Archive for August, 2010

How to combat world hunger and save the Earth

August 31, 2010

In 1967, Paul Ehrlich declared that the battle to feed humanity was lost, and hundreds of millions would soon starve. Earlier, Thomas Malthus foresaw the impossibility of feeding a growing population – when the world count stood below a billion.

Today it’s 6.8 billion and the percentage hungry is lower than ever. Yet still we hear shrill warnings of food apocalypse.

Oddly, the people voicing them tend to oppose the very things that actually reduce hunger. Maybe some of them merely want the satisfaction of being proven right. Or view humanity as a pack of sinners deserving divine comeuppance for “raping the planet.”

And so they oppose Genetically Modified crops. There is no scientifically responsible case against GM, this is mindless technophobia. Wider use of GM would increase food production and reduce hunger today. Those who fight GM condemn millions to starvation.

Similarly, they decry other modern agricultural advances that improve productivity, vaunting instead the virtue of “organic” farming, eschewing certain kinds of fertilizers and pesticides. Fine and dandy – if you’re willing to kiss off rain forests. Because a world of organic-only farming would require tripling the acreage under cultivation.

Then there’s “local food.” Actually, transport costs (and their environmental effects) just aren’t big factors, they’re dwarfed by the energy inputs in growing food. This makes crucial the worldwide trade in food, promoting the efficiency of growing things where they are grown best. Tomatoes imported from sunny Spain may well have a lower carbon footprint than hothouse tomatoes grown next door. And if locavores triumph, then a lot of African farmers, unable to export their produce to rich markets, will starve.

The 8/28 Economist has a good article on how Brazil, once facing a food crisis, adopted policies completely opposite to those preached by the agro-pessimists – with stellar results. Brazil embraced GM food and other scientific advances. It refused to copy the US and European penchant for big state subsidies to prop up farmers, and also opened up to trade, letting small farms fold. Its farms now are huge – and hugely efficient. Brazil turned itself from a food importer to one of the world’s leading producers, its output rising 365% in a decade.

Did this farming miracle pillage the Amazon forest? No; nearly all occurred elsewhere (on lands once deemed unfarmable). Indeed, the point is that by making its farms maximally productive, Brazil has avoided being pressed to exploit the rain forest. Thus efficient scientifically advanced agriculture helps save the environment (from ruination by anti-scientific “greens”).

And saves people from starvation.

Of Mosques and Muslims

August 21, 2010

HELLOOO, this is a free country. Newt Gingrich says there shouldn’t be a mosque near Ground Zero till there are churches in Saudi Arabia. Isn’t the point here, precisely, that America differs from Saudi Arabia?

Some say Muslims have the right to build the mosque, but it would be offensive to the memory of 9/11. Well, any church is offensive to atheists, and I suppose a humanist institute is offensive to the eyes of Christians. But we tolerate such thumbs in our eyes because we recognize the greater importance of living in a free country.

Some also try to connect this mosque-cum-community-center project with terrorism. They say the imam has nebulous “ties” to entities with ties to terrorism. Well, so do you, probably. Meantime, right now, Imam Rauf is traveling in the Middle East – sponsored by the U.S. State Department, as a sort of goodwill ambassador to promote moderation there (where it’s sorely lacking, partly because those nations do not foster the kind of pluralism that flourishes in America).

But even if Imam Rauf were some kind of bad guy, we should still permit the mosque. Because we don’t want government deciding that certain expressions of belief are OK, and others are not – even if they are heinous. So (to invoke another Gingrich analogy) if some jerk wants to build a Nazi memorial near the Holocaust Museum, I say let him.

Even though I lost family in the Holocaust. A Nazi memorial would in no way undermine proper sentiments about that event; if anything, it should intensify our commitment to oppose the evil it exemplifies.

Banning this mosque will not make us safer against terrorism. Even if this were the “terrorist command center” of fevered fantasy, the location would be immaterial; 9/11 was plotted in Hamburg. And banning the mosque would actually play right into Al Qaeda’s hands, feeding its narrative of America as Islam’s enemy.

This whole mosque issue is a synthetic one, cynically ginned up just to score political points. Mosque opponents are entitled to be heard, but sensible people recognize this for what it is.

There is also talk that Muslims can’t be good Americans. My local humanist newsletter even printed such a piece, itemizing Muslim dogmas supposedly incompatible with American values. Well, there is plenty in the Bible likewise incompatible – like approval of slavery, the death penalty for children talking back to their parents, not to mention slaughter of innocents at God’s behest. American Christians ignore these things; most Muslims similarly ignore much in the Koran. But the great thing about America is that you can believe and even preach whatever craziness you like, as long as you harm no one, and you will not be harmed. We have taken the lesson of other places lacking this ethos of tolerance, with bloody results.

