Economist 8/20/14

  1. WHEN a few intrepid humans crossed the Bering land bridge from the Old World to the New, to populate the Americas 12,000 years ago, they left many things behind. Among them were several diseases—including smallpox, malaria and tuberculosis—that remained unknown to their descendants until a larger human influx began to arrive in 1492. Or rather, in the case of tuberculosis, remained almost unknown. For New World tuberculosis, they suggest, came from seals.Where the seals themselves picked up tuberculosis remains to be determined. Their strain resembles one found in mice, and direct cross-infection between land-lubbing rodents and aquatic pinnipeds seems implausible. But not, perhaps, impossible.
  2. FIFTY years ago the first United Nations Conference on Trade and Development launched a debate about how much money rich countries should give to poor ones to reduce poverty and bolster growth. In the end, the UN settled on a figure of 0.7% of national income—a target subsequently reaffirmed by endless international powwows. Although few countries have met it, aid spending in real terms has nonetheless increased steadily ever since, to $134.8 billion in 2013.Critics reckon aid hurts its recipients by fostering dependency, propping up oppressive or incompetent regimes and pushing up the value of poor countries’ currencies, thereby undermining the competitiveness of their exports.Assessing the impact of aid on economic growth is complicated by the fact that the causality is not always clear.
  3. Economist Intelligence Unit, our corporate cousin. Its annual “liveability index” puts eight of the ten most comfortable places in Australia, Canada or New Zealand. The index crunches 30 factors related to things like safety, healthcare, educational resources, infrastructure and environment in 140 cities.Over the past five years urban life has deteriorated somewhat: liveability has declined in 51 places and improved in 31 places.Interestingly, the top cities have not changed much over time. The EIU notes that they “tend to be mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density.” Hence those of us in London, San Francisco and Shanghai must endure the rat-race, and dream of dwelling amid Viennese coffee houses or Vancouver’s sailing and skiing.
  4. Niger is, by the reckoning of the UN’s Human Development Index, the poorest place on earth. Most of its inhabitants eke out a living growing subsistence crops on small plots of dusty, infertile land. Despite this agricultural bias, the drought-stricken country cannot feed itself, even in good years. An estimated 2.5m people out of a total of 17m have no secure source of food.With an average of 7.6 children per woman, Niger has the world’s highest rates. Poverty, ignorance and poor access to contraception are contributing factors, as are cultural issues like competition between wives. Men in Niger tend to be polygamous, and local doctors note that their spouses often try to prove their value by outdoing each other in child births. This contributes to Niger having the highest population growth rate on earth. At current projections, the number of inhabitants will more than triple between now and 2050 to 55m.
  5. Next month Lieutenant-General Sir Nick Carter will take over as chief of the general staff for British army. The army’s new boss is also its architect: asked to find savings of £5.3 billion ($8.9 billion), he devised a plan to cut the number of full-time soldiers from 102,000 to 82,000 by 2018. The army has advertised heavily for reservists, and increased the bounties paid to regular soldiers leaving the army who join the part-timers. But Britain lacks the legal and cultural apparatus to sustain a large reserve. In America part-time soldiers who fail to show up face serious sanctions; employers keep reservists’ jobs open. By contrast the British Territorial Army, recently renamed the “Army Reserve”, has been a more amateur affair.But the most obvious change to the armed forces is a straightforward one: Britain will probably not be engaged in a major foreign war in the near future. That may hamper recruiting.
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