Foreign Aid Is Harmful to African Countries: More on Why Africa is Poor

TroubleWithAftricaBK.jpg Source of book image:  online version of WSJ article cited below.


As Robert Calderisi makes clear in "The Trouble With Africa," foreign aid is usually mismanaged, wasted or simply diverted to various precincts of the continent’s busy kleptocracies, subverting the evolution of normal markets.

Africa is by no means the only region in the world where corruption seems endemic.  Paul Wolfowitz, the head of the World Bank, addressed the problem of corruption on a trip to Indonesia earlier this year.  Even building a new baseball stadium in the Bronx can involve community-outreach efforts that might better be called payoffs.  But Africa seems to find it especially difficult to set up a legal system that can enforce contracts and compel transparency.

Mr. Calderisi says more explicitly than anyone — except perhaps George B.N. Ayittey and the late British economist P.T. Bauer — that foreign aid is almost always harmful to the African counties that receive it.  The fault, he notes, is not in the stars but in the behavior of Africans themselves, especially the leaders who have pocketed so much of the money intended for their citizens.


For the full review, see:

Roger Kaplan.  "Bookmarks."  Wall Street Journal  (Fri., June 2, 2006):  W7.


The full reference to the Calderisi book is:

Calderisi, Robert. The Trouble with Africa. Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.  (249 pages, $24.95)

Government Paid 34 Cents to Collect a 15 Cent Toll

The 157-mile Indiana Toll Road had lost money five of the last seven years.  A principal reason was its antique pricing; tolls had not changed since 1985 and were far below what comparable American toll ways charged.

As a private citizen, I had always been intrigued to stop at a concrete booth and fish out a dime and a nickel to pay the 15-cent toll at Gary.  As governor, I asked, ”What does it cost us to collect a toll?”  This being government, no one knew, but after a few days of calculation, the answer came:  ”About 34 cents, we think.”  I said, only half in jest, that we should just go to the honor system and we’d come out way ahead.

Why would a losing enterprise with an underpriced product drift on in that way?  Because it was run by politicians, who are rarely businesslike and deathly afraid to annoy anyone.  So the state lost money on the road, postponed repairs and expansions and failed to install the electronic technology that makes toll ways elsewhere faster, more convenient and more efficient.

Just as many business units are more valuable if separated from their conglomerate parent, an asset like a highway can be worth vastly more under different management.  When we offered our road for long-term lease, we received a high bid of $3.8 billion, cash, from Macquarie-Cintra, an Australian-Spanish consortium.  The highest estimate of the road’s net present value in state hands was less than half that amount, and even that estimate assumed regular toll increases of the kind past governors steadfastly refused to impose.  Noting the road’s record of losses, one finance professor remarked, ”If they’d gotten a dollar for it, it would have been a good deal.”  Instead, Indiana will soon cash a check that closes a gap most had believed insoluble.  Future toll increases will be capped at the level of inflation.


For the full commentary, see: 

MITCH DANIELS.  "For Whom the Road Tolls."  The New York Times  (Sat., May 27, 2006):  A13.


Government Corn Subsidies Are Inefficient


(p. 19) That the United States is using corn, among the more expensive crops to grow and harvest, to help meet the country’s fuel needs is a testament to the politics underlying ethanol’s 30-year rise to prominence.  Brazilian farmers produce ethanol from sugar at a cost roughly 30 percent less.

But in America’s farm belt, politicians have backed the ethanol movement as a way to promote the use of corn, the nation’s most plentiful and heavily subsidized crop.  Those generous government subsidies have kept corn prices artificially low — at about $2 a bushel — and encouraged flat-out production by farmers, leading to large surpluses symbolized by golden corn piles towering next to grain silos in Iowa and Illinois.


For the full story, see:

ALEXEI BARRIONUEVO.  "THE ENERGY CHALLENGE: A Modern Gold Rush; For Good or Ill, Boom in Ethanol Reshapes Economy of Heartland." The New York Times, Section 1 (Sunday, June 25, 2006): 1 & 19.


Chinese Central Planning Turns Lake Into Desert

   Tall grass grows where Qingtu Lake used to be; and the desert encroaches on the grass.  Source of image:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. A1)  An ever-rising tide of sand has claimed grasslands, ponds, lakes and forests, swallowed whole villages and forced tens of thousands of people to flee as it surges south and threatens to leave this ancient Silk Road greenbelt uninhabitable.

