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November 30, 2012

Bright educational future

Big live oak tree in New Orleans 

We are often told how bad things are. This is good if it makes us strive to be better, but not if it leads to despair. I have been working on education for the last year & I am here to remind you that we have a superb higher education system and it is adapting and getting better all the time. I am particularly impressed by the community college system, which will, after all, help train the bulk of our future labor force.

I was reminded of the Morrill Act of 1862 and the follow up in 1890. You may not have heard of these things. These are among the greatest contributors to America that you have never heard of. or maybe don't know much about. The others, IMO, are the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, the Homestead Act of 1862 & the GI Bill of 1944. The Morrill Act granted land to states to build universities that would teach useful things like science, mechanics/engineering & agriculture and research the same. Their mission was the Hatch Act of 1887, which established agricultural experiment stations. Our big research universities are land grant. Most are public, the exceptions being Cornell and MIT. But I digress.

I am impressed with the system. I find that it is much better than I understood it was before the visit. My earlier understanding was simplistic and outdated. I still thought in terms of a university or a school as the unit of analysis. I knew that schools created and maintained connections with other schools and the outside community, but what I didn't really understand was the extent that all these entities have effectively merged. This is why the ecosystem analogy is apt. The parts of schools are not only interacting with other parts and outside actors; they are dependent and cooperative with entities well removed from their own cooperation. It is like the bird that eats berries on top of a tree in interacting with soil bacteria that allow the roots to take advantage of minerals many steps removed.

The coordinating mechanism is a kind of distributed decision making process. All the various actors are responding to the changing circumstances, incentives and opportunities. The mature educational ecosystem provides lots of shared services or at least opportunities that all can use. This makes the power of big institutions less overwhelming and empowers smaller institutions. It levels the playing field when everybody has access to resources that once were concentrated only in well-established institutions.

All this means that we are on the threshold of a new age of higher education. This is the same revolution experienced by big industry in the 1970s and 1980s. That was when the advantage of the big and established organizations eroded. You didn't need to have in-house services when such things were available by outside vendors cheaper and more efficiently. The education establishment hung on a bit longer providing full services. In fact, the positions of the majors strengthened as customers moved to prestige providers. There were few alternative products and it was hard to unbundle them. The value of the name was strong.

I think this is changing rapidly. Educational wealth has been distributed wider. You can get a great education all over America and sometimes you don't even have to enter a prestigious university program or a university program at all. The connections are all over the place now.

In my old world, you went through different stages. I remember one book I read called them "boxes of life." You didn't skip them and you rarely went back. You graduated HS; some went to college; you got out four years later and went to work for the next thirty or forty years and then retired. You were done with formal education for the most part the day you graduated. Today things are different. You have to keep learning. Students of various ages and occupations are mixing. Now you might go back to school or at least formal training many times during a working life. This education can be delivered in a variety of ways, at a variety of times by a variety of providers. The traditional four-year institution enjoys no advantages and the paradigm that brings people in at the bottom, processes them through a set program and graduates them at the end may in fact be a liability.

The new paradigm is much more customized. No two people take exactly the same coursework. Their needs are not the same. No one institution can satisfy all the needs. The expertise will not be available at any one institution. The expertise may not be available at all. It needs to be created in the process of the interaction of learning and teaching. It is an interesting new world.

My picture is just a big tree in New Orleans. I suppose I could think of a connection, but I just like trees. 

Unexpected Energy Future

I turned 18 the same year of the Arab oil embargo. Oil prices went way up and we thought the age of inexpensive energy was gone forever. What an unexpected change! The technology of fracking today has essentially created new energy that will last my lifetime and that of my children. And the natural gas is much cleaner than the coal or oil it replaces, a gift from God, with an assist from a stubborn American.

George Mitchell graduated from the Texas A&M as a petroleum engineer. His father was an illiterate Greek goat herder who had the good sense to move to America. George was so poor that he was almost kicked out of school for non-payment of tuition. One of his professors told him that if he wanted to drive a Chevy, he should work for Humble Oil (later Exxon) but if he wanted to drive a Cadillac, he should go into business for himself. George saw himself as more a Cadillac type of guy.

In 1982, Mitchell Energy was in danger of not having enough gas to supply its clients. In those days, experts thought gas would soon run out. Mitchell looked for new sources. He knew there was a lot of gas trapped in the Barrett shale in Texas, but nobody could get it out at a price anybody could pay. He invested $6million and had to put up with twenty years of ridicule from his friends for throwing money away on something that would not work.

It wasn't until 1998 that Mitchell came up with a permutation of hydraulic fracturing that worked. (Fracking was not a new technology; it just had not been applied in this particular way before.) The way was open to the bright, happy future we now see before us.
Mitchell lived to see his dream work. He is still alive, now 93 years old.

You never know what's going to work. Mitchell could have ended up wrong and ridiculed, as many dreamers do. Most big ideas fail. That is why we need lots of options and try lots of things.

Of course, this is not the work of only one man. Lots of researchers, investors and workers were involved. (BTW - Mitchell "gave back" contributing $44.5 million to A&M and $159 million to universities and research organizations.) Government provided incentives to unconventional energy. But I wonder if it would have happened w/o Mitchell. There is no such thing as destiny. Things do not have to happen the way they do. Fracking could have remained a "stupid and impractical" idea. That is what most experts thought at the time.

After the fact lots of things look obvious, but they could have gone other ways. There are myriad examples of people sitting on great opportunities w/o using them, ever. So thank you George. Well done.

November 29, 2012

Is tipping your favorite waitress a form of corruption?

A new Harvard study finds a connection between tipping and corruption. Let’s consider the whole field of influence.

Some people get a lot of what they want because they are "charming". There are lots of components to this and less charming people tend to get annoyed by the success of their more charming colleagues. Socially adept people (this group overlaps a lot with charming) get more of what they want. Good looking people get more than unattractive ones. Celebrities benefit at the expense of ordinary folks. We can all add to this long list. The various gifts tend NOT to be distributed equally. Charming people often tend to be attractive, perhaps because being attractive is related to behavior as well as physical looks. These advantages tend to make them more successful in other areas of life. Is this wrong?

Humans are social animals. We spend most of our time in social webs and are constantly working on way to improve our position or influence others. It is what we do, coded into our genes. Those who don't do such things are thought to be weirdoes, maybe even psychopaths. Besides these sorts, we ALL care what others think of us. Those who claim they don't care about the opinions of others - like those who claim they don't care about money - are often the ones who think about it all the time. (If you really don't care about something, you don't talk about it at all. The opposite of love is not hate; it is indifference.)

Let's get back to tipping. It depends on the cultural context. Canada and India have a similar level of tipping, but Canada is low corruption country and India is very corrupt. The motives are different. In Canada tipping is recognition of good service; in India it is a advance payment for future service.

Some countries automatically add in 10%. In those countries you do not tip beyond that. Don't let those waiters in France convince you otherwise. I like this idea. It is not a tip for good service, but more of a piece work, i.e. the waiter makes more if he handles 100 customers than he does if he serves only one. That is fair.

In the U.S. I tip just under 20%, i.e. I figure the 20% then I round up to the nearest dollar below that amount so that the credit card bill is an even amount. I used to try to modulate my tip based on the service, but I don't anymore unless it is extraordinarily good or bad. This is rare. I think if you stay at a hotel that has a free breakfast, you should tip about 20% of what you would have paid. This can lead to a type of favoritism, however. I often stay at a hotel where I get a free happy hour. I leave my 20% tip and I have found that I now get much better quality drinks than I used to.

This brings me to loyalty programs. I am a gold member at a hotel chain and on an airline. This is a sweet deal. That is why I get those free drinks I mentioned above and I get to choose the best seats on my flights. This is very explicit. I get stuff free that others have to pay for because I have behaved in a particular way in the past and the firms hope to encourage similar behavior in future.

None of us wants to be treated "as well as" everybody else; we want to be treated better, i.e. as individuals. This is an inescapable fact of human life. When does it become corruption?

