Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Which is the most global religion in the world?

Assuming you accept that religions are monoliths (which is a less-than-intelligent assumption), then the statistics in the report released on Dec 18 (last week) by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life are worth reading.

Titled "The Global Religious Landscape", the demographic study of more than 230 countries and territories is based on information available as of early 2012 for the period to the end of 2010.

The report finds that the overwhelming majority of the 2010 world population of 6.9 billion have a clear religious affiliation (that is, 84%, or 5.8 billion people), and that the "religiously unaffiliated"(1.1 billion, or 16%) form the third-largest group but that many even of these hold some religious or spiritual beliefs (such as belief in God or a universal spirit). The report does not actually quantify the number of atheists, presumably because the number is so tiny. Sadly, the Report does not include an Index, so I could not double-check.

The largest group is Christians - 2.2 billion (32% of the world’s population), followed by Muslims - 1.6 billion (23%), Hindus - 1 billion (15%), Buddhists - nearly 500 million (7%) and Jews - 14 million (0.2%). More than 400 million people (6%) practice various folk or traditional religions, including African, Chinese, Native American and Australian aboriginal or traditional religions. Slightly less than 1% of the global population - 58 million people – belong to "other religions" (Baha’i, Jainism, Sikhism, Shintoism, Taoism, Tenrikyo, Wicca, Zoroastrianism, et. al.)

Beyond the raw facts (which are not that surprising or even interesting), the report also provides more interesting information, such as the geographic distribution of religious groups.

The Asia-Pacific region has the vast majority of Hindus (99%), Buddhists (99%), adherents of folk or traditional religions (90%), members of other world religions (89%), and three-quarters of the religiously unaffiliated (76%, most of whom are in China).

Most Muslims (62%) live in the Asia-Pacific region (only 20% of Muslims live in the Middle East and North Africa, and nearly 16% reside in sub-Saharan Africa).

Worldwide, surprisingly, Christians are the most evenly dispersed: 26% live in Europe, 24% in Latin America and the Caribbean, and 24% in sub-Saharan Africa.

Fewer Jews (41%) live in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa – including Israel! - than live in North America (44%).

The charts show also Religious Composition by Country, and which religions are majorities or minorities in which countries.

So guess which is the least global of the eight "major world religions" surveyed by the report? As we stigmatised, till less than a century ago, anyone who left the shores of India, it is not at all surprising that we Hindus are the least global: 94 percent of us live in one country, India.

However, as all of us know, there are as many Hinduisms as there are Hindus, and the variety of Christians and Muslims (for example) may not be quite as large, but is large enough to boggle the mind. And who is a true Muslim, Christian or Hindu, probably only God knows - to whom it doesn't matter much anyway: as far as can be made out, what matters much more to Him is whether we genuinely seek after Him and live in ways that reflect His love.

At least, that is what this Hindu makes of the coming of the Christ child.

Whether or not we follow the rituals of any religion, that urging to seek the love of God, and live out the love of God, may be worth being considered by all of us, given the dark state of the world today. Sphere: Related Content

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

How far does the Pope stray from the lifestyle and values of Jesus the Lord?

The Pope lives in the Vatican with all its opulence, while Jesus the Lord said: "Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but (I) have nowhere to lay my head."

And the Pope relies on Monsignor 007 to protect him, while Jesus the Lord could have called up whole legions of angels - but didn't ...