Han Chinese women here cover their heads and faces like Muslims to protect against violent sandstorms.  Farmers dig wells down hundreds of feet.  If they find water, it is often brackish, even poisonous.

Chinese leaders have vowed to protect Minqin and surrounding towns in Gansu Province.  The area divides two deserts, the Badain Jaran and the Tengger, and its precarious state threatens to accelerate the spread of barren wasteland to the heart of China.

The national 937 Project, set up to fight the encroaching desert, estimated in April that 1,500 square miles of land, roughly the size of (p. A14) Rhode Island, is buried each year.  Nearly all of north central China, including Beijing, is at risk.

Expanding deserts and a severe drought are also making this a near-record year for dust storms carried east in the jet stream.  Sand squalls have blanketed Beijing and other northern cities, leaving a stubborn yellow haze in the air and coating roads, buildings, cars and lungs.

. . .

Government-led cultivation, deforestation, irrigation and reclamation almost certainly contributed to the desert’s advance, which began in the 1950’s and the 1960’s, and has accelerated.  Critics warn that some lessons of past engineering fiascoes remained unlearned.

During the ill-fated Great Leap Forward in the late 1950’s, Mao ordered construction of the giant Hongyashan reservoir near Minqin, which diverted the flow of the Shiyang River and runoff from the Qilian Mountains into an irrigation system.  It briefly made Minqin’s farmland fertile enough to grow grain.

But Minqin is a desert oasis that gets almost no rainfall.  The Shiyang and its offshoots had been its ecological lifeline.  With the available water resources monopolized for farming, nearly all other land became a target for the desert.

Today, patches of farmland that cling to irrigation channels are emerald islands in a sea of beige, an agricultural Palm Springs.

Even the irrigated plots risk extinction. Competing reservoirs on upper reaches of the Shiyang reduced its flow so severely by 2004 that the Hongyashan went dry for the first time since its construction in 1959.  It was refilled after Beijing ordered an emergency diversion of water from the Yellow River, which now runs dry through much of the year here in its northern reaches.

Local officials, whose promotions in the government and Communist Party hierarchy depend more on increasing economic output than on improving the environment, have tried desperately to preserve Minqin’s farming.

. . .

"This is not a natural disaster — it is man-made," Mr. Chai said.  "And unless people study the lesson of Minqin, it will repeat itself clear across China." 


For the full story, see: 

JOSEPH KAHN.  "A Sea of Sand Is Threatening China’s Heart."  The New York Times (Thurs., June 8, 2006):  A1 & A14.


  Women wear headresses and face masks, not out of modesty, but to protect against the sand.  Source of photo:  online versio of the NYT article cited above.


ChinaDesertMaps.gif Close, and distant, maps of the areas effected.  Source of maps:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

‘Dead Men Tell No Tales’–But If They Did, the Times Suggests They Would Not Speak Well of Saddam Hussein

If Ramsey Clark is looking for something to get outraged about, maybe he should visit the Blue Man’s grave?  Source of photo:  the online version of the NYT article cited below.   


(p. A1) ON THE EDGE OF THE ASH SHAM DESERT, Iraq, June 3 — Among experts on the American-led team investigating Iraq’s mass graves, the skeletal remains lying face-up at the rear of the tangled grave here have been given a name — the Blue Man — that speaks for a sorrowful familiarity developed by some of those who work with victims of mass murder.

But more than his blue shirt, and his blue-striped trousers, what distinguishes the remains is the way they speak for the terror of death under Saddam Hussein.  The man was thrown backward by automatic weapons fire, his eyes blindfolded and his arms tied behind his back, his skull jerked upward at the neck, his fleshless mouth gaping, his two rows of teeth stretched apart, as though in a primal scream.

Together, in the late winter of 1991, at least 28 men were executed here, crowded together in a pit their killers scraped with a backhoe from the desert floor.  Rounded up along the alleyways of their native city, they were forced aboard a bus or truck and driven out along an isolated highway.

After barely half an hour’s journey, the grim caravan turned down a bumpy track, halting just far enough into the desert for gunfire to be muffled from passing traffic.

