Sunday, November 16, 2014

A story of Kakha Bendukidze

Last week the world lost Kakha Bendukidze. I didn't know him, but I think the stories of people who make the world a freer place go untold too often, so I will tell the only story that I know about him. I heard it from Tom G. Palmer, a living hero of mine. The story is not long, but it will always stick with me:

Kakha Bendukidze was a Georgian-born businessman, public figure, and reformer. He returned to Georgia after a corrupt and brutal regime was overturned and aided in dramatic liberal reforms. To show the end of the days of police brutality and a return to a humane police force, he tore down all of the stations that had become symbols of oppression to the people who lived under the regime of President Eduard Shevardnadze and replaced them with police stations with transparent walls.

From what I know, Kakha spent the better part of the past year working to try to recover and protect the freedom of people in Ukraine.

It can seem easiest to do nothing, unless you are the type of person who can't stand it. From everything that I can tell, Kakha Bendukidze couldn't stand doing nothing when doing good was an option.

I will remember his story.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

#MyOttawa: There's something about The Hill

Photo as posted from Wayne Cuddington / Ottawa Citizen
Ottawa. It's not my favourite city, I gripe about it sometimes. But there's something cool about how Canadians 'do' government. It's a different place from, say, Washington, DC, and the Parliament Buildings and their grounds are different from the White House.

Before yesterday, if I'd wanted to, I could walk up to the Parliament buildings, lean against the sandstone and try to identify all the carved sculptures (the most famous being the beaver) above the door through which I've walked many times, and through which I'm fairly sure Michael Zehaf-Bibeau entered yesterday, armed with a rifle and aiming to continue what he'd started by killing unarmed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier a few minutes before.

I suspect that many people in Ottawa are finding, as I am, that the open nature of Parliament and its grounds holds symbolic importance that we'd not taken stock of before yesterday. The lawn on Parliament Hill really is 'our space', and our space is welcoming. In the winter you can make snow angels on the lawn. In the summer it's open on Wednesdays for yoga. On a sunny, breezy, summer day you could have a picnic on Parliament Hill. Why not?

The Hill isn't important because it's where the Canadian government works and sits (though it's that, too) but because it is, in a lot of ways, representative of what makes living in Canada pretty great. It's relatively open, uniquely beautiful, and plucky in a way that makes you happy to be from here. It is not a kitschy tourist attraction that can be sealed off, locked down and treated as off-limits in the way that some, especially those who don't live here, are claiming it should be without changing its nature.

I work about three blocks from the War Memorial three days a week, and was in a meeting across the street from my office when the shootings took place. From the second story of the World Exchange Plaza, I watched SWAT teams running, armed, through the streets. When I tried to look toward Parliament, I was shooed from the windows by security. After a couple of hours, we were allowed to cross the street to return to our office, and a few hours later we left, but could only do so through the South door. I walked West (the East was blocked) and looked toward Parliament Hill to see police at every intersection and no one on the street. The way was blocked. The space was not open. Not even when I first moved here did the city seem so alien.

Zehaf-Bibeau was a coward and a criminal who was handled professionally and effectively by Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vicker, the RCMP, and Ottawa Police. He frightened us all as we waited for word from friends and loved ones under lock down, but no one I've spoken to has been anything but grateful of how first responders treated us while it was in effect. While there are certainly improvements that can be made, such as to security for military guards and how the Parliament Buildings are accessed from the outside, I hope that as the investigation wraps up we do not satisfy a murderer by elevating him to someone capable of changing the generally open, and as we saw yesterday, prepared nature of Ottawa and Parliament Hill. Not, as Andrew Coyne said so well, at the cost of our national spirit.

Ottawa was strong yesterday. We shouldn't react, and we shouldn't be treated, as though we were weak.

Update: Margaret Wente and Scott Gilmore have good columns on this, too.

I'd like to thanks friends who also live or have lived in Ottawa, work or have worked on Parliament Hill, and were under lockdown in different circumstances than I yesterday for their feedback in writing this post. 

Sunday, September 21, 2014

"A curious but understandable thing happened in the eighteenth century. By then, the cities of Europeans had done well enough by them, mediating between them and many harsh aspects of nature, so that something became popularly possible which previously had been a rarity - sentimentalization of nature, or at any rate, sentimentalization of a rustic or a barbarian relationship with nature[...]

