Posts Tagged ‘poverty’

Bill McKibben, Climate Change, and Who’s the Real Enemy?

June 1, 2013

images-3Bill McKibben (leading climate change activist) now decrees that a cause needs an enemy to mobilize against. Apparently climate Unknownchange deniers are not a big enough enemy, so McKibben solemnly proposes that the oil and fossil fuel industries be declared the enemy, to moralistically crusade against. He says searching and drilling for oil is wrong and should stop.

Unknown-1This might make more sense if that pied piper and his followers stopped using it. Stopped driving cars, riding buses or trains or planes; stopped heating or air-conditioning their homes; or using any electricity, which is mostly generated with fossil fuels like oil or coal (so even electric cars still actually use those fuels). McKibben talks as though oil drilling is solely for (horrors!) profit; as if our using oil were irrelevant; as if we’d quit if the evil oil companies just bowed in contrition and stopped foisting it on us.

Unknown-2If only we could wave a magic wand and convert to all-renewable fuel use, with economic efficiency. Of course that’s the rub. We could displace all fossil fuels tomorrow — but at horrendous cost.

Pish tosh, McKibbenites might say, planetary health trumps money concerns. However, money buys food and other conveniences of life, and in a world where too many people still endure poverty and hunger, they’re the ones who’d suffer the most. McKibben and friends may shed Unknown-3crocodile tears about the plight of the world’s poor (“victims of capitalism” they imagine), but when it comes to their climate obsession, the world’s poor are thrown under the bus.

In fact, McKibben has actually said economic growth is a bad thing; and even technological progress we’ve had enough of, it should all be stopped. A breathtaking idea when in the past few decades economic growth, accelerated by technological advancement (and our use of energy), has lifted billions from poverty.

imagesPish tosh comes the retort; the problem is too many rich. Just redistribute their wealth to the poor; problem solved. But we live in the real world, and if this “solution” were actually implemented (not bloody likely), then afterwards why bother making efforts and investments to produce wealth? We’d have equality all right – equal poverty. At least it would remove that splinter (rich people to envy) from the left eye.

But back to the original point of declaring war on oil companies. We have enough demonization of “enemies” in our political discourse. Should we make “enemies” of those who produce commodities we all use and need, in fact a vital underpinning for our whole living standard? As if we could or should give up modernity itself. Some like McKibben romanticize an agrarian past; but that pesky point of poverty again poops on their party. Before modernity, the vast majority lived in wretched squalor. We’re not going back there.

images-1The  fixation on curbing atmospheric carbon to combat global warming goes hand in hand with the McKibbenites’ bizarre vendetta against, once more, economic growth and the whole industrial economy. Despairing of actually slaying that dragon, they hope at least to put it on a starvation diet (for some human beings, alas, that would be literal), by cutting its energy supply. This (a) won’t happen and (b) would be bad for human progress if it did, but also (c) won’t solve the climate problem. If tomorrow we slashed carbon emissions to zero, scientists’ climate models show temperatures still rising, and rising only slightly less than if we do nothing. Yes, we should nevertheless try to limit carbon as much as possible, but to combat climate change a more rational strategy would shift the focus to preparedness, mitigation and adaptation, and exploration of geo-engineering (like adding particulates to the upper atmosphere) to recool the planet. All this will cost money, so anything impeding economic growth (like capping emissions regardless of the economics) would be self-defeating.

These realities McKibbenites don’t want to hear, because they detract from their anti-industrial, anti-technology, anti-growth, anti-progress, and ultimately anti-human crusade.

images-2Finally, climate change is not our biggest challenge. People’s future lives will be impacted far more by those age-old but prosaic nemeses of poverty, disease, and ignorance. Our chief weapons against them are economic and technological progress – fueled by energy use. This is humanity’s main battle. Which side is McKibben on?

POSTSCRIPT: Just after posting this I got the latest Economist, focusing on world poverty reduction. Great strides are chronicled. “Most of the credit,” The Economist says, “must go to capitalism and free trade, for they enable economies to grow – and it was growth, principally, that has eased destitution.”

Is There a Moral Duty to Relieve Suffering?

November 13, 2012

I recently read Christopher Wraight’s book, The Ethics of Trade and Aid: Development, Charity or Waste?* Wraight teaches philosophy, and examines the moral issue of aid, from a philosophical standpoint.

He cites a leading thinker, Peter Singer, who argues that if you see a child drowning in a shallow pool, you’re morally obliged to save her, because it costs you less than the cost to her if she drowns; and it’s no different if the person in distress is a thousand miles away. Thus, he says, you should give your money to relieve poverty in Africa, up to the point at which giving any more would leave you suffering more than the Africans.

