Category: Public Policy

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005

Let me quickly respond to this week’s Acton Commentary:

While I agree in broad strokes with Dr. Larrivee’s analysis of the questionable assumptions of the fair trade movement, with respect to coffee in particular, I don’t agree that the problem is “low productivity in the countries in which farmers live.” I have previously argued that the source of the issue is in fact too much coffee, so that the market is saturated and cannot sustain high prices given the declining worldwide demand.

Dr. Larrivee later rightly observes that the fair trade system contributes to a situation which “would expand the supply until the price farmers receive dropped back to the subsistence level.” I think, in fact, this has already happened in the case of coffee, and the fair trade movement simply exacerbates the problem.

You can read more about my take on the situation here.

Blog author: jballor
Friday, November 18, 2005

Among the ways the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) is going about attempting to raise public awareness of hunger issues is the use of “celebrity” athelete spokesmen. Paul Tergat, who won this year’s New York City Marathon, was a recipient of WFP aid when he was growing up in Kenya. Listen to a Morning Edition story on Tergat and the WFP here. Tergat is specifially the pitchman for the WFP’s Race Against Hunger project, targeted at about 300 million schoolchildren globally.

This, of course, is just one of the various WFP publicity efforts, which also include the production of a free downloadable video game, “Food Force.” A review of WFP’s “Food Force” is available here.

Of course, the UN isn’t the only game in town. Feed The Children is an international, nonprofit, Christian aid group “that delivers food, medicine, clothing and other necessities to individuals, children and families who lack these essentials due to famine, war, poverty or natural disaster.” A key part of Feed The Children’s effort is the push for sustainability: “A key goal is to help needy families move past needing help and into becoming self-sufficient members of their community. Through long-term, self-help development programs funded by grants and by our Child Sponsorship partners, tens of thousands of families in countries around the world have increased their ability to be self-sufficient by learning and applying new, marketable skills.”

Blog author: jspalink
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Dante seems upset about being reduced to a text message.

A British mobile phone company has hired a professor of literature to write up short quotations from various masterpieces. The goal is to help make “great literature more accessible” by offering short, truncated, text messages to students via cell phones. A Reuters story quoted the company:

“We are confident that our version of ‘text’ books will genuinely help thousands of students remember key plots and quotes, and raise up educational standards rather than decrease levels of literacy,” the company, Dot Mobile, said in a press release.

Call me old-fashioned, but last time I checked, the point of studying literature was not to memorize certain key quotations, or even plot lines. That is coincidental. The point of studying literature, and especially the classics, is to learn the mastery of language, to understand linguistic intent, and to appreciate poetry and prose. To tout a product that truncates and reduces literature to a few short lines cut up and abbreviated, and to call this a method of raising “educational standards” and increasing “literacy” is quite disappointing.

Imagine studying Dante’s Inferno, and having it summarized by a few text messages. “Dante lost N wOd” => “Dante+Virgil go N heL” => “D+V paS thrU heL.” There you go students – there’s the Inferno! Basic plot (minus every line of allegory, poetry, and metaphor).

While I do see the value of short and succinct mnemonic devices to help a student remember a plot or quotation for a test, literature really does exist so that we may read it, especially the masterpieces.

Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested: that is, some books are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously, and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence and attention.

Sir Francis Bacon
English author, courtier, & philosopher (1561 – 1626)

Blog author: abradley
Thursday, November 17, 2005

At the the UN net summit in Tunis, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte has showcased his hundred dollar computer. The small, durable, lime colored, rubber-encased laptop is powered by a handcrank, and is designed to make technology more accessible to poor children in countries around the world.

If I may speak of ‘trickle-down’ technology, this is the perfect example. This announcement–an announcement of a tool to help poor countries–may not be the best time to note the virtues of richer ones; and I am not trying to steal the UN’s thunder. But there will be those who, like the BBC, will hail this as a great opportunity to narrow “the technology gap between rich and poor.” Indeed it will. But I would like to note that without this gap–one created by the entrepreneurial minds that invented laptop technology to begin with–there would be no laptops for impoverished children. A necessary precurser to this act of charity (in the traditional sense of self-giving love) is the development of the product. And this development takes place best in the free society.

Here at Acton, it is commonly noted that “you have to create wealth before you can distribute it.” The same goes with the creation of our technology, a particular type of wealth. In order to develop those tools which help us all better combat poverty, disease, and other physical ills, we must have the freedom to enact our creative initiative to create those tools. This means entrepreneurship. Which often means capital. Which commonly means people in suits with briefcases that sometimes vote Republican. But by the time we get to this point, many people are crying “oppression!” as if businessman and tyrant meant the same thing.

The point it this: narrowing the technology gap does not mean bringing society back to some default position. We don’t all go back to the equality of zero. Some have the good fortune or the grace to find themselves with particular tools or means. In freedom, some of these people cultivate these gifts, creating something to make other people’s lives better. The space of time where some have this product and other do not–this is not ipso facto a time of injustice (although injustice can come about in these circumstances). It is as often a time where the good work of entrepreneurs is trickling down to touch everyone. And do not be put off by the phrase “trickle down” as if it implies the inherent superiority of the entrepreneurs; it doesn’t. What trickles down is often that which raises men up. Perhaps we can call it grace.

Blog author: jballor
Thursday, November 17, 2005

Thomas Lessl, Associate Professor in the Department of Speech Communication at the University of Georgia, talks about the “priestly voice” of science. He argues that “scientific culture has responded to the pressures of patronage by trying to construct a priestly ethos — by suggesting that it is the singular mediator of knowledge, or at least of whatever knowledge has real value, and should therefore enjoy a commensurate authority. If it could get the public to believe this, its power would vastly increase.”