In real life, barbarians (and peasants) are the least free of men - bound by tradition, ridden by caste, fettered by superstitions, riddled by suspicion and foreboding of whatever is strange. "City air makes free," was the medieval saying, when city air literally did make free the runaway serf. City air still makes free the runaways from company towns, from plantations, from factory-farms, from migrant picker routes, from mining villages, from one-class suburbs.

Owing to the mediation of cities, it became popularly possible to regard "nature" as benign, ennobling, and pure, and by extension to regard "natural man" (take your pick of how "natural") as so too. Opposed to all this fictionalized purity, nobility and beneficence, cities, not being fictions, could be considered as seats of malignancy and - obviously - the enemies of nature. And once people begin looking at nature as if it were a nice big St. Bernard dog for the children, what could be more natural than the desire to bring this sentimental pet into the city too, so the city might get some nobility, purity, and beneficence by association?"

- Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Chapter 22, "The kind of problem a city is"

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Activists' privilege and romanticizing famine foods

As a wacky foodie, I am more apt than most to spend the resources (mostly time) to make unusual ingredients taste good, though I won't go to the lengths that restaurants like Noma will. But I understand that this is a luxury, rather than a practical skill. There's a reason tasty preparations of many wild foods are so expensive to come by: they need more resources. That is why it is more expensive. Insisting upon increased reliance on such food will never be the key to lowering the price of food, to sustainability or to increasing accessibility of food for the most desperate. 

I wish that (normally affluent) activists who suggest that people with the most tenuous access to food divert their resources in this direction could see how insensitive they're being. Even the failure to realize that the time it takes to garden, let alone to forage, clean, and boil lichens for three hours, is prohibitively expensive to many people shows how out of touch they are.

That's why Pierre Desrochers is right on the money in this article:
"Although wild ingredients might be free, the attendant foraging and preparation costs are significant. What they would probably find most amazing, however, is that what they typically knew as ‘famine foods’ are now commanding a significant premium over plentiful and convenient things that actually taste good rather than ‘wild’. 
Unfortunately, for many of our remote ancestors, the absence of effective transportation, such as railroads and container ships, meant that they had no choice but to survive on a local diet and, in the process, put all their agricultural eggs into one geographical basket. This was always a recipe for disaster."
Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

The past without rose-scented kerchiefs.

Those who worry about the pollution and noise that they imagine to be new to cities since the advent and proliferation of car travel have forgotten the horse. Much like a reliance on a home-grown food supply, we can romanticize and enjoy horses as we do precisely because we are wealthy enough that we no longer rely upon them. Since I first read this excerpt published in The Death and Life of Great American Cities from a description of London in 1890, I've not been able to shake it. The past is lovely seen through the rose-coloured glasses (and scented cloths) of those who never had to live it. 
"The Strand in those days... was the throbbing heart of the people's essential London. Hedged by a maze of continuous alleys and courts, the Strand was fronted by numbers of little restaurants whose windows vaunted exquisite feeding; taverns, dives, oyster and wine bars, ham and beef shops; and small shops marketing a lively variety of curious or workaday things all standing in rank, shoulder to shoulder, to fill the spaces between its many theatres... But the mud! [A euphemism.] And the noise! And the smell! All these blemishes were [the] mark of [the] horse... 
The whole of London's crowded wheeled traffic - which in parts of the City was at times dense beyond movement - was dependent on the horse: lorry, wagon, bus, hansom and "growler," and coaches and carriages and private vehicles of all kinds, were appendages to horses. Meredith refers to the "anticipatory stench of its cab-stands" on railway approach to London: but the characteristic aroma - for the nose recognized London with gay excitement - was of stables, which were commonly of three or four storeys with inclined ways zigzagging up the faces of them; [their] middens kept the castiron filigree chandeliers, that glorified the reception rooms of upper and lower middle class homes throughout London, encrusted with dead flies and, in late summer, veiled with jiving clouds of them. 
A more assertive mark of the horse was the mud that, despite the activities of a numerous corps of red-jacketed boys who dodged among wheels and hooves with pan and brush in service to iron bins at the pavement-edge, either flooded the streets with churnings of "pea soup" that at times collected in pools overbrimming the kerbs, and at others covered the road-service as with axle grease or bran-laden dust to the distraction of the wayfarer. In the first case, the swift-moving hansom or gig would fling sheets of such soup - where not intercepted by trousers or skirts - completely across the pavement, so that the frontages of the Strand throughout its length had an eighteen-inch plinth of mud-parge thus imposed upon it. The pea-soup condition was met by wheeled "mud-carts" each attended by two ladlers clothed as for Icelandic seas in thigh boots, oilskins collared to the chin, and sou'westers sealing in the back of the neck. Splash Ho! The foot passenger now gets the mud [still a euphemism] in his eye! The axle-grease condition was met by horse-mechanized brushes and travellers in the small hours found fire-hoses washing away residues... 
And after the mud the noise, which, again endowed by the horse, surged like a mighty heart-beat in the central districts of London's life. It was a thing beyond all imaginings. The streets of workaday London were uniformly paved in "granite" sets... and the hammering of a multitude of iron-shod hairy heels upon [them], the deafening, side-drum tatoo of tyred wheels jarring from the apex of one set to the next like sticks dragging along a fence; the creaking and groaning and chirping and rattling of vehicles, light and heavy, thus maltreated; the jangling of chain harness and the clanging or jingling of every other conceivable thing else, augmented by the shrieking and bellowings called for from those of God's creatures who desired to impart information or proffer a request vocally - raised a din that... is beyond conception. It was not any such paltry thing as noise. It was an immensity of sound..." (pp. 341-342, December 1992 Vintage Books edition)

