Irish lessons on peace and reconciliation: relevant for America, too?

Irish lessons on peace

Tilework, St Columb's Cathedral, Londonderry-Derry

Tilework, St Columb’s Cathedral, Londonderry-Derry

I grew up with my mom’s stories and reflections on her Irish grandmom from County Down (actually near Purdys Burn just outside of Belfast). And, last year, my wife, youngest daughter and I made our first visit to Northern Ireland to check out the situation. We wound up at one point standing next to an old cannon looking out from the parapet above the formerly divided city of Derry-Londonderry. It somehow seemed symbolic. The city has worked hard to build peace after the decades of the Troubles between Catholics and Protestants. 

The Economist speaks

What is remarkable about an article this week in The Economist (In Ireland’s Jerusalem, 4 August 2017)? It focuses on hate and forgiveness in Londonderry-Derry. The Economist drops its charts and graphs to have us take a step back and figure out how to get along. Perhaps we should really stop and listen? Maybe there are some Irish lessons on peace that might work for Americans too? Perhaps we could also have a go at reconciliation across our increasingly fractured society?

Check out this great quote from the Economist. It says something about how we Americans might find a way to bridge the gap between us. Characterising the case made in the new book, Forgiveness Remembers (2017, published by Instant Apostle), the Economist says:

“[…] people whose lives have been blighted by injury or violence (whether politically inspired or not) should be alive to the gravity of what has happened, but nonetheless find ways to rise above feelings of vindictiveness. Sometimes, hatred needs to come to the surface before it can be overcome […]. Once you acknowledge that you hate somebody, you might over time be able to move on to a feeling of pity for whatever prompted that person to behave in such a terrible way, and eventually to compassion. But the process should not be rushed; forgiveness can take a long time.”

Food for thought

This is food for thought in the context of Brexit, which could possibly destabilise the Northern Irish peace. But, it may also be applicable for America as well, where the polarisation has become quite intense. There is a lot of anger just under the surface in the USA. And, I am thinking that it is worth a try to address the situation.

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My big fat Greek hospital adventure

A Greek hospital adventure was not on my original agenda

I am writing this on a flight back from Athens and a visit where I saw the roof of the interiour of a Greek ambulance. This is something that most people never see. And, other things being equal, it is probably not a priority sight that most folks would want to see or should see.

As I lay in the ambulance looking up, I noticed that two of the four a/c vents on the ceiling were taped shut with bandages. I considered my situation. How did I come to be strapped on a stretcher, stuck in Athens traffic on a beautiful spring day, headed to the hospital?

The bloody incident

I had stepped out of the shower that morning looking forward to a new day of work on international trade. Getting dressed, I pondered my remarks for a conference to be held that afternoon. And then I discovered that a varicose vein in my ankle had ruptured. I noticed it because the Hawaiian flip flop upon which I was standing had filled with a pool of blood. Since the blood was about the same temperature as the water from the shower, I did not notice it pooling until quite a volume had accumulated. This is not a problem that I am accustomed to dealing with.

It reminded me vaguely of an adventure from my time in Burkina Faso. On a visit to the capital, Ouagadougou, I once got caught in a coup d’etat. Troops were firing machine guns below my window. My morning in Athens felt similar in that I was in an unfamiliar setting facing an action-forcing event and poorly defined options.

Next steps? (literally)

Standing there in my Greek hotel room, I thought that I had better take stock of my situation. As a social scientist, I tried to work empirically and stopped to review the key elements of my situation. I thought:

  • I am in a hotel south of Athens
  • I don’t speak the language
  • I am bleeding out and must maintain compression on the wound
  • I cannot solve this without professional medical help
  • There is not really time for a Google search and research on options
  • And, this is the important, essential bit: don’t pass out until you “solve for x”, whereby x = survival strategy.
  • Conclusion: Get an ambulance via the front desk, and do it quickly

Although compression of the wound was helping, I found that it was not easily accomplished. It required maintaining a position somewhat akin to a pretzel. There was no way to fashion a tourniquet with one hand occupied. And, even then, how to get to the phone to call for help? I eased the pressure enough to hobble to the phone, but this led to Vesuvius-type action. The floor looked like a scene from a Quentin Tarantino film.

And so I called and asked the front desk to kindly order an ambulance for me. “Are you sure you can’t just take a taxi?” “No, I think it is pretty serious and urgent.” It was then that I decided to open my hotel room door, in case I passed out. I don’t do well with the sight of blood. And, I wanted the staff to have easy access to the room so they could save me. That accomplished, I headed for the bathroom, all the while trying to walk and hold my ankle simultaneously.

When the fellow from the front desk arrived, the room was looking like Pulp Fiction. He only stayed a moment, turned and fled saying to maintain pressure and he would pursue the ambulance with a follow up call. Later, I learned that he had gone back to the desk and nearly passed out. His colleagues raised his legs and gave him orange juice to revive him.

Seconds later a bellhop arrived in my room. I am pretty sure this was not in his job description, but he tried various proposals to improve the situation. “Lay down. Raise your leg. Maybe get up on the bed? Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter about the sheets.” But, I opted for the floor, as I felt I was doing enough damage already to the room. The floor was waterproof parquet and, fortunately, not carpet. The bellhop got me water. I needed to rehydrate.