The end would have come quickly, the forensic experts said, victims stumbling out of the vehicle, herded into the pit, then pushed forward into a shallow cut not much wider or longer than a stretch limousine.  At the last moment, judging by the pile of bodies, the victims surged backward, perhaps in terror at the sound of rifles being readied for fire.

Among the bodies, the experts have located at least 80 spent cartridges from Kalashnikov rifles, which were the weapon of choice among the killers of Mr. Hussein’s secret police.

Michael Trimble, who is called Sonny, the leader of the mass-graves team that set up camp beside an escarpment in Iraq’s western desert last month, is a 53-year-old forensic archaeologist from St. Louis.  He is a veteran of other sites of mass killings around the world, on assignment from a civilian post with the Army Corps of Engineers.

Standing above the pit where the desert victims died, he said the 120-member team here, now in their third week of excavation and examination of two mass-grave sites, were sustained through days of punishing 130-degree heat by an urge to bring justice for the victims.

"When you work with these people for some time," he said, referring to the remains, "you get real attached to them, you feel real bad about what happened to them, and you want to do whatever you can to bring their killers to account."


For the full story, see:

JOHN F. BURNS. "Uncovering Iraq’s Horrors in Desert Graves." The New York Times  (Monday, June 5, 2006):   A1 & A10. 

Russians Try to Steal Rocker’s Vacuum Tube Factory

Mike Matthews holding one of the vacuum tubes produced in the Russian factory he owns.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited below.


(p. C1)  SARATOV, Russia — Mike Matthews, a sound-effects designer and one-time promoter of Jimi Hendrix, bought an unusual Russian factory making vacuum tubes for guitar amplifiers.  Now he has encountered a problem increasingly common here: someone is trying to steal his company.

Sharp-elbowed personalities in Russia’s business world are threatening this factory in a case that features accusations of bribery and dark hints of involvement by the agency that used to be the K.G.B.

Though similar to hundreds of such disputes across Russia, this one is resonating around the world, particularly in circles of musicians and fans of high-end audio equipment.

Russia is one of only three countries still making vacuum tubes for use in reproducing music, an aging technology that nonetheless "warms up" the sound of electronic music in audio equipment.

"It’s rock ‘n’ roll versus the mob," Mr. Matthews, 64, said in a telephone interview from New York, where he manages his business distributing the Russian vacuum tubes.  "I will not give in to racketeers."

Yet the hostile takeover under way here is not strictly mob-related.  It is a dispute peculiar to a country where property rights — whether for large oil companies, car dealerships or this midsize factory — seem always open to renegotiation.  It provides a view of the wobbly understanding of ownership that still prevails.

. . .

(p. C4)  If the tube factory dies, so will the future of a rock ‘n’ roll sound dating back half a century, the rich grumble of a guitar tube amplifier — think of Jimi Hendrix’s version of "The Star-Spangled Banner" — that musicians say cannot be replicated with modern technology.

"It’s nice and sweet and just pleasing sounding," Peter Stroud, the guitarist for Sheryl Crow, said in a telephone interview from Atlanta.  "It’s a smooth, crunchy distortion that just sounds good.  It just feels good to play on a tube amp."

He added:  "It would be a catastrophe for the music industry if something happened to that plant."


For the full story, see: 

ANDREW E. KRAMER.  "From Russia, With Dread; American Faces a Truly Hostile Takeover Attempt at His Factory."  The New York Times   (Tuesday, May 16, 2006):  C1 & C4.


The transistor disrupted the vacuum tube, a case that would usually be described as an episode of creative destruction.  One secondary lesson from the story above is that there may be a previously unremarked symmetry to the process of disruption.  A disruptive technology typically appeals only to a niche in the market, while the incumbent technology dominates the mainstream.  But after the disruptive technology improves sufficiently to capture much of the mainstream market, maybe there often will remain a niche market that still prefers the older disruptive technology?

To use Danny DeVito’s example in "Other People’s Money," the car may have disrupted horse-and-buggies.  But for some nostalgic "jobs" the horse-and-buggy may still be the better product, so there will likely remain some demand for buggy whips.

To the extent that this phenomenon is significant, it might serve to ease the labor market transition when one technology leapfrogs another.