IMO, it becomes corruption when people are giving you things that are not theirs to give. If I offer a tip from my own money, it is entirely my business and not corruption on my part. If you accept the tip and do the same sort of job you would have done anyway, maybe with a little more joy, there is no corruption on your part. The problem comes when we are acting for others. I cannot be generous with the money of others, so if I give you a tip paid for by my employer, this is corrupt. If you grant me favors at the expense of your employer, this is also corrupt.

Things can be very unfair w/o being corrupt. If I own a company and I give you a special deal just because I like you, this is not corrupt. We all try very hard to cultivate relationships that will provide us with exactly this. We call it networking or making connections. It is the biggest part of many people's jobs. It is the biggest part of the job of people like presidents & CEOs. Once they get the relationships right, many other decisions are very easy.

November 28, 2012



I took Mariza and Greg to No Extinction, a place where they rescue and rehabilitate big cats.  The jaguars are very beautiful, as you can see above. I was surprised that they have pumas/mountain lions in Brazil. I thought that they were North American animals. 

mountain lion 

There was a funny story about the mountain lions.  They has a male lion and wanted to find a mate.  One became available, but the two didn't get along. When they examined the new lion more closely, they found that it too was a male.  Its testicles had not descended and nobody, I suppose with the exception the the frustrated other lion, had gotten close enough to see clearly. The road to the Jaguar place takes you through the beautiful hills of Goias. It is a pretty drive, but I don't trust the dirt roads.  Rain makes them difficult.

Road to Jaguar farm 


November 27, 2012

Finishing up my U.S. university trip

Ferns on trees at University of Louisiana 

We traveled around the Louisiana and then to Washington.  As I wrote a few posts ago, much of what I learned was similar to what I learned before.  Educational exchanges require trust and relationships.  I will not repeat that analysis again, but I do what to share some of my pictures and notes.  Above are ferns on trees at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.  Many trees are covered in them.


Biomedical building at Louisiana Tech 

The U.S. has lots of great universities.  I am fond of the more out-of-the-way state institutions.  There is a lot of excellence in these smaller centers and lots of people get their educations there.  We visited Louisiana Tech in Ruston LA.   It is a long way from New Orleans.  The Louisiana environment is a lot like southern Virginia, pines and mixed forests.  It was familiar.  Above is the biomedical building at LT.  Below is an interesting type of store.  I never saw a store devoted to irrigation.  It is especially surprising in Louisiana, where it rains a lot.

Irregation mart 

Below is a statue of Mike the Tiger at LSU.  They have a real tiger too His home is behind the statue. I took a picture of Mike, but he was just laying there.  The current Mike the Tiger is number 6. 

Mich the Tiger 

We also visited Tulane.  It is a beautiful university full or tradition.  It is long and narrow, only a couple blocks wide but about a mile long. 

Tulane University 

November 24, 2012

Challenges of true people

Indian dancers 

The indigenous people Huni Kui live in Peru and the Brazilian state of Acre. About ten thousand of them are today spread over twelve indigenous lands in Acre. They are the largest indigenous group in Acre.

Pinuyá was founded in 1972 when three families arrived from other parts of the state.  They were not recognized until 1991 when they were granted 105 contiguous hectares (about 260 acres). The governor of Acre gave them another 200 hectares. With only 305 hectares, this is the smallest reserved area in the state. Today there are forty-three households and 162 people living on the reserve, which is 1.8 inhabitants per hectare. This is not enough for a hunting-gathering society.  The economy of the area is based on family agriculture, fish farming and crafts.


The reserve is surrounded by cattle operations and 70% of the reserved land is still covered in cow pasture.The forest was mostly removed in the 1970s when the government made a concerted push into the “empty” lands of the west.The band is trying to reforest the land with native species.Mariza and I planted one tree, as I discussed in a previous post.

Band leaders told me that they need more land. It is true that 305 hectares are not much to support 162 people. It is impossible with hunting and extensive agriculture. They told us about some intensive agriculture. They do fish farming and raise pigs, ducks & chickens, all of which produce significant amounts of protein with relatively small inputs.

Mariza with bow 

When I was in college, living an organic self-sufficient life appealed to me. I never did it, but my research indicated that you needed at least five acres (a little more than two hectares) of fertile farmland to support yourself. This was a minimum using intensive methods and it still required part-time work off the land. If you have 305 hectares, it is likely that much or most of it is not fertile farmland. Beyond that, the Huni Kui want to reestablish native forests. This is something close to my heart, but it implies hunting & gathering. You need a lot more acreage for this kind of lifestyle. 

Story telling 

The rain forest ecosystem is not as rich as we might think if you look at the luxuriant growth, at least not for hunting and gathering.  Its organisms have evolved over millennia to deny their energy to others. Lots of the activity takes place high in the trees where it is difficult for humans to access. That is why populations of rain forest hunter-gatherers remained so small for all those millennia. The land simply does not support large human populations. Densities can be only around two or three people per square kilometer (although they are obviously not spread evenly over this land). There are 100 hectares in a square kilometer (metric is easy) so a band like the one we visited would need about 8000 hectares instead of the 305 they have.

Women making textiles 

The forest here is a tough environment and we should not idealize the life of the past in a paradise full of serpents and dangers. There is no going back to the old lifestyle and the people clearly do not want to go back.  The band’s leader wants preserve the best of his traditions and combine them with good things from the wider world.   (We noticed the popularity of mobile phones and this implies mobile phone towers close by.) This is a balance very difficult to manage or even envision how it could work.


I sure don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the problem of combining the old with the new is not a problem only for people like the Huni Kui. Although it seems much more urgent among them, creating sustainable futures for ourselves and our children  is what all we face every day, a condition of being human. In their language, Huni Kui means “true people”. Their challenges are the challenges of true people everywhere.


Planting Trees


I planted my first tree when I was ten years old, back in 1965.  I grew a bunch of horse chestnuts from the nuts we used to collect as kids.  When the trees came up, I put them on the hill in front of my house.  One is still there, now Foresterforty-seven years old.  I know because my old house is up for sale and the tree is the picture.  Today, with my forestry operations I plant trees on a semi-industrial scale, but I still like to touch the dirt with my own hands. 

The Huni Kui gave me an opportunity when we visited their village.  One of the nicer parts of the welcome was a tree planting.  I got to touch the dirt and put the tree in.  Mariza got to help, so she was also part. They said we should visit our tree for time to time. 

The picture up top shows Mariza and I planting a tree. Notice the guy taking a picture of us using his mobile phone. I thought it was very interesting when the people wearing native costumes would pull a mobile phone from their pockets. The picture on the left is the band's forester. He does not have formal training, but learned his business from tradition and experience. In front of him are the trees to be planted.

November 23, 2012

WWW beats muddy roads

Muddy road 

There is a strange mixture of connection and isolation among the  Huni Kui in Acre. On the one hand, they are physically isolated. The dirt road would effectively cut them off from the rest of the world many rainy days of the year. On the other hand, they are connected.

When you drive the road from Rio Branco to Taraucuá you can easily mistake progress for problem.   The road is not good.  There is long stretch that is about the width of an American driveway that runs between two broad clay shoulders. The driver told me that this part has only been in service for about two years. Before that, the trip that took us five hours would have taken at least two days because the road would have been impassible when wet. The driver said that you just had to wait until the sun came out to dry the mud.

We got a taste of this on the road to the indigenous village of Pinuyá.  We got to the village easily. That was before the rain.  After the rain, the four-wheel drive vehicles dared not come back all the way to pick us up. We had to walk about a mile through the mud to meet our vehicles, as you can see in the picture.  It was an especially clinging mud that clung to our shoes a couple inches thick.  The grass along the road was not better in most places.  This has vegetation, but it is still a quagmire. You sink deeper into that than you do in the mud of the road.  So we took the road. This is what the road recently asphalted that I mentioned above was like a few years ago.  The narrow ribbon of asphalt makes it passable in all weather.

