Hard to imagine the complex, modern world without bureaucracy

It is common these days to hear complaints about bureaucracy, often related to the amount of time it takes to get something done or the waste involved in completing a large project. But it is hard to imagine the world we have today without bureaucracy:

For instance, as a student sociologist, I was taught that bureaucracy was essential to an ordered society. A system of administration, based on a division of labour, designed to undertake a large body of work in a routine manner, was deemed essential to advanced economics.

Yet the term is now used to denote obstruction, complication and sheer bloody-mindedness to produce the opposite outcome.

I guess the modern image is one of an army of pen-pushers, or more accurately, dedicated e-mailers, committed to frustrating the desired outcomes or value for money of any project…

We all need the right skill mix, effective teamwork and the most efficient use of defined resources to serve the public well. In that sense, strategic planning is as essential to the desired outcomes as the obvious contribution made by good service delivery.

So, there is a case for bureaucracy, although it is wise to avoid that term. Demonising particular roles and functions is dangerous. It must be always the quality and quantity of product that counts.

Max Weber wrote about how bureaucracy made modern society possible. It is remarkable to think how large societies are actually able to function. Take the United States: it has its problems but considering that it has over 300 million relatively wealthy people from all around the world, has a large land mass, and has undertaken numerous major projects over recent decades, things still get done and life is decent or good for many residents.

This commentary also hints at what Weber suggested was the possible problem with bureaucracy: a soulless, “iron cage.” The term today has a negative connotation often linked to the reduction of individual freedom. Thus, battles about bureaucracy are all around us: how much should you have to pay for your license plate? Should the government require restaurants to put calorie counts next to the menu? Should you be required to have medical insurance? And so on. It’s not bureaucracy that is really the issue: it is how it runs.

It then becomes a “framing” issue as people seek to avoid the “bureaucracy” label. The trend in recent decades has been to suggest governments, large or local, should be more business-like. Businesses are still bureaucracies – any organization can be a bureaucracy – but they have different goals and different methods of operation. Additionally, they are perceived as being less wasteful and more able to change course (both which are not necessarily true). In the current era of tight budgets, all levels of government are looking for ways to trim costs while maintaining service levels. As the commentator suggests, government needs to be more efficient and cost-effective.

Chart of total carbon emissions and emissions per capita

Miller-McCune has put together two charts showing total carbon emissions by country and also emissions per capita by country. See the two charts here.

This is colorful and vibrant. And it is nice to have the charts side-by-side as one can easily make comparisons. For example, the US is #2 in total emissions but #9 in per capita emissions. As The Infrastructurist points out, the chart gives some insights into how many countries might need to deal with per capita emissions rather than point fingers at countries with the largest amount of carbon emissions.

But there is a lot of information compressed in this chart – it is hard to see a lot of the smaller countries with small circles. Additionally, why are the countries in the order they are? It appears that regions are together but the order is not the same for both charts and it certainly isn’t rank-ordered (China and US are on opposite ends of the chart for total emissions). The color and vibrancy seems to be more important to the chart-makers than having a logical order to the countries.

h/t The Infrastructurist

Graphic comparing US to other developed nations on nine measures

This particular graphic provides a look at how the United States stacks up against other developed nations on nine key measures, such as a Gini index, Gallup’s global wellbeing index, and life expectancy at birth.

As a graphic, this is both interesting and confusing. It is interesting in that one can take a quick glance at all of these measures at once and the color shading helps mark the higher and lower values. This is the goal of graphics or charts: condense a lot of information into an engaging format. However, there are a few problems: there is a lot of information to look at, it is unclear why the countries are listed in the order they are, and it takes some work to compare the countries marked with the different colors because they may be at the top or bottom of the list.

(By the way, the United States doesn’t compare well to some of the other countries on this list. Are there other overall measures in which the United States would compare more favorably?)

