Strategic dissent in the PRC

Yale's Chris Blattman, whose blog on development and violence is one of the more fun academic blogs out there, points to an excellent interview in the New York Review of Books with Yang Jisheng, the author of recent book called Tombstone about China's Great Famine, a.k.a. the three years of hunger and deprivation caused by the Great Leap Forward. The book is noteworthy for the fact that Yang basically went around gathering a variety of records about how horrific the famine was under the pretense of doing agricultural work. If it strikes you as odd that the notoriously secretive Chinese government kept files on things like cannibalism, well:
Ian Johnson: I wondered when reading Tombstone why officials didn’t destroy the files. Why did they preserve all this evidence?

Yang Jisheng: Destroying files isn’t up to one person. As long as a file or document has made it into the archives you can’t so easily destroy it. Before it is in the archives, it can be destroyed, but afterwards, only a directive from a high-ranking official can cause it to be destroyed. I found that on the Great Famine the documentation is basically is intact—how many people died of hunger, cannibalism, the grain situation; all of this was recorded and still exists.
That potentially very embarrassing records don't generally get destroyed once they're in the system (a) makes one wonder what else is in there and (b) gives hope that at some point (hopefully in the not-too-distant future) some bright young researcher will get a nice fat chunk of data out of those records and be able to write some very cool papers.

That said, what I find even more compelling is this: given the notoriously repressive regime, how does Yang operate? He runs a "reform-oriented" journal Annals of the Yellow Emperor and not only keeps it from getting shut down, but manages to publish a very controversial (enough to be subsequently banned) book. How?
Why do you think your magazine seems to enjoy more leeway than other Chinese publications?

Because we know the boundaries. We don’t touch current leaders. And issues that are extremely sensitive, like 6-4 [the June 4th Tiananmen Square massacre], we don’t talk about. The Tibet issue, Xinjiang, we don’t write about them. Current issues related to Hu Jintao, Jiang Zemin and their family members’ corruption, we don’t talk about. If we talk just about the past, the pressure is smaller.

Now, as a total non-sinologist, and probably falling too much into the classic economic style of reasoning, I read this in two ways:
  • The first is that there's a reputational cost associated with stifling dissent (of course), and it's one that I suspect is increasing in the apparent harmlessness of the dissenter. For all the noise other governments make about human rights, everyone knows that China censors its internal critics and to a certain real-politik extent accepts it. But if China is seen as being unnecessarily repressive ("why are you going after this guy? He's writing about events that happened two generations ago") then it undermines their censoring practices in general, and they don't want that.
  • The second hews more closely to the limited amount of work I've read on how the Chinese elite views change, which is to say that many are in favor of making China less repressive but think it needs to be done piecemeal lest the country fly apart. In this light, and ignoring those in power who are more interested in elite-capture (which may, admittedly, be a dumb thing to do), people like Yang are actually *very* valuable to the ruling class. They allow a slower, more controlled and more co-optable approach towards reform. Looking at how long it takes even democratic governments to admit prior mistakes and wrong doing (Japan and WWII atrocities; the US's treatment of indigenous peoples) this seems to make a lot of sense. For China to up and say "you're right, we shouldn't have cracked down so hard at Tiananmen" would be hugely disruptive and likely terrifying for those in power, but admitting that their forebears made deadly policy mistakes much less so while still moving the country further towards openness and democracy.
In either event, the interaction displays strategic behavior on both sides: Yang recognizes there are certain subjects about which he'd like to write that he ignores because the costs are too great, and the regime recognizes that some types of dissent are either too valuable or too costly to repress. Something to keep in mind when one thinks about authoritarian rule, its limits, and their drivers, especially in places like Russia where allowable dissent seems even more circumscribed than in China.


Collections of papers on climate change economics

Found these recently:

Distributional Aspects of Energy and Climate Policy
Special Issue of The B.E. Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy

The Economics of Climate Change: Adaptations Past and Present
Gary Libecap and Richard H. Steckel, editors
Forthcoming from University of Chicago Press


Catching up on some TED talks

I was recently catching up on TED talks and I found these ones thoughtful.

