Tuesday, January 26, 2016

West Africa travelogue wrap up

Madikwe was our last Safari stop.  From there we went to Johannesburg where we spent two days before going home.  We were originally scheduled to do some tours there, but we realized that we were physically and emotionally wiped out so we cancelled them.  I also still didn't have a working computer, so I ended up buying a new one in Johannesburg.  Fortunately for me, the day before we arrived, the president of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, caused a major scandal by, without any warning, firing the finance minister and replacing him with a political crony.  As a result, the Rand plummeted overnight, and I was able to get a really good deal.  (BTW, if anyone wants to buy a brand new MacBook Pro, still under factory warranty, it's for sale :-)

Johannesburg is a really beautiful city, very reminiscent of Los Angeles: sprawling, modern.  But it's still an African city, and that means there is still a lot of abject poverty.  You can see the shanty towns from the air as you're flying in.  And even in the best parts of town, where extreme wealth is on prominent display, it has to hide behind some pretty gnarly security.  This was the entrance to our hotel:

That door is fully a foot thick.  It's meant to stop vehicles and bullets.

This is a little bit of what it looks like behind the gates:

If you have money, you can just hide in there and forget about the world outside.  But the moment you leave, you can't help but be reminded that you are in constant danger from your own countrymen.  There was not a single property that was not surrounded by high walls topped with razor wire and electric fencing.

This, as far as I can tell, is as good as it gets in Africa.  We visited an acquaintance of ours who happens to live in this same neighborhood.  Her house is spectacular: a mansion of probably 10,000 square feet with sprawling immaculately manicured gardens.  She lives there by herself.  No family, just staff (all black, of course), including security guards who are there 24 by 7, three shifts a day, day in and day out.  It was beautiful.  And it was creepy.

That is why, despite all the wonderful wildlife and natural beauty that we saw, despite the fact that I feel incredibly fortunate to have had the opportunity to make this trip at all, the memory of it will for me forever be tinged with melancholy, because there was not a day that I was not reminded that the vast majority of the people around me are not as fortunate as I am, and it is not because they are lazy or risk averse, but rather because they had the poor judgement to be born in Africa instead of Europe or the United States, or to be born to black parents instead of white, or to live under a corrupt government.

I lived for six years in a gated community in the Los Angeles area, and I hated it.  Oh, it was very nice inside, but it was almost literally like living in Africa.  Nearly everyone inside the gates was white, nearly everyone outside was black, as were most of the security guards whose job it was to keep the black folks out.  Why did we move in to such a place?  Because we bought our house while the place was still under construction.  It didn't start out as an apartheid enclave, it gradually turned into one as the HOA board was taken over by people with a very different mindset from our own.

This is why I worry about income and wealth disparities, because I've seen the end-game for it both at home and abroad, and it ain't pretty.  I do not want to have to live behind a wall because I fear my fellow man.  The fact that the leading Republican candidates for president are selling this as a feature fills me with dread.

I'd better stop there before I get too maudlin.


Don Geddis said...

My one comment about your political observations, is that I suspect you are misattributing the causes of what you see, perhaps conflating your observations of inequality, with poverty and lack of economic (and social and political) mobility.

If you still had the inequality, but not the poverty, and there was ample opportunity to change economic classes (and there was a unified social culture) ... then the security consequence isn't nearly as obvious as you suggest.

Ron said...

Sure. Obviously there is nowhere in the U.S. that is as bad as Johannesburg. What worries me is that you may have to qualify that statement with a "yet". Take a look at:


and figure 7 in particular, and North America in particular. We have a big rich blob, a slightly smaller poor blob, and very little in between. That's a very thin pipeline through which to move people from the poor blob to the rich blob.

What bothers me is not wealth disparity but *extreme* wealth disparity, which necessarily goes hand-in-hand with poverty. Think about it: what does a world with extreme wealth disparity and no poverty look like? To achieve that you'd have to lift everyone out of poverty *and* make the obscenely rich even more obscenely rich. The resources to do that don't exist.

Ron said...

BTW, it's not just security that worries me. One of the things that once made the U.S. great was that you could go anywhere in the country and rely on being able to drink the tap water. It might not taste great, but it was safe. No more.


Don Geddis said...

Ron: On wealth inequality that's a great chart you found. But you have an interesting interpretation: "That's a very thin pipeline through which to move people from the poor blob to the rich blob." I certainly agree that economic mobility and opportunity is very important. But let's not immediately jump to the conclusion that the "thin pipeline" is necessarily difficult to traverse.