Sarkozy joins growing chorus of Western European leaders who have said multiculturalism has failed

In a recent interview, French President Nicolas Sarkozy said multiculturalism has failed in his country:

“My answer is clearly yes, it is a failure,” he said in a television interview when asked about the policy which advocates that host societies welcome and foster distinct cultural and religious immigrant groups.

“Of course we must all respect differences, but we do not want… a society where communities coexist side by side.

“If you come to France, you accept to melt into a single community, which is the national community, and if you do not want to accept that, you cannot be welcome in France,” the right-wing president said.

“The French national community cannot accept a change in its lifestyle, equality between men and women… freedom for little girls to go to school,” he said.

“We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him,” Sarkozy said in the TFI channel show.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Australia’s ex-prime minister John Howard and Spanish ex-premier Jose Maria Aznar have also recently said multicultural policies have not successfully integrated immigrants.

Based on what Sarkozy said in this interview, it sounds like he either has a different definition of multiculturalism or a different end goal. A contrast to multiculturalism would be assimilation where newcomers to a country (or any group) should quickly or eventually adopt the customs and values of the country they have entered. Sarkozy is suggesting that because some immigrants have not done this, multiculturalism has failed. But Sarkozy seems to be explaining how assimilation has failed. The Oxford English Dictionary defines multiculturalism thusly: “the policy or process whereby the distinctive identities of the cultural groups within such a society are maintained or supported.” In this sense, a long-running policy of multiculturalism ends up changing the larger culture to some degree. It sounds like Sarkozy (and some of these other leaders) are not as interested in this. Can French or English or German culture change and incorporate elements of cultures from immigrants living within their borders?

These comments from various leaders seem to have been motivated in part by growing Muslim populations in these nations.

It is also interesting to note that there is not a whole lot of public discussion about this in the United States. Some of this may be more below the surface, particularly when issues like immigration arise (though this has been overwhelmed by economic concerns). Can you imagine an American political leader of any party making a statement like these Western European leaders have?

ABA wants free trade in legal services?

The International Business Times is reporting that American Bar Association President Stephen N. Zack is lobbying India to refrain from shutting U.S. lawyers out of the Indian legal market:

Currently, U.S. lawyers are allowed to travel to India on an “in-and-out basis” to advise their clients on non-Indian aspects of law. That “status quo” should be maintained as the [Bar Council of India] considers the broader issue of whether to allow the practice of law by foreign law firms in India, Zack said….”The ABA believes that allowing such activities is critical not only for the mutual benefit of the legal practitioners in both countries,” [Zack’s] letter said, “but also for fostering the vital and already close relationship between India and the United States and to promote the robust growth of trade and investments between our two countries. Allowing such activities is also essential in making India a preferred venue for international arbitration proceedings.”

This is a huge issue, and only going to get bigger in the coming years.  In most countries, including the U.S. and India, the legal profession is highly regulated and heavily skewed toward protectionism (i.e., preserving a pre-globalization status quo).  For example, in order to “practice law” in the U.S., one must generally graduate from college, attend law school for 3 years, and pass a state-specific bar exam.  Other countries have similarly stringent requirements.  Obviously, most people who have been through the trouble (and expense) of this process are vehemently opposed to competition from anyone else–including (and especially) lawyers licensed in other countries.

Which is what makes the ABA president’s statements so interesting.  Supposedly, U.S. lawyers currently provide Indian businesses with “consultancy legal services” (to use the article’s phrase) rather than “practice law” (which is the magic phrase to denote what one cannot do without an official license in a given state/country).  However, such verbal formulations are notoriously vague, and everyone who argues over their precise meanings are lawyers with a vested interest in either (1) expanding their own market for legal services or (2) keeping new competition out.

To date, new competition has mostly been kept out, especially here in the U.S.  It will be interesting to see whether the ABA president’s recent lobbying in India represents a first step moving toward a free trade in legal services between the U.S. and India.