VacuumTubeBox.jpg A vacuum tube used in guitar amplifiers, that was produced in the factory that Mike Matthews owned.  Source of photo:  online version of the NYT article cited above.

Entrepreneur Risks His Money; Government Risks Yours

KaiserGeorgeB.jpg George B. Kaiser.  Source of photo:


(p. A1)  In 2002, Kathleen Eisbrenner, then an executive at El Paso Corp., spent months trying in vain to find a buyer for the company’s novel technology for importing natural gas.

In February 2003, she left for a vacation in Cancun, convinced that El Paso would be forced to abandon the project.  As she sat on the beach one afternoon, she got a call on her cellphone.  A colleague had a message from an intermediary, who said he had an "interested buyer," identified only as a "Midwest billionaire."

"It’s Warren Buffett calling," she recalls telling her husband as they clinked pina colada glasses together in celebration.  "I was absolutely sure."

But it wasn’t Mr. Buffett.  It was another billionaire named George B. Kaiser. 

 . . .

(p. A6)  . . . , Ms. Eisbrenner called Nicolas Saverys, the chief executive of Belgium-based Exmar NV.  Exmar was building two of the new-style LNG vessels.  Ms. Eisbrenner gushed that there was a wealthy buyer.  Mr. Saverys was initially skeptical.  He changed his mind in late February 2003 after meeting Mr. Kaiser in New York.  "At last, I was talking to someone who was putting his own money at stake," he says.

Mr. Saverys sealed the relationship by presenting Mr. Kaiser with a box of pralines from Belgian chocolatier Pierre Marcolini at their second meeting.  Mr. Kaiser, an avowed chocoholic, returned the favor a couple of weeks later in Tulsa, giving Mr. Saverys a box of candy made by Christine Joseph, a Tulsa chocolatier who also was born in Belgium.

Convinced that Energy Bridge could work, Mr. Kaiser agreed to take over the business, closing the deal last December.  El Paso paid him $75 million; in return, he assumed a $120 million obligation to Exmar.  El Paso also agreed to pay to install the underwater pipeline connection that carries the gas from the ship to existing pipelines in the Gulf of Mexico.

The bulk of the $660 million Mr. Kaiser invested went to modify three specially equipped tankers and to charter them for 20 years.  If Energy Bridge opens on time in January, it will be at least two and a half years ahead of any new terminals being developed by other energy companies.  In addition, civic leaders in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, eager to keep LNG terminals and tankers far from the mainland, are encouraging Mr. Kaiser to build an offshore tanker-based project along the Atlantic coast of the U.S.

Mr. Kaiser, who declined requests for an interview but answered some questions by e-mail, concedes he doesn’t like "taking a risk on an undemonstrated technology."  But he says that the chance to import natural gas quickly was "such an obvious and alluring business opportunity" that he felt compelled to get Energy Bridge into operation.  He’s betting that new LNG-export facilities expected to come online next year in Egypt, Trinidad and Nigeria will create enough extra supply to provide him with ample LNG.

 . . .

He says he acquired Energy Bridge as a challenge.  "I don’t gain much pleasure from personal expenditure or recognition," he wrote in an e-mail.  "And any gains I make from the enterprise will accrue to charity.  But I enjoy problem solving and I want to keep my brain active to forestall (or at least diminish) atrophy."


For the full story, see:  

Russell Gold.   "Liquid Assets: A Billionaire Takes a Gamble To Fix Natural-Gas Shortage; Mr. Kaiser Plans to Shift Processing Onto Tankers, Avoiding Terrorism Fears; A Deal Sealed With Sweets."  The Wall Street Journal  (Fri., July 23, 2004):   A1 & A6.

(Note: ellipses added.)

Raising Minimum Wage Destroys Job Opportunities

. . . , Ted Kennedy, argues that the minimum wage should be increased because it’s difficult to raise a family with the only breadwinner making the current minimum.  It’s a popular claim, but it is flawed, for three reasons.

