Archive for the ‘moralitas’ Category

I don’t intend to make juxtapositions of the US and Rwanda a running theme here, but some of the issues raised in an Economist briefing sprang forth to me like a con out of an unlocked cell:

Many [US] laws, especially federal ones, are so vaguely written that people cannot easily tell whether they have broken them.

Here’s an article written by my friend about the arrest of a US lawyer in Rwanda for “genocide denial”:

Ngoga declined to give details of what Erlinder is accused of saying, other than that the statements were made outside Rwanda.

However, the legal source said they concerned remarks made about President Paul Kagame, who has led Rwanda since the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 people died.


According to New York-based Human Rights Watch, those found guilty of genocide denial — grossly minimising or attempting to justify the genocide — are liable to 10-20 years in prison.


Rights groups say the law against hate-speech is vague and frequently used by the government to silence opposition.

That sounds kind of crappy, don’t it? But in the US the problem is worse, because you get vagueness and abundance!  Back to the briefing:

“You can serve federal time for interstate transport of water hyacinths, trafficking in unlicensed dentures, or misappropriating the likeness of Woodsy Owl.”

“You’re (probably) a federal criminal,” declares Alex Kozinski, an appeals-court judge, in a provocative essay of that title.

We’re all illegals criminals in some way or another—ooo, a tingle just went down my spine.

When the US lawyer was jailed for several weeks in Kigali, every new article about it from The New Times had a quote from someone or another within the criminal justice system pretty much like this:

“The Prosecution of Peter Erlinder is not a political tactic; it is an act of justice. If critics disagree with the Rwandan laws against the denial or defence of Genocide, we invite and welcome that debate.


“The Government of Rwanda takes no pleasure from Mr. Erlinder’s plight, but this needs to be understood; flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our Genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law,” Mushikiwabo said.

“Perhaps Mr. Erlinder thought that his citizenship, academic standing or media profile woul protect him — why else would a law professor so knowingly and deliberately break the law by entering Rwanda? But he failed to understand that Genocide defenders and deniers — however rich, powerful or well connected — are regarded by Rwandans as serious criminals hell-bent on destabilising our nation”.

Last week, Mushikiwabo said that Rwanda would not short-circuit legal procedures and release the lawyer, despite a request by the United States to release him on compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

President Kagame has echoed this position in interviews with western media: our laws may not suit you in some ways, but we’re not going to just ignore our laws and let lawbreakers run amok.  One is tempted to argue that justice is better served by a different attitude toward law,  but the fresh aromatics of water hyacinths can be so distracting…

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This Foreign Policy article on the West’s deleterious notions towards food production is the best I’ve read on any topic in weeks. After finishing it all I can do is wonder whether there is any other sector of the economy in which marketing and bias has persuaded more people to make choices opposite of what a large body of evidence–scientific, economic, moral–would indicate is best:

Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

What could be more cosmopolitan and progressive than opting to buy from the rich farmer a few miles down the road rather than the poor one a world away?

Keep your government hands off my fat farm bill...rooster.

Take industrial food systems, the current bugaboo of American food writers. Yes, they have many unappealing aspects, but without them food would be not only less abundant but also less safe.

Health professionals also reject the claim that organic food is safer to eat due to lower pesticide residues. Food and Drug Administration surveys have revealed that the highest dietary exposures to pesticide residues on foods in the United States are so trivial (less than one one-thousandth of a level that would cause toxicity) that the safety gains from buying organic are insignificant. Pesticide exposures remain a serious problem in the developing world, where farm chemical use is not as well regulated, yet even there they are more an occupational risk for unprotected farmworkers than a residue risk for food consumers.


Where industrial-scale food technologies have not yet reached into the developing world, contaminated food remains a major risk. In Africa, where many foods are still purchased in open-air markets (often uninspected, unpackaged, unlabeled, unrefrigerated, unpasteurized, and unwashed), an estimated 700,000 people die every year from food- and water-borne diseases, compared with an estimated 5,000 in the United States.

Food grown organically — that is, without any synthetic nitrogen fertilizers or pesticides — is not an answer to the health and safety issues. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition last year published a study of 162 scientific papers from the past 50 years on the health benefits of organically grown foods and found no nutritional advantage over conventionally grown foods. According to the Mayo Clinic, “No conclusive evidence shows that organic food is more nutritious than is conventionally grown food.”

