Restarting India’s Faltering Economic Revolution

The sharp defeat of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party in the state of Bihar has put the prime minister’s reform plan and political legacy at risk. He still has time to act, but governments usually grow more timid the longer they hold office.

A trading people who had succeeded at commerce around the globe, Indians long were held back by an officious bureaucracy notable for its inefficiency and corruption. The first systematic economic reforms were implemented in the 1980s, but a succession of weak governments never allowed their people to fulfill India’s high promise. According to the Economic Freedom of the World report, in 2013, the latest year for which numbers are available, India ranked a dismal 114 out of 157 nations rated.

Eighteen months ago Modi won a dramatic victory and seemed poised to transform India’s economy and more. Some called him the Indian Reagan.

However, his government has not delivered much change. One reason was that the opposition continues to control the legislature’s upper chamber. Moreover, Modi always was more pro-business than free market.

Finally, the government has been timid despite its sizeable legislative majority. Deficits continue. Banking remains state-directed. Privatization has disappointed. The law still discourages creation of family firms.

Paris Whopper of the Day: The Sahara Is Expanding

As the hype volume goes into Everest territory at the big climate summit in Paris, we’ll be a bit more succinct and just point out the Whopper of the Day.

Here’s France’s President conferring with African leaders, who told him of the expansion of the Sahara Desert. To wit, from today’s Associated Press story:

“Hollande heard from 12 African leaders who described the Sahara Desert encroaching on farmland…”

Below is the change in planetary greening measured by satellite over the last two+ decades. As you can see, the southern side of the Sahara is getting much greener over time (the northern boundary is the Mediterranean Sea). In fact, that’s the largest “greening” on the entire planet earth! What a whopper Hollande was told in Paris!


Figure 1. Spatial trends in net primary plant productivity, 1981-2006 (source: de Jong, et al., 2011, Remote Sensing of the Environment).

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States Have Accepted Many Syrians

Many more Syrians are living in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States than at the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011.  The World Bank reports that 1,000,000 Syrians resided in Saudi Arabia in 2013, a whopping 795 percent increase over 2010.  There were 1,375,064 Syrian migrants living in the Gulf States in 2013, a 470 percent increase over 2010.  Excluding Oman, the 2013 Syrian population in every Gulf State has increased dramatically since right before the beginning of the Syrian civil war. 

Syrian Population Residing in Each Country

  2010 2013 Increase Since 2010
Saudi Arabia

























All Gulf




Source: World Bank Bilateral Migration Indices, 2010 and 2013

These Syrians are technically not “refugees” because Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States are not signatories to the 1951 UNHCR convention that created the modern international refugee system. 

NGOs that work in the region are harshly critical of the Gulf States’ response to the Syrian crisis.  Gulf State spokesmen also haven’t gotten their stories or numbers straight when explaining their policies.  Nabil Othman, acting regional representative to the Gulf States at the UNHCR, said Saudi Arabia has accepted 500,000 Syrian refugees but called them “Arab brothers and sisters in distress.”  Kuwait extended the residency permits for Syrians stranded there.  Spokesmen for the Gulf States have issued other statements claiming that they have accepted many Syrian refugees.  

Most likely, Syrians living in the Gulf States are largely workers and some could be related to the Syrian communities in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait that existed before the civil war.  Legal conventions, treaties, and the technical definition of the word “refugee” aside, there are many more Syrian migrants living in every Gulf State (except Oman) in 2013 than in 2010.  Every additional Syrian migrant living in the Gulf States is one fewer potential refugee elsewhere. Many immigrant groups in the 19th and 20th centuries were also refugees even though there was no legal category for them at the time.          

Some Americans and Arab critics argue that the Gulf States should accept more refugees. They should, but that shouldn’t blind us to the large number of Syrians who have settled there since the outbreak of the civil war. Gulf State intentions aside, allowing Syrians to live in their territory has helped relieve the humanitarian crisis somewhat.      

A note on the numbers and quotes here:  The World Bank data may be limited, omit some return flow numbers, be inaccurate in other ways, or/and updated spreadsheets may show a completely different situation.  I cannot verify the statements from the Gulf State countries because their publicly available government documents are in Arabic.  

Better Than NCLB? That’s Not Saying Much

The Every Student Succeeds Act, the intended successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, is better than the law it would replace. That is what many analysts are saying as they hail the legislation as a good step in the right direction. But let’s be honest: you couldn’t set a bar much lower than NCLB. And there are some potential problems that could make the ESSA just as dangerous as the law it would supplant.

