Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

The future we deserve – 100 essays about the future, #theFWD

Vinay Gupta (@leashless) said on Twitter:

“I’m putting together a book called The Future We Deserve, open brief, 500 words, sign up at http://www.appropedia.org/The_future_we_deserve”. [1]

The future we deserve - 100 essays about the future (picture: Dragonfly, by Maria Elvorith)

The future we deserve - 100 essays about the future (picture: Dragonfly, by Maria Elvorith)”

The book is 100 essays about the future, and sometimes about the now, written by nearly as many authors. It’s inspiring, scary, fun, thoughtful.

If someone else had asked I probably would have ignored it, but I often have very engaging conversations with Vinay, in a mad scientist kind-of-way. I would like to say that this is because I like the way he thinks, but that feels… gruesome, or actually, maybe that is correct. I do like the way he thinks, it is the outcomes of his thinking which is pretty gruesome and one of the essays I wrote for #theFWD address just that. Gruesome outcomes, which very few people like to think about.

I started to write a few things which have been bumping around in my life for a while. But I think I overdid it. I actually wrote four essays and to my surprise, the editors included them all. The book is available to read on Appropedia, as well as a PDF download, but if you are like me then you may want to actually buy a hardcopy of it.


[1] I love Twitter, but at the same time I have a hard time using it. You can’t find really old tweets easily, the archive browsing is slow and cumbersome. Otherwise I would have linked to it.

Filed under: Books, Crowd-sourcing, Social and economic policy, , , , ,

Why more nuclear power does not make any sense

Nuclear power plant Mochovce

Picture by Michal Brcak.

I write this without holding any illusions that anyone will actually read this, nor do I expect to convert anyone. I just need to get it out of my system. So there you have it.

Safety of operating plants

According to Guardian Data there are 442 operating nuclear power plants in the world. On average they have been in operation for 26 years. [1] There are also some 66 reactors which have been shut down, or decommissioned for some reason. In total these plants have operated a little over 13,000 years together. [2]
The International Atomic Energy Authority, ranks nuclear accidents, on a scaled called INES, from 1-7 (anomaly to major accident) and rank 4-7 are classified as accidents. Again, according to Guardian Data, the accidents with wider consequences (5-7) have been six.

1952, Chalk River, Canada, INES 5
1957, Windscale Pile, UK, INES 5
1957, Kyshtym, Russia, INES 6
1979, Three Mile Island, 1979, INES 5
1986, Chernobyl, INES 7
2011, Fukashima, INES 5

In total (according to the Guardian) there have been 33 recorded serious incidents and accidents involving nuclear power. So with 13,300 operating years, we have had one serious accident or incident per 405 operating year, and a level 5-7 accident (like the ongoing Japanese accident) every 2230 operating year.

With 442 plants in operation, if we follow the same accident frequency, we will have serious incident or accident every year. We will also have an accident of the level of Fukashima every five years.

It could be argued that things are getting safer, as we have only had three big accidents since 1957. But half of the incidents recorded by Guardian Data have happened since Chernobyl.

According to World Nuclear Association (WNA) there are 62 nuclear power plants under construction, 158 on order or being planned and a further 324 plants are proposed. The WNA also suggests that at least 60 plants of the current operating, will shut down by 2030. Which would leave us with 926 nuclear power plants operating.

If the failure rate stays the same we would have a nuclear power plant incident every five months and a INES 5-7 incident every two and a half years.

Why would the failure rate stay the same?

There is a clear track record of safety failure in the nuclear industry in several countries. Here are a couple of examples:

“The unfolding disaster at the Fukushima nuclear plant follows decades of falsified safety reports, fatal accidents and underestimated earthquake risk in Japan’s atomic power industry.” Bloomberg, 18 March 2011.

“State-owned Swedish energy concern Vattenfall has admitted serious security deficiencies at its controversial Forsmark nuclear power plant.” Power-Gen Worldwide, 12 February 2007

“Between 1950 and 2000 there have been 21 serious incidents or accidents involving some off-site radiological releases that merited a rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale, one at level 5, five at level 4 and fifteen at level 3.” Sellafield article, Wikipedia.