He had a million questions. Eventually, he admitted that he was striving to keep me conscious. Bless him! As for me, I felt embarrassed to be caught at the centre of this fiasco. I know I looked sheepish when the first fellow had arrived and saw the mess.

Perhaps half an hour later, the ambulance crew arrived. And here is what they did. They pulled my hand away from the wound, looked briefly at it and took a thick pile of dense gauze and applied it on the wound. They then grabbed a long elastic bandage strip and wrapped it tightly around the ankle. This would surely keep me from leaking for the moment.

Trans-Athens express

I could hobble! And so we headed out to the other side of the city. As we rolled across town, I realised that this would be a long trip. Athens traffic is intense. I was parched and there was no water.

After reflecting on my plight, I opted to phone to cancel my noon meeting, notify my employer, inform the insurance, and call my wife. It took quite a while. I was reporting lots of information outbound, but not getting much information inbound. When I reported the name of the hospital to where I was headed, my insurer’s emergency service could not find it. The emergency service advised, “You are doing the right steps health-wise. But, you may need to pay with your credit card and then file a claim.” Fortunately, I had my situation under control. What would have happened if I passed out and had not made all of these calls?

Traffic was terrible. We made a stop unrelated to my case in order to pick up some medical materials for the hospital. With Athens traffic, I suppose you need to make use of each outing to optimise your accomplishments and minimise the number of trips.

My big Greek hospital visit

Finally, we arrived at the hospital. Located in a leafy suburb, it was a public facility, a complex with multiple buildings apparently including an orthodox chapel. I considered a stop in the chapel as I hobbled to the ER with the help of the ambulance crew. They got me a wheelchair. The halls were lined with dozens and dozens of waiting patients. Occasionally a door would open, but not much visible action in the line. The crew notified the doctors and wished me well, and fled. There was no reception, no one spoke English, and the system was not obvious to me. Uh oh.

I was discouraged. The facility looked terrible, outdated. I was in gym shorts and a bloody t-shirt. And, I was feeling faint. I went to use the rest room: a single room, with no paper, no lock, no seat. I washed off some of the blood in the sink. Then I went and found a drink stand to get an ice coffee with sugar and milk to help rebuild my blood stock. By the time I hobbled back, the doctors were waiting for me, less than 30 minutes after my arrival. This was a good sign.

Uncertain activity

The ER office had two small rooms and perhaps 8 staff. Some were drinking coffee and some hanging out with cellphones. People were nice to me. “What is this? You are using coffee to rehydrate?” said a doctor. He seemed bemused.

The staff were all young, or maybe I was just feeling old. Two spoke English. They chatted amongst themselves as I lay down on the table. They confirmed my name and town of residence. London = good. It is (for the moment) still in the European network.

Nothing happened for a while and I got comfortable. The folks sitting around seemed engaged in chit chat. Nothing much seemed to be happening.

Then, I noticed a doctor opening a sealed pack of sterile instruments. He and a male nurse unwrapped my ankle, washed it with a sterile solution, and announced I would “feel a pinch”. It was a sudden and surprising wave of activity. I decided to relax and let them do their work, rather than challenging them with questions across the language barrier.

Their actions felt like a slice or two, then stitching in big, bold strokes. I couldn’t see much, but closed my eyes anyway. Blood flowed, then stopped. Now, it was my turn to try not to faint. This was intense, much more than “a pinch”. I felt dizzy. After a few moments, they told me they had stitched it up. Then they saw my pale face and said not to move until I felt confident I could make it out to a taxi.

Amazingly, as I am a resident of London, they took everything in charge. Having taken my name, they made a record of the visit. But, there was no paperwork for me to fill in. This was a public hospital. And apparently, as I am European resident, they provided all their service to me on a gratis basis.

As requested by my insurer, the doctors even gave me a “fit-to-fly” certificate. It was conditional on wearing pressure socks. And, they said to have the stitches removed in five days. Then they sent me on my way to the taxi stand outside.

Mad Doug, a Londoner, in the noonday sun

I wandered out into the mid-day sun feeling well patched up, but also a bit dazed. What just happened and how did I get in this situation? I found a taxi. As we cruised past the Parthenon, I tried to take stock.

Absolutely everyone throughout the morning was kind and empathetic. From the hotel to the hospital and back. I am indeed very grateful for their service and kindness, especially at the hospital facility which appeared under-resourced and overtaxed by patient demands.

Upon arriving at the hotel, the staff appeared visibly relieved to see me back from the dead. They noticed that I was still a bit disoriented as I headed off into the wrong room. But, they made sure I was looked after and sent me off in the right direction. A bar man brought me an extra-large orange juice, which he commended for its properties in compensating for blood loss. It worked.

Over a nice bottle of Assyrtiko wine and dinner that night on the Aegean Sea with a friend, I pondered my fate. Feeling gratitude to my host country, I raised a glass and thanked them for the successful outcome of my big fat Greek hospital adventure.

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

Sunset in Vouliagmeni, Greece

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A gorgeous day for a flight from Tel Aviv to London

Flight from Tel Aviv to London

Last Friday proved to be a gorgeous day for a flight from Tel Aviv to London. Blue skies and sunshine blanketed the route for much of the way.

The gallery below presents a few pictures looking down from on high. So much to see, including some wonderful wine country and wilderness and history.

The Alps were in their full glory, with abundant snow and ice. From above, the challenges posed by the landscape become evident. Transit from one valley to the next is not a straightforward matter.