Lessl makes an important point about the effect of this on popular perceptions of science: “The priestly character of scientific rhetoric has to do with the need to identify science with the most essential human values by making it a world view — by creating a public culture based in scientism. The best known example of this approach to scientific communication in recent memory would be that taken by Carl Sagan. Perhaps more successfully than any other popular writer of the last century, except perhaps H. G. Wells, Sagan was able create the sense that history has a scientific destiny.”

Read the rest of the interview with Dr. Lessl here.

Economist John Larrivee looks at the logic underlying the fair trade coffee movement and applies it to beer and baked goods. It doesn’t quite make sense. Larrivee points out that “the question is not the difference between what different parties to the production get paid, but rather who adds value, how much, and where.”

Read the full commentary here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The church thought of this first, but better late than never, I suppose: 10 over 100 is an effort to encourage people who make over $100,000 per year to donate 10% to charity.

Here’s the pledge: I, [type your name here] , hereby make a personal promise to give 10% of whatever I make over $100,000 each year to charity. I will donate money directly to organizations of MY choosing, including charities, relief funds, schools, churches, etc. I understand that this promise is morally, not legally, binding.

HT: Fast Company Now

Update: FWIW, under a “graduated tithe” of the type advocated by Ron Sider, with a scale of, say, $10,000, and basic expenses set at $40,000, you would be giving 60% per $10k once you reached $100,000 in income. So at the $100,000 level, you’d be giving a total of $25,000 or 25%. Beyond this, you increase gradually until you would be giving 100% of the money earned past $140,000. A PDF scale version of a type of graduated tithe is available here.

Blog author: jballor
Wednesday, November 16, 2005

The AP reports that a deal has been struck to continue primary management of the Internet by the United States, following weeks and months of controversy. The EU had been pushing for control of the web to be turned over to a supra-national body, such as the UN.

The accord was accomplished at The World Summit on the Information Society, an international gathering to examine the “digital divide” between developed and developing nations. While “the summit was originally conceived to address the digital divide–the gap between information haves and have-nots–by raising both consciousness and funds for projects,” the meeting provided a forum to discuss and come to a resolution: “Instead, it has centered largely around Internet governance: oversight of the main computers that control traffic on the Internet by acting as its master directories so Web browsers and e-mail programs can find other computers.”

U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce Michael D. Gallagher said that the new agreement means that the onus now lies with the developing world to bring in not just opinions, but investment to expand the Internet to their benefit.

The fundamental basis for the agreement is the establishment of the Internet Governance Forum, a non-binding advisory body that would bring “its stakeholders to the table to discuss the issues affecting the Internet, and its use.” The formation of the forum essentially follows the recommendations of the UN’s Working Group on Internet Governance made in this past June.

For more on the issue of Internet governance, check out the Internet Governance Project, “an interdisciplinary consortium of academics with scholarly and practical expertise in international governance, Internet policy, and information and communication technology.”

A paper issued earlier this year by the project focuses on “the six factors that need to be taken into account in working out the details of a forum mechanism” (Download PDF here).

By now most everyone has heard about Pat Robertson’s warning to a Pennsylvania town that voted out their school board. The move seemed to be in response to the board’s attempt to introduce curriculum including “intelligent design” theory. In an announcement to the people of Dover, PA, Robertson said: “if there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God — you just rejected Him from your city.”

Robertson advised the city’s residents to seek assistance from someone other than God if trouble were to overtake them: “God is tolerant and loving, but we can’t keep sticking our finger in his eye forever. If they have future problems in Dover, I recommend they call on Charles Darwin. Maybe he can help them.”

No one ever accused Robertson of a lack of rhetorical flourish. But beyond where his point may be legitimate, that intelligent design should not be banned from public schools, Robertson makes the mistake of confusing belief in a generic “intelligent designer” with belief in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

It’s one thing to argue for the possible supernatural origins of the universe. It’s quite another to identify those origins with the God of the Bible. This is a point that seems to largely be lost on the evangelical world, even among those who are somewhat more circumpsect and thoughtful that Pat Robertson. I wonder, in fact, whether it would be much more palatable for Robertson if the people of Dover prayed to the “unknown god” of intelligent design rather than Charles Darwin.

Supernatural theism in general is closer to Christian belief than naturalistic atheism. But supernatural theism isn’t identical with Christian belief; it’s merely compatible with it. It’s also compatible with a host of other religious views. For more on this, read Hugh Ross on why Christians should be concerned about “More Than Intelligent Design.”

Four hundred MILLION dollars!

Whoops. This week, GM retracts its earnings report from four years ago, saying it overstated its profits by somewhere between $300-400 million dollars. The tendency with a story like this is to cry “fraud!” and then denounce corporate America for its inherently corrupt nature. Now, who can say what the cause is of this slip-up (blunder, goof, unbelievably huge mathematical oh-oh?)? But in the absence of the whole story, how proper is pessimism? Is it possible to be ambivalent toward GM and give them the benefit of the doubt?

Detroit auto is in a bad way (for other ways Detroit is in a bad way, see here). With Delphi in big trouble, SUV sales plummeting, and a $1.6 billion dollar third-quarter loss (that’s billion with a ‘b’), why would GM come out and report a mistake this embarrassing at the most inopportune time? If there is scandal and GM was involved in shady, Enron-like accouting, why would they fess up now? One could easily say they would get caught anyway (the SEC has an investigation going), but even so, why pile sorrow upon sorrow if you are trying to deceive people?

Speculation can be healthy only to a certain point. So let’s at least give them the benefit of the doubt. For once, let’s make a point of recognizing what seems to be–at least at this point–corporate honesty. (You won’t hear that in the news.) See, not all guys in suits are trying to take over the world.