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tools of power and power over tools

My friends on the left often advocate the use of public powers that have been used (or were originally intended) to suppress causes they would have sympathised with. Examples include occupational licensing, closed shop union legislation, the minimum wage, and urban planning.

The reconstruction of Paris between 1853 and 1869 by Haussmann and Napoleon was designed to control uprisings by breaking up and moving working-class neighbourhoods and facilitating troop movement though the city, but it also aimed to make Paris manageable for bureaucrats, planners, businesses, and tax collectors, and more comfortable for the bourgeoisie.

The intent of city plans is to make a city and its neighbourhoods understandable to those tasked with administering them. Poor neighbourhoods with complex streets, housing arrangements, and social relationships are likely administered by a college-educated planner who, odds are, has very little experience with how the poor live.

Asymmetrical access to power includes the power to create and implement plans, resulting in plans that demolish poor (though, according to their residents, functioning) minority neighbourhoods like Black Bottom in Detroit or Africville in Halifax, far more frequently than the neighbourhoods of better enfranchised residents.

The hope is that tools like urban planning can be used for good, but the ability to turn them back to their original intent shouldn't be ignored given the state's history of structural discrimination in support of the status quo.

This post was inspired by my ongoing reading of Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Declare Independence

It seems like you're supposed to feel old as you leave your twenties, but getting older is actually pretty awesome. If you have the right attitude about your twenties you'll love them but you'll never want to do that again. It's the perfect time to figure out what kind of person you are and the type of person you want to be. The things that happen are important, formative, fun, and exhausting. You make mistakes because you're supposed to make mistakes. Be smart. Learn from them. You'll be fine.

Today I'm 30 years old. I'm an early millennial. We grew up in the dying days of the way things used to be - and everyone's exasperated with us for it.

People develop theories about how the world should work. They don't like randomness, especially when it comes to failure. They want explanations and to be able to point to something that "went wrong." There was, therefore, a formula for a successful life:

        • study hard 
        • extracurriculars
        • get into good school
        • go to good school
        • study useful topic
        • get good, stable job
        • ??? (inserted as the futility became more obvious)
        • grown up!

Millennials attended elementary and high school under the long and fading shadow of what success used to look like, then saw it pass over us completely. We're the generation whose lives ended all illusions that the old model might pull through. Without it nobody seems to know what success should look, but they don't seem happy that they can't recognize what we're doing. We don't conform to old expectations: we don't get married earlywe don't buy carswe don't buy homes. We don't do the things that people think we ought to do when they think we ought to do them to make things the way they think they ought to be because that's they way they've always been! (It's not, but nevermind.)

Those aren't the only expectations we don't fulfill. Governments and banks do not deal well with change, and we're changing things. The forms for the lives we're choosing aren't standard. When you need to provide a permanent address, what do you do if it's on the road, or in a van? Gay marriage has extended legal equality to another type of committed, long-term relationship, but it's not like everyone's covered. Like the flexibility of contract work? (I do!) Get ready to learn about the obscure side of a tax system that's designed to handle one employer with matching employee tax forms using pre-calculated, automatic deductions.