Looking out to Switzerland from Stelvio Park, Italy

Flight from Tel Aviv to London: Looking out to Switzerland from Stelvio Park, Italy

Nonetheless, the flight left me hankering for a free season to head out with my backpack and an open agenda. Back in my university days, I enjoyed a couple of seasons of such travel in Europe. And, I am thinking that the need for such a trip and time of renewal is approaching once again.


To view the gallery, click on the up or down arrows under it to scroll through the thumbnails and picture titles. Or, click on a thumbnail to open a picture and then scroll through the pictures individually without the titles.

Flying from Tel Aviv to London - May 2017

Leaving Israel
Leaving Israel
Citrus groves outside of Tel Aviv
Citrus groves outside of Tel Aviv
Looking south to Ashdod
Looking south to Ashdod
Venice from the air
Venice from the air
Sudtirol, Neumarkt, Italy
Sudtirol, Neumarkt, Italy
Weinstrasse, Sudtirol, Italy
Weinstrasse, Sudtirol, Italy
Graubünden, Switzerland
Graubünden, Switzerland
St. Gallen, Switzerland
St. Gallen, Switzerland
Glarus, Switzerland & a corner of Leichtenstein
Glarus, Switzerland & a corner of Leichtenstein
Zürich, Switzerland
Zürich, Switzerland
Montange de Reims, Champagne, France
Montange de Reims, Champagne, France
Baie de la Somme, France
Baie de la Somme, France
English coast by Eastbourne
English coast by Eastbourne
Crazyquilt of the Sussex countryside
Crazyquilt of the Sussex countryside
Dorney Lake Rowing Club
Dorney Lake Rowing Club
Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

Map of the flight plan

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Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square

Facing political & economic turbulence, it can be useful to stop and smell the tulips

Fuelled by various political developments, the past few months have been a turbulent time in the global economy. Q4TK suffered a bit of neglect and indeed a bit of uncertainty as your correspondent sought to make sense of the situation. Reason, facts, and the normal analytical tools employed by the economics profession are being challenged. We economists are struggling to face up to the new populism evident in various parts of the globe. At the same time, most of us do recognise that some folks have legitimate grievances that need to be addressed.

Wanderings around London

And, so, today, I’m bringing you a few photos from my Wanderings around London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square. On Saturday, I decided to set aside my charts and tables. I simply walked out into the unfamiliar London spring warmth and sunshine. London was radiant as my spouse and I headed into the great metropolis. The parks and gardens bloomed in full glory. The area around Embankment was filled with folks spilling out to take a look around and soak it all in.

There were drum circles protesting tow path closures. Folks from a brewery gave out free beer samples. Small clumps of people sat on blankets enjoying picnics and glasses of wine. Tourists visited the key sights. Locals stopped to admire the flowers. Your correspondent used the occasion to stop and ponder whatever caught his fancy, except work. The tulips were in full bloom. But, I resisted the impulse to ponder the Dutch tulip mania, a time of price inflation and collapse in the 1600s. Rather, I stopped and enjoyed their fragrance.

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens

A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens, seen on our wanderings around London

Still, economics can be hard to escape. For example, in the gardens at Embankment there is a fountain dedicated to Henry Fawcett. Henry was a blind economist who campaigned in the mid-19th century on behalf of women’s right to vote. The fountain says it was erected by his fellow countrywomen in his memory. During the struggle, he was moved to propose to a woman who he had met in the campaigns. But, after her polite negative response (she was pursuing her medical studies), he eventually married her sister.

Renewal accomplished

After a great lunch at Barrafina in Adelaide Street (very much a place in pursuit of no-frills excellence and highly recommended), the wandering led us to the National Gallery. This museum is architecturally gorgeous and the collection is world class.

As the day drifted into evening, it was time to head home. Every once in a while, a day like this is required. It has a spiritual value, refreshes the mind, and helps to restore the inner strength needed in the quest for truth and knowledge.

Note: The gallery below is annotated. Click on the up or down arrows under the thumbnail display in order to see the notes and see additional pictures.

London 8 April 2017 - from National Gallery to Embankment

A few photos from our Saturday wanderings around central London from Embankment to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery and back

National Gallery, Peekachu people and a pigeon
National Gallery, Peekachu people and a pigeon
National Gallery entrance
National Gallery entrance
Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, 1762
Whistlejacket by George Stubbs, 1762
National Gallery marble floor
National Gallery marble floor
National Gallery - Wonderful floor grates
National Gallery - Wonderful floor grates
Cellphone art?
Cellphone art?
Trafalgar Square looking towards Westminster
Trafalgar Square looking towards Westminster
A crowd of buses heads down Whitehall to Big Ben
A crowd of buses heads down Whitehall to Big Ben
Cleary Gardens London - Loire Valley Grape Vines
Cleary Gardens London - Loire Valley Grape Vines
A half pint of Badger Bitter at the Ship and Shovell
A half pint of Badger Bitter at the Ship and Shovell
A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens
A river of tulips in Embankment Gardens
Embankment gardens wildlife?
Embankment gardens wildlife?
Robert Raikes - Founder of Sunday Schools
Robert Raikes - Founder of Sunday Schools
Henry Fawcett - A blind economist campaigned for women's suffrage in 1800s
Henry Fawcett - A blind economist campaigned for women's suffrage in 1800s
A cow in the garden of Two Temple Place
A cow in the garden of Two Temple Place
Amb Benjamin Franklin lived here
Amb Benjamin Franklin lived here
A really big crane
A really big crane
Looking out from the roof of my bathroom - Greenwich
Looking out from the roof of my bathroom - Greenwich


In politics, lies matter. That’s a fact. And we all may pay the price.