The people we visited in Pinuyá are isolated in many ways. As we learned by bitter experience, there are times when you cannot use the dirt road to access the asphalt road that leads to the wider world. The founders of this band came to this place in 1972, in fact, the get away from the wider world. The chief told us that at that time the town was far away. I can imagine and the whole town was farther from the wider world until they paved that part of the world.  Of course Rio Branco was more isolated.  The band didn’t move to the town, but the down moved to them. Today their land in encroached upon on all sides and the town is within the distance of a long walk.

When the elders were telling the story of the tribe, a couple guys were recording their comments on their mobile phones. They are clearly within the net of world communications, but not able always to get there physically. You see an interesting anomaly below. The guy talking is telling about traditions and singing traditional songs. The two guys on the side are using their mobile phones to preserve the tradition.

I noticed people in traditional costume checking email.  When the elders were telling the story of the tribe, a couple guys were recording their comments on their mobile phones.  They are clearly within the net of world communications, but not able always to get there physically. You see an interesting anomaly below. The guy talking is telling about traditions and singing traditional songs. The two guys on the side are using their mobile phones to preserve the tradition.  

Taking a tangent, I think this is why Brazilians are so interested in distance education.They can reach these villages more easily with Internet than any other way. I spoke to the Acre State Secretary of Education, who told me that they were considering changing the school year to take advantage of the dry season. Acre has distinctive wet and dry seasons.It would make sense to work within the seasonal imperative than to try to ignore them or overcome them.

November 13, 2012

Louisiana: LSU1

Oil Rig 

Our first top was Louisiana State University Petroleum Engineering Research & Technology Transfer Laboratory (PERTT Lab) Well Facility, long name.  They have working equipment and study how rigs really work under pressure, literally under pressure.  They bring in various types of mud and oil to simulate real conditions.

LSU is a leader in oil and gas because this is so much oil & gas in Louisiana.  Much of this is conventional energy, but LSU is also gearing up to work on the unconventional new sources. Petroleum engineering is a growth industry as the new technologies have essentially created vast new sources of energy. Our friends at LSU told me that their students have 100% placement rate.  This is caused by the great demand surge plus a generational change.  Fewer petroleum engineers were minted after the 1980s. Many of those working today are near retirement. There is a shortage developing at the same time that the U.S. is expected to become the world’s largest oil producer within this decade and may become a net energy exporter within my lifetime. What a change!

LSU folks believe in hands-on experience.  With that in mind, they have their own simulation well.  This is a real oil well, but it has lots of equipment that can simulate conditions that students might face in their future.  They even have a hands-on test.  Students are uneasy about these tests because they happen in real time, and they have to make quick decisions.   LSU professors tell the students that it is better to create this kind of time pressure in the lab. You don’t want to have your first test in the real world.

The equipment is used by firms as well as students and academic researchers.  These firms, such as BP and Chevron, pay for the service and their work with students and professors helps everybody learn while pushing the frontiers of knowledge.   There are not many intellectual property issues involved, since much of the research is testing existing technologies and often involved with health & safety and environmental protection issues.  Firms want to share experience about health & safety and environmental protection, since they know that any well that causes trouble hurts all players in the industry, no matter who owns the rig.

Redundantly repeating myself

There is a lot of repetition in my notes from the Science w/o Borders visit.  That is because people are saying many of the same things.  It seems that the consensus is that the best way to build connections is through faculty exchanges and relationships.  There seems to be consensus that one of the best ways to do this is to work on joint research projects where both sides contribute and both sides benefit.  One of the ways to get this ball rolling is to hold workshops where potential participants can get to know each other and who has what expertise.  Finally, there seems to be a consensus that this system of relationships takes time to construct.  It is robust, but decentralized and grows organically.  We (outsiders) can help fertilize this process, but we cannot really rush it. 

Anyway, my plan is to write notes about what I hear, try to treat each one like the first time.  I understand that that many of the reports will look like many others.  Instead of being a problem, I see this as a confirmation that we are onto the right ideas.  Consensus is not always the way to go.  We all like to imagine that the few mavericks have it right and everybody else is wong.  Experience indicates, however,  that this is usually not true.

November 11, 2012

New Orleans walk-about

Jackson Square 

It is always interesting to take a kind of journey and I like to walk so I walked from the French Quarter to my Marriott Hotel near the Causeway.  I am so far from downtown because of the football game, BTW.  I could not get a hotel nearer the center within government rate because so many people are coming in for the game.  No matter. The walk was good and I had no other pressing business on Saturday. Took me a long time and according to Google maps, it was nine miles, but I cut off a few miles by catching the streetcar.  I took pictures along the way, so I have my illustrated journey. Up top is the start at Jackson Square at the bottom of the French Quarter.

Voodoo bone lady 

Above is just outside Jackson square. There are lots of street performers and fortune tellers. The most interesting was the Voodoo Bone Lady, above. I don't know what she does with Voodoo bones.  Didn't want to get too close, lest I be turned into a zombie. Below is Bourbon Street. The word to describe the French Quarter is raucous.  People were loudly partying, drinking and carrying on.  People walk the streets with big cups of beer and other drinks. And this was just after noon.


Below are little houses on the way out of the French sector. 

Little New Orleans Houses 

Below is Louis Armstrong park. Top is just the pond.  Below that is a statue of Louis himself.  Louis Armstrong was a great trumped player. I still remember him. He sang with a distinctive gravel voice.

Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans 

Louis Armstrong statue 

After passing out of the park, you enter the 9th Ward, made famous by the flooding of Katrina. There were lots of people just hanging around, but there were also lots of empty lots that probably had homes before the hurricane. I talked to some people about the lost community.  It was interesting and sad. The talked about a community of small homes, homeowners who passed their property to their kids and how the hurricane literally swept it away. They said that some people were returning, but it won't be the same.  One guy told me that he had set up a kind of phone tree and the old 9th Ward people keep in touch. They have a big picnic in the City Park every year. Meanwhile, services have not returned but wildlife has.  There are deer, rabbits and even wild boar, I was told.  Brad Pitt is running an organization building flood resistant housing in the area.  People were generally happy about that, but that is just one point of light. Rebuilding it taking a while.   Below is ... I don't know what. But the photo is interesting.

Stop signs 

I was getting a little worried that it was taking me too long to get back to the hotel. Fortunately, I could catch the streetcar.  I rode from Broad Street to the end of the line.  It cost $1.25.

Streetcar in New Orleans 

The line ends in a big cemetery. Evidently, the water table is so high in New Orleans that they cannot bury bodies underground.  They would float up.  So the tombs are above ground, creating a true city of the dead.

Cemetary in New Orleans

It was starting to get dark, so I didn't take more pictures. At the end of the graveyard was a nice neighborhood in the Jefferson Parish. Legally I was out of New Orleans into a place called Metairie.  It was truly a long walk. I would have taken a taxi, but I found none, so I trudged on, now enjoying the walk somewhat less.  One interesting thing was that the many streets had classic names.  We had Homer, Hesiod, Demosthenes, Claudius & even Nero. The bottom picture I took the next day. This is the causeway that crosses Lake Pontchartrain. It is almost twenty-four miles long.  It looks even stranger at night, with headlights crossing pitch black darkness. Lake Pontchartrain is brackish. Near the north end it is almost completely freshwater. The other end is half seawater. It was flooding from this side that drown so much of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

Causeway over Lake Pontchartrain 

BTW - I almost made a very bad decision to get a hotel on the other end of that bridge. It was a little cheaper.  I figured, just across the bridge. How far could that be?  Fortunately, I am on the near side. Crossing that thing would be a long and monotonous walks, if you were even allowed to do that.   

Houston: University of Houston

The work I have been doing in higher education this last year has been a real eye-opener.  The good news is that the American system of higher education is simply the best. This includes our universities community colleges and training. My appreciation of the system was last updated in 1984, when I graduated with my MBA.  I got to know a little more about it when the kids were applying for college, but the experience was limited; the application process doesn’t give you the kind of inside knowledge I have been getting lately.

