Chris' Original Blogbeque

A fresh, vinegar-based examination of life

Archive for the ‘globalization’ Category

Abortion & Crime in China

Posted by Chris on July 11, 2008

NYC experienced a much-discussed and theorized drop in crime in the 1990s.  I first read about it in a Harvard Business School case study in college, then again in the books Freakonomics and The Tipping Point (Malcolm Gladwell).  Gladwell and Harvard discussed Police Chief William Bratton and Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to clean up crime by increasing the visual presence of police and rooting out the simple crimes.

In Freakonomics, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner hypothesize that legalized abortion led to the drop in crime.  Roe v. Wade occurred in 1973, so as the 1990s came, there was a much smaller population of young men born in circumstances linked to higher crime rates (poverty, single moms) than there would have been.  I neither agree nor disagree with their conclusion and they are clear that it is not a moral statement.  If you want to better understand their theory (and see how they use data to back it up), read the book.

Today, the Freakonomics Blog has an interesting post on a related issue in China.  The One-Child policy has led to a gender imbalance in China as parents select to have one son.  In many circumstances this has (allegedly, but supported by the data and anectodal evidence) led to sex-selective abortion and infanticide.  With more boys than girls, people have begun to wonder what effects this could have as these boys and girls become men and women.  Theories abound: increases in sex trafficking, some kind of polygamy (I forget the name, something like slave wives) where one wife is shared by many husbands, frustrated men who cannot find wives, and other general breakdowns in the social structure.  So, I’m not extremely shocked to read that…

In The New Republic, Mara Hvistendahl reports that as the first generation of one-child boys have reached adolescence, the youth crime rate in China has more than doubled, as idle and frustrated boys turn to crime “without specific motives, often without forethought.”

Posted in globalization, human rights | 1 Comment »

Global food prices, Part II: Excuses and Reasons

Posted by Chris on June 7, 2008

As way of an introduction, this series of posts came about as a result of all the media coverage of, and visible evidence in our grocery stores, of the rise in food prices and the effects globally.
In Part 1 I looked at some of the problems that result from higher food prices and gave some examples. It was by no means comprehensive; rather, it reflects simply the most recent anecdotal things I’ve read and heard, along with some of my own perspective. In this post I’ll look at some of the explanations for the rising food prices and talk about excuses vs. reasons as a way of evaluating the theories in terms of which ones are important in determining what we can personally do. So this is not a quantitative analysis to show how much each factor has to do with the rise in commodity prices– it’s a bunch of individual puzzle pieces from which I’ll pick a few over which we, as individual Americans, have some control.

I am drawing from a specific set of articles that I have read lately which are listed here as my sources. In addition, I am remembering other things I’ve read but do not have the url and drawing on conversations with people. I will try to give credit where it’s due as much as I’m able (denoted by a # in parentheses). But I can’t really take the time to do a bunch of extra research and will mainly draw from my head.

Part II: Why food prices are rising
Of course there are many factors that determine the price of food. And some explain for the rise. With some precision you can easily figure out which factors are definitely important and which are not behind the rising prices, however.

Demand for food

It is rising in China and India. Some say that the rising demand for food staples (either its homegrown rice, or for imported wheat, etc…) in these two countries explain almost all of the surge in commodity prices. Econ 101: if demand increases, the demand curve shifts outward and creates a new intersection with the supply curve (equilibrium). Since supply curves are upward sloping (i.e., low on the left near the ‘y’ axis which represents price and low on the right near the ‘x’ axis which represents quantity), a shift in demand leads to a higher price (because the equilibrium pt is now higher along the ‘y’ axis as suppliers will sell more at higher prices).
All things being equal, more people, eating more food, will equal higher prices. Things like the industrial revolution have helped to decrease food and manufacturing prices. Agrobusiness is the new industry trying to bring cheap food to the global masses. But it is possible that the effects of demand could begin to outstrip the effects of technological and agricultural improvements in efficiency.
It is also worth mentioning that part of the rising demand due to China and India is not just from more people, but more people with more money who are now eating things besides traditional staples like rice (such as meats and grains) (8).