  •  First, a study by economist David A. Macpherson of Florida State University and Craig Garthwaite of the Employment Policies Institute suggests that only 20% of the workers who would have been directly affected by an earlier $1 increase in California’s minimum wage were supporting a family on a single minimum-wage income.  The other 80% were teenagers or adult children living with their parents, adults living alone or dual earners in a married couple. 
  • Second, as economists David Neumark of the Public Policy Institute of California and William Wascher of the Federal Reserve Board show, increases in minimum wages actually redistribute income among poor families by giving wage increases to some and putting others out of work.  They estimate that the federal minimum-wage increase of 1996 and 1997 increased the proportion of poor families by one half to one percentage point.
  • Third, consider the long run.  Mr. Neumark and Olena Nizalova have found that even people in their late 20s worked less and earned less the longer they were exposed to a high minimum wage, presumably because the minimum wage destroyed job opportunities early in their work life.


For the full commentary, see:

David R. Henderson.  "Rule of Law; Minimum Wage, Minimum Sense."  Wall Street Journal (Sat., Feb 25, 2006):  A11.

Why Fear Nuclear When Coal is More Deadly?

HallTimothy.gif  The skin of Timothy Hall’s hands melted together in a coal mine accident in September 2005.  Source of image:  online version of the WSJ article cited below.


I am not against coal.  But I am puzzled why public sentiment and government policy discourage new nuclear reactors.  Per unit of energy produced, isn’t nuclear safer than coal?


(p. A1)  MCDOWELL, Ky. — Last September, Timothy D. Hall was drilling holes in the deepest part of a low-roofed coal mine when an explosion thrust him from his drill machine and set him on fire.

He crawled 45 feet to a mudhole inside the mine to douse the flames.  The fireball melted the bill of his hard hat, charred his oxygen canister and burned his jacket, according to government investigators.  After he was carried outside, but before any pain set in, he was shocked to see the flesh of his fingers had melted together.


For the full story, see:

KRIS MAHER.  "Deep Trouble As Demand for Coal Rises, Risky Mines Play Bigger Role Small Operations Overall Have Higher Fatality Rates; The Dangers of ‘Dogholes’ Long-Term, a Safer Industry."  The Wall Street Journal  (Thurs., June 1, 2006):  A1 & A10. 


In the graphic below, note that the long-term trend has been a decline in fatalities in coal production.  But the fatalities remain higher, per unit of energy produced, than the fatalities for nuclear energy production. 

 CoalMiningFatalities.gifSource of graphic:  online version of the WSJ article cited above.




Toffler Fear of Future Changes to “worry that the future will arrive too late”

  Source of book image:


The titular wealth they speak of comes from substituting "ever-more-refined knowledge for the traditional factors of industrial production — land, labor and capital."  The United States is producing more stuff than ever with fewer workers.  The Tofflers write that only 20 percent of the work force is now in the manufacturing sector, while some 56 percent (and growing) is engaged in what they call "knowledge work" — managerial, financial, sales-related, clerical and professional tasks.  Even activities like agriculture have gone high-tech, through biotechnology and increasingly sophisticated use of global-positioning satellites to customize irrigation and fertilization down to the individual acre. Knowledge-based wealth, they argue, is revolutionary not just because it gets more output from fewer inputs.  Unlike such physical resources as oil, knowledge can be shared by an infinite number of people, and its value and benefits are generally increased by wider circulation.  (A network, after all, is only as powerful as the number of participants.) Just as important, the Third Wave wealth system "demassifies production, markets and society," creating space for unending experimentation, innovation and individuation.

. . .

Despite visionary passages about nanotechnology (the manipulation of objects at the atomic level) and potential moon-based helium energy, "Revolutionary Wealth" is less interesting for its specifics (most of which will be familiar to readers of publications like Wired, The Economist and Red Herring) than for its evidence of how far we’ve come since the 70’s, when politics, economics and culture all seemed as played out as Richard Nixon’s denials of criminality.  In "Future Shock," the Tofflers warned that many people "will find it increasingly painful to keep up with the incessant demand for change that characterizes our time.  For them, the future will have arrived too soon."  These days, from Baghdad to Bangalore to Boston, it seems more likely that people worry that the future will arrive too late.  That’s no small change, and it’s one on which the Tofflers have been shining a light for years.


For the full review, see: 

NICK GILLESPIE.  "The Future Is Now."   The New York Times Book Review, Section 7 (Sun., May 14, 2006):  9.


The full reference to the Toffler book is:

Toffler, Alvin, and Heidi Toffler. Revolutionary Wealth.  Alfred A. Knopf, 2006.