A growing number of “encore careers”

Retirement is an interesting topic these days in the United States: can people retire after the losses in the recent economic crisis? How will society pay for Social Security and medical benefits when all those Baby Boomers retire? How will states (and other organizations) pay for pensions that have been underfunded?

One answer: have those who have retired enter an “encore career.”

Daly is part of the growing “encore careers” movement — an effort to match older workers who can’t or don’t want to retire with public service jobs that benefit society. The movement, begun in the late 1990s, has spawned non-profit groups and programs from Boston to Portland, Ore., aimed at helping older workers find new work. Many of the programs are run by people who have made the transition.

At a time when 77 million Baby Boomers ages 46-65 are moving toward traditional retirement age, analysts say the movement could grow exponentially in the coming decades. A 2008 survey by MetLife Foundation and Civic Ventures, a national think tank on boomers and work, found more than 5 million Americans in encore careers. Half of those ages 44-70 expressed interest in them.

Moving from one career to a more altruistic job late in life isn’t easy, however. Analysts say there aren’t enough of those jobs yet, the pay is usually low and employers often favor younger applicants.

It seems to me that there is a larger issue underlying these practical obstacles: as a society, do we value the kinds of contributions older citizens can make? Those who have retired or are nearing retirement have a wealth of experience, related to jobs and working but also a variety of important life lessons and skills,  that the rest of society could benefit from. But if we are a society that tends to value youth and novelty, then these encore careers might not be something we encourage.

Ultimately, a movement like this could end up being a nice solution to some of the demographic and financial issues that face the country in the next few decades. If the number of these jobs could grow, those who have retired can share their experiences and wisdom while also earning some money in order to ease the financial burden on broader society.

Trying to figure out whether to support Mubarak or the people in Egypt is not the first time the US has been in this position

In the United States, part of the coverage of the happenings in Egypt involves how the United States should respond. As has been noted by many, the US is stuck in a difficult position: we have generously supported Mubarak but we also claim to be about freedom and democracy. How can we balance these two approaches, particularly when our larger strategic goals in the Middle East region are tied to Israel and Egypt’s long-term support of this country?

It would be helpful is this difficult position would be put in some historical context. This is not the first time this has happened for the United States (nor is it likely to be the last time). Since the end of World War Two when the United States emerged as a superpower, we have ended up in this position numerous times in countries around the world. Look at Iran. Look at Chile. This has occurred in recent years in Palestine – does the United States support open and democratic elections if it means that Hamas is voted into power? In order to further our strategic interests, we have ended up supporting dictators. Some commentators have said Egypt presents the same conundrum: support Mubarak or open it up to the possibility that the Muslim Brotherhood could come to power?

When American presidents speak about advancing freedom (President George W. Bush did this openly for years when talking about Afghanistan and Iraq), could people around the world take them seriously? On one hand, we claim to be a beacon of light in the world. On the other hand, we act in ways that seem at odds with the interests of “the people” in other countries.

All of this could lead to some interesting long-term discussions in the United States about approaching global politics.

(As an aside, it has been interesting to watch live coverage on the Internet from Al Jazeera English. I just heard an anchor openly argue with an official in Mubarak’s ruling party about whether the people in the streets were mobs or not – the official said they were looting and burning and creating disorder, the anchor kept saying that the protesters were peaceful and just wanted democratic elections. This perspective is quite different from coverage in the United States.)

Projecting the Muslim population in 2030 around the world

Pew has a new report on projecting the Muslim population around the world for 2030. You can look at separate reports by region and there is a lot of interesting information. If you look at the data for the United States, the prediction is that there will be 6.2 million Muslims by 2030. This is still a relatively small percentage compared to the total population though this would be a 140% increase. The numbers for Europe are quite different: the projection is France, Belgium, and Russia will be more than 10% Muslim.

Lots of good data here on everything from fertility rates to migration to age breakdowns.