Demand for alternate uses
Corn demand has increased a lot, but not for food purposes. Instead, corn and other crops like soybeans are being diverted from human or cattle food to the development of alternative fuels like ethanol. Richard Posner has written:

The demand for agricultural products has grown, though not as a result of population growth; instead as a result of increased demand for ethanol and other biofuels, and for food that requires more agricultural acreage to produce. Today, besides people and pigs eating corn, our motor vehicles “eat” corn that has been converted into ethanol. (7)

Blame Western governments
I have mentioned excuses vs. reasons. CS Lewis, writing about forgiveness, requests that people not make excuses for their sins, either to God or each other. If your actions are excusable, they are not wrong and you do not need forgiveness.
The accusations of infamous West-hating leaders Ahmadinejad & Robert Mugabe that British and US policies are to blame fall short of legitimacy (1). Mugabe is widely held responsible for wrecking the agricultural output of Zimbabwe and his rule has been marked by rising food prices and extreme inflation (I saw a receipt online the other day where a meal cost something in the neighborhood of the billions of Zimbabwean currency, the equivalent of a few US dollars).
These men are making excuses which are not legitimate reasons. For the purpose of this article, I will consider excuses and reasons as a Venn Diagram. Demand, discussed above, falls in the overlap. It’s a legitimate reason but serves as an excuse for the inaction of Americans.

Natural Disasters
Floods and tsunamis and cyclones have ravaged parts of our world in the last few years, destroying crops and the farmers who tend them. Ignoring global warming and the hypothesis that we could be responsible for increasing volatility in weather, there is little we can do about natural disasters.

Natural causes
I haven’t heard alot about this yet but there are some potential problems on the horizon. Pests have always plagued crops, and as we eliminate one, another takes its place. Bees are mysteriously disappearing in America. If you’re seen Bee Movie, you know the consequences of the absence of bee pollination– plant life dies. A guy who studied this in grad school told me that the bees are going out but are then unable to find their way back to the hive– scientists think that they may have some kind of virus or sickness inhibiting their instincts.

Government policies
Not political policies towards Zimbabwe, but agricultural policies. Quotas, tariffs, subsidies. Barriers to free trade hurt everyone except for a select few farmers. I like the idea of fair trade coffee but the lack of free trade in crops that are also grown in rich countries hurt poor farmers more than fair trade will ever help them.
Because of the cost of labor and other inputs, food can generally be grown cheaper in the third world (assuming they use relatively good agricultural technology/efficient methods). Let’s say wheat cost 1$/lb to produce in Africa but $3/lb here. To ship it to the US is another .50/lb. There is a .50 markup by the African farmer and the US grocery store. What would be best for the most people? I buy my wheat for $2.50, the African receives .50, the boat owner receives .50, and the grocery store receives .50.
[I’m oversimplifying and probably saying some stupid untrue things– I’m not an agricultural econ expert. But I’m pretty sure that in theory this could happen and I am confident in my assertion that free trade would be better]
Instead, the US govt would put tariffs so that wheat costs $3.50 from overseas. The grocery stores buy it either from overseas or the US– both cost $3.50 with the domestic farmer markup. Then I end up buying my wheat for $4, the African receives only what his fellow africans can pay (say, .1), the boat owner has to go and ship rubber to China which only pays .25. The american farmer gets .5 and the grocery store gets .5 while consumers pay $1.50 extra. I have no bias against American farmers. I have a bias against higher prices. And higher food prices are the subject of this blog post.

My final reason: No excuses
The preceding causes are what I’m putting in the category of reasons which are also excuses. That is, they do explain food prices, and perhaps even the recent rise in prices, but if I as an American focus on one and say “It’s because of all the people in China”, then I remove any personal responsibility or ability to help. In other words, they are also functional excuses for the people who have nothing to do with the particular reason. This final reason is about American individuals. Some of you do not share guilt in this, but most do, and I am the chief: Overconsumption of food. If I spoke of overconsumption in general, then nearly every American would be indicted. Most of us overconsume food. I don’t just mean overeating, although that is part of it. We eat more than our proportional share. We eat inefficient meals in terms of nutritional value and we are wasteful. People in poor countries are astounded that we would exercise in order to lose weight; it’s incomprehensible to someone with a realistic fear of starvation for theirself or their neighbor. The next blog post will talk about American gluttony and what we can do, how, and why, to lower food prices and be better global citizens. In addition, it will touch on a lot of other topics, notably the issue of self-control which should be of especial importance to the Christian and is the reason that I have been personally concerned about my own behavior before I thought about my role in global food prices.

Sources/Articles I’ve read lately

Posted in globalization, human rights | Leave a Comment »

Global food prices, excuses vs. reasons, and the American Glutton (Part I)

Posted by Chris on June 6, 2008

As way of an introduction, this series of posts came about as a result of all the media coverage of, and visible evidence in our grocery stores, of the rise in food prices and the effects globally. I intend to survey the situation through some different articles, the experience of a friend who is doing Peace Corps in Africa, and personal experience/opinion. Then, I’ll share the various hypotheses explaining the recent sharp increases in food and commodity prices. Finally, I’ll give what I think is much of the solution– I believe it is the best, most practical, and easiest thing we as Americans can do– yes, all of those things at once. My main goals are personal growth in knowledge and thinking on the subject and a growth in my conviction and dedication to my part in the solution. Considering that I’m not sure anyone will read this, convincing others to join in this “think globally, act locally” campaign to lower food prices, is a secondary goal.

