Reflections on lavender, white-tailed bumblebees and Brexit

Of lavender and British bees …

Thank goodness for lavender and white-tailed bumblebees. As the UK drifts toward Brexit with a strange sort of national complacency, and the social divisions and lack of strategic approach become increasingly evident and glaring, the lavender and white-tailed bumblebees in my backyard provide me with solace.

White-tailed bumblebee

Lavender and a white-tailed bumblebee in my garden

Each summer we have a lavender patch in our garden. And, from time to time I take a few minutes to stop and meditate nearby, enjoying the herbaceous atmosphere and watching the bees at work. I admire their industry and collaboration. Bees do seem to proceed joyfully in this labour. They simply love lavender. Here in the UK, I have grown to eagerly await the annual return of the white-tailed bumble bees. They are giant and awkward and focused in their efforts.

… and Brexit

This year, my lavender and white-tailed bumblebee meditations have helped me keep centred in the face of the national political craziness. As the tone of the Brexit discussions becomes darker, leading pundits are speaking of national humiliation (e.g., Gideon Rachman in the FT, 10 July 2017) and “calamity” (e.g, Martin Wolf in the FT, 13 July 2017).

While I do think that remaining in the EU is the best option economically and socially, the fact that Brexit is advancing should not yet lead to despair. It is too soon to give up on efforts to limit the damage. But, time is pressing. With just 20 months to go before Brexit (March 2019), avoiding the worst will require a strategic approach and urgent action. Where do the Brits want the UK to be in 2 years?

There are marginally costly Brexit scenarios like staying in the European Economic Area (single market) and there are costly cliff-edge, car-crash scenarios of a hard Brexit with no deal with the EU. Let us not wring our hands and watch the car crash unfold before us. Advocacy and action are required now.

But, meanwhile, the lavender and bees are here to keep things Zen for me. After another crazy week, I am hanging out in the garden and staying centred. And, thank goodness, if we do go over the cliff edge, then I know they will be here to help take out the sting.

Fine British white-tailed bumblebees at work in my garden

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

[img src=]180Leaving Israel
[img src=]180Citrus groves outside of Tel Aviv
[img src=]180Looking south to Ashdod
[img src=]170Venice from the air
[img src=]170Sudtirol, Neumarkt, Italy
[img src=]160Weinstrasse, Sudtirol, Italy
[img src=]160Graubünden, Switzerland
[img src=]160St. Gallen, Switzerland
[img src=]160Glarus, Switzerland & a corner of Leichtenstein
[img src=]150Zürich, Switzerland
[img src=]160Montange de Reims, Champagne, France
[img src=]160Baie de la Somme, France
[img src=]150English coast by Eastbourne
[img src=]150Crazyquilt of the Sussex countryside
[img src=]150Dorney Lake Rowing Club
[img src=]160Windsor Castle

Map of the flight plan

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Restoring the soul with a wander up to Severndroog Castle

On a beautiful summer day, we headed out on a 12K urban hike across southern London from Greenwich to Severndroog Castle and back through Blackheath. Part of the route followed busy and ugly roadways, but a few long stretches followed the Green Chain trail through some of London’s parkland. The Green Chain provides urban hikers with some welcome shelter from the traffic and noise. While hiking it is not as much fun as a true wilderness wandering, it is nonetheless a great resource that helps urban denizens to restore their souls and hook up with some fine destinations!

Shooters Hill

View from Severndroog Castle

View from Severndroog Castle

Our destination was Shooters Hill, a rise of about 175 meters (500ft) that is south-east of London’s centre. It is covered with an old woodland that is dark and dense in some areas, but opens to afford great views of the surrounding countryside. The woods are filled with birds including some interesting warblers, woodpeckers and a few birds of prey.

Severndroog Castle

On top of Shooters Hill is a tower called Severndroog Castle (not really a castle), which was built in 1784 to honour an old sea captain, William James. He rose to be a director of the East India company and his wife built the tower as a memorial when he passed away. Good that she did, because the tower served as an early warning system manned by lookouts in WWI (watching for incoming German Zeppelins) and WWII (watching for incoming German planes and cruise missiles). It’s 85 steps up to the top of the tower and another dozen or so to get to the observation platform.