How to measure happiness (“prosperity”) across countries

Here is a topic just perfect for a Research Methods class discussion about conceptualization and operationalization: how to measure happiness across countries. Here is a quick summary of how the Legatum Institute measured this and found that Norway is the happiest country in the world:

With this in mind, five years ago researchers at the Legatum Institute, a London-based nonpartisan think tank, set out to rank the happiest countries in the world. But because “happy” carries too much of a touchy-feely connotation, they call it “prosperity.”

Legatum recently completed its 2010 Prosperity Index, which ranks 110 countries, covering 90% of the world’s population.

To build its index Legatum gathers upward of a dozen international surveys done by the likes of the Gallup polling group, the Heritage Foundation and the World Economic Forum. Each country is ranked on 89 variables sorted into eight subsections: economy, entrepreneurship, governance, education, health, safety, personal freedom and social capital.

The core conceit: Prosperity is complex; achieving it relies on a confluence of factors that build on each other in a virtuous circle.

Ultimately how happy you are depends on how happy you’ve been. If you’re already rich, like Scandinavia, then more freedom, security and health would add the most to happiness. For the likes of China and India (ranked 88th), it’s more a case of “show me the money.” What they want most of all? The opportunity to prove to themselves that money doesn’t buy happiness.

Some quick thoughts on this:

1. This is a lot of dimensions and indicators to consider: 89 measures, 8 subcategories.

2. The change from “happiness” to “prosperity” is an interesting one. Happiness is indeed a fuzzy term. But prosperity often refers to material wealth in terms of income or buying power. This prosperity defined more broadly: material wealth plus freedoms plus level of services plus social interactions. The Legatum Website suggests the Index is “the world’s only global assessment of wealth and well-being.”

3. I would be curious to know how comparable the data is across countries and across the organizations that form and ask these survey questions.

4. In this complexity, it is interesting to note that prosperity means different things to countries in different stages.

5. Even with all of these measures, which measures are used and how this Institute weights these particular factors would matter for the outcome. For example, the story at Forbes suggests that improving a nation’s entrepreneurial culture could make a big difference in these rankings. And the United States is ranked #1 in health care because “$5,500 a year in per-capita health spending has resulted in excellent vaccination rates, water quality and sanitation.” The Legatum Institute itself seems to put a big emphasis on business.

6. How come so many of these lists come from Forbes? Beyond the answer that Yahoo has a deal with Forbes for content, this is an interesting way to drive web traffic: top ten lists that catch people’s attention. How useful these sorts of lists are is debatable but they are often interesting and quickly summarize complex areas of life.

US land use statistics from the 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States

I have always enjoyed reading or looking through almanacs or statistical abstracts: there is so much interesting information from crop production to sports results to country profiles and more. Piquing my interest, the New York Times has a small sampling of statistics from 2011 Statistical Abstract of the United States.

One reported statistic struck me: “The proportion of developed land reached a record high: 5.6 percent of all land in the continental U.S.” At first glance, I am not surprised: a number of the car trips I make to visit family in different locations includes a number of hours of driving past open fields and forests. Even with all the talk we hear of sprawl, there still appears to be plenty of land that could be developed.

But the Statistical Abstract allows us to dig deeper: how exactly is American land used? According to 2003 figures (#363, Excel table), 71.1% of American land is rural with 19% total and 20.9% total being devoted to crops and “rangeland,” respectively. While developed land may have reached a record high (5.6%), Federal land is almost four times larger (20.7%).

Another factor here would have to be how much of the total land could actually be developed. How much of that rural land is inaccessible or would require a large amount of work and money to improve?

So whenever there is a discussion of developable land and sprawl, it seems like it would be useful to keep these statistics in mind. How much non-developed land do we want to have as a country and should it be spread throughout the country? How much open land is needed around cities or in metropolitan regions? And what should this open land be: forest preserve, state park, national park, open fields, farmland, or something else?