Part I: What rising food prices looks like in the world

The first thing Americans must understand is that our “suffering” through higher food prices is a minor affliction compared to the potential in the rest of the world. The American “poverty threshhold” or poverty line was created in the 1960s based on an economy food budget that estimated food expenses equivalent to 33% of income. For this reason, the poverty line is now way off track according to the same benchmark– an “economy” food budget would likely be less than 10%. Food is not a big part of our budget– the proliferation of restaurants, where you pay 100-500% more for food than it would be to prepare yourself, is evidence that most of us do not struggle to buy food. Even the poor in this country can typically afford food, or receive food stamps (and if they struggle, it’s likely due to paying rent first which has replaced food as the most significant expenditure).
In fact, a homeless guy recently told me that “if you live in Champaign, you will eat” while patting his belly, implying that he’d had more than enough food due to the generosity of students.

So what is happening? In America, many commodity prices are rising. Food in itself is rising, but as a country with very few people growing their own food, the rise in oil/gas explains much of the rise. In fact, I am going to assume that sometime next year the Consumer Price Index will show an increase in inflation.

Rice as an example

In about 6 months, India raised its export price for rice by 300% (3, see link to sources below). Even more recently, India banned the export of rice period. Bangladesh, suffering from the effects of floods, has needed to import India’s rice(4). So Bangladeshis went from having to pay 3x as much for their rice to now possibly having no rice to purchase. After spending some time in West Bengal, India, I can tell you- Bengalis eat a lot of rice. There is no equivalent for us. It would not be like taking away cereal, like Lucky Charms and Cheerios, but taking away Cereals, like no products that use grain or flour or bread.

Vietnam, Cambodia, and Egypt also have bans on rice exports (3). I am guessing (I cannot confirm this) that US rice exports have dropped. I spent a summer in Arkansas and talked with a guy who did a lot of rice farming and exported much of it that he said ultimately ended up in Iraq. This was 2006, as people first started talking about ethanol. He wasn’t growing a lot of corn, but if prices went up, he would have no problem switching. While rice prices are going up, and he might be tempted to produce more rice next year, I’m guessing that some rice farmers like him (and other places in the world) first noticed the quick rise in corn prices and changed their acreages for each crop accordingly.

Overall, food prices have risen 40% since 2007 (6). From the same article:

This increase has had a disproportionate effect on many developing nations, where families often spend more than half their income on food. The situation is particularly troublesome in countries such as Nigeria, Vietnam and Indonesia, where the percentage of income spent on food is respectively 73, 65 and 50 percent.

Riots
Riots have become a part of life. The riots don’t even result in stealing food, as there may be no food to steal. People are hungry and frustrated and rioting is both the overflow of that frustration and a social movement to put pressure on governments to do something.
My friend Amber is serving in the Peace Corps in Cameroon. She went in November and reported some riots over food. A recent Economist article reported the deaths of 24 people in riots in Cameroon (8)– an escalating scale of violence. I will quote parts from a recent email she sent me, which addresses the riots and more

Prices were pretty much already high when I arrived at post… The strikes in themselves were interesting. It started out as a simple fuel prices strike but then escalated. President Paul Biya addressed the nation and made promises about lower prices… One of the reasons though that they haven’t started a rebellion again is because they’re believing in Biya’s promises and also they lack guns. The military has guns they don’t.

As far as the food prices and the world shortage in food… All I can tell you is that so far it doesn’t seem to be effecting small consumer prices. Like I can still buy rice for the same price I did when I got here. It hasn’t changed but the bulk price probably did so I’m not sure why my price hasn’t changed. Also people eat more fufu here which is made out of corn flour. It’s the staple to the diet.

I edited out some sensitive, more alarming parts. In her area, it appears that people are fortunate, but, the country as a whole has rioted and now sits back and does nothing in the face of a powerful (in terms of violence) yet ineffective government (in that the government has not, and probably can not, do much to lower the prices of food).

Violence and war
I read a Nick Kristoff (journalist for NY Times) article a few months ago that suggested that part of the blame for war, any and all wars, is poor weather which leads to scarcity of food and water. He cited historical examples and made a case for more concern about global warming in our own day. While global warming may have nothing to do with, there are contemporary conflicts in which this is somewhat true. The Darfur region, I’m pretty sure, is or was at least a more fertile part of Sudan. The aggressors wanted more than to just kill people- they want their land. When riots end, and nothing changes, violence will be re-directed in organized efforts at the government or in civil violence between neighbors.