If countries like Japan, Sweden and the UK can not make its nuclear power operators follow safety protocols, where do you expect it to work better?

But there are other reason why we should question nuclear power.

Safety of storage

As a trained geologist I actually think spent nuclear fuel storage can be solved reasonably well. However, essentially nobody wants it in their backyard and nobody has actually started storing spent fuel yet.

“Finland plans to have a long-term waste repository operational in 2020, Sweden in 2023 and France in 2025.”

In Scandinavia we have relatively good and stable granite bedrock to store spent fuel in, but where is the rest of the waste going to go from 440-900 nuclear power stations? Maybe some poor country with good bedrock will become the the nuclear waste dump of the world. Sounds great.

“A draft EU directive presented on Wednesday calls for national plans to be drawn up in the next few years, as the EU still has no final storage sites for nuclear waste.” BBC News, 3 November 2010.

All the spent nuclear fuel waste in the world is currently in short term storage. Like the storage which may be causing trouble in Japan at the moment.

“The Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimates that many of the nuclear power plants in the United States will be out of room in their spent fuel pools by 2015, most likely requiring the use of temporary storage of some kind.” US Nuclear Regulatory Commission

Great idea.

Nuclear proliferation

More nuclear power plants mean more nuclear weapons. The ongoing debacle with Iran and a state barely in control of itself, Pakistan, and one on the brink of collapse, North Korea, with nuclear weapons, I believe, is just the beginning of nuclear proliferation, if we keep depending on nuclear power for our energy needs.

At some point nuclear weapons will be used. If the attackers of 9/11 had had access to a nuclear weapon, do you think they would have refrained from using it?

Complexity of nuclear power

If you invest a lot of money in more nuclear power plants, you can’t take any of that and give to a family in a failed state, like Somalia, to help fix there power shortages. But if you rather invest it in cheap solar power, like Nanosolar or First Solar, you can even sell a Somalian a power plant, at the family level, without a major risk to them, their surrounding or the environment, and it is simple enough for even my old grand mother to operate.

The majority of the increased power need in the world is in the countries which are not well developed and it would be foolish to believe that we could help them by building and operating a nuclear power plant. In fact you can’t run an operate a nuclear power plant unless you have sophisticated infrastructure, in the shape of a functional government, national administration, education and technology, so it is no real help for the developing world.

That Pakistan and North Korea has nuclear power is irrelevant in this context, as they only have it to produce weapons grade plutonium. The importance of nuclear energy for them is less than secondary.

Uranium mining

Uranium mining is one of the nastiest businesses in the whole mining industry. The environmental impact is big. We used to mine uranium in Sweden, but this was discontinued, we now like the rest of Europe, buy our uranium from other countries, such as Australia, where the mines are in the outback, out of sight, out of mind.

Nuclear is CO2 free

Whilst it is true that an operating nuclear power plant doesn’t emit much CO2, it does when you take the whole lifecycle into account: mining uranium, building and decommissioning the plant.

“However, nuclear emits twice as much carbon as solar photovoltaic, at 32 gCO2e/kWh, and six times as much as onshore wind farms, at 10 gCO2e/kWh. “A number in the 60s puts it well below natural gas, oil, coal and even clean-coal technologies. On the other hand, things like energy efficiency, and some of the cheaper renewables are a factor of six better. So for every dollar you spend on nuclear, you could have saved five or six times as much carbon with efficiency, or wind farms,” Nuclear energy, assessing the emissions, Nature, 24 September 2008.

Baseload

You will sometimes hear the term baseload and also hear that nuclear power plants are needed to provide baseload power. Baseload is what people call the power we need “regardless of whether the sun shines or the wind blows”.

An overview of why this is wrong can be read at Do we need nuclear and coal plants for baseload power? by David Roberts and a more detailed description of why, you can be read Amory Lovins, Four Nuclear Myths, Rocky Mountain Institute, 13 October 2009.

