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Archive for the ‘parable’ Category

The New Times, Rwanda’s English paper of record, reports today:

East African Business Council (EABC) has asked East African Community (EAC) governments to treat cement as a sensitive product to protect the domestic industry from cheap imports.

The local cement industry is currently faced with high production costs resulting from high energy and labour costs, poor distribution network especially railway transport and inadequate ancillary industries for spare parts and consumables.

The Executive Director of East African Business Council Charles Mbogori said the influx of cheap cement imports from countries with lower production costs will in the long run have negative impact on the local industry.

Here’s a satirical petition Frédéric Bastiat wrote in 1845.

From the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Candlesticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from the Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.

To the Honorable Members of the Chamber of Deputies.

Gentlemen:

You are on the right track. You reject abstract theories and have little regard for abundance and low prices. You concern yourselves mainly with the fate of the producer. You wish to free him from foreign competition, that is, to reserve the domestic market for domestic industry.

(…)

We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us.

We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s-eyes, deadlights, and blinds—in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.

You can read the rest of the fairly brief petition here. As you read, just try and not marvel at how little such arguments have changed in the past 160 years.

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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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For many in the US, the word “recycling” conjures up images of plastic bins that in many cases do a better job collecting rainwater than anything else. Recycling is thus perceived in the same way as that particular example of it: inconvenient drudgery with altruism as the main motivator. What this misses, however, is that long before recycling bins began lining city streets, striving to turn waste into a resource has been a self-interested effort and the source of much wealth and prosperity.

Gasoline, for example, was considered a waste product of crude oil distillation and discarded until it was discovered to make a good fuel for internal combustion engines. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms came into being only when John Browning, the famous gunsmith, realized that the gases escaping from the barrel after firing could be redirected to operate a reloading mechanism. Today, BMW is working on using the heat escaping from tail pipes to generate electricity and help power the car. Silicon processors generate so much heat IBM has developed a method to cool them with water; the cooling makes the processors more efficient, and now IBM is devising a way to use the heated water to warm its offices and surrounding buildings. Trinidad’s famous steelpans were originally made using empty 55-gallon oil drums from the local oil industry and US naval base. And lest we forget, someone long ago changed agriculture forever by taking note of the fact that the excretions issuing from an animal’s backside made grass grow greener.

These innovations do not occur out of a feeling of guilt or vague altruism; rather, they occur because there are high payoffs for anyone who can figure out a way to turn trash into treasure. Recycling, properly understood, is an integral part of the mechanism of capitalism and enriches modern life.

Now if I could think of some valuable way to utilize rainwater…

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As I Lay Dying

Two days ago, as I made the ten minute walk from work to my car, a man, evidently of modest means, crossed over from the other side of the street to just a few paces ahead of me. No sooner had his well-worn shoes hit the sidewalk than he stooped suddenly and plucked a dollar bill from the concrete. His pause allowed me to catch up to him, and I congratulated him on his lucky day and chuckled at his beaming countenance as I passed him by.

A nanosecond later, it dawned on me that his gain had been my loss, and fortune’s grim way quickly dissipated my good cheer. But for this man’s crossing the street, that dollar would have been mine! What’s more, the man had jaywalked when he crossed the street, meaning his windfall had been illicitly acquired. Based upon my reading of the philosophy literature, I’m pretty sure it would have been ethically sound for me to have punched the scoundrel in the face and liberated my dollar from his pocket.

Pondering this, I was turning the corner into the parking lot when my iPod’s earbud wires became entangled in a low hanging branch, immobilizing me. Just then, a small man brandishing a bar dart leapt from nearby bushes. He poked me a half-dozen times, all the while yelling:

“Joab jabs you! Joab jabs you!”

Sensing that feigning death was my only recourse to further cutaneous cutting, I went limp and allowed the fellow to extricate my slumped form from its ensnarement. Summoning a strength belied by his tiny stature, he dragged me to a nearby construction site, placed a few loose bricks atop my body, and disappeared into the dusk without a word.

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