at YouTube. Listen to it. Listen, and heave a sigh of relief.

British + economist + financial crisis = funny! No, really!

This post in the Economist’s blog today made me smile. For the record, I rarely smile at The Economist, especially of late, but today the sarcasm would be dripping if it weren’t so devastatingly dry.

The latter, notably, published a book in 2004 called Bullish On Bush: How George Bush’s Ownership Society Will Make America Stronger. As best I can tell, it was not written as parody.

Zing! Then later:

I have to tip my hat to Mr Laffer. I’m not sure I could author something this wonderfully, artistically wrong, were I to labour at the effort for months. Bravo.

No, no. Bravo to you, sir.

Lullaby Haze

Tonight: blogging in delicious bite-sized portions.

  • The new Mates of State is very good. Maybe not Bring It Back awesome, but very good.
  • We’re going to try to do Nuit Blanche this year. That should be interesting…I’ll basically get home, sleep for most of Sunday and then go to a Leafs game. Yes, a Leafs game. Normally I wouldn’t go but it’s a work thing, so I’ll just have to try to scrub off the dirty feelings and record lots of Canadiens highlights to watch when I get home, lest all the patheticness get lodged in my brain.
  • My brother just sent me this link, which made me puke and shit a little at the same time. That’s right, it made me shuke. Behold: lobster ice cream.
  • The Economist asked people around the world who they’d choose if they could vote in the American election. The results: awfully blue.
  • Paste Magazine reviewed the 10th anniversary edition DVD set of Sports Night. I know I’ve said it eleventy million times, but really…go watch it. So good. Stick it out through the first few episodes when they forced Sorkin to use a laugh track.
  • My debate plan this evening: watch the Canadian election debate but keep the picture-in-picture tuned to the American VP debate. If Sarah Palin gets that scared fawn look in her eyes, I’m flippin’.

See? Tasty!