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/12/10/mitja-leskovar-monsignor-007-pope-vatileaks_n_2271657.html?ref=topbar Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Nirad Chaudhuri and the cost of bringing up children

The acerbic, scholarly and always entertaining and impressive Indian writer, Nirad Chaudhuri, was invited to to give a lecture at the University of Stirling in Scotland in 1978 (if I recollect aright), when it was my honour, as one of the few Indians at the university who was interested in literature, to be able to ask him to my room for afternoon tea. At the door, as he was leaving, he said, that as a fellow-Indian of my father's age, he had the right to ask me a personal question, and I of course concurred. "How long have you been married?", he asked. "Well over two years", I replied. "So why don't you have children yet?" Well, I was a student and so, embarrassedly and apologetically offered, "We can't afford it". At which, he raised his hand (he was of rather short stature) all the way up to my shoulder, turned me around to face him, and retorted "Afford it? Afford it?! Since when can anyone AFFORD children?. No, no. You either have children or you don't. Forget about "afford"!". I can't say that that was the only reason, but my wife and I did have our first child after that - and it was when we still couldn't really "afford" a child! It turns out that, according to the latest research regarding the cost of bringing up children, Niradbabu was quite right. The cost, in the USA anyway, is close to US dollars two million! http://bucks.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/11/13/the-cost-in-dollars-of-raising-a-child What such calculations leave out of the equation, because such things simply don't compute, is the joy (and heartache! and therefore the maturity!) that children bring - and not only to parents! And, of course, eventually (too soon!) children grow up and, in most cases, become contributors to the family and to the world. Sphere: Related Content

Sunday, November 04, 2012

My response to Project Syndicate

As I have just arrived at A Rocha’s Mwamba Field Study Centre and Bird Observatory, following a presentation that I was asked to make on the link between the nature of the international financial system and ecological challenges, a friend sends me the following
Achim Steiner, Susan Burns
Sovereign Environmental Risk
27 October 2012
NAIROBI – Until the global financial crisis erupted four years ago, sovereign bonds had traditionally been viewed as reliable, virtually risk-free investments. Since then, they have looked far less safe. And many observers within and outside the financial sector have begun to question the models upon which credit-rating agencies, investment firms, and others rely to price the risks tied to such securities.
At the same time, it is increasingly obvious that any reform of risk models must factor in environmental implications and natural-resource scarcity. Indeed, a recent investment report underlined that the fall in prices in the twentieth century for 33 important commodities – including aluminum, palm oil, and wheat – has been entirely offset in the decade since 2002, when commodity prices tripled.
It is likely that growing natural-resource scarcities are driving a paradigm shift, with potentially profound implications for economies – and thus for sovereign-debt risk – worldwide. Indeed, many countries are already experiencing an increase in import prices for biological resources. Financial markets can no longer overlook how ecosystems and the multitrillion-dollar services and products that they provide – ranging from water supplies, carbon storage, and timber to the healthy soils needed for crop production – underpin economic performance.
In addition, we are living in a world in which over-exploitation of natural resources, unsustainable consumption, and the condition of many ecosystems have become incompatible with accelerating demographic growth, as the human population increases from seven billion today to well over nine billion by 2050.
Studies such as the The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment and The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), conducted on behalf of the G-8, have improved our understanding of the economic, ecological, and social value of the goods and services provided by ecosystems, and have proposed better methods for pricing them. Yet this new thinking has yet to influence significantly the behavior of bond investors and rating agencies.
Some might assume that bond markets are shielded from the effects of climate change, ecosystem degradation, and water scarcity. With more than $40 trillion of sovereign debt in global markets at any given time, that is a very high-risk game.
In order to address the gap between reality and perception, the United Nations Environment Program Finance Initiative (UNEP FI) and the Global Footprint Network (GFN), together with a number of institutional investors, investment managers, and information providers, have launched E-RISC, or Environmental Risk in Sovereign Credit analysis.
The project will take center stage at a gathering of investors in London on November 19, providing an early glimpse of how environmental criteria can be factored into sovereign-risk models and hence into the credit ratings assigned to sovereign bonds.
E-RISC highlights the situation in several countries – including Brazil, France, India, Turkey, and Japan – demonstrating how importers and exporters of natural resources such as timber, fish, and crops are being exposed to the increasing volatility that accompanies rising global resource scarcity. Indeed, the E-RISC report estimates that a 10% variation in commodity prices can lead to changes in a country’s trade balance amounting to more than 0.5% of GDP.
Meanwhile, the economic consequences of environmental degradation can be severe. The report estimates that a 10% reduction in the productive capacity of soils and freshwater areas alone could lead to a reduction in the trade balance equivalent to more than 4% of GDP.
Clearly, environmental risks are potentially large enough to affect countries’ economies in ways that could influence their willingness or ability to repay sovereign debt. In addition, these risks vary widely across countries, including countries whose current credit ratings suggest similar levels of sovereign risk.
This suggests that the findings and methodologies applied in the E-RISC project bring added value to traditional sovereign-risk analysis, by providing insights into relevant but currently unaccounted-for parameters. Credit-rating agencies, institutional investors, and asset managers are encouraged to see how such factors can be incorporated into their own risk models.
The time has come for a better understanding of the connection between environmental and natural-resource risk and sovereign credit risk. Only then will investors, rating agencies, and governments be able to plan over the medium to long term with the knowledge needed to ensure long-term economic growth and stability.
This article is available online at: http://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/natural-resources-and-sovereign-credit-ratings-by-achim-steiner-and-susan-burns
Copyright Project Syndicate - www.project-syndicate.org