The “bad” news that there are so many great opportunities and so many permutations and they are so widespread that it is hard to understand and hard to know what to do. It is the proverbial kid in the candy shop story. The other problem is that our higher education system is a protean as it is ubiquitous.  (I love to use the phrase, but opportunities are few.) It is our great strength that our system adapts very quickly.  My observation is that even the people ostensibly in charge at most institutions have only an awareness of most of what is going on. This is by no means a criticism.  In fact, I am impressed by their wisdom. Good leadership trusts people to innovate and imagine better things and then make them realities. I see a lot of spontaneity, serendipity and self-organizing ad-hocracies. Excuse me if I wax whimsical, but the picture is so complex and beautiful that no one can comprehend it in its entirety. Fortunately, no one has to. The parts work together autonomously and organize themselves.  

We did Rice University in the morning. I didn’t know much about Rice (discussed in my last post), but I did know there was such a place. I didn’t even know that the University of Houston existed.  This is the complexity part.  But I was greatly impressed with the people I met there.  They told me that they are awarding 300 PhDs a year and they want to expand that to 400.  This is no easy task.  It is possible to grow too fast and, as I have learned to my sorrow, scalability is a problem when you try to rapidly increase quantity while maintaining quality, even when you are rich in resources. It takes about five years to make a PhD and you lose about 30% of them. That means that you have to take in more than 500 a year and you can expect to have more than 3000 in the system at any time. 

This is a challenge. The Houston folks were interested in talking to the Brazilians, since they saw some synergies and ways to share resources.  They also pointed out that they were the country’s largest Hispanic serving institution in the U.S.  They quickly pointed out that they understood that Brazilians were not Hispanics (a frequent cultural gaffe) but that they simply meant that they had lots of experience in cross culture communication and, after all, Portuguese speakers can usually understand lots of Spanish, even if it doesn’t seem to be a two way street. (I don’t know why this is true, but I have seen it enough to know that it is. I can understand most spoken Spanish and can read it fairly easily, even though I have never studied it.  Spanish speakers tend to look at me blankly when I speak Portuguese at them. I would attribute this to my bad accent, except I notice the same thing when native Brazilians are doing the talking.)

University of Houston is strong in health care and energy, as you might expect given its location is the world’s energy center and top health care complex. They also said they were good at getting innovations to market.  One guy said that lots of academics know how to invent but they don’t know how to innovate. He claimed that they were separate skills.  Lots of inventions just are not useful or not useful in their original form. Sometimes the inventor can take his product successfully to market. Often they need someone else to help or do it. 

I think the above is the big take away lesson. Few people possess the requisite combination of stills to be master the technical details, implement them, understand potential uses and how to bring them to market. Even the few people who have all these things often lack the flexibility to change their great ideas as necessary. There really are no great individuals; only great teams. When you look at great people closely enough, you always notice that the team around him plays a big role. Often when the great man fails, we see something has happened in the team around him before the problem was manifest. 

November 09, 2012

Houston: Rice University

Live oaks at Rice University in Houston 

We spent the morning at Rice University.  It is a beautiful place, a university in an arboretum. They told me that when this place was built a hundred years ago, it was marshland w/o many trees. The trees are mostly live oaks.  They line the streets and fill the space between the buildings. Live oaks have that spreading aspect with branches extending almost horizontally across streets and paths. 

Rice is strong in engineering and sciences, especially in the ones that come naturally to an institution in Houston: oil & gas and medical services.  Rice is already cooperating with Brazil and has Science w/o Borders students.  They have working agreements with USP to share supercomputers and there are people to people exchanges. Our Brazilian friends expressed their interest in doing joint research with people at Rice.

Big gate at Rice 

Rice takes Brazil very seriously. They have even established an office called “Brazil at Rice” just to take care of the Brazilians, SwB and others.

Rice is working on a joint PhD program in American studies with Campinas.  Students would spend two years at their home institutions and then a year at the partner.  They would get degrees from both institutions. Campinas has signed onto the agreement and there are currently two Brazilian PhD students at Rice.   Rice is still pushing the agreement through its bureaucracy.

They are have also recently made an agreement with PUC-SP to have Rice students go to Brazil for eight week Portuguese training. The idea is that they would do this in their second year. They told us that eight weeks in country is worth a year in the classroom in Texas.  They like PUC-SP because they are a reliable partner and can provide housing for the students with Brazilian families. Eight students will go from Rice this next year.  Our Rice interlocutors were very interested in FLTAs.  I promised to send more information. 

Nobel Prize ChemistryWe talked about the challenges of exchanges.  The biggest problem is course articulation, i.e. figuring out which courses at one university are equal to those of another. It I not just up to the universities in question. They have to answer to their accreditation boards. The challenge of cooperation is tough.  It is hard enough even with close partners and two-way.  It gets nearly impossible when we start talking about multilateral partnerships.

I heard again at Rice what I hear all the time. Universities are decentralized with lots of autonomous sections. The best programs are done professor to professor. These things grow organically and it takes time to build relationships.  People have to learn each other’s strengths and weakness and they have to learn to trust each other.  This produces a flexible and robust system, but not one that can be quickly scaled up.

Short term exchanges are much easier.  Students just make their own deals; actually it is usually professors who make the deals for their students.  What could be done to make things work better?  The best thing to do is to facilitate relationships thought joint projects and workshops. 

Rice professor Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry, shared with Rice colleague Robert F. Curl, Jr. and Sir Harold W. Kroto of Great Britain for the discovery of 60 carbon structures shaped like soccer balls, nicknamed Buckyballs. They said that these Buckyballs have application in chemistry and engineers. I don’t know about such things but it must be important. I got to hold the Nobel Prize.  It is bigger and heavier than I thought.

Rice University chow hall 

After that, it was time for lunch at the truly beautiful chow hall you see in the picture.  It as a useful and good visit that I believe will result in stronger ties between our Brazilian friends and American universities.  The relationships are up and growing. 

Moments in time

Houston skyline 

I am heading to Houston today, where I will meet up with a Brazilian university delegation and go to Rice University. After that, we go Louisiana and then Washington. This is a follow-up to our successful visit in February, but this one will be aimed more at the graduate student part of the Science w/o Borders program. On this visit, we are talking emphasizing oil & gas and biosciences.  I look forward to learning something new. 

I missed the first couple days of the program because I had to stay in Brasília for the presidential election.  My colleagues did all the important organizing work, but I add some value by being around and lending my ostensible authority to decisions.  We need somebody around to do that and/or take the blame if things do not work out as they should.  A lot of leadership is intangible.  When it is working well, it doesn’t seem to matter; when it stops working, everything just seems to fall apart.


But now I am on track. The usual Delta flight to Atlanta is getting routine.  I have traveled this year more than any time before.  I have become a gold member.  This is good, since I can choose better seats, but it still sucks. Travel gives time for reflection. Airports are semi-familiar. 

I decided to write a kind of stream of consciousness in my little notebook to give myself a shot of the day.  I transcribed them below. No big insights.

Indigo Hotel 

Coming into Houston. From the window it looks very flat and sprawling.  Flight attendant says that we are in the Central Time zone.  It makes me recall my mother. She died forty years ago, but is not forgotten. Strange that this reference would provoke a recall, however.  Central time is 4 hour different from Brazil.  Will be some jet-lag.

Off the plane easily.  Stopped at Dunkin Donuts for food and coffee I don’t need.  I am early and luggage will take a while to arrive.  It seems odd speaking English to clerks.  Not sure English is their first language anyway, but Portuguese would not work.

Passing adverts for MD Anderson Cancer Center.  Reminds me again of Ma, when I see on about a woman cured of leukemia.  When you are thinking about something, you notice connections.