The last thing we want is to start deeming certain religious viewpoints un-American. If we go down that road, the first ones kicked out will be humanists.

What’s The Matter With Kansas?

August 19, 2010

Thomas Frank, in his 2004 book, What’s The Matter With Kansas? sees Republicans as the evil party of the rich, Democrats as the saintly party of working folks, and it infuriates him that so many working folks nevertheless vote Republican. They are, he says, duped by “culture” issues like abortion, prayer, and guns, as Trojan horses for Republican economic policies ruinous for them.

Frank mocks the red state/blue state stereotypes of effete latte-drinking coastal liberals versus down-to-earth Middle Americans. Yet his book reeks venomous contempt for Middle Americans – at least those who vote Republican – whom he calls “deranged” and “lunatics.”

It does flummox guys like him when people vote what they see as their values, rather than (what guys like him see as) their economic self-interest. In other words, they’re insufficiently materialistic. And these same pundits in other contexts denounce “money-worshipping” American materialism. How very odd.

In Frank’s view, all Republicans want is to fatten corporate profits and enrich plutocrats at the expense of ordinary Americans – whom they care nothing for, or actually thirst to impoverish, for some unexplained malign reason.

There’s something here I don’t get. Where is all this corporate profit supposed to come from? If ordinary folks are being driven to the wall, by these economic policies, then who’s going to buy all the products that corporations produce and sell to get those profits?

Frank’s ultimate villain is “unrestrained” capitalism, an evil criminal system, a “bad” economic idea that Republicans supposedly insanely worship. But that’s a straw man. We don’t have unrestrained capitalism, and no one advocates it. Businesses are subject to laws just like individuals are. What we do have is people supplying the needs and wants of others, motivated by, and compensated by, earnings. Missing from Frank’s book is any hint of an alternative economic system capable of giving us the “good jobs at good wages” whose supposed disappearance he bemoans. His sort seem to think we can somehow have good jobs at good wages without good businesses earning good profits. Talk about voodoo economics!

That’s one fundamental reason why it’s debatable that Democratic economic policies truly do favor working people. For working people to prosper, you need an economy full of vibrant businesses that can successfully compete in the global economy. Democrats never seem to embrace this reality. Further, through most of U.S. history, Democrats – especially those old-time prairie radicals whom Frank lionizes – understood perfectly how protectionism favors business interests over those of working people, consumers, and the nation as a whole. Somewhere along the line, Democrats lost their bearings on this issue. And so they pander to economic ignorance by condemning outsourcing, which is actually a way for U.S. businesses to maintain global competitiveness — without which they cannot employ any Americans.

I read this book, with its bleak portrayal of supposed middle class destruction, while on a cruise – no “budget” cruise, mind you – but I saw no one who looked like a fatcat. No, these passengers were the most ordinary of Americans (including much ethnic diversity) – obviously able to afford a luxury vacation which, not so long ago, would have been only for the richest few. That mass affluence is what capitalism has actually given us. And I noted too the thousand ways in which the cruise line (Celebrity) strove to give its customers a great time, so they’ll go home and talk it up to their friends. That’s how this competitive corporation was garnering its profits. That is capitalism, Adam Smith style. (I wonder if you’d get nightly chocolates on your pillow on a government-run cruise line.)

I’m fed up with the polemical style epitomized by Frank’s book, demonizing opposing viewpoints and imputing evil motives. It’s disgusting and it’s poisoning our politics. I threw the book away after subjecting myself to only half.

America is Number One – In Imprisonment

August 10, 2010

I’ve talked before about excessive, “bossy” government. Most of us don’t much feel it in our daily lives. But when you disobey, the boss puts you in prison. You may think you’re no criminal, so there’s nothing to fear. Think again.

The 7/24 Economist had an excellent feature on American incarceration, with some frightening examples of how seemingly innocent activities can land you in prison. Like the 4 lobster importers who used plastic bags instead of cardboard boxes. That heinous offense got them 8-year sentences.

The problem is way too many laws and regulations carrying criminal penalties, and an inflexibly bureaucratic justice system (e.g., mandatory minimum sentences) incapable of applying common sense. Plus a political climate wherein every office seeker has to seem tougher on crime than the other guy, producing ever more draconian laws.