I responded as follows:

Dear ….

Many thanks for this.

But this is too general to be of practical use at present.

It will become of practical use if and when the models being used can accurately predict the comparative rate at which different bond-issuing countries could be affected.

If the work focused on the 12 major countries issuing bonds internationally (or even the top 5), that would be quite enough to start with

I should also say that all this does not take into account that it is unclear to what extent price increases are driven at present by real scarcity of particular resources and to what extent the price increases are being driven at present by mere hoarding and gambling.

The latter create huge volatility, preventing proper investment in using and conserving the particular resource (well documented in the case of oil and gas, but also clear in each of the other 32 resources mentioned).

And the more we talk about resource scarcity without reference to hoarding and gambling, the more we strengthen the institutionalised tendency towards speculation.

Warm regards

Sphere: Related Content

Thursday, November 01, 2012

First visit to the UN Environmental Programme in Nairobi, Kenya

UNEP is located in an 140-acre campus, donated by Kenya, which is spacious and beautifully landscaped (the maintenance is presumably paid for by UNEP and not by Kenya).

In addition to the landscaped gardens, what are impressive are: 
 - the "green" building (not in the colour of the external walls, but in terms of its use of solar-generated electricity, water-use and so on), and 
 -  the 14 grand auditoria which are used for the "grand" meetings - e.g. the UN Security Council meeting a few years ago which recognised South Sudan.

Contrasting with the above are the badly-designed rooms for normal meetings - e.g. the briefing room  for our group. 

In what sense are the "normal" meeting rooms badly-designed?

Here is a short list:

 - there is sound pollution from neighbouring rooms, which compounds the problem of the sound system not being organised for presentations, only for rather formal sit-down discussions

 -  it is impossible to project slides high enough for everyone in even in these relatively small rooms to see comfortably

 - the rooms are unaesthetic (no colour coordination, no sense of what materials go togehter and what don't)

-  the rooms are poorly maintained- there are bit and pieces on the walls, patches and so on, broken equipment still hanging around (old and stripped-out fan sill on the ceiling, and so on).

Once one gets past the general ambience of the place, and is confronted with all the work that UNEP does on a limited budget, it is still evident that the organisation is highly bureaucratic, and that there is the usual wasteage of money.  Most startling was the depiction of how many agencies, organisations and groups are involved in the UN alone in environmental matters.  

It is also clear that UN groups have a huge problem in communicating all that they do even to groups that are interested and active in environmental matters.

There is of course a difference between activity and achievement:  apparently that there are some 500 conventions or treaties covering aspects of sustainability, so UNEP commissioned a study of 90 of the most important, and concluded that only on four of them had there been any substantial impact.

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Unanswered questions regarding the Bo Xilai affair

As I have indicated earlier, the whole of the Bo Xilai affair bodes ill for the future of China.