The old tower and ancient woodlands were saved by local community fund-raising efforts and reopened two years ago. Well done, folks!

PS, the little cafe in the tower makes a great frosted Guinness cake and a nice cup of coffee.

Severndroog Castle

Severndroog Castle










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Rediscovering the vine in Kent – English wine

London is far north, north of Calgary or Quebec City, north of Seattle, north of Bismark, North Dakota. And, being so far north, one might not expect to find viable vineyards within an hour’s drive. But, they are here, and they are producing some interesting English wine.

In search of the vine

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Ortega grape vine and a trellis support

Since moving to London from Paris, I’ve felt a sense of loss about my foregone Saturday jaunts down to the Loire River wineries and dairies. And, today, I decided to correct this gap in my current lifestyle. So, off I went to Kent County, which lies south-east of London.

The countryside of Kent is quite lush and the agricultural history is long. The climate is relatively mild and with global warming is expected to heat up, especially in summer (a matter the Kent Council has reported on).

Biddenden Vineyards

A number of wineries have sprung up and among the first was Biddenden Vineyards. Established in 1969, Biddenden has grown to cover 23 acres (9 hectares). Most of the varieties – well adapted to the northern clime – were new to me, including Bacchus, Ortega, Dornfelder, Huxelrebe, Scheurebe and Reichensteiner. Though, there were also some more familiar plantings of Pinot noir, Gewuertztraminer and Gamay to be seen.

Newly leafed out vinesThis far north, the wines are relatively low in alcohol (most were 10% to 12%) and deliver a refreshing taste of fruit.  My favourites included the Gribble Bridge Sparkling White, which has fresh fruit and a bit of complexity, and the Gribble Bridge Dornfelder, which is a light red and well-suited to a summer evening out on a patio. Without oak, the flavour of the grape really seems to come through clearly in the tasting.

The vineyard shop also has a selection of local cheeses, including goat, cow, and sheep. I loaded up on several nice organic cheeses, including a couple that are unpasteurised.

Reconnecting to the vine

Meadow on Gribble Bridge LaneBiddenden has a nice trail through the vineyards and along the Gribble Bridge Lane. Walking along on this mid-spring day, I could feel radiant heat from the sun. The new vine leaves were soaking it in. Birds were singing in the hedgerows and meadows. Wildflowers were blooming along the lane. I could hear a local donkey braying, but no traffic. The lovely, green, rolling Kent countryside extended out as far as I could see. It was glorious. I felt as if I had rediscovered something that I had lost, a connection to the vine.





Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

One of the joys of living in the United Kingdom is the network of hiking trails. There are public-right-of-way paths throughout the countryside, traversing pastures, fields, fallow land and woods. These trails have been improved in some areas by organisations such as the  Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

A wonderful setting

The RSPB nature reserve at Northward Hill is one such area and it is indeed a splendid place. Located on the River Thames, the reserve and the neighbouring RSPB reserve at Cliffe Pools spread out from a wooded hill down along the floodplain all the way to the river (check out the video below).

View of the reserve

Today my hike took me across the working farm on the north side of Northward Hill. Having stepped in a cow pie, my thoughts turned to the phrase “fertile river bottom”. Just off the path, along one of the ponds, there is a hide (blind) for viewing the water birds. Today, there were various gulls, lapwings, a kestrel, Egyptian geese, plus a few widgeons and ducks in the distance. One of the large ponds has an electric border fence to protect the birds from predators.

Hiking up to the top of the hill left me duly impressed by the fine English mud and wishing that I’d remembered to bring my walking stick. Hiking back along the southern flank of the hill, the trail offers glimpses of the neighbouring horse pasture. But, what impressed me most was the noise of the birds in the thick brush along the margins between forest and field and ponds. Being well hidden, apparently they felt free to let loose (check out the video). The rich mix of songs left me wishing I’d studied the British birdsong CD prior to coming out.

