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Shimmering Lights

I remember growing up, after church on Wednesday or Sunday evenings, looking into the sky and picking out constellations of stars out of the sky. Even though I certainly couldn’t see all the stars, I remember being able to easily spend 5 minutes just looking up, observing what can only be described as a universal marvel. Sadly, due to the light pollution around Norman (and really most of the US and urban areas), looking into the sky, marveling at the stars, just isn’t really an option anymore. I might be able to pick out a handful of the brightest stars in the sky, but the rest are obscured, hidden by the luminescent excesses emitted by our cities.

            While I could consider myself impressed and engaged by the stars as a child, that wonder pales when compared to the importance of the astronomical bodies in Inka society. Steven Gullberg, an OU professor who has spent years researching how Inka architecture was influenced by the positions and movements of cosmological phenomena, gave a summary of his research on October 15 over Zoom. Within this presentation, it was remarkable to observe just how much of Inka culture was centered around the sky. For example, some of the Inka’s major cities, including Machu Picchu, were oriented with respect to each to mirror how the sun’s position would change throughout the year. The equinoxes were days of celebration for the Inka, and the sun was used to track when both agricultural and religious activities ought to occur. While today perhaps the starts hold more allure, for the Inka, the sun was both the literal and metaphorical bringer of life, and therefore occupied an incomparable position within society.

            While the sun was the most important astronomical body for the Inka, the Milky Way could, perhaps, be described as the most fantastically significant. It was a visual representation of parts of the Inka’s mythology of the cosmos and is clearly a magnificent representation of the beauty one can find in nature. I’ve never seen the Milky Way, but I hope I get the chance one day, maybe while hiking an ancient Inka road through the depths of the Andes.

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How the IMF and World Bank Can Help Developing Countries, for Free

I think there’s a human tendency to focus on what’s wrong – we see this in the news (especially in American news), and frequently also in the analysis of global financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Now certainly, both these institutions have problems – when distributing loans to countries in need, both institutions require that a variety of economic changes be implemented (e.g., privatization of water, privatization of health care / health insurance). Besides infringing on the sovereignty of the nations in question, these demands often have deleterious effects on the population of the country, in the cases listed above, by making the cost of essential goods prohibitively high for the poorest members of the population. However, to paint the IMF and World Bank as purely ineffectual or perhaps even corrupt or malevolent is, at best, an incomplete picture, as argued by Mark Weisbrot of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Mr. Weisbrot discussed one of the lesser-known tools of the World Bank, special drafting rights (SDRs).

            SDRs are fairly complicated to explain, which partially explains why they’re not frequently talked about in popular discussions about the World Bank. These assets can be incredibly useful for developing countries – buffering potentially weak or sluggish economies (e.g., by keeping borrowing costs down) and can be exchanged for liquid currency. However, and this is a crucial point – they don’t actively cost the US or any other nation capital. Unfortunately, during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Congress blocked the World Bank from issuing SDRs using the dollar as currency, effectively blocking the World Bank’s efforts to blunt the economic devastation wrought by COVID.

            While the World Bank and IMF both need to change their policy approach moving forward, Weisbrot saw reasons for optimism. First, the emergency SDRs that the World Bank sought to distribute were not according to the IMF’s quota system, a complex computation that dictates how, in general, these must be distributed (frequently disproportionately benefiting already wealthy countries). And while these changes might not be happening as rapidly as one might like, there is also evidence that popular opinion has, and will continue, to guide the IMF’s actions and steer them toward a more equitable and beneficial policy stance in the future.

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Germany’s Multi-Party State

2021 marked the end of an era within the German government, as Angela Merkel stepped down from the chancellorship after 16 years in office, beginning in 2005. Merkel gained international recognition for her calm demeanor under stress and an analytical approach to problem solving. I remember during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, when I was interning with the US State Department in Germany, hearing her give a speech to the German people. While so much of the world seemed to be in disarray – dazed, confused, terrified – Merkel was composed, action-oriented, and, to such a degree as was possible, confident. With her retirement, the governing coalition of Bundestag (the German Parliament) had to be reorganized.