Peak uranium

Something often overlooked is that there may not be as much uranium around at the required price, as the nuclear industry would like. My take is that there is probably enough fuel for the 900 plants, which the maximum expected by the nuclear industry over the next 30 years, specifically as the fuel isn’t a significant cost of the building of a plant, i.e. a nuclear power plant is relatively price insensitive to higher nuclear fuel prices. More at Uranium Depletion and Nuclear Power: Are We at Peak Uranium?”, The Oil Drum, 21 March 2007.

Cost of nuclear power

“The Union of Concerned Scientists recently reported that nuclear subsidies total nearly 7 cents per kWh, twice what a typical wind power plant receives and similar to the federal incentives offered for solar power.” Nuclear Power, Still not viable without subsidies, Union of Concerned Scientists, February 2011 [PDF file]

This article at The Grist, is a good overview: Cost, not Japan crisis, should scrub nuclear power. Specifically you should note the following quote:

“In the time it would take to build a nuclear plant (6-8 years, optimistically), every commercial energy technology could produce electricity for less.”

In other words, the cost of building energy systems on wind power, solar, biofuel, small scale hydro and other renewable energy systems will most likely have caught up with nuclear before you can complete a new nuclear power plant.

In the UK the nuclear fuel industry refuses to build any new plants without huge government loan guarantees.

Fourth generation nuclear power plants

Another argument which often comes up, is that the next generation of nuclear power plants will “improve nuclear safety, improve proliferation resistance, minimize waste and natural resource utilization, and to decrease the cost to build and run such plants.”

But these supposedly improved nuclear power plant designs are paper tigers.

Other than one design, which could theoretically be available in the first implementation during the mid-2020s, are just research projects today and could earliest enter production during the 2030s. And if you have studied any climate science at all, you know that pouring billions into uncertain, centralized, expensive, nuclear power station projects, is not what we need right now. Essentially no new nuclear power plant is ever delivered on budget. These new research projects are bound to cost a lot more than what is presented right now. (If you can find any estimates at all. I didn’t.)

The severe difficulties of Finland’s Olkiluoto nuclear reactor being built by Areva SA, the French state-owned nuclear construction firm, provide a reminder of how these problems unfold. Touted as the turnkey project to replace the aging cohort of nuclear reactors, the project has fallen three years behind schedule and more than 50% over budget. The delay has caused the sponsors of the project to face the problem of purchasing expensive replacement power; the costs of which they are trying to recover from the reactor builder. The cost overruns and the cost of replacement power could more than double the cost of the reactor.” The economics of nuclear reactors: Renaissance or relapse?, Mark Cooper, Senior fellow for Economic analysis, Institute for energy and the environment, Vermont law school, June 2009

And that is not even a fourth generation design.

Another example of this type of argument was sent to me yesterday: “On energy and the end of civilization“, Warren D. Smith, 2001. Where the author lays out an argument for showing us that fossil fuels will be too expensive to use in the next 30-70 years, including uranium, excluding coal. (Note that this was written before the understanding of peak fossil fuel was as it is today, where we actually have hit peak oil, but that is a different blog post, one day.) Then he argues that solar wont work, as it is too hard, and the solution is … breeder reactors.

These nuclear reactors enable the use of U-238 (converted by neutron irradiation into fissile Pu-239) and Th-232 (converted to fissile U-233) as fuel, not just the (far rarer) U-235. This will enable energy production at current rates for 1000s of years using only known reserves of Thorium and Uranium.
Breeder reactors work. One was in large scale commercial use in France… only problem is: “in June 1997 France said it would scrap their highly controversial $4.7B Superphenix nuclear fast-breeder, saying it was too costly and of doubtful value.” A French govt report in 1996 concluded it had cost the state $12B. The planned shutdown in 2005 will cost $20B more. This was the world’s largest fast-breeder but it had managed to operate for only 6 months through 1997 since it began generating power in 1985. Oops. France’s electricity is 80% nuclear due to French leadership thinking it had no other choice.
There had been a major sodium leak at Superphenix in 1987 but it had re-begun operating in 1994 after a 4-year layoff. Britain simiarly had closed its Dounreay fast-breeder in 1995. The US operated an experimental fast breeder at Shippingport Atomic Power Station in the 1970s and early 1980s. The reactor had a core that was designed to produce Uranium-233 from Thorium-232. Although it showed no signs of ending its useful life, the experiment was ended due to budgetary concerns and interest in analyzing the core to see if breeding had occurred. When analyzed, the core indeed contained 1.3% more fuel than it had originally contained.
Japan in Dec 1995 shut down their Monju fast breeder, which took 12 years and $4.91 billion to build, after a massive coolant sodium (very flammable!) leak. There was a furor over cover-ups of the incident with doctored videos and incomplete reports.