Joyous birds in the brush

(You may need to turn up the volume to hear the birds in this video.)

Band of birders

Monthly, teams of volunteers operate a bird banding station at the reserve. Birds passing through the farm area are caught in nets and banded with ankle bracelets. Their measurements and health are noted and they are then released unharmed. This helps to build a scientific record for use in assessing developments over time at the reserve and points beyond (many of the birds migrate).

Today, the team caught a variety of birds and I was able to watch them in action. The first few birds were familiar blue tits (chickadees) and chaffinches, but then they caught a beautiful great spotted woodpecker (see pictures below). Though not particularly rare, the bird was amazing to see up close. His plumage was gorgeous. The fellow holding him said that the bird’s grip was powerful and that one had to take care to avoid getting caught by  the woodpecker’s beak. Once the woodpecker was released, I went on as well, as the banding team was settling in for a long day’s work.

A favourite haunt?

The area has a bit of colourful history beyond the birds’ plumage.  Apparently, it was a favourite passage for maritime smugglers in centuries past. The access by water and the cover of the forest made a good combination for those who brought in goods while avoiding duties. A pub did a fine business down on the river, presumably offering sustenance to smugglers, customers and customs agents. One published account tells of smugglers bringing in tax-free tea and textiles from Flanders and stashing the goodies in the woods on Northward Hill until they could be distributed.

More recently, during World War II, the area had a higher calling. Part of the site housed a key wartime facility for communications with the US. The structure remains intact, though nowadays it is surrounded by cows.

A fine day out

The Northward Hill reserve proved to be quite a worthy destination for a Sunday out of town, a place to reconnect with nature and recharge one’s batteries. Located about 40 minutes from Greenwich by car (see the map below), it is a convenient refuge not only for the birds, but also for harried urbanites seeking renewal.

Northward Hill Nature Reserve – It’s for the birds!

(If you don’t see the pictures and map, please click here to display the full posting directly from the web site:

Northward Hill - RSPB Nature Reserve

[img src=]30The road to the RSPB Northward Hill Preserve
[img src=]30Public right of way
[img src=]40Banding a great spotted woodpecker
[img src=]100A great spotted woodpecker
[img src=]60No shortage of mud
[img src=]50Ewart's Orchard
[img src=]50A burst of colour in a green-grey world
[img src=]50Cool colours looking out towards the River Thames
[img src=]60A few buds of end of season red campion
[img src=]70Gnarly branches of coastal oaks
[img src=]50Northward Hill - RSPB sanctuary with cows, sheep, and ships

There are more pictures! Click on the up or down arrows to scroll through the gallery.

Gift aid - The work of registered charities in the United Kingdom is 
supported by a scheme that tops up member contributions with matching 
funds from the state. Thus, members of RSPB can leverage their giving, 
in essence helping to direct state funds toward worthy causes as 
prioritised by taxpayers (including yours truly).

Yosemite – Grandeur Even on Soggy Days

Yosemite National Park  – urban release

A few days in and around Yosemite National Park can do wonders for adjusting an urban warrior’s attitude. In this, I speak from experience. Although the park is crowded in prime season, with noise and traffic by the roadways and main paths, the sights more than compensate for this. And, one can reap further benefits by going out early in the morning or by finding less well-travelled paths. There are still places where one can find real peace and temporary release from the challenges of city life. It is restorative.

Drought, what drought? Birds, what birds!

Although drought has stressed the park — as can be seen from the dead pines and other sad trees that dot some slopes — the area still manages to host an abundance of nature. We set out on a guided bird walk led by Michael Ross (Yosemite Conservancy) and never left the paved roads and pathways. Yet, stopping every few meters to listen and observe, we spotted birds all around. In addition to some familiar peri-urban avians like ravens and Steller’s jays, we found forest birds like acorn woodpeckers and western wood-pewees and less familiar flyers like Bullock’s Oriole, yellow-rumped warblers, and northern rough-winged swallows. Standing there quietly on the edge of a meadow or woods, nature goes on about its business all around you. It draws you in.