Wraight himself actually suggests a moral equivalence between shooting someone and not giving a donation that would save a life; indeed, he says, the moral distinction between “killing” and “letting die” is a close one. And he quotes philosopher Jonathan Glover: “deliberately failing to send money to Oxfam, without being able to justify our alternative spending as more important, is in the same league as murder.”

Are these people out of their minds?

Wraight does acknowledge that deeds of omission are infinite, and one cannot be held morally responsible for not doing all of them.

But there’s a better answer. The shooting victim has a right not to be shot. Shooting unjustly interferes with him. Withholding aid from the starving African does not unjustly interfere with him. Moral obligations do not arise out of thin air, but out of relationships. You have obligations to family and colleagues that arise from your relationships with them. You owe nothing otherwise (except leaving people unmolested).

Moreover, you have a right to things that belong to you. That’s what “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence means: the right to pursue your own quality of life, and make it better than someone else’s. Working to lift yourself is not morally wrong. It’s the essence of economics that A gets money from B by giving B something B wants more than the money. Thus A has already made a contribution to human betterment, and is morally entitled to benefit himself from his earnings from that effort. And with everyone thusly motivated, that’s how we improve life for humanity as a whole.

The Singer/Glover notion smacks of the Marxist dictum, “to each according to his needs.” Fine for the recipients; but where’s the morality in obliging someone who has earned something through his good honest efforts to give it up to someone who has not earned it? And then why bother to earn anything?

So an African you’ve never met, even if he’s starving, has no right to your money (let alone more right than you yourself). You are not morally obligated to give to the poor till you’re just as poor yourself. And you don’t owe Oxfam a justification for how you spend your money.

None of this means you shouldn’t give donations; but it’s a choice, not a duty. And people do make that choice, for the perfectly rational reason that it makes them feel good, and avoids feeling bad. Wraight’s point about the infinitude of potential good deeds supports this. It cannot be a duty to help A if that means not helping equally needy B (and C, D, E, and a billion others). If not helping B were almost equivalent to murder, then there’d be no way to avoid that culpability. This is moral absurdity. Since there’s no alternative to choosing whom (if anyone) to help, the help must be seen as a choice rather than a duty.

Such altruism is actually a fundamental characteristic of human nature. As I keep saying, we evolved living in groups, where social cohesion was vital to survival. Thus we are programmed to care about others and their sufferings, and wanting to help. We are genetically wired to feel good for doing so, and bad when refusing. That’s why my toddler daughter jumped up, handed off her ice cream cone, and ran to help a stranger’s baby who had dropped a shoe.

* I got it as a prize from Philosophy Now magazine for my answer to their Question of the Month: How does language work? Mine was one of few responses that didn’t mention Wittgenstein. I’ve always thought his work was trivial. Wittgenstein’s most quoted point was that no matter how you define the word “game” you can always come up with an example not fitting the definition. So the word has multiple meanings. So do many words. So what?

Inequality, and a True Progressivism

October 23, 2012

I have discussed inequality before, but apparently haven’t succeeded in ending debate. The Economist (10/13) has published an analysis by its economics editor, Zanny Minton Beddoes, which I recommend highly. (Click here; and here for a related editorial). Beddoes addresses inequality in depth and concludes by calling for a true progressivism – not mindless capitalism-bashing (nor government-bashing) but a program for reforming government’s role to better spread capitalism’s benefits.*

I have argued that fixating on inequality per se is misguided (and reflects, frankly, a big dollop of envy). What counts most is your absolute quality of life, not how it compares to others’. The problem of the poor is not plutocrats. Wealth is earned not at the expense of the poor but, by and large, by profiting from contributions toward the betterment of all. And the poor can be raised up – by boosting their ability to so contribute – without dragging down the rich.

A lot of inequality is merely the difference between mature people in the prime of their working lives, with accumulated assets, and young whippersnappers just starting out. Yet classic rich-versus-poor inequality of course exists too. It’s mitigated if the poor have reasonable opportunities to rise – the American ideal. But such social mobility isn’t what it once was. We’ll return to this.

Beddoes elucidates that while inequality is indeed growing in many countries (ours included), worldwide it is falling. That’s not contradictory. Global inequality is indisputably falling simply because less developed (and poorer) nations (mainly China and India) have much higher economic growth than advanced nations. Within those fast growing countries, the rich outrace the poor, increasing intra-country inequality, yet still those poor are outracing rich country populations.

Less affluent Americans are falling behind, in part, because some wealth is now being redirected from them to poorer people in Asia. Bad for us; good for them (at least equally deserving human beings). Thus, again, rising local inequality actually translates into falling global inequality.