Are lies a political reality?

In a sign of the times, on 10 September 2016, the Economist published a lead article entitled the “Art of the lie“. Taking stock of the level of political discourse in the United States’ presidential election season and the United Kingdom’s Brexit debates, the Economist sums up the situation as a time of “post-truth politics”. In this era, the emphasis is on feelings and reinforcement of prejudices rather than facts. Assertions of what one feels should be true replace reality. Lies have become a more important feature of the political scene.

This distortion of reality is not a trivial matter, especially when it is manifest in leaders of nations. Incorrect information is a threat to the quest for truth and knowledge. But, the damage does not stop with impairment to one’s understanding of reality.

Promises, promises

A review of the academic literature on campaign promises posted on the web site FiveThirtyEight found that in fact politicians do behave in a consequent manner. In a majority of instances, once elected they do strive to attain their promised objectives. Politicians in the United States act to deliver on about two-thirds of their promises. In the United Kingdom, governments control both the legislative and executive branches (ie, a parliamentary system). There, the rate of follow through is more than 80%. Similar patterns were found in countries as diverse as Canada, Greece or the Netherlands.

False perceptions of reality can have tangible impacts in the direction of government. This poses risks to the economy, education, health, security and the other domains covered in  public policy. Whether in democracies or authoritarian governments, it is not in the public interest for governments to set off in a wrong-headed direction. Real damage is done.

Bad choices

A recent essay by the Harvard economist Ricardo Hausmann, Through the Venezuelan Looking Glass, assesses why it is that nations engage in such self-defeating behaviour. In a nutshell, he points to dysfunctional belief systems.

Justice, at the entrance to the World Trade Organization in Geneva

Justice, by Luc Jaggi, 1925


Significant portions of a society may align on sets of beliefs that are not in line with reality. They do not reflect the facts. Damaging political decisions may follow. Hausmann cites the example of the Salem witch trials (1692-1693). He notes that if one believes in the Devil and thinks that Satan can take over women’s souls, then it may be reasonable public policy to hang those accused of witchcraft. On the other hand, in reality, such policy is incomprehensible to most folks.

Just the facts

As Hausmann puts it, “Politics is about the representation and evolution of alternative belief systems.” In setting the priorities for a society, there are a range of reasonable competing possibilities. There is ample room for debate on different options and approaches to improving our welfare. While science has a clear role to play, there is also a subjective element and preferences may vary among people. But, if the starting point is not even based in reality, then it becomes more difficult to make a viable choice and achieve tangible progress. Indeed, it can all end quite badly. One need look no further than the witches of Salem.

Listening to a poet

“There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”

Excerpt from the poem, “Blossoms”, by Li-Young Lee
from the collection entitled Rose, BOA editions, 1986.

It seems to me that I make far too little time for poetry. Sometimes, I am reminded that I regret this. On those occasions, I seek out an opportunity to pause and make space for listening to a poet. Bill Moyers, for example, reminded me of this with his reporting on the Dodge Poetry Festival in 2009. Often, when poetry connects for me, it is about experiencing a moment: something I know or something I am seeking or something new to me.

Last month, a family member’s medical condition led me to drop everything and head back to the United States for a short visit to North Carolina. This is a state that I know from experience. I have been coming to North Carolina periodically to visit family since 1979. There are many things I’ve come to love about this state. Beaches, wonderful diversity in food and restaurants, kayaking (of the tame variety, on the Neuse River or at the coast), family and friends, book and music stores, bagels, splendid rural settings, folk arts and music (often with poetic lyrics), fine museums, and a tradition of investment in higher education, among others. Although it is a state of contrasts and stresses, sometimes disturbing, I still find joy there in many familiar things and many new experiences.

On my way to the hospital, I tuned into WUNC’s program on the “State of Things”, which features interviews on local developments. First up was an interview with UNC economist Stephen Lich-Tyler whose father had been murdered. The discussion focused on capital punishment and Lich-Tyler’s scheduled participation as a witness at the execution of his father’s murderer. The discussion was thoughtful and moving. Among other things, I was struck by Lich-Tyler’s language, which seemed clear and communicative to me. (Being an economist myself, I suppose this may be due to our shared academic experience, something like a shared tribal affiliation, perhaps?)

Next up was an interview with the poet Li-Young Lee who had served as a judge in a NC poetry contest and was returning for the awarding of the prizes, where he would give a reading of his own material. His experience is incredibly wide-ranging and rich. Lee’s great-grandfather was an elected president of China. His dad was a personal physician to Mao. After a falling out with Mao, his family fled to Indonesia, where Lee was born. There, his dad helped found a university. During Sukarno’s rule there were ethnic conflicts in Indonesia and his father was persecuted and jailed. Eventually, the family fled to the USA. And, this was just the starting point for Lee’s education and emergence as an award-winning poet in the English language. His poetry relates his experience with careful observation, reflection and clarity.