Yosemite Valley - looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Yosemite Valley – looking eastward as the rain clouds rolled in

Despite the drought, the weather was cool, rainy and at times downright soggy. The rain offered some advantages to those with Gore-Tex lined shoes and a willingness to explore. First of all, it transformed views around the valley into scenes reminiscent of Chinese scrolls, with lush greenery mixed with granite mountains and low clouds. Second, it gave the many waterfalls along the valley walls a turbo-boost, helping them to live up to their reputation. Third, it helped to reduce the flow of tourists along the pathways to the favourite sights. These benefits far exceeded the disadvantage of getting a little wet along the way.

Glacier Point in a Cloud

Glacier Point in a Cloud


An evolving park

On the way to Vernal Falls

In our wanderings over the course of a few days, I was a bit haunted by reflections from a piece that William Least Heat-Moon wrote for National Geographic Magazine called “Yosemite – Grace Under Pressure” (January 2005). He described the fate of the original inhabitants of the valley, most of whom were driven out or marginalised by insurgent Euro-Americans, and the damage to the environment in the early quest by the new arrivals to exploit the natural riches. He also pointed to reasons for optimism in that the park has managed to preserve the transcendent “grand beyondness” of the valley and brought people closer to nature.

Ken Burns reinforces this view in his film Yosemite – A Gathering of Spirit (2014), which highlights the efforts to protect the valley and surrounding region. Shown regularly at the visitor’s center, the film is uplifting and a fine way to dry out on a rainy afternoon. At the park museum next door, there are efforts at educating the visitor to the Native American history. An interesting model village and various exhibits highlight their culture and traditions. My favourite part of this was a demonstration by a Native American artist on the craft of basket making, taking redbud twigs and transforming them into practical works of art.

Beyond the valley

Yosemite Park is huge and one can only manage to cover selected highlights over a short visit. Beyond Yosemite Valley, there are sights such as the wonderful giant sequoias at Mariposa Grove (closed from June 2015 for two years of renewal) or open expanses at Tuolumne Meadows (which we saved for our next visit). There are big rewards in getting away from the main path and onto some of the side trails. Taking a little extra time, one can find calm and better observe the natural world all around. Walking the trails, thick with organic material that absorbs footfalls, is good for the soul. Thankfully, it is still here to be found and very worthy of our efforts to preserve it.

From our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

My take on the view from our room at a B&B in Fish Camp, CA

Photos and sketch by Doug, (c) 2015

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Down House – A visit to Darwin’s Home

A visit to Darwin’s Home

Seeking to escape London, Charles and Emma Darwin moved their family to a country house outside the village of Downe in 1842. With similar — though temporary — intent, we also sought to escape the city for a day on Saturday. And, so, we hired a Zipcar and headed out in search of the Darwin’s home. We arrived shortly after opening time and we were glad we did. It is school holidays this week and the home was soon inundated with families on outings to teach their kids about nature and evolution. Judging by the ruckus emanating from the crowd, I had the feeling that some of the parents may have also been pondering whether to apply natural selection. Nonetheless, we were impressed to see so many young kids on scientific outings with their folks.

The voyage

Charles Darwin spent the last 40 years of his life at Down House. It is perhaps not very surprising that he stayed put for such a span of time. Darwin had previously spent nearly five years, 1831-1836, circumnavigating the globe on board the Beagle as part of a scientific mission. Nicknamed “the philosopher” by the crew, he served as the ship’s naturalist. While the trip provided him with the raw material for his seminal work on evolution, the sea did not sit well with his physiology. As Darwin wrote in a letter towards the end of the voyage, “I hate every wave of the ocean, with a fervor, which you, who have only seen the green waters of the shore, can never understand. […] I will take good care no one shall ever persuade me again to volunteer […].

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836, © Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

Voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836,
© Sémhur / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

We set out on our own voyage of exploration in search of Down House. Though a mere 20 miles from our home in Greenwich, getting there proved to be an adventure of its own. This was my first outing with a right-hand drive stick shift vehicle and the route we took involved travelling across a big swath of Kent on narrow English one-lane country roads, winding through a hilly, soggy landscape. The rural road network in the UK is surprising in its limitations. Well used by a fairly dense, automobile-equipped population, the roads twist along ancient paths with only an occasional bit widened for two cars to barely pass. In places, it seems as if the roads haven’t changed much since the days of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small. Travelling on the high sea seems rather attractive in comparison!