It's worth keeping in mind a different narrative, that the US used to have population spread more evenly through the wealth deciles. And there's been a lot of concern about the "shrinking middle class". But is that really a crisis? What happened to the middle class? Surprisingly, the answer seems to be not that they got poor ... but instead, they got rich! So now you're going to start to need to argue that you actually prefer a society where a big chunk of people are taken from the "upper income" population, and forced back down into the "middle income" population. Do you really believe that? You're willing to make people poorer, in order to achieve greater equality?

I have no interest in making "the obscenely rich even more obscenely rich". I would recommend focusing only on lifting the poor out of poverty. And simply ignoring the rich.

As to water quality, yes of course there are individual crises like Flint today. But even the people involved admit that was an error. Is it really a sign of the average case? Are things really worse today? The Progress Paradox doesn't think so: "the environment, with a few exceptions, is getting cleaner". What has happened to water quality in particular? In 1969, the Cuyahoga River (Lake Erie) caught on fire! The Clean Water Act was 1972. Air pollution in Los Angeles and New York is tremendously better than it was a few decades ago. "Grossly contaminated water and air are much less common today than they were 50 years ago."

Ron said...

> they got rich!

Maybe some of them, but not all of them. But I'm actually a little skeptical of that graph. The link that supposedly shows the actual source of the data is dead. On the other hand, this link isn't dead:


If you look at figures 1 and 2 you will see that household income for the lower 3/5ths of the population barely changed between 1973 and 1990. There are lots of ways to massage statistics, but I don't offhand see any way to reconcile my data with yours. On the other hand, my data comes directly from the U.S. census while yours comes from a blog with a dead reference link. So unless you can find the original source, I'm calling shenanigans.

> ignoring the rich

Oh if only that were possible. But one of them is mounting a credible threat at taking the White House this year.

> Is it really a sign of the average case?

Not yet. But things are not looking good for infrastructure in the U.S. in general, and the political climate makes it seem unlikely that is going to change any time soon. Flint might just be the canary in the coal mine.

Don Geddis said...

Ron: "So unless you can find the original source, I'm calling shenanigans."

Sure ... a little bit of searching led me to the first table on the census.gov page for Historical Income Tables - Families. It's slightly different than the blog post I linked to above (e.g. normalized to 2007 dollars instead of 2009 dollars), but the percentages are very much in line with the previous chart.

"I don't offhand see any way to reconcile my data with yours."

Now that you have original data, perhaps you can try your analysis again.

"On the other hand, my data comes directly from the U.S. census while yours comes from a blog with a dead reference link."

I'll try not to take offense from your tone.

Ron said...

> I'll try not to take offense from your tone.

Sorry about that, I didn’t mean it to be offensive. I’m dealing with some bureaucratic BS and I’m feeling a little grouchy today.

Ron said...

@Don: I looked at the US Census data and it does seem compelling. I may have to rethink my position. But before I do, there are two loose ends that still need to be tied up:

1. This data ends in 2007. Things have changed since then. There is more recent data available, but I couldn't find it in the same concise form as the report you cited (thanks for that, by the way!). So I'm going to have to slog through some more data before I commit.

2. The extent to which this data collides with my intuition I started looking for possible flaws in the methodology, and the thing that immediately caught my eye is the inflation adjustment. If you noodle with that, you can make inflation look like income growth, and because of that there can be quite a bit of political pressure to calculate the inflation rate in a manner that is not actually reflective of reality. I don't know if this is actually the case, but it's a possibility that I'd want to definitively eliminate before reaching a final conclusion.

But my Bayesian estimate that income inequality is a problem in the U.S. is much lower than it was before looking at this report.

Don Geddis said...

Ron: Much appreciated. I agree with your two concerns, by the way. And presumably you have priors because of a mountain of previous evidence and theory, so the best one should hope for is some movement along the probabilities. If you've gone from "I'm confident I know the economic situation" to "I'm puzzled", then I'm content with our discussion :-).

P.S. You can also start to play with the notion of "family income" (which is what I reported in that chart and graph), vs. individual income. There are vastly more "families" with two working spouses today. Decades ago, a single male breadwinner usually earned all the household income. So one possible direction to consider for resolving your conflicting intuitions, may be an idea that individual job (real) wages may have been stagnant, but "families" now have greater income, because the moms are working too, and they didn't used to. If true, that's at least not quite as an uplifting story as I've been suggesting.