To be fair, the ESSA is, overall, probably better than NCLB, and it may well have been the best compromise possible given political reality. Most notably, it eliminates NCLB’s uber-intrusive requirement that numerous groups of students make “adequate yearly progress” on state tests lest schools be subject to a cascade of punishments. It also tries to keep the Secretary of Education from requiring the use of specific curriculum standards such as the Common Core, though it should be noted that the Core was pushed not by the letter of NCLB, but funding from the 2009 “stimulus” and Obama administration NCLB waivers that were almost certainly illegal.  

It is in responding to the power grabs of the current administration that the ESSA may fall, in practice, very short of actually eliminating executive – much less federal – control over the public schools. The bill would keep federal requirements that states have curriculum standards – indeed, “challenging” standards – and tests, and hold schools accountable for performance on them. Moreover, while the bill says the Secretary shall not “mandate, direct, control, coerce, or exercise any direction or supervision” over state standards, it also says that the Secretary must approve state accountability plans. In other words, as I’ve written before, it does not appear that the Secretary can state specifically what a plan must have, but the Ed Sec could potentially veto plans that he deems inadequate until – wink, wink – he gets what he wants.

Food Labels Kill

The FDA likes to claim that its warnings on packs of cigarettes have saved thousands of lives in the last five decades. That may be true, but the increasing number of premature deaths caused by its food labeling standards could potentially outweigh those lives saved. 

The issue is simple: The current food labelling standards provide a big nudge for people to eat less saturated fats and more carbohydrates, and an increasing body of scientific knowledge is telling us that this is a grievous mistake: saturated fats are much less deleterious to health than previously thought, while eating carbohydrates is the absolute worst thing that a person can do if he wants to control his weight. 

The steady increase in obesity over the last two decades, which social scientists have blamed on a variety of social ills like urban “food deserts” and duplicitous marketing strategies by food producers is, it appears, actually a direct result of government intervention in the market. The Wall Street Journal recently laid out a scathing indictment of the failure of food labels at protecting consumers. If thousands of people have likely died prematurely owing to this policy, why on earth is it still being enforced? 

Traveling Into the Future, Despite Regulatory Traffic

Several science-fiction-like advances in transportation are currently underway. They may revolutionize the way people get around. Among the most exciting are hoverboards, driverless cars, and even fully re-usable rockets that could radically reduce the cost of space launches.   

Hoverboards are now a reality. You might even receive one as a present during the holidays. While they may not look exactly like the ones in Back to the Future, actual self-balancing, hands-free scooters are now on the market. Unfortunately, government regulations prohibit you from riding one outside if you live in the United Kingdom , or in New York City.   

Driverless cars are another promising technology. Just last week, Google patented a way for driverless cars to communicate with pedestrians, as well as a way for the company’s driverless cars to automatically unlock as their passenger approaches by recognizing the passenger’s Bluetooth device. As if the potential convenience of a computerized personal chauffeur weren’t enough, you may never need to fumble looking for your car keys again.  

America Is Winning Burma’s “Great Game” between the U.S. and China

Relations between the U.S. and China have grown tenser as the latter has developed economically and advanced internationally. Few Americans want to cede their dominant position while most Chinese are determined to regain what they believe to be Beijing’s rightful influence.

The two nations are waging a bitter but so far nonviolent struggle in Burma, or Myanmar. And the U.S. appears to be winning.

For decades Burma’s military ruled ruthlessly. The West responded by isolating and sanctioning the generals, who renamed their nation Myanmar over popular opposition.

The junta turned to China for military cooperation and economic support. Beijing, which desired Burma’s natural resources, including minerals, timber, and water, was happy to oblige. The embrace from Burma’s northern neighbor grew ever tighter—too tight, in the view of many Burmese.

In 2008 the military began a gradual process of carefully limited political reform, which culminated in legislative elections in November. The junta’s members had not undergone a miraculous conversion to liberalism. Rather, an important, though largely unarticulated, objective was to reduce reliance on the People’s Republic of China.

For years Burma was a pariah state almost akin to North Korea. There was only limited interaction with both the U.S. and Europe, the most obvious sources of aid, investment, and trade. While Asian tigers roared, Burma slumbered.