Millennials are figuring out how to set our own course, but it feels like the world is trying harder than ever to entrench standardized systems for interchangeable pieces into which we just. don't. fit. The longer we try to achieve a version of success designed by people who think they know what's best for us better than we do, the longer we'll flounder.

We have different ideas of what life ought to look like - we want things to be the way we think they should be. And, by the way, that's not demanding and obnoxious. That's awesome. It's an attitude that can drive change and make things more responsive. It rejects stagnation. It can make things better. Let's want that. Let's not settle out of fear of seeming spoiled.

Let's stop looking backward and choose to move forward. Let's define success at the individual level. The old convention of a stable, lifelong job is over for nearly everyone. Maybe the key lesson for a generation at which so much negativity has been directed is to worry less about what other people think our success ought to be. Life isn't about control. You don't need all the answers to live it. Life is about figuring them out. The longer you work toward it, the further you'll get.

So I guess it's a good thing I'm 30. Happy birthday to me.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

War is never good for prosperity

The following was intended to be a letter to the New York Times, but I came across the article in question too late to send my response to them.
I am typically a fan of Tyler Cowen’s work, so I was disappointed to read his piece, "The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth." (June 13, 2014) 
In an era without the existential threat of total war, it’s true that powerful economic interests can take precedence over “the national interest” driving government decision making. The politically connected are invested in the economic status quo that produced their success and privileged status. The policies that they favour will be geared toward slowing changes that could endanger their relative positions if they cannot stop them completely. Rapid economic growth has never happened without changing that status quo.

War is not the only – and should not be anyone’s – preferred strategy for countering the powerful economic interests that push policies that slow growth. We need not choose between peace and prosperity, but we must choose between prosperity and planned predictability.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Ontario, it's OK to not vote.

OK, enthusiastic voting advocates, here's the deal:

Your "right to complain" and participate as part of civil society is most certainly not handed out as a prize for voting. There are more meaningful ways that you can contribute to the world than by sticking a piece of paper in a cardboard box once every few years.

If you want to vote, vote well. If you don't think you can vote well with the time you have available today, it's ok! There are a lot of ways that you can make the world a better place. Today isn't your only chance.

How to vote well:
If you're going to vote, you should do it responsibly. Reading the platforms written by the advertisers for each party is not informing yourself. You should, at a minimum, have read some basic economics. Understood the trade-offs that each policy stand that you take are likely to have, and decided that those trade-offs *are worth it* - not that they don't matter or don't exist. You should try to identify your own cognitive biases and do your best to overcome them before making a decision. You need to be comfortable with the idea that any policy that you're approving for your own benefit can be used by someone you disagree with in the future.

The idea that everybody ought to vote comes from the idea that so long as enough of us vote, we cancel out each others' mistakes and come up with the best solution. But if voters don't overcome their policy misconceptions, the more people vote, the more wrong the outcome will be.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Read for ideas, not identity.

Attending a conference by The Libertia Society, "Write-Hers for Liberty," last weekend got me thinking about why it's good to read more female authors. I don't think it's because they're women. Nothing about women, or the way they think or experience the world, is fundamentally different. Their work should be judged on its merits, not by its source.

Someone looking for a balanced understanding may feel they ought to read something written from "a woman's perspective" because women are more likely to have had certain experiences. But experiential knowledge is important because of the experience, not because the person writing about it falls into the right category.

The reason to seek out women in the liberal tradition is that they are poorly represented in the popular canon in spite of having made valuable contributions. Those who haven't read Rose Wilder Lane's Credo miss the insights of an intellectual journey from communism to liberalism. Failing to read Voltairine de Cleyre's Anarchism means missing a passionate, rather than analytical, defense of radical individualism. And those who don't read passages like this one from Isabel Paterson's The Golden Vanity might neglect the importance of choosing one's own way in life as a search for truth and meaning. The Libertia Society is helping to correct one deficiency in the material that liberals read, not basing its mission on a belief about the value of female authors as female authors.

People interested in ideas should resist the urge to read someone because they are a woman or a man, because they are trans, gay, bisexual, monogamous, polyamorous, Jewish, Buddhist, black, white, Burmese, or anything else. To do so comes uncomfortably close to not reading them because they fall into any particular category.