It shows that, in spite of all the material progress that has taken place, China has made zero progress culturally, because its way of running the country is essentially still the same as during the time of Lin Biao.  There is rumour, there is innuendo, there are machinations and plots, there is murder or imprisonment on some grounds or other, which may be manufactured, imagined or real.  And the massive Chinese political machine marches on, now under the control of one clique and now under the control of another clique.

Here are some unanswered questions regarding the Bo Xilai affair:

1.  In a country where the secret police is evidently numerous, active and efficient, is it possible that they and their masters were unaware of "grave violations of party discipline" on the part of someone as prominent as Bo Xilai?  After all, the man ran, in turn, the not unimportant city of Dalian (the location chosen by the Chinese authorities for the World Economic Forum's "Annual Meeting of the New Champions" ), the whole of Liaoning province in northeast China, and indeed the entire Chinese Ministry of Commerce. If he did in fact commit grave crimes and misdemeanours, who were the people who protected him for all these decades?  If Bo has now ceased being protected, have his protectors escaped?  If not, who are they and what has happened to them?

2.  If Bo did not commit the crimes and misdemeanours of which he is charged, who has manufactured the "evidence" which will be released?  Presumably those who have won the power struggle within the Politburo?  So: Xi Jinping and his allies?

3.  What are the crimes and misdemenours of which Bo is accused?  Though the system reserves to itself the right of changing the charges, it is principally that he asked Police Chief Wang Lijun to suppress evidence relating to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood, apparently by Bo's wife who is usually referred to as Gu Kailai but whose official name is Bogu Kailai.  The official story is that, in the latter half of 2011, Bogu Kailai and her son had conflicts with Heywood over business matters, that Heywood threatened her son in e-mails, which made Bogu Kailai fear for her son's personal safety, and decide to murder Heywood. The question that arises is:  could the wife and son of one of the top Chinese officials not have handled threats from a British businessman by referring the matter to the Chinese police, rather than by murdering him?  Of course, the answer must be "No" if Bogu Kailai and her son had something they did not wish to be discovered by the Chinese authorities.  If so, what was it that they were really involved in?  How come no one is investigating that and "only" talking about the murder of Heywood?

4.  Bogu Kailai has been awarded "a suspended death sentence", which means that she will be executed if found guilty of having intentionally commited further crimes during the two years following the sentence (as this case demonstrates, the definition of a "crime" is rather fluid in China).  Supposing that the system finds it convenient not to charge her of any further crimes, her sentence will be automatically reduced to life imprisonment.  Indeed, if the system finds her to have behaved well during the two years, the life sentence can be reduced to imprisonment for a fixed term.  In other words, Bogu will be hauled before the courts again after two years and the system will then take a view of her behaviour during these two years, and decide the number of years, months, weeks, or days she will continue in prison.  It is not clear what sort of prison she is or will be in. We all know that prisons can be horrible, but some prisons can presumably be like 5-star hotel rooms.  Has justice been done?  Has it been seen to be done?

5. Wang Lijun, former vice mayor and police chief of southwest China's Chongqing municipality, has been sentenced to 15 years in prison for bending the law for selfish ends, defection, abuse of power and bribe-taking. The official story is that Bogu Kailai had confessed to him that she had poisoned Heywood, but he not only concealed the fact as well as the recording of her confession, but also gave Bogu Kailai a video recording that showed her at the crime scene on the night of Heywood's death. If so, how did these facts become evident?  The only possibility is that Bogu turned on him.  Why would she do so when doing that was tantamount to signing her own death sentence?  

The official story goes on to say that Wang then appointed Guo Weiguo, at that time deputy chief of the bureau and a close friend of both Wang and Bogu Kailai, to take charge of the case. Guo conveniently found that Heywood had died from drinking too much. However, after Wang had unspecified conflicts with Bogu Kailai, Wang told personnel at the Chongqing Public Security Bureau to re-investigate the case, and provided them with the recording of Bogu Kailai admitting the murder of Heywood. On February 7, 2012, Wang offered the case files to the authorities. If that is in fact what happened, Wang is clearly less intelligent than the head of security needs to be: did he not realise that by turning Bogu in, he would make an enemy of everyone connected with her?  