Signed up for Super Shuttle.  At $24 is it much cheaper than the taxis. My travel budget will be cut and it is always a good idea to save money for Uncle Sam anyway.  Fifteen minute wait, they say. No worries. I still have the Dunkin Donuts coffee to finish.  I like it more than Starbucks, but I drink little coffee in general.
Reading “Concrete Planet” book about cement, probably the most ubiquitous manmade material around.  Concrete reinforced with rebar is doomed. The rebar rusts, expanding and causing concrete to crack and crumble.  This gives us hope that many of those horrible “modern” buildings built in the 1960s will turn to dust, but not such a good thing talking about bridges etc.  Romans used concrete better than we do.  Their structures don’t have rebar and have lasted thousands of years.  Rebar seemed a good idea at the time.

Go on the shuttle with two guys going to MD Anderson. Guy next to me is a biochemist/biophysicist now semi-retired.  Used to work at  Baylor, now at the University of Texas in Brownsville. Studies proteins and is interested in dengue.  I told him re our Brazilian mission and gave him my card.  He was very interested in getting Brazilian students and researchers. Don’t know how much he will pay attention, however. He was going to MD Anderson for a serious operation.

Both guys got out. Talking to the driver. He has been in Houston for ten years and loves it. Says that people who live in Houston love it, but visitors don't.  It is not pedestrian friendly and its hard to know where things are unless you live her.  Told me that the many rich Mexicans are moving to an area called “the Woodlands” and building big mansions. They are fleeing the violence and kidnappings of their own country.

He said he used to work at one of the country clubs in the area. Said that the rich people were often odd and told a story about a woman who could not get her car started. When he check, he found she had just run out of gas.  Somebody had always done that for her. I joked that she was so rich that she could just get a new car when the old one ran out of gas.  He didn’t get the joke and told me that they did indeed fill up the tank.   

My pictures show Houston from the CVS, a sundial at the Gallery and my hotel. 

November 08, 2012

Four days and three nights of the ungulate

It seemed like a good idea at the time. I could get a sheep to eat the grass. I would save time and money on gardening. It would be ecologically sound, as the animal consumes no fossil fuels and fertilizes its own pastures. Beyond that, sheep are picturesque. I thought it would be a biological version of one of those robotic vacuum cleaners that drives around on the floor, turning round when it bumps into something, but generally working automatically. The trouble is that I didn’t know much about sheep.

I thought they were like big dogs that ate grass, i.e. I thought they would be like a pet and behave like a dog. They don't. Dogs do dumb things, but compared to sheep they are Einsteins. Sheep, I learned to my sorrow, really are just as incredibly stupid as you have heard. The only thing my sheep did, besides eat and shit (see below) was look in the window and baa. They are a lot louder than you suppose. My sheep generally slept when it got dark, but it did not sleep the whole night, occasionally waking up to remind everyone that it was still out there. It kind of warms up, sometime with a low ummm, which sometimes crescendos to a very loud ummmBAA-AAA. I am not sure why it did that. I think it may have seen its own reflection and thought was another sheep.

But that was not the big problem. I could get used to that; maybe even appreciate the bucolic beauty of it all. On the plus side, it did eat grass, and seemed to like the taller grass better, so it was trimming exactly as I had hoped it would. The other end of the process was not so agreeable.

I was prepared for the fertilizer aspect of the sheep. In fact, I considered that a net benefit, as it would make my plants grow better. I have no problem with manure and happily use biosolids on the tree farms. But I assumed that the fertilizer would be mostly deposited on the grass, where it would do some good. No. My sheep evidently walks around on and eats the grass, but holds most of the shit for when it is standing around on the veranda under the roof. Worse, it seems to want to shit as close as possible to the house and most prefers to go right near the doors or windows. And it shits a lot. I soon found my pre-work period would be devoted to shoveling and washing down the patio; I got a similar task when I got back from work. Despite my shoveling and hosing, it was really starting to stink.

I was going to give the sheep a little more time, but the odor was starting to get pretty strong. I planned to be away for a week and a half. The guy who sold me the sheep told me that it would be okay. Independence was a big advantage of sheep. I travel a lot. If the sheep has shelter from the rain, it can be left along. It just stays out and eats grass. I had to make sure it had water, but probably not even that, since the rainy season grass was very wet. The guy told me that it would get enough water from the moist grass it ate. So, I COULD have left it alone, but I figured that if I left it for a week and half, the shit would be knee high when I got back and the smell would knock the proverbial buzzard off the proverbial shit wagon. My plane was leaving that night. I depend on sweet serendipity and a solution presented itself.

The cleaning woman comes by every two weeks and Wednesday was her day. When she showed up around 7:15, she was surprised to see a sheep in the front yard, but not much bothered. Her rural childhood included lots of sheep & goats. She knew what I was just discovering and seemed to find my dilemma very amusing. Courtesy and the fact that I pay her kept her from laughing out loud, but I am sure my story will engender mirth back in the village. It will also provide a sheep. I asked her if she wanted the sheep; she had some relatives with a pickup truck & when I got home after work, my problem was gone, almost. I am not sure where it went, but I don't really care. I like to think that my erstwhile lawn mowing manure machine is off romping with others of its kind, stinking up somebody else's yard for an indefinite period, maybe gracing somebody's table for a somewhat shorter time. No matter. It seemed lonely by itself. After all, sheep are naturally gregarious. The essence of the animal will persist for a while around my house. But I cleaned off the patio and I expect that the strong rains we get around here will do the rest.

My advice, which I allow applies to few people but that I will give nevertheless, is to avoid buying sheep unless you have a way to keep them far from the house. They stink on ice even just standing around and they seem to enjoy crapping where they sleep, not like a dog. If you must get sheep, you probably want a border collie to "herd" them. Just get the collie. Border collies are the smartest of the dogs, they may at least seem to be happy to see you when you come home and don't crap all over the place.

November 07, 2012

Election night in Brasília

The thing that made the Brasília election night 2012 celebration different from previous ones was the large number of youth participants and their use of social media to reach beyond the physical limits of our event.  We made a special effort to reach out to young people, including bringing thirty-six members of our newly formed Ambassador’s Youth Council to Brasília to participate actively in the event.  The Youth Council includes representatives from all Brazil’s twenty-six states plus the Federal District. Their tasks included thing like updating the electoral map and mixing with other guests, but they also reached back to their home states all over Brazil via social media. Through them, the election excitement reached every state in this vast country, larger than the continental United States.

More than 300 guests confirmed and more than 400 actually showed up for the event hosted at Casa Thomas Jefferson, Brasília’s BNC.  Ambassador Thomas Shannon kicked off the event, talking about the stability of our Democracy and expressing the pleasure of being able to celebrate our democracy with people in a thriving democracy like Brazil.   Guests included local leaders, academics and business people, leavened by the large youth component mentioned above.  Our event featured the usual buttons, quizzes about the U.S. at the IRC, big screen TVs and the perennially popular opportunities for guests to get their pictures taken with cutouts of the candidate.  An exciting new feature was the green screen photos, where we photoshopped pictures of guests into action scenes of related to the election.  Lines to have pictures taken and photoshopped persisted throughout the event.  These pictures are uploaded onto our social media sites for participants to download by becoming electronic friends.

The peak time for the celebration was around 11pm Brasília time (8pm EST), when the place was so crowded it was difficult to move.  We were very fortunate that it did not rain (this is the rainy season here in Brasília) and guests were able to spill out into the open patio areas.  A few people stayed until Ohio was called for President Obama.

Media coverage of the election is massive.  Of course, little of that was generated by our event.   However, major local media reported on our celebration and the local TV Globo affiliate kept a TV crew on site throughout, doing live interviews with the Ambassador and guests.  Members of the Youth Council reported live on their social media platforms, uploading commentary and video interviews with guests.

November 03, 2012

A walk in the park

Red flowering tree Brasilia

There are some colorful things around here.  Trees are flowering and there are colorful bugs.  I took a few pictures which I am posting here.  They are pictures of my world.  Above is Chrissy with what I think is a Royal Poinciana or flame tree (Poinciana regia). This tree is native to Madagascar, where it is locally uncommon.  However, it is planted all over the tropical and semi-tropical parts of the world, so it is in no danger of extinction.  Below is a sphinx moth caterpillar.  It is really big, maybe eight inches long.  It is a tricky bug.  The part on top that looks like its head is actually its tail and those things that look like feet are not.

red headed caterpillar 

Below are burrowing owls. They are all over the place in the park near the lake.  The top picture shows the close up  Below that is a family.  The downy ones I assume are the chicks, but they are as big as the adults. 

