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Links Roundup: Culture, Prosperity, Scarcity, Voices, and More

+ Kari Kohn

Firm Culture, Architecture, and Urban vs. Suburban in Silicon Valley

Undoubtedly, both buildings will bring a degree of architectural excitement to Silicon Valley that it has never seen before. But the real question is whether, for all their ambition, they will do much to change the underlying suburban culture. They are both big, private, sealed-off corporate villas that most people will reach by car. At a time when the city, not the suburb, seems to hold the allure for younger workers in the technology industry, how much will Foster’s refined, iPhone-like architecture or Gehry’s lively, garden-topped workspace matter? Twitter’s renovated office space in an old San Francisco neighborhood may, in the end, be the real harbinger of the future.

Prosperity: Monetary Measurements of Wealth vs. Accumulation of Solutions to Human Problems

This is why prosperity in human societies can’t be properly understood by just looking at monetary measures of income or wealth. Prosperity in a society is the accumulation of solutions to human problems.

These solutions run from the prosaic, like a crunchier potato chip, to the profound, like cures for deadly diseases. Ultimately, the measure of a society’s wealth is the range of human problems that it has found a way to solve and how available it has made those solutions to its citizens. Every item in the huge retail stores that Americans shop in can be thought of as a solution to a different kind of problem—how to eat, clothe ourselves, make our homes more comfortable, get around, entertain ourselves, and so on. The more and better solutions available to us, the more prosperity we have.

The long arc of human progress can be thought of as an accumulation of such solutions, embodied in the products and services of the economy.

...If the true measure of the prosperity of a society is the availability of solutions to human problems, then growth cannot simply be measured by changes in GDP. Rather, growth must be a measure of the rate at which new solutions to human problems become available.

...There are enormous moral implications that grow out of redefining prosperity. We have neither the space, nor frankly, the ability to deal with all those questions here. But we do believe that the obvious moral implications of judging economic activity by the social value of the problem it solves, rather than the money it earns for particular individuals, may lead to cultural and behavioral shifts exceeding the influence of any regulation.

Informality and Urbanization in Africa

Fewer than 10% of African workers find jobs in manufacturing, and among those only a tiny fraction – as low as one-tenth – are employed in modern, formal firms with adequate technology. Distressingly, there has been very little improvement in this regard, despite high growth rates. In fact, Sub-Saharan Africa is less industrialized today than it was in the 1980’s. Private investment in modern industries, especially non-resource tradables, has not increased, and remains too low to sustain structural transformation.

As in all developing countries, farmers in Africa are flocking to the cities. And yet, as a recent study from the Groningen Growth and Development Center shows, rural migrants do not end up in modern manufacturing industries, as they did in East Asia, but in services such as retail trade and distribution. Though such services have higher productivity than much of agriculture, they are not technologically dynamic in Africa and have been falling behind the world frontier.

...The African economic landscape’s dominant feature – an informal sector comprising microenterprises, household production, and unofficial activities – is absorbing the growing urban labor force and acting as a social safety net. But the evidence suggests that it cannot provide the missing productive dynamism. Studies show that very few microenterprises grow beyond informality, just as the bulk of successful established firms do not start out as small, informal enterprises.

New Recipes for Overcoming Scarcity

Think about the fracking techniques that have turned American prairies into fertile oil fields, improvements in crop breeding that have increased agricultural yields, chemical processes that extract minerals from waste rock, and drill bits that reach ever further into the ground. Every time we stare at a potential shortage, like rubber and latex in World War II, some scientist figures out a new way to make it more cheaply. So should we ever worry about scarcity again?

...The point is, even as one method of extracting resources starts to look difficult, humanity seems to be pretty good at inventing others, to get at pockets previously thought inaccessible.

Listening to African Views

Conventional public wisdom would suggest that Africans are most worried about the catastrophic AIDS epidemic, high child mortality, recurrent food shortages, and civil conflict.  Everyone has seen the startling statistics on HIV prevalence rates, the number of children that die of preventable diseases, or heard the repeated calls for emergency food relief.  Therefore, it’s only natural to fight for ever increasing US taxpayer treasure to vanquish these demons.

But, what do ordinary Africans actually think?  Do they raise these same issues as the most pressing problems affecting their nations?  This is the subject of my new CGD paper.  Based upon Afrobarometer public attitude surveys, Africans appear overwhelmingly concerned about four interrelated issues: (1) jobs and income; (2) infrastructure; (3) enabling economic and financial policies; and (4) inequality.  Since 2002, these issues have steadily accounted for roughly 70 percent of survey responses.  Infrastructure-related concerns – such as power, roads, and water – have witnessed the largest increase during this time.  Across the continent, roughly one-in-five respondents now raise it as their most pressing concern.  All of these trends hold across rural/urban, gender, and other demographic lines – despite some modest and expected differences.

The Need for Innovation in Rules in Medicine

And to me this is a fascinating period in medicine. We’re all trying to figure out how to make systems work instead of just using drugs and devices. It’s opened up huge possibilities for young physicians, for people late in their career. Because this enormous shift is happening, and everybody, virtually everybody, agrees that we can’t just keep doing it the way we’ve been doing it.

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