Breeder reactors are also interesting as it is supposedly easier to produce weapons grade plutonium in them. The person who sent this to me says this is our last hope.

Sounds great doesn’t it?

Conclusion

The nuclear lobby thinks we need to overlook the faults of nuclear power. They want us to accept regular catastrophic failure, nuclear weapons proliferation, the unsolved problem of final spent fuel storage, the fact that investing in nuclear power doesn’t help the worlds 2 billion poor, despite that it emits more CO2 than renewables and it really messes up the environment when you mine uranium.

They want us to invest in nuclear power because “There Is No Alternative” and they argue that nuclear power is a cost effective solution. But it isn’t.

So what is left of the argument? Nothing.


Notes:

[1] There were three plants which didn’t have a start date for the operations, so I gave them the average operating lifetime. I calculated the start time by deducting the start year from todays year, i.e. 2011-Start year=Years in operation. Median for the number of years in operation is also 26.

[2] I assume the decommissioned plants had operated for 26 years, as I have no data for their operations. I have also ignored the time when the plants are down for maintenance.

Edit: Changed the title to “Why more nuclear power doesn’t make any sense” from “Why nuclear power doesn’t make any sense” as this was more in line with my intent of the article. I am not of the opinion that we should decommission nuclear power plants before their end-of-life, to replace them with fossil fuel power plants.

Edit 2: Added the section on fourth generation nuclear power plants.

Filed under: Climate Change, Facts, Social and economic policy

Law is hard. Code is harder. Why new internet and software architecture will define the future of society

From left: Lawrence Lessig, Vinay Gupta, Srikant Nadhamuni. Picture of VInay by @charmermar, the other two by me.

Something which Vinay Gupta said the other day brought together several strands in my head. Vinay called it Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol. It is short enough to be quoted in full:

Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol
1. 5.1 billion cell phones, soon to be 7 billion smart phones on 3G networks
2. increasingly valuable services delivered over international borders, like Google
3. global shared knowledge bases like wikipedia or satellite maps
4. telemedicine, tele-engineering, micro-consultancy, social media and so on as the tools spread into new areas of life

Non-state actors conducting FPIP include WikiLeaks, Appropedia and many other groups. Currently it’s not at all clear that any state has begun to effectively deliver FPIP.

Vinay Gupta, Foreign Policy by Internet Protocol (2011) [1]

If you combine the thought that our communications infrastructure is going to start dictate how we think about the world with what Laurence Lessig says: “The Code is the Law”. Then a number of things which are going on in the world today can be seen in a very different perspective than what you see in your average newspaper opinion piece.

Of course, Lessig was years ahead of me thinking about this, in his piece The Code is the Law from 1999 he says [2]:

“The single most significant change in the politics of cyberspace is the coming of age of this simple idea: The code is law. The architectures of cyberspace are as important as the law in defining and defeating the liberties of the Net.”
Lawrence Lessig, The Code is the Law (1999)

The Code is the Law

Consider the example of copying of copyrighted works. You break a multitude of rules and laws if you copy a copyrighted work. Some countries are trying to implement some pretty draconian laws to stop copying over the internet, like the three strikes and your are cut off laws [3], which are met with quite a lot of resistance at the moment. But that hasn’t really stopped anyone from actually breaking these laws. The flow of information over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks is increasing and new laws seem to have short term effect on peoples behavior [4].