Burrowing owl 

burrowing owls  

Saving papers harms forest health

Paper productsSaving paper doesn’t save trees.  This is what I have on the bottom of my emails, “If you feel it necessary to print this message, recall that wood is 100% renewable resource & we grow most of the pulp wood for paper sustainably on American tree farms.”  Some people like it; some are offended; most probably don’t notice.  I put it on there against those silly ones that tell you to be careful not to print in order to save trees.

Saving paper does not save trees because most paper is made from pulp trees grown sustainably on tree farms. 

The trees cut for pulp are usually cut as part of thinning operations.  They CANNOT be saved.  If you do not thin your forests, growth slows; health declines and beetles start to attack all the trees.  You could thin the trees and then just leave them on the ground, but that leads to fire danger and insect infestations.  Thinning trees is good for the health of the forest.  It is also good for wildlife, since the thinning allows sunlight into the woods, encouraging the diverse food supplies wildlife needs.  Forest landowners don’t make much money from thinning operations.  Most of the money they make goes into forest improvement, BUT if there is no profitable market (i.e. paper) for thinned wood most forest landowners cannot afford to do it at all.

The bottom line is that the paper industry contributes to healthy forests.  Forests would be LESS robust w/o paper industry demand for pulpwood.  People should put what I have on the bottom of their emails.  If they want to measure environmental costs, they need to measure energy. Below are some of my sixteen year old loblolly.  They were thinned two year ago. We removed about half the trees. You can see that they have easily grown together.

Thinned trees 16 years old 

The environmental impact of paper on forest health is a net benefit. The place where paper could be a negative is energy cost.  It takes energy to cut trees, process paper and move it to your office.  This means that NOT using paper may be a good thing in some cases, if energy costs outweigh effects on forest health.

What rarely makes sense is recycling small amounts of paper.  Make the distinction. Recycling bulk paper makes sense.  Recycling small batches does not.  Think of the energy costs.  You have to collect paper using trucks and then put it through a similar process as making paper from wood.  The equation involves the energy needed to harvest timber versus the energy required to “harvest” recycling.  Collecting small amounts of paper, especially paper that is soiled, makes no sense.  Recycling that Starbucks cup almost certainly is worse for the environment than would be making paper with newly harvested trees.  The paper plants are probably closer to the forest than they are to the places where you are tossing those cups.  It will cost a lot to clean these things and paper is heavy. It takes a lot of energy to move.

The big problem if you don’t recycle paper is the space it takes in landfills.  This is also not a clear choice.  Wood sequesters carbon until it is burned or decays.  If the paper made from wood sits in landfills, it holds onto that carbon for a long time.  Somebody should do the math on this.

So the common denominator of all this is energy.  Does it take more energy to recycle or make new paper?  Add in the variable that the demand for paper is beneficial to forest health.  Paper making may use trees but it saves forests by increasing forest health.  Speaking of energy, the widespread replacement of paper with electronic files is not ecologically free. 

Data is stored and processed at large computer service farms. Computers in server farms run 24/7, and consume prodigious amounts of electricity, both for the computers and the air conditioning needed to keep them cool.  But this is another story.

The bottom line is that saving paper does not save trees and may actually have negative impacts on forest health.  It MAY save energy and certainly saves money for you or your firm.  We need to balance the needs to have printed materials with ecological and cost concerns.  Just do the right thing for the right reasons.

This brings me to what made me think about this.  In the Atlanta airport I saw the machine pictured above.  This is plain stupid.  It purports to be environmentally benign but it making at least three big mistakes.  It saves paper, which is not needed.  To do that it USES energy. Beyond that, it puts in each bathroom a piece of complicated electronics that inevitably requires maintenance.  Whoever bought this made a mistake from the environmental point of view, although probably not from the PR perspective.   Many people see something like this and feel much better about wiping their hands.  Many of these people will probably put some “save the trees” message on their emails.

November 02, 2012

Brazil's changing demography

Fifty years ago Brazil’s fertility rate (the average number of children a woman can expect to have during her lifetime) was 6.2 amid dire predictions of the imminent local explosion of the population bomb.  The rate fell precipitously to 2.5 by 1996; today at 1.8 it has plunged below replacement level, i.e. absent immigration, Brazil’s population will begin to drop if growth depends on this year’s cohort of women for natural increase. Brazil experienced one of the sharpest fertility drops in world history.  For Brazil it took only nineteen years to drop from an average fertility rate of three children per woman to a rate of two.  Only South Korea experienced a faster decline. In the general demographic transition, the transition from the high fertility rate of more than six to replacement level, the trend that required more than a century to play out in much of Europe, has happened in decades in Brazil.

It should be noted that Brazil’s population will continue to grow for several decades because of demographic inertia, probable international immigration and increased life expectancy. Because of recently higher fertility rates, Brazil still has a young population compared with many other countries.  The median age in Brazil was 28.3 in 2011 (the U.S. median age is 36.9 and it reaches around 44 in places like Japan, Italy and Germany.)  As larger numbers of Brazilian women enter childbearing age, their children will continue to contribute to population growth even if the rate per woman drops and remains below replacement level.  However, as the cohorts of larger generations pass through and beyond their child bearing ages and as the older generations pass into the next world, population will stabilize and then decline.  If current trends continue, this will happen sometime around 2035.  Of course, “current trends” almost never continue unchanged, so making projections this far out more art than science. Nevertheless, we can say with absolute certainty that no additional Brazilians will have been born in the past and most of the Brazilians who will be alive in 2035 are already alive today.  Once birthrates have dropped below replacement level for more than a short period of time, there have been no cases where they have subsequently jumped substantially and sustainably.  (Even in the famous case of the U.S. “baby boom”, fertility rates went from a low of 2.0 during the depths of the Great Depression to 3.7 during the peak of the boom, from which they subsequently declined to below replacement level.  At their highest point, however, fertility rates of the baby boom never reached normal rates of the previous century.)  

Brazilian media has recently carried stories about Brazilian middle and upper class Brazilians women aspiring to have three or more children, but this has not turned up in actual statistics.

Summing up, Brazil’s population is current experiencing an accelerated demographic transition from a high population growth rate to a stable and perhaps even declining population within the lifetimes of many people already in the workforce. There is no reason to expect any radical changes from this trajectory.  What are some of the causes and consequences?

Why the sudden drop?

Explanations for Brazil’s drop in fertility are many and disputed. None account for the whole story.  Government planning had little to do with the decline.  The Brazilian government did not have a formal national program to advocate birth control and devoted almost no resources to family planning.  In fact, for much of the period when fertility rates were dropping the most, foreign NGOs and population control experts criticized Brazil for doing little or nothing to encourage birth control.  Some even identified what policy Brazil did have as pronatalist. On the other side, however, although abortion remains illegal, sterilization and contraception are freely available in Brazil's public health facilities.

General increases in prosperity, as Brazil has experienced in recent decades could be seen as both a cause and effect of lowered fertility rates, but fertility rates declined both in good economic times and bad.  Rates have also dropped among both poor and rich women. One of the unexpected aspects of recent statistics was the drop of fertility rates among the dwellers of the poorest shantytowns (favelas). 