Read about things you don't understand until you do. Find good work. Think about it. Share and support it. Don't worry about where it comes from.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Inclusive liberty or no liberty at all

Inclusive liberal democratic societies face a challenge: What happens if the people we allow to participate don't want to be free? Do loose immigration policies and multiculturalism endanger freedom?

The concern of the day (though historically I doubt it's exceptional) is about Muslims. The argument goes like this: "Muslims have a higher birth rate than other groups in Western countries, and many of them want something like Sharia law and an Islamic state. Islam lacks an appreciation for the civic virtues that support liberal democracies in primarily Judeo-Christian countries. If we admit Muslims freely and allow them to vote, they will become too powerful and we will end up less free - or not free at all."

I don't believe any part of that is true, but let's suppose that all of it was. What's a liberal democracy to do?

I argued earlier that the way to promote the virtues that support a free society is to practice (and test and defend) them, and that practicing them is done by standing up for one another. If it is to be meaningful and robust, liberalism must be a fundamentally cooperative and inclusive exercise.

If we make concessions that allow infringements on the liberties of others, however targeted they may be, we erode support for the values we claim we're trying to save. If our liberal institutions are in danger, we are making them more vulnerable by allowing targeted concessions.

If the laws and values of a liberal society are not robust to the challenges presented by a specific group, they are not robust at all. Those who are willing to make exceptions because of one perceived threat open the door to others. They should not be surprised if they are blindsided - perhaps by those they empowered to make their exceptions.

There is no quick and easy solution. Liberty is a collaborative exercise, not a free-for-all. If we want to preserve the foundations of a liberal society, we must enforce them. The best, maybe the only, way to do that is to insist they are upheld consistently and for everyone.

What are the virtues of a free society?

What role does virtue play in establishing or maintaining a liberal polity? What virtues play that role? How can we best foster those virtues?

Ask a group of economists and a group of philosophers the first question and you may see them split down the middle: Economists tell you that you need to get the incentives right, while philosophers insist that it's all about virtue. Incentives are definitely important - but what do we do when the rules, and the incentives to fix them, are wrong? That's where virtue, or something like it, comes in.

I'm convinced the relevant virtues must include humility (we don't know all the answers to complex problems or what's best for others), respect (because we don't know what's best), patience (fostering prudence), vigilance for and tenacity in the face of adversity, and creativity (problem solving). They are built through habit, but must be justified by results and through discussion.

As liberals, nothing should upset us more than when the state forces us to act worse than we are. When laws prohibit us from feeding the homeless, or paying for someone else's parking, we need to stand up for one another. Tenacious insistence on not only our own ability, but the ability of others to act decently - to be free! - emboldens us to stand against further injustice. It builds relationships with those we defend. It teaches us the cooperative skills (bolstered by humility and respect) that are needed to find meaningful solutions to complex societal problems that are otherwise tossed to the government and forgotten.

The virtues that support a liberal society are not what we think of as heroic virtues. They are built on small acts that lie within reach for each and every one of us.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

So much for trigger warnings

Radical feminists and progressives, this is why you can't have nice things.

It's true: I've used "trigger warning" in the past to give people a heads up about potentially upsetting information. I did this because I know my audience, and I know people for whom the issues I'm flagging are potential triggers. But, as much as I understand (and will defend) its reasonable use, it really has gone too far, and I will avoid using it in the future.

When you apply a warning to everything, it becomes meaningless even when it's applied reasonably. The rationale for applying a trigger warning to everything that could potentially be upsetting to someone seems a lot like helping people avoid issues that upset them, not treating them like empowered individuals.
"Oberlin College recommends that its faculty “remove triggering material when it does not contribute directly to the course learning goals”. When material is simply too important to take out entirely, the college recommends trigger warnings."
And for what? Talk to someone who has (or has a friend who has) gone through exposure therapy and they will tell you that helping a trauma survivor avoid everything upsetting is not doing them any favours. If you care about education, you know that censorship doesn't do it any favours, either. I'm certain the people suggesting this have good intentions, but I wonder how well informed they are, and if they're aware of what's motivating them.

A personal story: I was in a non-abusive (don't worry, Mom and Dad!), but emotionally unhealthy friendship for years. It became unbearable, and I cut ties for the better part of a year to sort myself out. This meant taking a hard look at how I was reacting to things that set me off. That meant dealing with those things. It was, I'm certain, nothing compared to what an assault survivor has to go through, but I can tell you a few things that I learned: First, I was upset and angry all the time. It was easy to explain being upset and angry all the time with any example of injustice, pigheadedness, or anything else I normally find merely irritating. If I had wanted to avoid sorting myself, I could have asked my friends to avoid sending me all kinds of things.