I’ve been inspired to poetry by organic baby carrots, so I am no stranger to organic’s bulbous allure, but underneath hides rot:

If Europe tried to feed itself organically, it would need an additional 28 million hectares of cropland, equal to all of the remaining forest cover in France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark combined. Mass deforestation probably isn’t what organic advocates intend.


While I vigorously support cutting down millions of trees–they often obstruct otherwise pristine vistas–the idea doesn’t seem particularly sustainable.  Contrast that with what’s been happening with industrial agriculture:

In 2008, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development published a review of the “environmental performance of agriculture” in the world’s 30 most advanced industrial countries — those with the most highly capitalized and science-intensive farming systems. The results showed that between 1990 and 2004, food production in these countries continued to increase (by 5 percent in volume), yet adverse environmental impacts were reduced in every category. The land area taken up by farming declined 4 percent, soil erosion from both wind and water fell, gross greenhouse gas emissions from farming declined 3 percent, and excessive nitrogen fertilizer use fell 17 percent. Biodiversity also improved, as increased numbers of crop varieties and livestock breeds came into use.

I’ve seen films like Witness and Caspar David Friedrich gefällt mir sehr, but the bucolic beauty of dirt-poor peasant agriculture lies only in the eyes of the Western beholder. Farmers earn income based on what they produce, and to produce more they need the trappings of modernity, greasy and grimy in its mechanical glory.

"Let's plant modern seeds...of DESTRUCTION!"

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid.

Remember, it’s a feature, not a bug (Boll weevil? Could I have just written boll weevil there?) that so many barns in the US are quaint landmarks of a bygone era.

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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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A few days ago, J, wife of Prophylactic Paul, forwarded along another German sex story:

Demetrius Soupolos (29) and his wife were very keen to have a child together, but when doctors found that Demetrius is sterile, they began to seek other options to become parents.

The option the couple decided on was to hire their neighbor Frank Maus (34).

Frank, who was already married with two children, agreed to do the job for the fee of 2.000 euros. For three times a week for the next six months, a total of 72 times, Maus tried to impregnate the neighbor’s wife.

After the unsuccessful six-month period Demetrius insisted that Frank take a medical examination. The doctor found that Frank was also sterile, which forced his wife into admitting that their two children did not belong to him.

What interested me was the validity of the agreement–which in essence concerned the exchange of money for sex– seemed not to be in question.  Prostitution is legal in Germany, but often these transactions are still limited depending on the state and city, and I’m sure a lawyer could find some legal distinction between prostitution and this particular arrangement. In the US, for example, prostitution is almost everywhere illegal, but pornography is not. According to this article, the main legal distinction is that prostitution involves payment for sex, while pornography involves payment to watch (but not engage in) sex. I’m sure somebody somewhere finds that a meaningful distinction.

Legal arbitrariness aside, a debate was recently held on the morality of paying for sex. One of the debaters is a favorite economist of mine, Tyler Cowen. Part 1 is embedded below:

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The smiling faces belie the sad statistic:

Having a child, or even having someone with whom to have a child, is far from a priority in my life at the moment. Insofar as I do ever start a family, however, a desire of mine for some time has been only to have one biological child and adopt however many else from a poor part of the world. It’s not that I’m a Malthusian–all things the same, the more the merrier says I–but for me there’s some moral responsibility not to keep creating children who in some sense take the place of affluence from poor kids already living hardscrabble existences. Kids are not fungible commodities, I know, but fecundity is no longer necessary to fulfill the biological imperative, and can production not be outsourced after the first one is made in-house?*

My brother would probably disagree, seeing as he and his wife just welcomed their third daughter into the world a few days ago. And come to think of it, he is my older brother by nearly a decade…

*Isn’t that just the most predictable analogy for me to make? It’s late; ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir.

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This week’s Economist has a series of articles about drug prohibition. Here’s the main point from the leader:

Next week ministers from around the world gather in Vienna to set international drug policy for the next decade. Like first-world-war generals, many will claim that all that is needed is more of the same. In fact the war on drugs has been a disaster, creating failed states in the developing world even as addiction has flourished in the rich world. By any sensible measure, this 100-year struggle has been illiberal, murderous and pointless.

I’d like to think I’m a reasonable guy with empathy percolating out of every pore, but in this case I just don’t see how someone concerned with the effects of drug policy could not help but favor liberalization.  There will always be disagreement about how far liberalization should go, but virtually any step in that direction would seem to bring more benefit than cost. Insofar as one is not concerned with outcomes, however, but rather with good intentions or what legal drug use “says” about a society, then I am certainly able to understand one’s seeing liberalization as a solution administered through a dark and dirty needle.

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