Some Americans are losing out because they are becoming less competitive not only in what is more and more a global labor market, but even within America, where economic rewards increasingly go to the more skilled and educated.** Wealth is unequal not chiefly because the rich are hogs, or the game is rigged, but primarily because educational attainment is unequal, and its importance is growing. Once, anyone could earn good pay in factories without a college degree; but that’s sooo twentieth-century, an inexorably shrinking part of the economic landscape. (The President’s “manufacturing” obsession as a jobs panacea is retrograde.)

Drop out of high school, or even college, and you’re likely to have a low-wage job, or none, with your situation often aggravated by lack of marriage, and single-parent children, who grow up to repeat the syndrome. Whereas better educated people are likely to have better jobs, marriages with equally educated partners, and two-parent children who go on to repeat that model.

This is the nub of America’s inequality and declining social mobility.

Government isn’t helping. Our first battleground is in the schools, where entrenched teacher unions fight real reform of a system disgracefully disserving the disadvantaged, trapping them in their plight. And as for wealth redistribution, Beddoes highlights that it’s largely from the affluent to the affluent, especially the affluent elderly (through programs like Medicare, Social Security, and a host of tax preferences like the mortgage deduction). Such welfare for the rich dwarfs any redistribution to the needy.

And government’s interventions in the economy aren’t helping either. I recently listened to anti-capitalist crusader Arundhati Roy rail against a litany of alleged evils of free market economics in India. I kept thinking: she’s missing it completely. Nothing she denounced is actually free market economics; to the contrary, it’s non-free market economics, it’s India’s culture of cronyism, corruption, and over-regulation that stifles competition and economic opportunity; it’s government perverting the free market. So fixated was Roy on demonizing “capitalism” that she couldn’t see this Indian elephant in the room.

This is a key element in the “true progressivism” Beddoes argues for. She says governments can narrow inequality without large-scale redistribution or an engorged state. Beddoes invokes Teddy Roosevelt’s trust-busting – instead of helping favored businesses, which often means hobbling their competitors, government should be removing barriers to competition (many of them erected by government itself). That expands economic opportunity and the size of the pie for everyone. While such an assault on cronyism and corruption is particularly vital for countries like India and China (where the state itself is directly in business), Beddoes says rich nations “also need more competition in traditionally mollycoddled sectors such as education.”

Health care too, in America. And (sorry, Lefties) we are increasingly over-regulated. Reviewing the regulatory picture, the same Economist issue quips that “If banks once did banking, now they practice law.” Fine for the biggest ones (maybe), but ruinously costly for all other businesses, again undermining competition, economic dynamism, and equality of opportunity. (A friend yesterday alerted me to a 1992 Wall Street Journal op-ed by a hotel owner telling how government regulation contributed to destroying his business. The author: George McGovern!)

Beddoes’s second point is to recognize that the gigantic edifice of state social spending has gotten grossly out of whack, directing the lion’s share of subsidies to the affluent and elderly, rather than toward investing in the young and the disadvantaged, to boost their contributions to future economic progress. Not to mention that out-of-control entitlement spending threatens to wreck our economy altogether.

Beddoes’s third priority is to reform taxes, to improve efficiency and fairness. While the rich do already pay a disproportionately high share of income taxes, our crazy-quilt of loopholes and special interest giveaways is loaded with unfairness and distortions of economic activity that seriously harm the nation’s welfare. Just the sheer cost in man-hours of coping with tax complexity is a huge economic liability.

All these policies would help reduce inequality and broaden economic opportunity; but of course they are good not just for the disadvantaged, but for society as a whole.

Beddoes concludes by noting that some rising countries are progressing on parts of this agenda (one reason why they are rising); but not the richer nations, and “the most shocking shortcomings are in America, the rich country where income gaps are biggest and have increased fastest.”

America’s to-do list should also include fixing immigration, particularly our suicidal near lock-out of the world’s best-and-brightest. This exemplifies today’s American Disease: people’s narrow idea of self-interest short-sightedly undermining their true long-term good. The same applies to all the government subsidies everyone stubbornly clings to, which will ultimately sink our whole ship.

I remain a great optimist about the future for humanity as a whole. But while America is still blessed with a vast reservoir of human creative energy, God has not somehow decreed that we will maintain our privileged status even while refusing to adapt to a changing world. I’m not optimistic about America biting Beddoes’s bullets.

It surely will never happen in a second Obama term. With Romney, and a fresh shuffle of the political cards, maybe there’s at least a chance.

* The blogosphere’s Lefties have mounted the predictable shrill attacks on The Economist for daring to call its prescriptions “progressive.”

** Broadened educational opportunity was probably the key reason why American inequality fell significantly in the last century.


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