Google holds billions of images on their giant server farms with caches of images from web sites. According to the letter of the law they are breaking the copyright law when doing that. YouTube’s HTML 5 trials made it possible to download every video on YouTube to your computer (they seem to have disabled that again) and there is an enormous amount of material which breaks the copyright laws and rules on YouTube. There are some ongoing big lawsuits against Google, who owns YouTube, but in essence, for most people and companies YouTube is more useful than it is a threat, despite what the law says. Add to this that the function of the internet requires that you make a copy of a web page or a picture to actually view it on your computer, and it is trivial to copy it from the web browser cache to save it for later.

In short, the architecture of the internet has a stronger influence on how people behave than what the law says, as long as the majority of the people see a significant benefit.

The extension of this is that software architecture starts defining how our society behaves. Furthermore, I think that internet architects and coders who build useful systems, may in the long run, have a bigger influence on our future society than politicians and the traditional power-brokers have. Why do I believe this?

Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Identifying more than a billion Indians, another take on Gov 2.0

Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

Srikant Nadhamuni, tech lead for the Indian UID project. Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

The Indian UID project is very interesting to me, as the work they are doing is done on an enormous scale. There are other systems which reach this scale, and arguably are more complex than this (Facebook for example), but it is still impressive.

“By 2014, the government wants half of India’s population to be allotted UID numbers. To do that, the Authority will photograph a staggering 600 million Indians, scan 1.2 billion irises, collect six billion fingerprints and record 600 million addresses.”

Read more in this rather good Forbes India article. Another article about this was published on the Economist yesterday (although together with my friend Gabriel I am still pondering what the 14 billion transactions per second actually mean).

Whilst a country like Sweden, where I live, is struggling with a hodge-podge of identification services to be used online as well as offline, India isn’t only going to launch an online system of staggering scale, it is also going to leapfrog our old systems in a giant leap. Once they are up to speed with issuing IDs they could issue biometric IDs to the Swedish population in just over a week. At peak they expect to issue 1 million IDs per day.

Srikanth and my wife Anke taking a break during the bicycle ride on the outskirts of Bengaluru, buying some coconuts from a street vendor. January 2010.

A friend of mine, Srikanth Nadhamuni, leads the technical development from the Indian government side and it is really rather interesting to talk about the implications for this system with him.

One aspect which doesn’t get much coverage is that they are going to use the UID system to facilitate very inexpensive money transfers for people. This is in a country where a lot of people, maybe even most of them (hundreds of millions of people) don’t actually have a bank account at all today.

Another aspect which is interesting is that the team started the development in a way which would be very familiar to many Hacker News readers. They worked out of an apartment in Bangalore, where several team members lived as well as worked, in a true startup atmosphere. Software companies, like MS and Goggle would show up with teams and end up sitting around the kitchen table or on the spare bench from the hallway to participate in sessions where the project was being discussed.

They have software volunteers, expat-Indians, coming in from all over the world to work on the project, the top level people behave just like any other software startup entrepreneur you would expect, sitting up to 4am in the morning doing code reviews, walking into a room and asking: How’s it going? Not the usual bureaucratic India you would expect.

If I wasn’t working on what I work on right now I would probably have been a volunteer on the project myself, if they would have had me that is. 🙂

Edit: I have written about the UID project before, but it was quite short.

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Social and economic policy

Governance or water?

Today I had some very inspiring and challenging discussions with Amitangshu and Sushmita about development aid and different approaches. Amitangshu works with Arghyam in the grants team and Sushmita works with forestry governance in South India.

India is like a person who received had a bad stab wound which is bleeding (abject poverty) and a dangerous infection (corruption and partially functioning democracy) as a result. How do you treat the patient?