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

Li-Young Lee at NC State, April 2014

In his interview, Lee was asked about his own story, but instead he first referred back to the previous interview with Lich-Tyler. Lee was moved by Lich-Tyler’s story and the experience of suffering. Here he shared an insight that struck home with me: he thinks that art may help. He characterised art as permitting communication about suffering via symbols that transcend language and culture. This communication may take place via various artistic channels, such as stories, poetry, paint or sculpture. This really spoke to me in the context of my visit. Lee continued this line of thought referring to martial arts in Asia as well as art more generally. He portrayed the creation of art as working through issues, leading to clarity in perception of the true nature of objects. “Disillusionment” he called it, as in removing the illusion, getting to the essence of something, achieving a clear perception of a reality. Via clarity, one may be more confident and avoid conflict without a fight, perhaps even finding a win-win scenario in peace.

I was surprised to Iearn that Lee was giving a reading at NC State that very evening. I quickly rearranged my plans and made space in my life to listen to this poet. I arrived early and was glad I did. Lee spoke to a full house. During his talk he read four poems. He spoke about his wife falling asleep in his arms, lulled by his reflections on life. In turn, he reported on his wife’s reflections during an intimate moment. He noted a blurring of divinity and erotic art in his poetry. I was enamoured with a number of his poems touching on food, fruit, blossoms and associated experience. His reading was delivered with a good sense of humour, but also depth and insight.

While taking a few questions he pointed out that his poems are never finished, but he goes back to revisit and rewrite them. Does he ever face writer’s block? Indeed! The problem is that poetry potential is all around. What not to write is the hardest decision; in writing the first word on paper, the writer takes a very hard step, committing to a certain direction.

For me the experience delivered lots of food for thought. It also confirmed that despite the political stress in NC these days, there is still a rich intellectual current in North Carolina that engages all sorts of folks. The poetry prize winners ranged from students to retirees. It amazed me that I could drop in from another continent one day and land at such a poetry reading the next. This positive and encouraging experience left me hungry, so I adjourned to another experience that I don’t often get in France: a big Mexican dinner of fish tacos and all the complements. Looking out across a big margarita on the rocks, I resolved to make more space in my life for listening to poets.

The Amazing (Generally) French Highway System

The French Highway System: A Road to Somewhere

Occasionally, the French find interesting market-oriented ways to deal with strategic challenges. Sometimes they arrive at a capitalist destination in a manner that was not necessarily part of the original plan. A fine example of this is the amazing (generally) French highway system.

Capitalist tendencies

The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre
The Normandie Bridge over the Seine near Le Havre (Credit: Pecold /

The autoroute system was established under the direction of the state, which granted concessions to state firms to build specific sections. These firms were largely privatised in recent decades, in some cases with substantial portions of the shares winding up in the hands of institutional investors, employees and small investors. Nowadays, these privatised firms and some emerging competitors from the private sector operate most of the long-haul sections of the system as toll roads. The tolls are generally based on distance travelled and the rates are fairly high compared to what toll roads charge in some countries such as the United States. Only in urban areas and Brittany, do the main highways generally remain in state hands with mostly toll-free operation.

My way is the highway

The amazing thing is that the intercity portion of the system works very well. Despite the heavy presence of the state in the French economy, somehow the government hit upon the right idea of exploiting a market-based solution to further the development and operation of the highway system.

Across most of the intercity network, the roadbed is generally well maintained with wide shoulders. With a legal speed limit of 130 km per hour (80 mph) outside of built-up areas, it is easy to cover distance quickly. Capacity is generally adequate except during peak travel seasons (though, admittedly, traffic can be periodically heavy at other times as well).

Rest stop on way to Nantes

Rest stop on way to Nantes – Accommodations in a non-commercial rest area

There are rest areas every 15 kilometers (10 miles) or so. Many of the rest areas are quiet, non-commercial parks with restrooms, telephones, picnic tables, playgrounds and space to walk dogs. The accommodations in the non-commercial rest areas are basic with unheated restrooms and no hot water. Others areas, at less frequent intervals, are more standard car and truck stops with gas stations and restaurants, heat and hot water.

Yay, infrastructure!

The investment in infrastructure is quite impressive, often implemented with architectural flair. A fine example is the Normandy Bridge across the Seine near La Havre. The various installations are often accented with splashes of color. In some places, there are engineering marvels like the new tunnel in the outer beltway around Paris. With little disruption on the surface, the tunnel cuts under a dense urban area as well as parkland. Built by the construction firm and highway operator Vinci as a toll road, the tunnel uses a duplex approach with North- and Southbound lanes stacked on top of each other in a large tube. The result of such investment is reduced travel time and improved quality of life, all while making a contribution to stimulate the economy.

Beautifully bucolic

View from the wetlands of a rest stop in Picardie

A view of lush farmland, looking across a wetland built into the landscaping of a highway rest area in Picardie

The highways offer an excellent option for exploring the gorgeous French countryside. But, even along the roadway the landscaping is attractive with occasional sculptures and special plantings, and no billboards. As in most countries, the French urban road network may be stressful and challenging to drivers, but out here in the countryside it often feels like one is driving through a postcard setting. Indeed, when travelling across France it pays to budget a bit of extra time for a foray or two off the main road. A surprising number of temptations are situated along the highways, ranging from vineyards to splendid natural sites, from historic monuments to gastronomic wonders.

Conclusion: Time for a Road Trip?