Many Brazilians with whom we spoke credit the “Bolsa Familia” under which a family earns less than 140 reais ($70) per person per month gets a monthly stipend of 22 reais (about $12 USD) per child , to a maximum of three children, on the condition that the children attend school.  The causality goes beyond the incentive involved with limiting benefits to three children.  The theory goes that as poor women see greater opportunities for their children gained through the payments and the growing economy, they want to give each child an even a better chance for a good life. Limiting total numbers of children allows more resources and more time to be devoted to each one.  In the longer run, the Brazilian government hopes that education will help break the cycle of poverty, among the traits of which are large numbers of often improperly tended children.
An unusual but plausible explanation for this is the persistent widespread popularity of tele-novellas, evening soap operas watched by large percentages of the Brazilian population. Television sets have been ubiquitous in even the poorest Brazilian homes for more than a generation.  A content analysis of twenty-five years of Globo (Brazil’s television network) novellas found that 72% of the leading women featured in the stories were childless and an additional 21% had only one child.  This was in significant contrast to the norms of Brazilian society at the time.  http://www.iadb.org/res/files/WP-633updated.pdf

While this explanation might seem glib or superficial, we generally accept that thirty second television advertisements can sell people products, political candidates and habits.  Why is it so farfetched that hour-long television programs can sell a lifestyle?   Correlating with this, a 1996 study found that the “wanted” fertility, i.e. the number of children Brazilian women ideally would have, in Brazil was 1.8, which is the rate of today.  At the time of the survey, the rate was 2.5.  Perhaps in the intervening seventeen years reality caught up with aspiration. http://www.economist.com/node/14743589

Effects of slower population growth

The effects of the drop in fertility rates are many and at least for the next couple of decades mostly positive.  After that, the tradeoff of benefits and costs are only speculation.  Japan and Germany have recently become “net mortality nations,” where deaths exceed births, but there is insufficient experience to estimate the outcomes at this time. 

The most obvious benefit to the drop in fertility is a corresponding drop in the dependency ratio—the number of children and old people dependent on each working-age adult.  As recently as the 1990s, that ratio was 90 to 100 (i.e., there were 90 dependents, mostly children, for every 100 Brazilians of working age).  It is now 48 to 100.  Brazil is entering what demographers sometimes call the demographic dividend or demographic sweet spot, as the number of dependent children decreases before the number of dependent old people rises enough to increase the numbers of dependents relative to workers, lowering the total percentage of dependents in the society. Brazil’s senior population is relatively small, reflecting smaller generations born sixty plus years ago and lower life expectancies of the past, i.e. fewer were born and fewer of those survived to old age.  In the past ten years, life expectancy has risen from 68.9 years to 72.4 years.  

Every country going through a demographic transition from high to low total fertility rates gets this demographic sweet spot opportunity only once.  For countries of Europe, who took more than a century to make the transition, the benefits and the stresses were spread over decades punctuated by wars and mass emigrations that masked some of the factors. Brazil’s much shaper drop in fertility means that the country will experience a quicker onset, with more intensity in less time. Depending on the vagaries of labor force participation (see below), Brazil will be collecting on the peak of demographic dividend roughly around 2020. 

During the time of a demographic dividend, it is important that the country grows rich before its population grows old enough to require very extensive resources devoted to care for the aged.  This supposes that the country in question is not already spending much on the care of the aged population.  Generous retirement benefits may prevent Brazil from successfully navigating the transitions.  Even as a young country, Brazil spends 13% of GDP on pensions. This is more than any developed older country except Italy, where the percentage of old people is three times higher than currently in Brazil.  Brazil lets more workers retire earlier, on relatively bigger pensions, than anywhere else in the world.  Workers need only contribute for 15 years to win the right to retire at full pension at age 65 for men and age 60 for women, while after 35 years paying into the pension system, a man of any age can retire; a woman must pay in for just 30 years to get the same benefit.  As a result, Brazilians retire early: 54 on average for a man in the private sector, and 52 for a woman. A tenth of all 45-year-olds are already receiving their pensions. Although many are still working at other jobs, they are also getting their government checks. All this means that Brazil has essentially taken an advance payment on its demographic dividend. This will create trouble even after recent pension system reforms, which affect only new hires.   There are 35 years of people already in the system. The political danger is that the large number of pensioners can organize to resist any reforms that cut their slice of the pie; they may even be able to demand more.  There are some indications that this is happening.

Less need for new hospitals and schools may increase quality

Because of the favorable demographic trends, Brazil no longer has to race as fast to build schools, hospitals, universities and other social institutions to keep pace with burgeoning population and, presumably, can devote those resources saved to increase the quality of these things.  In education, for example, stable or shrinking numbers of children can mean that resources are freed to be concentrated on fewer students to prepare them better for the jobs of the future.  Whether and how this will be done is currently being debated energetically among Brazilian opinion leaders and it will be a challenge to get resources allocated effectively.  Education advocates are less powerful than pension advocates.  This is clear in the spending priorities, if not always in rhetoric.  Adjusted for GDP, Brazil spends twice the OECD average on each pensioner, but only two-thirds as much on the education of each child.

Less crime because of smaller criminal cohorts

Crime is another area impacted by demographics.  Although the causes of criminal activity are also multifaceted, it certainly will not hurt that favela populations are no longer growing through natural increase. Crime is correlated with the number of young men in a population and in Brazil children in poorer areas are also significant contributors to crime rates.  As the numbers of potential new criminal “recruits” declines, crime rates may follow and in fact they have.  Brazil remains one of the most dangerous places on earth but the rates of violent crime have been declining over the past ten years, albeit coming down from very high levels. How much of this can be attribute to demographic factors as opposed to general improvements in prosperity or better policing cannot be known.  We can never accurately measure a counterfactual. But police officials we have spoken to around Brazil have noticed and mentioned the relatively smaller number of dangerous children and adolescents. Shrinking cohorts of new workers in a growing economy also means more opportunities spread among fewer people, making each worker relatively more valuable.
Labor force changes

Changes in demography obviously impact the size and composition of the labor force.  Brazilian political and business leaders clearly recognize that their country is suffering a deficit of educated and skilled labor necessary to run a successful modern economy.   This is less the result of the overall size of incoming generations than of the training and education they have received and has been a chronic problem for Brazil for centuries.  There are still plenty of young people to fill the available training and educational slots and an expansion of training and educational opportunity would do much to fill the skill gap. But the relatively smaller cohorts of the current generations are beginning to show up in the unskilled and semi-skilled labor forces where there it was never seen before. One of the mainstays of Brazilian “middle class” life has been cheap domestic help.  It was not only the very rich who had maids, gardeners and other sorts of helpers around the house.  People with incomes similar to those of an American family of around or just a little above our median income could afford household help.  The reason for this was abundant cheap labor resulting from a fairly deep chasm between what we would recognize as middle class and what we would see as real poverty and high fertility rates differentially high among the poorer segments of society fed the system.  Today, with fewer workers and more opportunities, the cost of domestic help has risen and the quality has declined. 

Demographic inertia will carry the population higher, but the drivers have slowed or stopped.  Within those smaller numbers, illiteracy has dropped, meaning that people can take advantages of more of the available opportunities.   Domestic help doesn’t really need to read.  Most other jobs do. Illiterate or semi-literate people are stuck in the jobs that are going nowhere but the kitchen or the garden. 

It is a sign of both a stronger labor economy and lower population growth that it is getting harder to get good domestic help.  The sudden shortage of live-in maids has created problems for some.  A world with full-time maids does not invest much in labor saving devices.  Most American homes have appliances such as dishwashers, microwave ovens and efficient washing machines and driers. Brazilian homes are not like this.  They didn’t need to be because of the help. Now there is a sudden boom in household appliances.  Dishwashers, driers, microwaves etc. are being advertised heavily and selling very well. 

Most Brazilians have become better off in the last twenty years.  Although the income distribution per se has not changed much (The most common measure of inequality is the Gini coefficient. A score of zero means perfect equality: everyone earns the same. A score of one means that one person gets everything. America’s Gini coefficient is 0.38.  In Brazil the coefficient fell from 0.59 to 0.55 over the last decade, but inequality remains high), the general increase in wealth has disproportionately helped the poorer Brazilians.  Relative wealth matters, but absolute wealth matters more when for those climbing out of poverty.  The poor person, who for the first time gets into the income bracket that allows him/her to afford a first car or a first refrigerator, feels a quantum leap in lifestyle.  Getting a better model refrigerator or car is not life changing or usually as satisfying.  The roughly sixty million Brazilians who have climbed out of poverty still recall life before these conveniences.  This is working well for now.