We discussed this back and fourth and our joint suggestion was that you have to staunch the bleeding with band-aid, i.e. fix poverty, here and now, as anything else will kill the patient and apply antibiotics, i.e. support good governance and fight corruption, in the long run. There are measures you can take in decreasing poverty which have very quick results, whereas introducing good governance, i.e. a functional democracy at the local level and fighting corruption is a more long-term effort, like taking antibiotics. And taking antibiotics is pretty pointless if you are going to die of blood loss in the meantime.

I used providing sustainable clean water supply, as an example of good tools against poverty. Many water projects can be achieved with projects that are quick to implement, but with good long term results. Sushmita and Amitangshu argued quite strongly that this is not enough though.

In India local government supplies water systems to villages, in an effort to decrease poverty. The programmes are highly centralised and things like pump design are decided in New Delhi. The pumps used are the of the piston pump type, which are very reliable, but when they break down they need a skilled technician and special tools to repair. The result is that many of the pumps in rural India are broken and it takes a long time to get a repair. But even if the pump is functional the capacity of the system is often not enough for the village and there are better alternatives that fit the local context. But the centrally controlled bureaucracy does not allow deviation from what Delhi has decided. So there you are with in-appropriate technology for the context, which you can’t afford to replace and which break and you can’t repair it.

The result is that the villagers don’t turn to the local government for support to fix their water problems, but to an NGO. The NGO is often funded through other means, like international development aid, and is free to implement a solution that fits the context. If you are lucky the NGO is also not corrupt, which means that it is cheaper for everyone getting the work done. This is good to steam the flow of blood, i.e. implement water solutions which help fixing poverty, but it has a negative effect on the local government, as the work of the NGO essentially displaces the work of local government and as a result weakening the structure and effectiveness of local government, or doesn’t give the people the incentive to force the reform of an ineffective and corrupt local government system.

The result of our discussion was that we need both band-aid and antibiotics to solve the problem.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy

A community meeting in Gafh

A community meeting in the village of Gafh, 1.5 hours drive south from Ahmedabad, Gujerat, India.

We went with Arghyam and the local organisation Utthan, which is implementing drinking water, sanitation and hygiene projects in this part of Gujerat. We went to attend a meeting with about 20 or so village community members. These villagers are responsible for 2-3 villages each in the effort of improving hygiene in their villages.

The have been encouraging all households to install leach pits to take care of all household waste water (washing, dishwashing etc.) instead of letting it run out on the street. This was achieved in the end by essentially threatening to cut off water supply to households which didn’t comply with the new rules. So far the effort seem to have been a real success and everybody is really liking streets which are not like public sewers.

Filed under: Arghyam, Development aid, India, Social and economic policy, WASH technology, Water management

Governments slip even further behind the mobile worker, everybody looses

My colleague Mark Charmer wrote a nice piece about some things that will crystallise in 2010.

I wanted to add one to that.

6. Governments slip even further behind the mobile worker, everybody looses

I work for an open source foundation, based in one European country. I live and pay taxes in another European country. I spend 1/6 of the working year in an Asia country. The EU is supposed to allow freedom of movement for workers, but this is so last century’s model it is laughable. If you are supposed to benefit from any of this freedom of movement you are supposed to actually move, physically.

They really don’t have any way to deal with workers who move around at will. Production is assumed to be attached to the production line or the office. But with the internet offering more and more freedom for the best paid workers, the knowledge worker, the knowledge worker is slowly slipping through the fingers of the government.

You can’t really be employed in one EU country, and live in another, with the standard employment benefits you would expect, like pension schemes, seamless healthcare benefits, kids schools, without running your own company and contracting across the boarders, with the appropriate extra overhead. We are twelve employees, four work in the country of the registered office, the other 8 all have independent companies in different countries.

Europe, Japan, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, do not allow freedom of movement of workers, but they all allow anyone to travel as a tourist between these countries. To what gain do they stop workers moving freely? It inhibits innovation. It stops the most interesting entrepreneurs to move about and do the interesting jobs where they are best done. At the same time they can’t stop this from happening totally. I have lived in the USA, whilst being employed in the UK and paying tax there. Now I live in Sweden, being employed in the Netherlands and working in India. If we got rid of the stupid barriers for knowledge workers we would have more innovation and more business started across borders. And everybody would gain. But no. Visa requirements and idiotic border policies are everywhere.