The French highway system is a confirmation that public-private collaboration can indeed make a positive contribution to quality of life. While a country road, less-travelled, can offer many charms and attractions in France, the highway travel to the start of the country road may also be a worthwhile part of the experience (particularly if you plan ahead to avoid peak travel seasons and heavily-utilised routes). Could it be time to hit the road?


Mission to Planet DC

Planet DC

National Zoo Sign

Washington: A National Zoo?

There is something other-worldly about Washington. Power, wealth, poverty, urgency and complacency are in the air. It is disorienting, amazing, distressing. I got a chance to experience this world up close in July thanks to a month-long mission to Planet DC.

Although I travel there often, this was my first extended visit to the city in a couple of decades: a chance to settle in, observe and swim in the sea of local life. It left me in a funk that has continued after my return to Paris. I am still trying to process all that I saw and experienced.

My mission

During July, I had the opportunity to pursue my economic research agenda in Washington, DC, operating as a visiting scholar based at a Federal government agency. I was struck by the dedication and competence of my colleagues there as they pursued their duties.

They believe in their mission and are seeking to improve policies and government operations. In the same spirit, they generously took time to provide me with constructive input and suggestions for advancing my policy research.

Time and again their positive energy amazed me. Theirs is not always an easy lot. Federal employees encounter many daily challenges including consequences of budget cuts, periodically hostile press and politicians, arbitrarily compromised objectives, and stakeholder conflicts, among others issues.

My agenda involved a series of interviews with experts (government, private sector and academic), collection of data, and research to track down various reference materials. I had the opportunity to travel far and wide across the city and to meet folks from various walks of life. To say the least, the city exhibits quite some cultural and economic diversity.

Quest for excellence

As a young Peace Corps volunteer in Burkina Faso (West Africa) broiling under the intense mid-day sun of the hot season, I discovered the joys of pulling up a chair in a shady spot outside of our mud hut and reading. Not much else was going to happen until things cooled off. It was during such a season back in 1983 that I found the time to read Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I had never read anything like it. The book describes a motorcycle trip across the United States and an inquiry about values. A central theme for me concerned the importance of the quest for excellence, a message that has stuck with me since.

As the political capital of the largest national economy in the world, Washington is certainly in the position to cultivate excellence. There are some impressive manifestations of this. To cite a couple of examples from my recent mission:

  • Library of Congress – During the course of my research I had the opportunity to visit the Library of Congress, which is certainly a fine historical example. The Thomas Jefferson Building (1897) is a world-class architectural gem. I witnessed people from around the world gawking at the grandeur of reading room. Moreover, the collection itself is also extremely impressive. I took advantage of this to track down references that I’d been unable to obtain in Europe.
  • US Botanic Garden – A more recent example of such excellence is the renovation of the US Botanic Garden, which included establishment of the adjacent national garden. The US Botanic Garden, originally established in 1820, is just up Independence Avenue from the Capital Building and Library of Congress. The renovation of the greenhouse, a Bartholdi fountain (Bartholdi also sculpted the Statue of Liberty), and gardens greatly moved me. Completed in the past decade, this effort resulted in a facility that provides for education, art, entertainment and, in my view, spiritual renewal. It is a place of beauty and yet somehow the renewal was accomplished in a time of tight budgets and partisan in-fighting.

Of course there are many, many more examples across the city. Such examples demonstrate that there can be a positive role for government in contributing to our advancement directly or in partnership with the private sector and non-governmental organisations.

But, on the other hand…

Despite encounters with excellence as I wandered through the world of Washington, there were nonetheless some concerns nagging at me everywhere in the background. These concerns started with the impression that part of the infrastructure is in poor condition. They grew as various contacts and news items pointed to social challenges, civil rights issues, undue impediments to legitimate businesses, environmental degradation and other pressing issues. Some are local, while others are a reflection of national malaise. Although Washington came through the Great Recession with less damage than some other parts of the US, it is not fully insulated and the challenges are visible.

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

Storm Clouds over the Old Executive Office Building

My concerns deepened after an admonition from my host to be careful during my commutes into town. He had been stabbed in a mugging a while ago and held up at gunpoint another time. As an economist I am concerned with such problems and their many social and economic roots, but I am not used to facing them as a personal threat on a daily basis.

Then, there was the metro. I recalled the system with an initial sense of pride, thinking back to my days in DC during the 1980s. Nowadays, however, it is only just getting a much needed makeover after years of relative neglect. In July, during a brutal 10 day heat spell, I discovered that the system operators were no longer maintaining the air conditioning on the cars where it had broken down. Commuters were faced with the choice of running from car to car in search of A/C or potentially having to tough it out in a crowded, non-air conditioned carriage.

Next came political issues. A few weeks after my arrival, Bill Moyer’s had an interesting show on Washington, DC, based on a very troubling interview with Mark Leibovich. Leibovich recently authored “This Town“, a book about the workings of the place. He highlights the problem of the rotating door in DC between policy making and lobbying, political fund-raising and interest peddling. He highlights what is essentially a disconnect between the objectives of many of the powers-that-be and the national interest. The insiders with ties to either of the main political parties have access to potentially large incomes if they work on behalf of various vested interest groups. Thus, there are disincentives to tackle issues head-on. Unfortunately, in the interview Leibovich does not offer much in the way of solutions.

