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Archive for July, 2009

Imagine a peasant living deep in the woods long ago. Because of his isolation, he must himself produce all he needs and is consequently living a life of subsistence. One day a nobleman comes upon the peasant’s plot and makes him an offer: if the peasant will agree once a week to travel several miles to the nobleman’s estate and clean his stables, the nobleman will provide the peasant every few months with some seeds and tools. The walk is long and the compensation meager, but after some consideration the peasant decides the offer is worth his while and accepts.

Unenviable for the peasant, but fairly anodyne. The nobleman has literally made the peasant a crap offer, but the peasant expected to benefit from it and accepted. The nobleman is no saint, but he did increase the options available to the peasant.

Yet if you were to recast the tale with a Rwandan peasant and a large Western corporation, I suspect may expats I know here would castigate the company as being exploitative. The agreement is voluntary, sure, but the peasant has no other options and the rich company is unashamedly taking advantage of that.  Clearly the company is acting wrongly.

There are many different reasons one can hold such a position, some more defensible than others, but I worry the main reason is that rich people do not wish to acknowledge the uncomfortable truths revealed by the decisions poor people make. Poor people are not stupid, and know which alternative available to them will best improve their lot. Too often the rich reaction is to find the poor person’s choice unpleasant, and with nary a thought as to the alternatives, decry whomever is providing it and seek to eliminate that choice–all for the exploited poor person, of course, who must now hope the second-best offer still stands.

If you don’t like the options available to some poor person , there are two ways you can help:

  • Provide a better option yourself,
  • or give money to that poor person, either directly or indirectly.

Restricting choice is not the way to prosperity–unless maybe you’re restricting the ways rich people can be “helpful” to the poor.

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Iron Chef: Kigali

Fellow Sojourners,

  • Who: Anyone who enjoys food or quests for honor
  • What: The Inaugural Iron Chef: Kigali
  • When: Saturday at 14:00 (21:00 Tokyo time)
  • Where: Kitchen Stadium (aka Jon Stever’s house)

Further details can be found in the following haikus.

Cherry blossoms wilt
Hot blast blows through Kigali
People cowering

No time to take care
Three hours will decide fate
Five cooking teams rush

Many francs in fists,
One focus ingredient
Three courses prepared

Chairwoman presides
For five thousand paid cash full
Judges will rule

Saturday cometh
Stever’s house at noon plus two
Honor à la carte

***

The hot blast blows still
Flows from victory bellows
Chefs from Iron forged

Yours most honorably,
The Power Brokers of Kigali

Sponsored by the good people at Kiungo LLC

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The D/E System

Since I was a young lad I’ve swum against the current–deviating from the ruling zeitgeist, if you like. I was a bit hefty as a young lad, so the swim was sometimes slow and sputtering. About a decade ago, I was nearly a foot shorter but only 15 pounds lighter, putting me right on the cusp of what the CDC considers obese. Today I have a BMI of 21, well within the recommended range, and am still bucking trends:

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The Runaround

After nearly two months in Kigali, I went on a run. The delay was due to a number of excuses, the most paltry of which was that I insisted to myself I needed to buy first a fan for cool-off  (and they are quite expensive), but in the end I was able to drag myself out of bed and had a great run in the cool dawn hour. Here’s my route (click to enlarge):

Kigali Run - Satellite View

What the satellite image doesn’t reveal is the topography, which is what makes the route my most challenging yet. Here’s a view of the terrain, expanded out a bit so you can see a bit more of the city (and no, I haven’t yet played a round on that golf course).

Kigali Run - terrain

Kigali’s about a mile above sea level, so the air is noticeably thinner. Did I mention Rwanda is known as the Land of a Thousand Hills?

Elevation Change

The Kigali run offers some great views, but I’m undecided if it tops my first regular route in Schwerin. Where Kigali has hills, Schwerin has lakes, beautiful lakes.

Schwerin Run -Satellite

Contrast those with my two American routes. The one in my parents’ neighborhood is mostly on a walking trail following a creek. Not quite a lake, but…

Simpsonville Run

And here’s a route I ran for a few months in Columbia. It had the virtue of…uh, being the correct length?