I don't want to say that my experience is generalizable or comparable to what someone with PTSD has to put themselves through to heal. But I can see how this got out of hand. It's time to rein it in.

The person who got me through tackling my issues, by the way, is one of the people I'm giving a heads up to when I write "trigger warning." You guys, she can handle it. And the ones for whom it's more useful can get there. Anyone getting really indignant about slapping a trigger warning on everything has no idea how strong the people they're trying to protect have the potential to be.

I'm certain of one thing: they don't need, and they won't be helped by, a bubble-wrapped world.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

When conspiracy theories go from sad to evil.

(Trigger warning*: This post involves violence against a small child and an infuriating lack of humility. You should not continue if you don't want to read about violence against children.)
*(Edit: Sigh. I know. See my post on "trigger warning.")

I try very hard to have a sympathetic view of conspiracy theorists. I understand that the people who look for patterns, for "the real story," for "what they're not telling us," etc. are trying to deal with feelings of helplessness and self-doubt. I understand just wanting to have someone agree with you, the rose-coloured glasses that can follow when it finally happens, and a tendency to accept what you might normally turn away from. I understand how skepticism can run amok. Normally conspiracy theories, while sad for those who believe them, are harmless to others - a feeling of "knowing" that the Olympics, or a political scandal on the front page is really a cover-up, for instance, doesn't do much more than support the idea of a pattern where there isn't one.

But sometimes conspiracy theorists go beyond simple narcissism, turning tragedies away from victims and recovery toward self-serving stories about the world. Examples are the crying of "false flag" at the Boston Marathon bombings and Sandy Hook shooting.

Founded on personal tragedy, a misunderstanding of medical science, and a story that sounds an awful lot like the cover-ups conspiracy theorists pride themselves on busting, the anti-vaccination movement is probably the conspiracy theory that's done the most widespread harm. Its proponents actively work to convince parents to boycott childhood vaccines with devastating results. Frightened people looking for patterns inflict the cost of their beliefs on their kids and other medically vulnerable people. Pairing this malignant movement with new tragedy is a recipe for disaster.

In their intervention in the case of the murder of 12-week old Ja'Nayjah Sanders by her non-custodial father, the anti-vaccination movement has crossed a new line.

Ja'Nayjah was beaten to death by her father, who was sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder. Ja'Navjah's mother, Shamarrie Kittle, in her grief, was vulnerable to activists the anti-vaccination site VacTruth, who claim that Ja'Navjah's skull fractures were the result of routine two-month vaccinations. Kittle became convinced of VacTruth's claims and is now lobbying to have the murderer of her daughter acquitted and freed.

You can read the details of the case, compiled here. They're horrifying. Her surgeons have no doubt that John Sanders beat his daughter with or against something to inflict the brain injuries she sustained. That anyone would try to pardon someone who would act like this goes beyond the boundaries of what's acceptable. To convince her mother to pardon him is horrifying. To do it in order to prop up, knowingly or not, a self-serving belief system is simply evil.

Friday, February 14, 2014

The curious case of the Copenhagen giraffe

In case you missed it, this week a zoo in Copenhagen killed a healthy, young giraffe named Marius, dissected him in front of children, and then fed him to lions. The outcry was pretty bad.

Why Marius wasn't given a new home? The Copenhagen zoo has voluntarily subscribed to association standards that prohibit the sale of their animals outside of the association and manages the genetic population of their giraffes to prevent inbreeding. Allowing him to join a new herd could put the future population in danger.

Why was he cut up in front of children? His dissection represented an educational experience - which is great, not only for the biology but also because he was being prepared as food. Shielding children from frank education about where meat comes from contributes to squeamishness about using the whole animal and indifference about the conditions animals endure on factory farms.

Why was Marius fed to the lions? Because the alternative was to throw away his body and kill another animal (a cow) to take his place.

There are reasons for all of it. But when we talk about beautiful animals like giraffes, we get emotional. The reporter interviewing the head of the Copenhagen zoo is not unusual (and the interview gives a lot of back story about what happened and why):

Marius may be meat in the wild, but he was born in a zoo, and so he should have been safe so long as he was healthy - or so the argument goes. But Marius was also born in the real world, and not a fairy tale, and so things are not quite so simple.