Oh well. I am off to hang out in Bengaluru this weeked. In between the Skype conferences, stretching over five countries and ten locations… for free*.

* Well, the marginal cost is free. I have to have a laptop and internet connection, but I couldn’t do my job without and the cost of these are easily offset against earnings.

Filed under: ITC technology, Social and economic policy

How do countries go from developing to developed?

What the whiteboard looked like after a couple of hours of discussons

Amitangshu, Nagasreenivas and I did have one of them big discussions today, where you wave your arms around and rush forward to the whiteboard to draw things to make sure you don’t miss anything.

It started with a discussion between my wife, Anke, and Amitangshu on how it is to work freelance, benefits and drawbacks, comparing company culture in India and in north Europe.

Then somewhere we took a left turn in the discussion and Amitangshu asked: “So in your country is water considered a human right? Is it written into the constitution?” I answered: “No, not directly, but social security is, and it is included in that. You should see the Swedish constitution. Paragraph three. It guarantees social security, education, healthcare and a whole lot more, right there in the third paragraph.” And from there we went.

We ended up with a quite an interesting discussion, much too long to cover here, but there were a couple of fundamental points where we had insight into each others countries and way of running things which just were not there before we started to talk:

  1. Basic needs and advanced needs are subsidised in fundamentally different ways in Sweden (representing northern Europe) compared to India.
  2. The scale of democracy may have a direct impact on how easy it is to implement a cohesive society.
  3. We aren’t aware of any studies who compare successful societies like the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands, with more recently developed countries like South Korea and Taiwan (I am sure there must be some). What makes a successful country and how come the latter two made it so quickly from developing to developed?

Basic needs and advanced needs

In Sweden, as an example, basic needs like food and water are subsidised indirectly. If you are poor in Sweden, and you don’t have access to food and water you are given money by the government. In India, you are given food and water.

In Sweden, advanced needs, such as health care and education are subsidised directly. If you are poor in Sweden, your health care and education are subsidised directly, i.e. you don’t pay for these services (well, in Sweden you pay a small fee for health care, but the fee is given to you if you can’t afford it). In India these are only subsidised indirectly, if at all.

Why is this? We have some theories surrounding the fact that Sweden is already a developed country and India is not, but we are not sure about that. We really should dig deeper in this. Also make a more robust comparison.

Scale of democracy matters

I have a theory that smaller democratic countries are better run. As examples, in Europe, I use countries such as all the Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Iceland), Netherlands, Switzerland, Luxembourg as positive examples.

The European countries which are not as successful seem to be bigger. Looking at the Economist Quality of Life Index (PDF file), you will find the mentioned countries  all in the top 16 countries, mostly outperforming larger countries. Of the top 10 countries, only Italy (8) and Spain (10) are more than 21 million people. The USA (13) comes in just after Finland (12), but the huge US GDP/capita draws up the US performance (I think) without corresponding good performance from a quality of life, just consider healthcare and poverty in the US. Also the US wealth is unequally distributed, with a significant portion owned by few rich people. The UN human development index is less clear cut, with Canada at fourth place (31 million people), Japan coming in at 10th place (127 million people) and the US at 13.

Amitangshu said he believed strongly in this hypothesis and it matched well what Buddha said in his description on how things should be. (No reference.)

What makes a successful country and how come the latter two made it so quickly from developing to developed?

We talked quite a lot back and forth, and was wondering what really makes a successful country? We thought it would be really interesting to study a couple of successful countries and compare them to some of the “Tigers of Asia” like South Korea and Taiwan. How come they have advanced so quickly and how do they compare with northern European countries. What lessons are there to learn for a country like India?

The discussion, as is probably obvious from the photograph of the whiteboard, went beyond this, but I shall spare you the detail. However, it was a very interesting discussion. One which we shall continue one dinner.

Filed under: Development aid, India, Social and economic policy

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