Columbia Run

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Ladies, Gentlemen,

The same great people who brought you MotoPolo and the Kigali Lights Blowout are pleased to announce:

  • What: The “Let Freedom Ring BBQ Bash,” preceded by the Patriot’s MotoPolo Tourney (PMPT). Meats shall be in abundance at the BBQ, but guests are encouraged to bring any traditional side dishes (potato salad, chips, dip, etc.).
  • Where: The PMPT will be held at the football pitch just past the airport on the left. The BBQ will be held at the VIP Palace of Sam and Jared, which is on the road behind La Guardienne in Kiyovu.
  • When: PMPT starts at 12:00 PM sharp. BBQ shall begin 4 hours thereafter, at 4:00 PM.
  • Who: Sons of Liberty, Daughters of the Revolution
  • How: Blood, Toil, Tears, Sweat.

The 4th of July is a day of remembrance for those who proved the full measure of their devotion in that severe contest between liberty and tyranny. As per usual, we will commemorate by clashing in competition and consuming copious quantities of fire-roasted meat.

At high noon, the reverberations from thundering engines will be felt all across Kigali as soldiers mount up to do battle in the most epic motopolo tourney mankind as ever conceived. Four teams of four shall take the field as the sun reaches its zenith; three teams shall follow it down in disgrace as the afternoon progresses. Who will bask victorious in the golden hour no man can know. Blood may be spilled. Lives may be lost. Glory will be tasted. Fame will be secured. Freedom will be won.

Some commentators have hailed the upcoming PMPT as the “sporting event of the decade.” Scholars maintain that nowhere in the vast annals of human history can one find a commemoration comparable for its encapsulation of the sort of noble conflict every quest for liberty possesses. In a news flash just yesterday, Reuters reported that Kim Jong-il has lamented: “The Patriot’s MotoPolo Tourney represents a clear and present danger to my authoritarian regime and the iron fist with which I hold down my people. The only thing more threatening to my relentless oppression is the Let Freedom Ring BBQ Bash taking place after the tournament at about 4 PM, where throngs of freedom-loving people will feast on a giant suckled pig.”

So do join us in the fight against terror at the Let Freedom Ring BBQ Bash this coming Saturday (and the tournament if you can make it).

Come and be greeted as liberators.

Yours in freedom,

The Power Brokers of Kigali

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One of the most important features of a system of property rights is excludability. That is, if I own something–a fruitful avocado tree, say–I can exclude you from eating my delicious avocados unless we come to some mutually agreeable arrangement. Because I can capture as much of the tree’s benefit as I choose, I have a much stronger incentive to grow and maintain the tree than if people could pilfer the fruits of my labor at will.

Some things are however non-excludable by nature, meaning that it is prohibitively costly to prevent others benefiting from them. A classic example economists have long used is a lighthouse: With a lighthouse, there’s no way an owner can exclude ships from navigating by the boat-saving beam. Because free-riding would be easy, no one could ever hope to make any money from it and wouldn’t bother building the lighthouse, despite the obvious value of the service.

Non-excludability is the main feature of “public goods,” or those goods and services that seemingly can’t be produced (or aren’t produced enough) in private markets. Because public goods are still valuable, the government usually becomes their purveyor. Often public goods are nonetheless provided privately in creative ways. I happened to come across a Rwandan example last night in the book A Thousand Hills:

The two-lane highway that winds northwest from Kigali toward Lake Kivu qualifies as a fine one by African standards…It also has a feature rare in Africa and unique in Rwanda: a short stretch of it is illuminated by streetlights. At night you drive through the unbroken dark, always slowly in order to avoid hitting people. Suddenly the road is bathed in light. A couple of miles later, as you are still marveling at this wonder, it is over and you pass back into blackness.

The first time this happened to me, I wondered: Of all the highway stretches in Rwanda, why did the government choose to illuminate this one? Friends gave me a startling answer. The government did not choose this stretch, nor did it erect these streetlights, nor does it pay the electric bill. It is all Gerard Sina’s work.

(…)

The reason Sina illuminated a two-mile stretch of highway is that he owns a strip of businesses there. He has a grocery store with its own bakery, a sit-down restaurant, a snack bar that offers take-out service, a motel, and a pair of clean public restrooms. It is the only highway rest stop in Rwanda. Cars, trucks, and buses are always parked out front (pp. 318-319).

Charging for streetlights is a fool’s errand, but that’s not to say compensation can’t be had—just bundle the service with things for which you can charge, like Sina did. In 19th century England, private operators tied in the lighthouse service with the port fees, to varying degrees of success.

Gerard Sina has offerings throughout Rwanda, and I enjoy very much his pili-pili, often to the exclusion of other condiments.

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