Zoos come under attack because they exist for entertainment and profit and not solely for preservation of species. Zoos cannot make their decisions based on conservation alone or they will lose the resources that pay for it, and they are the most significant organizations who can own and preserve wild animals. A general prohibition on private ownership takes a broader incentive (and more diverse models) to breed and care for them off the table.

I'm a big fan of legalizing the ownership of wild animals. Not just as pets, but also for farming (especially in the case of Chinese medicine - rhinos can have their horns harvested without killing them, and the biggest threat to tigers is the destruction of the wild population). In addition to creating an incentive to breed them in captivity and spare wild populations, this would shift resources away from enforcing rules against ownership to those aimed at preventing cruelty and negligence.

People may not like the idea of raising (some*) animals for money, but there's no way around the fact that they will be killed for it. We can't wish away poaching and smuggling any more than we can drug use.

We might feel good about refusing to tie (some*) animals to profit, but it's at their expense, not ours. When we make emotional policy decisions about species preservation, we take important options with serious benefits off the table because we don't want to weigh them against the costs.

It is easy to say that we want to save animals. It is harder to bear the cost and actually do it.

*Dogs, cats, rabbits, pigs, cows, chickens, ducks, guinea pigs, hamsters, parrots, fish, turtles, geckos, etc. There are lots of exceptions.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014

Forbes: Everything you know (about the minimum wage) is wrong

This piece in Forbes is pretty well done. The main points:
  • There are certainly working poor people supporting families on the minimum wage, but they are the minority of minimum wage workers. If the point is to help these people, increasing the minimum wage is a poorly targeted and expensive way of doing it, even if there weren't adverse effects (and there's a lot to suggest that there would be).
  • You can't talk about general labour productivity to draw insights about the appropriateness of specific wage rates. Average labour productivity has gone up, but there's evidence that the productivity of minimum wage workers has actually been dragging down that average - the minimum wage may have risen five or six times faster than minimum wage-earners' productivity, not so slowly that it's nearly $15 lower than it should be.
The author takes a rather dim view of minimum wage proponents, which is too bad. I don't think that this is a sneaky way to get at class warfare hatched in the mind of left-wing conspirators, I think that minimum wage proponents genuinely believe that raising it would be helpful, and that the statistics they're presenting are sufficient evidence of that. It's unfortunate that policy makers are not demanding better information before starting the debate.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The minimum wage and poverty reduction: What if we're wrong?

Assume that we have decided that we ought to institute a policy to increase the disposable income of the least well off. Here are a few options from the real world:

  1. We can try to improve the business climate to increase overall employment,
  2. We can pay money directly to the poor, or
  3. We can increase the minimum wage.

For the sake of this exercise, accept that economists agree that raising the minimum wage will have negligible effects on employment among unskilled workers (in the real world that's not obvious), and that a better business environment or direct subsidies would also make the poor better off.

But let's make a crazy assumption: that economists are sometimes wrong when they make predictions.

So. What if they're wrong? Who pays for the mistake?

If an improved business climate fails to lead to a better lot for the poor, any cost will be spread fairly evenly. One could argue that those at the top benefit disproportionately from a better business climate, but if that's a problem it's one that can be dealt with through progressive taxation and redistribution or program spending.

If a program designed to pay money to the poor directly (or through a working income tax benefit) doesn't increase their incomes, they will not be hurt if the program is scaled back or reformed. The cost will fall on taxpayers in proportion to what they pay, so in Canada, disproportionately on the rich.

If economists are wrong in the case of the minimum wage, the cost will fall on the most vulnerable unskilled workers with the least income mobility. Those from well-to-do households can build experience through volunteering and unpaid internships. The working poor can't afford to work for free.

A minimum wage's costs are also relatively higher for small and start-up businesses. Large, established businesses can absorb the cost of higher compensation, while small businesses feel the sting. Businesses who don't hire unskilled workers pay nothing at all.

The bottom line: If we're wrong about some poverty-reduction policies, the burden of our mistake lies fairly equally. But if we're wrong about the minimum wage, it's the most vulnerable who pay the price. Tossing around grand ideas on poverty reduction means less than nothing if we're not willing to bear the cost.