Hans Rosling (the founder of Gapminder) on infant mortality statistics and the Millenium Development Goals.  [I particularly like his point that Sweden never had declines in its infant mortality rate fast enough to satisfy the MDGs]

Also, David Bismark on verifiable electronic ballots.


The rise of the "global environment" as an idea

Google Books Ngram Viewer was released today and is being heralded as a new tool to peer into our collective social conscious (whatever that is).  Basically, Google has scanned zillions of books and created a database of all the words they contain. This data base allows anyone to search for a specific word or phrase and see how often it comes up (as a fraction of all words written in books).

Below are a few graphs that seemed interesting, where I was looking for terms that are often used in academic discussions of the "global environment".  I'm not sure exactly what these tell us, but I think they're fun to look at.  

First, the "global environment" as a pair of words seems to have taken off in the 70's and 80's and then fallen fast after the turn of the millenium.

Words related to global climate change seem to have exploded in the late 80's. But the "greenhouse effect", which actually describes the scientific concept underlying the issue, seems to have peaked early.  Meanwhile "albedo", which is just the scientific term for the reflectivity of the surface (an important parameter in climate dynamics) was moderately popular long before warming was an issue and hasn't grown in usage with the other terms.

If we look at a few terms that describe human developments, "industrialization" grew early and fast, peaking in the 60's and then declining.  Meanwhile the "green revolution" gained notice as it was occurring in the 70's, but never was widely discussed.  "Globalization" and "sustainable development" grew together at almost identical rates in the 80's and 90's.  I think the original synchrony of those two terms in the "collective consciousness" is something quite meaningful, actually, although they diverge later.

Finally, looking at a few abstract terms, we see that the 90's were the time when things started to take off and we can also see the famous switch in usage between "natural capital" and "ecosystem services".


G-ECON and SAGE data in Google Earth

I was working with William Nordhaus's G-ECON dataset and the SAGE cropland datasets, so I figured I would format them for Google Earth.  (In an earlier post, I explained how to do this with your own data).

Here they are for download, if you'd like to explore them. (Instructions: Download the file, and double click it to open it in google earth.  They all change with time, which you can control with the slider at the upper left of the screen.  The images may take a second to load. You can save the file in google earth by dragging the layer to "my places" so google earth will always open it when it starts up.)

Gross Cell Product (Data from G-Econ)
Log10 Gross cell product (like GDP, but higher resolution)
(Data from William Nordhaus's G-ECON project)

Fraction of land cultivated
(data from SAGE)

Also, since I posted this last time

Maximum tropical cyclone windspeed
(data from LICRICE)


Challenges for interdisciplinary journals

The American Meteorological Society has a new (1 yr old) journal Weather Climate and Society that is trying to integrate research across several disciplines. For people like myself, the birth of journals like this is comforting because it suggests there is a growing community of researchers interested in applying hard physical science to address social issues.  This is a good thing.  But like everyone trying to do this, they are running into real challenges.  Here are portions of an editorial that resonated with some of my own experiences.  