Regional changes

There are also generally better opportunities and people are better able to take advantage of them, as well as fewer people to do the work.  These three factors interplay.  A big source of labor in general had been the rural areas, especially in the chronically poor regions of the Northeast. Nordestinos, often living on marginally productive small farms, took buses to the cities in the richer South or Southeast whenever life became unbearable or a drought hit the region. Both these things happened with monotonous regularity, but the high birthrates ensured an unbroken supply of very poor people seeking a better return on their hard work.

The Northeast is still poor, but parts are developing rapidly, actually drawing in labor from other places.  Some of these are Nordestinos returning to their roots, but others are newcomers. At the same time, population growth is slowing even among the poorest Brazilians. The Northeast is no longer a net source of immigrants to other parts of the country.

One of the biggest changes in Brazil’s regions, however, has been the growth of the Central-West.

A related phenomenon is international immigration.  Brazil is already actively seeking educated and skilled workers for its new industries, since its school system is not producing them in sufficient numbers.  This is also starting to affect unskilled work. As Brazil’s economy grows and Brazilians no longer want to do the dirty jobs or are not present in great enough numbers, others are being drawn in to take them. 

A Great Diversity of People

Brazil’s population was shaped by immigration.  People from the Iberian Peninsula and enslaved Africans largely displaced and to some extent absorbed much of the indigenous population.  Places within around 100 miles of coast were and remain even today the most densely populated part of the country.  The ethnic and cultural composition of Brazil was transformed by massive immigration from Europe, the Middle East and Japan during the 19th and early 20th Century.  As a result, Brazil has a very diverse population, ethnically and racially.  In the most recent census, 91 million (47.7%) Brazilians self-identified themselves as white; 15 million (7.6%) called themselves black. Two million Brazilians said they were of Asian ancestry, and 817,000 identified themselves as indigenous.  The remaining 82 million (43.1%) identified themselves as some mixture of the above groups.  It is important to note that racial identification in Brazil is not clear cut.  The Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística (IBGE)--the entity responsible for the census-- received 134 different answers when they asked people what color they were.

Mixing and Tipping to the Central West

Brazil’s regions are still distinct, but are becoming less so as migration within Brazil has also been changing the face of Brazil in recent decades.  During most of the 20th century people moved from the poor regions of Northeast Brazil to the richer and more economically advanced regions of the Southeast in a migration analogous to the great migration of American blacks from the rural south the industrial north.  And like the case of the great migration in the U.S., it is now reversed with net migration to the newly developing regions of the Northeast. 

Shifts of population to the North or the Amazon region has been going on for a long time, mostly people following one sort of resource boom or another.  The pattern is illustrated in the Brazilian state of Acre.  It was settled disproportionately by people from the State of Ceará seeking to tap rubber.   At that time, the region belonged to Bolivia.  The Brazilians became so numerous that the Bolivian government felt threatened.  When it tried to establish its authority, the Brazilian population fought back.  Acre became part of Brazil.

Another strong stream of migration has been to the central-west.  This is partly the continuing effect of moving the capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília in 1960.  One of the goals of moving the capital was to draw people and economic activity into the Brazil’s interior and it worked.  But a greater draw has been the expansion of agricultural frontier into the savanna and the grasslands of the central west.  This large area remained largely empty for centuries because the soil and generally harsh conditions were unsuitable to large scale agriculture.  Advances in agricultural technologies and especially in genetic composition of crops and animals have completely changed the equation over the last decades. Opportunities created by these changes have drawn large numbers of famers from the South of Brazil and large numbers of farm laborers from the Northeast.

The Central-West is a true Brazilian melting pot, with immigrants from all over Brazil looking for opportunity.  A visitor to cities such as Campo Grande in Mato Grosso do Sul or Goiania in Goiás is struck by the newness of the cities, relatively good highway connections and their “sunbelt” feel.  They are a long ways away from Rio and São Paulo.

The relative shift to the interior has changed Brazilian society in many ways, some unexpected.  For example, Brazil is still known for samba and the music of carnival.  While this remains very important, a look at the top-ten Brazilian songs reveals that most are sertaneja, a kind of music that resembles American country music and originated in the country’s interior.

The Rise of the Middle Class

Millions of Brazilians have moved to something like a real middle class lifestyle in the last decade. Research shows around 30 million. There has been a great reduction of absolute misery. Many of these people are no longer poor, but that they are still not very secure. Most of the mobility has been from the very low to the not so low. We are not yet looking at a middle class society as we have in the U.S. or Western Europe, but in some ways this initial movement is more satisfying to the people involved.  In fact, as aspirations come to outrun results, richer people might feel that progress has been less advantageous.

Some progress came from better return/profitability of work, i.e. people were paid better. But a key factor was the economic reforms and currency stabilization gave people the ability to save. Stable currency gave security that allowed people to save and plan. The big inflation Brazil experienced before created a cash, fast-turnover society. Families couldn’t buy on credit, because nobody wanted to sell on credit without charging fantastically high risk premiums.  This has now changed.

The difference between types of consumption of the upper, middle and lower classes has diminished.  Much of this has to do with generalized technological and economic progress. The rich person might have better quality clothes, mobile phones or refrigerators, but now most people have those things. This was not true in the past. There is a kind of threshold.  There is a huge difference between those who have and those who don’t. After that threshold has been cross, the relative differences in quality matter much less.

Brazilian sociologists divide their society into classes A, B, C, D & E based on income. Classes AB make up around 10% of the population, make most of the big decisions and pay most of the taxes. When Brazilians in earlier times called themselves “middle class” they really meant the lower rungs of this AB group. The new middle class in actually the one in the middle, class C. Class C makes up around 50% of the Brazilian population and account for around 68% of the total jobs. 

The new middle class family has family incomes from around 1200 – 4800 Brazilian Real (about $650-2600).  This doesn’t sound like much money but it allows much greater consumptions.  The Commercial Federation of Sao Paulo estimates that from 2003-2010 the increase in consumption among classes CDE double that of AB.

Brazil has significant social mobility, but it remains a country of great inequality. Much of the mobility has been in the lower part of the pyramid. The problem has been what we would call human capital and it will probably get worse. People achieve mobility by hard work, cleverness and gumption, but such things will take most people only so far.  Someone can open and operate a small shop he/she has the above characteristics plus some common sense. But as the business grows, owners need things like accounting skills, for example. To make the jump to AB, poorer people need education and specific skills, increasingly technical skills.  The educational system and their life experience tend not to give them these skills.

Historical Parallels

The experience of history provides only limited guidance.  Many countries have passed though similar demographic transitions, but none so quickly until today.  Beyond that, Brazil is a country of continental dimension, which makes a difference.  The closest parallel is the U.S., which is big and diverse like Brazil and passed through a quick, although relatively less steep, transition after 1962, when the postwar baby boom abruptly ended.  Declines in fertility rates were masked and mitigated not only by demographic inertia but also by a surge in immigration, which began about the same time.  This could be the Brazilian scenario, but there are a couple of reasons why it might be different.

The first factor is lack of large and fast growing populations in potential donor countries on Brazil’s border. There is no equivalent of Mexico.  Second has to do more with Brazil’s internal dynamics.  Despite recent growth, Brazil’s economy is only around 1/7 the size of that of the U.S. Brazil will not be the immigration magnet that the U.S. was during the last fifty years.  Another factor is that while overall labor costs in Brazil are relatively high, the cash actually received by unskilled workers is not. Beyond that, Brazil has a much larger pool of underemployed or inefficiently employed labor.  The challenge for Brazil will not be the size of the labor force in general, but the size of the skilled and educated labor force specifically. This challenge is unlikely to be addressed by mass immigration of skilled workers but rather by upgrading the skills of the new generation of native Brazilians.  This does not invalidate the parallel with the U.S. but it may take it back to an earlier parallel, during the time of the Great Migration of the first half of the 20th Century when massive numbers of African American moved from the South to Northern cities.

While historical parallels are instructive, Brazil will develop in its own way.

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