Sunday, August 23, 2009

Should we pack like sardines to develop better?

Although undoubtedly it contains some very interesting arguments I feel quite uncomfortable with the message being sent out in the World Development Report 2009 of the World Bank titled "Reshaping Economic Geography".

Somehow the reports seems to argue that we need to pack like sardines in order to develop; and somehow I get the inkling that much of the growth we perceive taking place in the high density areas has to do with the scarcity of space in high density areas. If I am packed as a sardine and therefore have to pay a higher rent for my place am I therefore richer than the one who has to pay much less for his much more generous elbow room available? We do not include home values in growth figures based on square feet but in money terms.

For instance in the US they give more government sponsored financing to houses that lie in higher value areas; which by itself helps to make them higher value areas. Now, is this muscular growth or obesity?

And then it is also the timing of the report… just when communication technologies make it possible to be distantly close here comes a report telling us basically that physical closeness is what most matters.

Sincerely I am not sure this report is sending out the right development message and I sure hope I am wrong about my misgivings.

Here you can view one presentation of the report

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The GPS and the AAAs

Not so long ago I asked my daughter to key in an address in the GPS and then even while I continuously heard a little voice inside me telling me I was heading in the wrong direction I ended up where I did not want to go.

Something similar caused the current financial crisis. First the financial regulators in Basel decided that the only thing they would care about was the risk of individual financial defaults and not one iota about any other risks; then though they must have known these were humanly fallible they still empowered some few credit rating agencies to be their GPS on default risks; and finally, by means of the minimum capital requirements for banks, they set up all the incentives possible to force them to heed what the GPS said and to ignore any internal warning voices.

Of course, almost like if planned on purpose, it all ended up in a crisis. In just a couple of years, over two trillion dollars followed some AAA signs over the precipice of badly awarded mortgages to the subprime sector. Today, we are still using the same financial risk GPS with the same keyed in instructions... and not a word about it in the recent Financial Regulatory Reform proposal

I hate the GPS type guidance of any system since I am convinced that any kid brought up with it will have no clue of what north, south, east or west means; just as the bankers not knowing his client's business or how to look into his client's eyes or how to feel the firmness of his client's handshake, can only end up stupidly following someone else's opinion about his client on a stupid monitor.

I hate the GPS type guidance system because, on the margin, it is making our society more stupid as exemplified by how the society, day by day, seems to be giving more importance to some opaque credit scores than to the school grades of their children. I wait in horror for some DNA health rating scores to appear and cause a total breakdown of civilization as we know it.

Yes we are buried under massive loads of information and these systems are a tempting way of trying to make some sense out of it all, but, if we used them, at least we owe ourselves to concentrate all our efforts in developing our capacity to question and to respond adequately when our instincts tell us we're heading in the wrong way.

Not all is lost though. I often order the GPS in my car to instruct me in different tongues so as to learn new languages, it gives a totally new meaning to lost in translation, and I eagerly await a GPS system that can describe the surroundings in more extensive terms than right or left, AAA or BBB-, since that way not only would I get more out of it but, more importantly, I would also be more inclined to talk-back.