Perhaps ironically, both left and right wingers are culpable. Both often mount moralistic high horses and see anyone who doesn’t conform to their precepts as a bad person who probably deserves to be punished. Both use government to inflict it, filling the law books with requirements, to conform to this or that detail of some policy agenda, on pain of a fine or prison. When they say, “government should do more,” the ostensible aim may be societal improvement, but the means reflexively tend to be creation of more rules coercively enforced by criminal sanctions. (E.g., fining people for not having health insurance, the fine backed up by the sanction of prison for nonpayment.)

The result is that “the land of the free” actually has more people locked up, in relation to population, than any other country (including Russia). Nine times more than Germany, for example. Americans are not 9 times naughtier than Germans; nor is Germany more crime-ridden due to its leniency. While imprisoning violent bad guys does curb crime by keeping them off the streets, that logic applies only to a small part of America’s prison population. Most are no threat to society, and jailing them is a horrendous cost we can’t afford — $50,000 a year per inmate in California, for example – but the greater cost is human destruction, blighting lives and their ability to be contributing members of society. And it’s often simply unjust.

Just imagine even a modest reform, sentencing many of these people to community service instead of jail. Better for them, obviously. And – better for the community, gaining the boon of their service rather than the cost of their suffering.

A big part of the problem is the insane war on drugs. I don’t use the word insane loosely. We arbitrarily decree that drugs like pot and heroin are criminal, while nicotine and alcohol, though far more damaging, are fine. Attempting to enforce this logical absurdity we waste untold billions that could otherwise be spent in socially useful ways; we shred civil liberties, turn our streets into war zones, and destroy hundreds of thousands of lives by making convicts of them. You can bleat all you want about the evils of drug use, but surely the “cure” is far worse than the disease, with the harm done by the war on drugs vastly dwarfing that of drug use itself. And anyway, it’s not a cure at all – it doesn’t reduce drug use one iota.

Why doesn’t the anti-war movement march in the streets against the carnage of this war?

The Other Rational Optimist

August 1, 2010

I finally got round to reading Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist. Not only is the title the same as this blog’s — and similar to my own book’s — so is the message.

Ridley’s key theme is the salience of trade — commerce — exchange — in propelling progress. The great point (which too many fail to grasp) is that trade makes both sides better off. (Even, as Ridley notes, if the trade is “unfair”; though a coin trade with an older boy 50+ years ago still rankles.) Ridley draws an analogy to the biological exchange of information, i.e., sex, which propels evolution. Trade, he writes, is akin to ideas having sex with each other.

Ridley’s book and mine both celebrate the human achievement. To lament modernity, to deny that we’ve progressed, even to condemn what we’ve done, while romanticizing a supposedly halcyon past, is pitiably foolish. Ridley does a great job showing just what progress has achieved in quality of life for the average human. He and I share a profound reverence for the titanic human exertions standing behind this. Reading his book on an airplane — a half-day transcontinental trip that for our forebears was arduous, miserable, dangerous, and took months — made me marvel anew at the vast web of contributions by untold thousands of people across the globe and across centuries that made this possible. The same is true of even our simplest modern conveniences, to which most of us give scarcely a thought. Not me; I see them as virtual miracles.

I have been following the reviews and blog commentaries on Ridley’s book. Most have been quite positive. The nastiest was by George Monbiot in Britain’s left-wing Guardian newspaper. One can of course quibble with details of Ridley’s analysis. But to dismiss his basic story, to actually condemn it as villainy, takes a really diseased cynicism, and blinding oneself to what is, well, blindingly obvious. Yet Monbiot and a few like-minded commenters accomplish this. It’s painful to observe. And it’s harmful. Their willful refusal to understand the sources and nature of progress, leading them to actively oppose it, stands in the way of a better world (especially for the downtrodden, about whose plight such pundits constantly whine).

Monbiot et al are intolerant guardians of a narrow orthodoxy. They portray Ridley’s book as fanatically pro-capitalist and anti-government. It is not, and only a fanatic would see it so. Their critiques reveal more about the critics than about the book.

Bravo to Ridley for his breath of fresh air and clear thinking. That his message is widely labeled “radical” is ironic — the reaction really should be, “Duh! Tell us something we don’t know.” Yet Ridley is indeed telling us something that, sadly, most people don’t know.

My own book, The Case for Rational Optimism (Transaction, Rutgers University, 2009), does make many points and arguments similar to Ridley’s, but is far broader in scope, covering not only such topics as the economy, war and peace, technology, democracy, etc., but also the evolutionary background and the philosophical and psychological issues involved with optimism versus pessimism. I think it’s pretty good too.