The official story continues that in early February 2012, Wang felt in danger when he was in effect demoted and his close aides were interrogated. This is curious: so the system punished him (slightly) rather than rewarding him (even slightly) for bringing a crime to light?

In any case, the official story continues that, because of his insecurity, Wang fled to the US Consulate General in Chengdu on February 6 and asked the US side for political asylum. This is curious.  Why would an intelligent man like Wang go to the US Consulate in Chengdu and not in Beijing or in Shanghai, from where it would have been easier for the US authorities to smuggle him out of the country.

Presumably, the US authorities decided for their own reasons not to grant him asylum.  Why?  How come such an important "catch" was turned down by the US, which might have given the US access to at least some of the inner workings of the Chinese system?  Was there a deal between the US and Chinese authorities? 

From the Chinese point of view, Wang had defected, or attempted to defect, and was therefore liable for the severest penalty.  However, the official story is that Wang was persuaded by the Chinese to leave the US Embassy on February 7.  Now if you were Wang, would you have allowed yourself to be persuaded to leave the US Embassy, if you did not have cast iron guarantees of safe conduct?  What were the arguments and inducements used by the Chinese side?  What happened to whatever assurances were given to Wang?  Is the sentence part of the "deal"?

Sphere: Related Content

Saturday, September 15, 2012

What should we make of the NewQE or the Fed's New Stimulus Programme?

The announcement was both expected and unexpected.  
*Some* action had been expected in view of economic recovery that I had, much to everyone's surprise, announced in October last year - but is, as expected, much too slow and is not adding anything much in terms of jobs.  
While the Fed's announcement is far less in quantity than was expected (a total of $85 billion a month, instead of the current $100 billion), the disappointment was compensated for by two new and unexpected dimensions which have been added in comparison to earlier rounds of Quantitative Easing or QE.
The first dimension is the announcement articulates the determination of the Fed to continue providing as much QE as needed till there is "a sustained upturn in the jobs market".  That is a huge change, because it marks official recognition that, in view of the nature of the crisis that we are experiencing, ModernQE is not an "once in a blue moon" action but is going to require more or less continuous injection of QE probably for several years.
Second, ModernQE is tied to purchase of mortgage-backed securities, which means that those who bet on the mortgage market will laugh not just this weekend but for years.
The results of the Fed's new actions will be, on one hand, massive gains for speculators (specifically those who bet on the mortgage market) - so it is no wonder that stock prices jumped to a 5-year high; on the other hand, the result is going to be faster inflation for the average person - still low compared to historic highs, but unwelcome at a time when the real economy is stagnating or growing extremely slowly.  In response to those expectations of faster inflation, it is no wonder that gold prices also jumped up.
By contrast, the Fed expects its actions to result in lower rates for mortgages - but whether that will really happen and, if so, when, and by how much, remains to be seen.  
The Fed also expects investors in mortgage-backed securities (MBS) to move into other assets. Theoretically, that is correct.  But don't expect a very quick move as long as there is a killing to be made in the MBS market.

Further, the Fed expects that businesses will now feel more comfortable about going out and start hiring employees.  

Well, expect a marginal improvement, more in the nature of strengthening the floor than in the nature of adding a new storey.  But the Fed anticipates that the unemployment rate will move down, by the end of 2014 (!), to somewhere between  6.7 and 7.3 percent (versus their earlier forecast of somewhere between 7.0 and 7.7 percent, which was the forecast in June).  My view is that 6.7% may be hit sooner than anyone expects at present, but it won’t be for reasons to do with the Fed’s actions, it will depend rather on clarity about the wider rules of the game such as Frank-Dodd and the Romney versus Obama approach to economic growth versus economic inclusion.

Sphere: Related Content