            While America operates on a strictly two-party system, the German political scene is far more diverse, with no single party ever holding a majority of the popular support. Thus, for a political group to hold a majority sway in parliament, multiple parties must come together to form a leading coalition. This process involves a detailed agreement between multiple parties, with the key offices of government, such as Chancellor, the finance and foreign ministers, being distributed among the member parties of the coalition. The coalition set to take power in the coming days, comprised of center-left, environmentally focused, and business-oriented parties, has been praised for its willingness to compromise in setting a progressive, action-oriented agenda for Germany. While this coalition-based governmental system is not without its challenges, I believe that it speaks to the value to be gained by creating a greater diversity of opinions at the decision-making table and the manifold benefits to be gained by a willingness to compromise. If the coalition succeeds over the coming years, I believe it will be testament to these virtues, and perhaps can begin to influence the polarization and bickering that seems to characterize American politics today.

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Afghanistan: The Right Thing to Do

I doubt that many would argue that the US has ever implemented an effective, helpful, or productive policy with respect to Afghanistan. Indeed, it seems like any choice between actions in Afghanistan is a lose-lose scenario. And while policy analysis is certainly critical, I need to remind myself to consider the human cost of decisions as well. It’s easy to focus on numbers, on comparatively abstract outcomes – and miss out on what the people who are living these statistics experience. With the removal of US troops from Afghanistan and the consequent take-over of the Taliban inducing political and economic chaos, Afghanistan is experiencing a tremendous humanitarian crisis. A severe drought has prompted many rural farmers to give up attempting to cultivate their land and foreign aid, that supported the Western-backed government, has evaporated, causing food prices to skyrocket and leaving many without wages.

            It’s understandable that many western nations, and most notably the US, do not want to legitimize the Taliban’s government. But the famine, compounded with severe sanctions, are leaving millions in severe danger of death from famine and malnourishment – with the potential of killing more civilians this winter than died throughout the entire 20 years of war in Afghanistan. An article by the New York Times chronicles the dire situations of many women and children in an affected province of Afghanistan – the images and stories are tragic and moving. There are many factors to consider, but I don’t believe that blaming a foreign government for the poverty-stricken situation of its citizens is an appropriate response. The US should act swiftly, while there’s still time, to avert the humanitarian catastrophe ongoing in Afghanistan. For no other reason than because it’s the right thing to do.

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/12/04/world/asia/afghanistan-starvation-crisis.html

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The Economic Fall-out from COVID, Seen in Tourism

It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has been devastating to national economies around the world. Mark Weisbrot (again, of the Center for Economic and Policy Research) noted that the deaths due to the economic recession caused by the pandemic far outstrip the deaths caused by the virus itself. This startling statistic highlights how fragile the livelihoods of many around the world are. Indeed, while developed economies have certainly experienced negative repercussions from the recession, these burdens have disproportionately impacted the delicate economic situations of many developing countries. One market that has been particularly affected is tourism.

            Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Chinese tourists accounted for $260 billion in tourism revenue in a year – outstripping the revenue generated by any other nationality. While their tourism had a globe-spanning scope, it was concentrated in Southeast Asia – a region that is feeling the loss of Chinese business significantly. Local markets have all but shut down in absence their foreign (largely Chinese) customers. In Vietnam, over 95% of tourism-focused businesses have been forced to permanently close or at least temporarily suspend their operations, undoubtedly impacting many thousands of workers.

            Much of this loss has been driven, at least in 2021, by China’s “zero-COVID” policy – an arguably unsustainable and far too costly approach to managing the pandemic. The bureaucratic challenges of leaving or entering the country are tremendous, and as discussed above, clearly have repercussions on millions in the surrounding region, to say nothing of the citizens within the country. As the world continues to battle new variants like the Omicron, determining how to balance safety with economic well-being is critical. Because economic security is not just a matter of comfort, as it’s easy to assume in the US – it’s a question of survival.

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