Jeffrey K. Lazo
....[A] colleague stopped by to ask my advice on a manuscript concept he was considering submitting to Weather, Climate, and Society. He is an outstanding research meteorologist who has been working with a team on models to improve flood warning systems in developing countries. He was interested in demonstrating the economic benefits of the improved warning system and wanted to apply a cost–loss model. Based on his reading of a number of articles in meteorological journals, the cost–loss model was the method of choice for demonstrating economic value.
My initial reaction was largely visceral, because I have a dislike for the cost–loss model. The cost–loss model has been used extensively in the meteorology literature as “the economic model,” but it does not really show up in the economics literature (I should note that my Ph.D. is in economics and, in six years of graduate school, I never once heard of the cost–loss model). A simple search for “cost–loss model” in AMS publications yields 161 hits. A similar search of the economic literature yielded none....
My concern is that the cost–loss model as used in most articles in the meteorology literature does not even begin to capture the full value of economics and build upon the extensive literature in economics on the value of information and decision making under uncertainty. It is simply too simple....
That said, the first issue of Weather, Climate, and Society contained an article based on a theoretical extension of the cost–loss model (Millner 2009; in fact, I recommend reading Millner for an explanation of the cost–loss model). In that article, Millner showed that incorporating a specific behavioral feature in the cost–loss model resulted in net benefit estimates potentially significantly lower than those derived from the basic model. His article demonstrated that behavioral aspects limit the effectiveness of the cost–loss model. I feel this should be read as a demonstration that the meteorological community needs to move beyond the cost–loss model. Building in part on the limitations of the cost–loss model that Millner’s work suggests, I encourage the meteorological community to move beyond the use of that model as the basis for defining economic value....
Weather, Climate, and Society aims to publish “scientific research and analysis on the interactions of weather and climate with society.” This editor’s opinion is that this will largely involve the integration of the social sciences applied to topics of hydrometeorological concern (including weather, water, and climate broadly defined). In light of the prior discussion on cost–loss models, this means we need to better integrate valid economics as economic theory, methods, and practice frame economics with analysis of hydrometeorological issues. More broadly, we need to use appropriate theories and methods from all of the social sciences and not necessarily “accepted” versions of social sciences from the physical sciences perspective.
All of the social sciences have extensive bodies of knowledge they can bring to the study of hydrometeorological issues. Some have a longer history of examining issues related to weather, water, and climate; for instance, sociologists have long studied evacuation decision making during hurricanes. However, for the most part the research and literature is rather thin at the intersection of social and physical sciences relevant to audiences of Weather, Climate, and Society.
Given this landscape, there are definite challenges for the authors, reviewers, and editors for this journal. First, is that most of us (authors, reviewers, and editors) are fairly new to this effort at developing a highly disciplinary but very broadly focused journal combining atmospheric and social sciences. There is a learning curve at this early stage of the journal, because we are all developing and setting standards and expectations. There have been and will continue to be some frustrations as these are clarified. However, as these are clarified and we move forward,Weather, Climate, and Society will be the premier journal for interdisciplinary work “at the interface of weather and/or climate and society.”
There are also difficulties in writing, reviewing, and editing manuscripts for such a highly interdisciplinary journal. For instance, authors, reviewers, and editors for economics journals are almost always economists. I suspect authors, reviewers, and editors for meteorology journals are almost always meteorologists, or at least in general from the “hard” sciences. In addition to meteorologists, authors, reviewers, and editors for Weather, Climate, and Society are from the “harder sciences” such as economists, sociologists, geographers, anthropologists, etc. One challenge for authors will be to maintain high standards for their research while also being able to respond to very diverse (and sometimes divergent) critiques from reviewers with expertise from different disciplines.
For the time being at least, this may make Weather, Climate, and Society the most difficult journal across all American Meteorological Society (AMS) publications to publish in and to be an editor for. However, it may well also make Weather, Climate, and Society the most valuable and dynamic journal in terms of moving the various disciplines forward in new, challenging, and interesting areas of societally relevant research, methods, and applications.
(I hope I cut out enough of it that I'm not infringing on copyrights). 


War statistics to ponder

From Sebastian Junger's War :
Nearly a fifth of the the combat experienced by the 70,000 NATO troops in Afghanistan is being fought by the 150 men of Battle Company. Seventy percent of the bombs dropped in Afghanistan are dropped in and around the Korengal Valley. American soldiers in Iraq who have never been in a firefight start talking about trying to get to Afghanistan so that they can get their combat infantry badges.
The book is great, if a little disorganized. The movie which resulted from the footage Junger shot, Restrepo, is supposed to be phenomenal. More relevantly, the fact that so much of the fighting in Afghanistan was concentrated in this one strategically-not-very-important valley not only makes one wonder about the political economy of the military (that's the first time I've typed that phrase out but it sounds like it should be a field in its own right) but also about every other summary statistic I've heard about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.