Partly as a consequence of the insiders game, progress to obvious problems comes slowly. Outside of the political realm, I have the impression that many average folks are hunkered down living busy lives and, in many cases, dealing with some financial stress. Several news items came up during my stay that underscored the problem. One item showed labor income declining as a share of national output while inequality increased:   see this article from the Federal Reserve Bank in Cleveland. After progressing somewhat in the 1990s, median household has been falling significantly. Another item came from a study by the Economic Policy Institute, showing US workers putting in more hours in a effort to maintain incomes. Then, more recently, Robert Putnam presented an op ed on Crumbling American Dreams using his home town as an illustration.

There were other national news items that added to the gloom:

  • US Health – Recently, a spreadsheet from the Organsation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) caught my eye: OECD Health Data. New data on health developments in 34 wealthy countries of the world were just released. The United States was at the top of the list for healthcare expenditure, spending some 17.7% of GDP in 2011 (GDP is an indicator of our economic output). This was nearly twice the health expenditure in OECD countries on average: 9.3% of GDP. Moreover, US healthcare expenditure is far ahead of the other countries: second place goes to Netherlands, but even they spent just 11.9% of GDP.
    What do we get for our large expenditure? In 2011, American women on average at birth have a life expectancy of 81.1 years, whereas in the average OECD country, women can expect 82.8 years. For American men, the figure was 76.3 years, whereas the average OECD country offered its men the prospect of a life expectancy of 77.3 years. In Netherlands, women and men at least have something to show for their above-average health expenditure. That is, they have above-average life expectancy: 83.1 years for women and 79.4 for men. In the US, we are paying nearly twice as much as the OECD average and our lives on average are shorter by a year or more.
  • Climate change – Then, there were several items on climate change developments. One that really came as a wake up call was authored by James Hansen et al (2013) on Climate Sensitivity, Sea Level and CO2. The authors provide compelling evidence that the damage from the C02 already pumped into the atmosphere is not yet fully manifest due to lagging responses from some natural systems, and that if we continue we can expect significant impacts in terms of sea level rise and disequilibrium in key natural systems. According to these authors, if we persist in use of all available fossil fuels, we can expect this: “Burning all fossil fuels, we conclude, would make much of the planet uninhabitable by humans, thus calling into question strategies that emphasize adaptation to climate change.”
  • Voting Rights – There were other news items from several states on voter disenfranchisement in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s invalidation of a key portion of the Voting Rights Act. Taking North Carolina as an example, the Huffington Post reported on proposed changes that eliminated college students’ ability to use their state-issued student IDs for voting purposes, reduced early voting by a week, eliminated same-day registration, ended pre-registration for 16- and 17-year-olds and a student civics program, killed an annual state-sponsored voter registration drive and lessened the amount of public reporting required for so-called dark money groups, also known as 501(c)(4)s.
  • Impediments to business – It is not all a bed of roses for business either. There are bureaucratic and regulatory barriers and other challenges related to government dysfunction. One example can be found in the World Bank’s Doing Business Indicators.  The “paying tax” indicator shows that the administrative burdens in the United States are far in excess of other leading countries (and, it is not just the tax rates, but also the hours it takes to comply administratively with the requirements). According to this tax burden indicator, the United States ranks 69th among the world economies, just below Madagascar and just ahead of Mongolia. Hardly a leadership position!

These matters are serious and getting clear information about each issue is not always easy. One cannot rely on the evening news for balanced reporting and it takes a bit of digging to identify a reliable source of factual information. Still, the cumulative effect of this news flow is daunting. I can certainly appreciate the urge to keep one’s head down and to press on with more immediate daily challenges. Unfortunately, a failure to respond to some of these issues will entail heavier costs if one waits to address them later.

Next steps?

This is not to say that I am pessimistic. I was encouraged to find people inside and outside of government working to assess problems empirically and seeking a factual basis for discussing policy options and responses. In addition, there is an emerging debate in the United States that recognises the limits of empirical assessment and the need to have an open debate about the subjective aspects of some policy questions such as dealing with inequality. For example, see this paper on income inequality by G. Mankiw, a former Bush administration official. I don’t agree with all of his suppositions or conclusions, but it is a useful starting point recognising the role of preferences. It has unleashed a helpful debate.

I think we also need to be open to consideration of the role of government as part of the solution. This was underscored to me upon my return to France. I spent my Saturday here running errands on foot, using public transportation and walking to shops past some wonderful public spaces: a forest park, a new fountain, newly repaved roads, and a public-private redevelopment zone downtown. France has many economic problems of its own. For example, the state is large and weighs heavily on entrepreneurship. But, the French example does underscore the benefits of having some public investment in areas where there is a need for a coherent system-wide plan or where there is a market failure. We should not rule this out now in the United States. There are positive examples in the US as well: for example, the initial development steps for the Internet. Government has contributed on occasion to attainment of excellence!

Reviewing the list of issues discussed above, I certainly seems that there is need for action. In the United States, we need to break out of our complacency. We need to challenge the system to do better and to be more responsive to unmet needs. We should not accept business as usual in “This Town”. And, once we have decided that there is a role for government in provision of a given service, then we should insist on government’s quest for excellence in the matter. Why should we the citizens and taxpayers accept anything less?



Sketching Viroflay

Springtime in Viroflay

The transition to Springtime continues to lag here in the Parisian suburbs. Today was cool and a little breezy, with poofy clouds alternating with sunshine. It seemed a perfect time to go out walking, so I loaded my iPad into a day pack and headed out to see what I might find worth sketching in Viroflay.