Down House

Down House is indeed set in a beautiful location with acreage and a feeling of natural space around. One approaches the home through the orchard which is planted with varieties dating from Darwin’s time (some referenced in his notes and correspondence). Lenten roses were in bloom along the walkways and snow drops were blooming in a bed around back.

English Heritage has done a wonderful job maintaining and presenting the home, with many of Darwin’s own furnishings and other objects from the same period. Darwin’s study features his original desk chair and research materials. It is a wonder to reflect upon the working conditions of the mid-1800s and the discipline required to push forward a new scientific view. Darwin was no upstart and he was apparently very aware of the upheaval his work might cause. Consequently, he developed his research in a very careful and painstaking manner.

Darwin on evolution:
“Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
— Charles Darwin, On the Origin of Species, 1859


The collection on display at the house includes a diverse array of items ranging from Darwin’s black beaver top hat and his backgammon set, to items related to his studies. Things that particularly caught my attention included his 750 page diary from the Beagle voyage, as well a number of satellite journals; a page from the hand-written manuscript for On the Origin of Species; a printed volume from ornithologist John Gould, who worked on specimens provided by Darwin; and three different Galapagos finches like those studied by Darwin, placed side-by-side to highlight the evolution of their beaks, which adapted to various food sources.

 My favourite item, however, was a copy of Das Kapital, a gift from the author to Darwin inscribed “from his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873.” Darwin later wrote to thank Marx saying “Though our studies have been so different I believe that we both earnestly desire the extension of knowledge, and that this in the long run is sure [to] add to the happiness of mankind.” While most economists do indeed feel that Marx was an insightful analyst, as to Darwin’s point about Marx adding to mankind’s happiness, I do fear subsequent events may have demonstrated him to be a bit off track.

The way back home

On our way back to London, we stopped in Down village centre for lunch at the George and Dragon pub. There we enjoyed some fine English fare including a chicken and wild mushroom pie, chips (fries), and peas with gravy, washed down by a fine half-pint of Harvey’s Sussex bitter. The pub is a convivial place, providing a refuge for muddy hikers and soggy dogs, while offering a nice fireplace on a cold day.

Outside, it had begun to sleet. As we wandered back to the car, I stopped in front of the village church. There on the side of the bell tower is a sundial dedicated to Charles Darwin. This seemed like a rather fine place for a memorial to Darwin, highlighting that science and religion need not be in opposition. With that in mind, we set off to test the boundaries of physics and faith as we advanced down the narrow country roads back to London, praying that we would not meet someone with an opposing view… head-on.

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Charles Darwin's Home - Down House, Kent, United Kingdom

[img src=]100A page from the manuscript for On the Origin of Species
[img src=]160Darwin's Study
[img src=]80Darwin's Flower Beds
[img src=]200From Marx to Darwin, A signed copy of Das Kapital
"From his sincere admirer, Karl Marx, 16 June 1873"
[img src=]110Down House, where Darwin lived for 40 years from 1842
[img src=]90Looking over Darwin's front wall...
[img src=]50The village church in Downe, with sundial memorial for Darwin.
[img src=]50A hearty meal at George & Dragon, Downe
[img src=]50A page from John Gould's ornithology in Zoology of the Beagle
=> From London to Down House

Hiking Along The Loire at Muides


This gallery contains 17 photos.

Southbound to the Loire River I awoke to the prospect of a gorgeous day this morning and resolved to get out into nature. It is harvest season and a great time to head off on a day trip to the … Continue reading

On the Trail from Orsigny to Viltain


This gallery contains 12 photos.

From Orsigny to Viltain Sunday – The late summer weather around Paris has been spectacular: low humidity and cool temps with warm sun and blue skies. Today, I could not resist taking a few hours for myself and heading out on … Continue reading

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?