Conclusion
It is no secret that there were always starving people: living in miserable housing, with no economic prospects, poor health, etc… Now we face a situation where those who weren’t starving, who have jobs, a decent house– they too are hungry. It is a serious problem. More people have always died from malnutrition than terrorism, lightning strikes, bee stings, shark attacks, and all those things we love to fear. Over time, the global economic situation has improved, but now we face retrenchment and taking huge steps back.

Some friends in college often debated the following question: Would you rather be surrounded by a pack of wolves in the forest, or be in the water with a bunch of hungry sharks? This was an amusing conversation and a silly one with no basis in reality. It was also a reflection of our lack of fear about anything. I now think of the Zarephath widow that Elijah encounters in 1 Kings 17. He asks her for bread and she responds:

As the Lord your God lives, I have no bread, only a handful of flour in the bowl and a little oil in the jar; and behold, I am gathering a few sticks that I may go in and prepare for me and my son, that we may eat it and die.
1 Kings 17:12, NASB.

I am getting a little ahead of myself, as I will address what we can do in part III, but I want to end by asking you to imagine what it would be like to fear starvation. Can you even begin to picture having a genuine fear of lacking food that far outweighs threats from a pack of wolves?

Sources/some articles I’ve read lately.

Posted in globalization, human rights | 3 Comments »

Hilarious benign spam email

Posted by Chris on May 23, 2008

From: “I’m Mike.Not Junk”
Date: Sat, 24 May 2008 0:31:22 +0000
To:
Subject: RE: Hello

Hey dude i found the shop that we were talking about last time.
In this store you can buy a great rep1ica-watch with a great discount !
You can save 15% if you buy 2 or more watches!
Go to that cocktail party with this watch, and be sure to catch people’s attention.
You’ll have all the class, and still have all your money.

Here it is: http://www.beautifulwatchesrep.com

Oh, you’re Mike, not junk.

Posted in globalization, other | 1 Comment »

Smile Train in Haiti

Posted by Chris on April 17, 2008

The Smile Train (www.smiletrain.org) is a really cool charity. They perform cleft-lip surgeries in poor countries. They are not the only group doing so, but are arguably the best at what they do. They practice a business-like, efficient operating model. It has allowed them to quickly increase the number of operations, passing the 300,000 mark recently. I think they just passed 200,000 last year, so they are doing quite well.

For people like you and I, the Smile Train has a great offer for donating money. All donations go towards surgeries- they have other funding for overhead. $250 funds one surgery. It changes a life. It can take away depression and social stigma and make available opportunities for a successful life. The video above is from a recent trip that the Smile Train founder made to Haiti.

Haiti: makes me so sad. So close to us in the US, it really is “our neighbor.” There is such physical proximity to our borders that we cannot ignore the plight of the Haitian people as something happening “over there.” It is under our watch. Furthermore, our government has been very active in the last 20 years, “influencing” its leadership. Watching this video reminded me of reading Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder, an account of the doctor/anthropologist/public health expert Paul Farmer who opened a health clinic in Haiti. Farmer, while not a Christian, is guided by liberation theology and the message of Matthew 25 to care for the “least of these.” He sees Haiti as his neighbor, so much so that he forsook his Harvard coursework to do clinic work, returning only to take his tests. What can I do

Posted in globalization, human rights, the church | Leave a Comment »

PBS Frontline: Iraq

Posted by Chris on April 13, 2008

I just watched a couple of PBS Frontline reports/documentary on the Iraq War including “Bush’s War” which I perceive is getting a lot of publicity in the blogosphere. “Bad Voodoo” follows a National Guard unit in Iraq.

I tend to always give more weight to the last thing I saw or the last argument I heard, so I’m trying not to do that here; but I must say, the combination of an investigative report into the origins and execution of the War and the anecdotal experience of Guardsmen has led me to be more decisively for the end of the war (as in, sooner rather than later, whether or not we “get the job done”). I felt a range of emotions watching these videos but what I most remember is feeling terrified and sad as I watched videos shot by the Guardsmen. If I’m feeling that way, I can’t imagine the cumulative toll it has on them.

It was a reminder of the neo-conservative agenda which I had forgotten about over the past couple of years. I really wonder what the Bush presidency could have looked like had there been a different combination of Vice President, Secr. of Defense, Secr of State, Envoys to Iraq, etc… There may have even been an Iraq War but it would have gone differently.

The video quality is really good. Bush’s War is quite long but divided into 10 min or so chunks.
Bush’s War
Bad Voodoo

Posted in ethics, globalization, links of the day | Leave a Comment »

Sources for posts on food prices

Posted by Chris on January 6, 2007

see here, here, and here

1. Mugabe & Ahmadinejad
2. Beggar thine own People

3. Beggar thy neighbor

4. Agricultural technology investments

5. Bill and Melinda Gates

6. Food Prices

7. Richard Posner

8. The Economist

Posted in globalization, human rights | Leave a Comment »