Hippolyte Maze

Viroflay City Hall ParkThe first thing that caught my eye was the garden behind Viroflay city hall. It was peaceful and the statue of Hippolyte Maze seemed radiant in the afternoon sun. Hippolyte was at various times an academic historian, an elected representative in national government and a regional administrator (préfet). He also dabbled in economics. Among other achievements, he wrote a book entitled the Republic of the United States of America (1869). In addition to some facts about Hippolyte, his monument has three words inscribed on the side: science, humanity, homeland. I’m not sure why these three words were selected, but I read somewhere that Louis Pasteur (i.e., the guy who invented pasteurization, who also lived in the 1800s) once said that “the homeland of science encompasses all of humanity.” Coincidence? Perhaps. But, I’m not so sure.

Saint Eustache

Viroflay Church - Original City HallNext stop came in the center of town. There sits the small church dedicated to Saint Eustache. Dating back to the 12th century, the structure is in good shape, having benefited from a couple of restorations over the centuries. Across the street is a small two-story building that became city hall and the first public school in Viroflay after the French revolution (in 1794, actually). Some other buildings from that period and some of the cobblestone pavement also survive. There is a former water trough for horses and the town has planted a few flower beds. In the sunshine this afternoon, it was a perfect spot to sit and sketch and soak in the historic ambiance.

House of cards?

Viroflay - House of CardsBy now it was getting to be late afternoon and I was about to head home, when I noticed an interesting half-timbered home up a little cobblestone dead-end lane. The home is now rather old and weathered, and the shutters are closed tight. But, what caught my eye was that someone long ago had marked the facade of the home with the symbols for the four suits of cards. It turns out that the four suits (hearts, clubs, spades and diamonds) were first used in French card decks in Rouen and Lyon in the 15th century and later were taken up by the English-speaking world. I am not sure what the connection is to this old home, but it lives on in the facade.

Our house

With that, the time had come to get back home. Our old stone house was built just outside the Viroflay city limits in the late 1800s, around the same time that Hippolyte Maze passed away (he died in 1891). As I headed around to our side yard to do a bit of weeding in the garden before sunset, I was struck by the important role that the various historical sites play in this community. They provide a sort of bridge across the centuries, offering glimpses into the rich history and a measure of continuity across time in this place.

[If you have trouble viewing the images in this blog post, please click this link for a better view: .]

(Doug, ©2013)



RIP: Albert Hirschman Exits

Exit, Voice and Loyalty

Some 20 years ago I was working with a Russian colleague to assess labor market developments in Russian enterprises during the economic transition. As these firms struggled in the face of a transition to a market economy, I was struggling to get a handle on the behavior of their management, workers and consumers. Then, my co-author pointed me to Exit, Voice and Loyalty, a little book by the economist Albert Hirschman.

Published back in 1970, Hirschman’s book offered a succinct and nuanced view of human interaction in economics and politics. Economics, in particular, had tended to oversimplify decision-making, emphasizing the role of price in driving choices of consumers, managers, suppliers and others. The decision to buy or sell was mainly seen as being driven by price. But, Hirschman took note of other factors that may on occasion cause some stickiness in the way the market functions.

Consumers, for example, may demonstrate loyalty in the face of declining quality in a product and, instead of switching, may agitate for management to fix the problems. Workers in a failing firm may speak up for reforms instead of simply quitting. Members of political parties may lobby for change within, rather than changing their allegiance to a rival party. On the other hand, in other cases, these folks might simply break the existing relationship and move on. Using engaging illustrations and clear explanations, Hirschman noted conditions that may shape the paths that such decision-making might take.

Hirschman’s optimism and clear writing style made Exit, Voice and Loyalty a pleasure to read. Discovering the analytical framework laid out in the book was a real eye-opener for me. It helped me to tackle the confusing situation in the Russian enterprises that we were studying. Here is one illustration: Back in the mid-1990s, why would so many Russian workers stay on with their employers, despite being unpaid for months? Answer: They still reaped some social and economic benefits from their affiliation, like housing or healthcare. Outside of the firms, conditions could be even worse for these individuals.

Hirschman’s analytical framework also had many other applications for me. Suddenly, I found a new means to assess, for example, my own difficult employment situation at the time or to ponder the political developments in my country. From time to time I still make reference to this book, which is now more than 40 years old.

Thus, it was with some sorrow that I learned last December that Albert Hirschman had passed away. Aged 97, he had lived a long and fruitful life. Hirschman made other contributions to economics, in particular with respect to challenges of economic development in Latin America. But, it was only upon reading his obituary that I learned of his other impressive  accomplishments.

And here is the amazing part

According to the New York Times obit, Albert Hirschman was born in Berlin in 1915 and by the 1930s had advanced in his study of economics. However, he also made time to join in the Spanish civil war on the side of the anti-fascists. He later joined the French Army to resist the Nazis. After France fell, he worked as part of a team helping people escape via routes over the Pyrenees. He then made his way to the United States and joined the Office of Strategic Services to assist the US army in North Africa and Italy, as well as to serve during an early war crimes trial. And that was all before he moved to Bogota, Colombia, as an economic adviser for a few years and then launched a 30 year academic career at Yale, Colombia and Harvard.

Wow! A full life indeed! Thank you, Albert Hirschman. May you rest in peace.