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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.

Noooooooooo!

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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Economists stress the importance of incentives in how we creatures make choices, but are often too keen to think of incentives only in monetary terms: if you want to encourage Herr Human to do something, just offer some money as a reward for doing that thing and let economics unfold. In vast expanses of human experience this assumption holds, but pockets of obstinacy can cause it to fall apart like a soggy twenty-dollar bill. For reasons as varied as people, money ceases to be a motivator and can even effect an outcome opposite to the intended purpose. Cash is commercial and can cheapen an achievement or negate whatever intrinsic motivations existed. Perhaps paying kids to make good grades, such what economist Roland Fryer is attempting, will result in better outcomes, but perhaps not. Incentives, as the Austrian school stresses, do not exist in an objective plane, but are formed in the subjective perceptions of the individual.

These thoughts were in my head today as I had a haircut.

Haircuts in Rwanda, at least for me and other muzungu males I know, are meticulous and take a long time, at least thirty minutes and sometimes longer. To avoid a wait, which drags the thing out yet more, I go on weekday mornings.  Today as I bumped along on a mototaxi to my preferred place in MTN Centre, I decided to offer a standard incentive to the barber: if he could cut my hair and trim my proud six-week-old beard in 15 minutes or less, I would give him a forty percent tip, and about half that if he took less than 25 minutes.  In the event, he smiled and and began at what seemed to me an accelerated clip (so to speak), but the final snip did not occur until about a half hour later. What’s more, after warmly beckoning me back for future cuts, he said not a word of the tip and shooed me out.

There are many possible reasons why this incentive turned out not to be, so I am loath to draw any conclusions beyond the general one already outlined above. What I do know is the experiment left me doubly sad, for while my haircuts will not be getting shorter, my beard has–a month’s growth gone in one sweep.

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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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Things are changing every moment here in Kigali: internet access, internet speed, where I live, where my office is, etc. I can’t even bother to tweet at the moment, let alone write a proper blogpost. Plenty of material though. I think I could write a pretty compelling economics paper about the intra-city bus system here.

With any luck, things will be more settled in a few weeks and I’ll have ready and relatively rapid internet service. Until then, blogging will be like everything else: spotty.

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Good blogs are rarely drippy diaries nor are they dry op-eds, having more personality than the latter without the self-indulgence of the former. When I started this blog, I thought it would be more diary-like than it’s turned out to be,  but like those of many mice, my best laid scheme gang agley. Though I’m a pretty whimsical fellow in person, the subject matter tends to be staid, even if I usually write with the intent of eliciting at least a smile or two in any given post.  I’m satisfied with the overall mix, but a downside has been the exclusion of personal detail, and I’m now at a point where I need to catch up readers to what’s been happening with me since coming back to the US in late July, so here’s the past 9 months in a paragraph:

When I returned from Germany, my plan was to renew old contacts in Columbia and work for about a year while I took placement tests and sent off applications to various graduate programs.  Soon enough I took a job working at USC (the original one, for all you thinking westerly) doing a few different research projects for the business school. At the same time, I was looking at grad schools and studying for the tests, but lacking the peace that usually accompanies my big decisions. Needing guidance, I went and saw a former professor/mentor/thesis advisor, and after talking with him I was redirected away from graduate school and back towards foreign soil.  I was then referred to another professor who led classes to Africa, and after one conversation with him acquired several business cards for companies in Rwanda. As luck would have it, the first company I contacted expressed interest, and though the details of the arrangement have changed over the intervening months (this all began last November), at 6 AM tomorrow morning I’ll be catching a flight to Kigali to begin a six month initial stint.

What exactly I’ll be doing is not a question I can answer easily; one of my Ivy League educated friends called it “new business development” when I explained it to him, but my more prosaic description is “helping a few expat entrepreneurs build profitable companies.” One of my first projects at any rate will be developing the plans for a coffee-themed eco-tourism lodge on Lake Muhazi.

Here’s a map of Rwanda, and here’s my favorite map of Africa. Here are the contents of Africa according to the rest of the world.

My future abode is said to have internet, and Kigali is anyway a well-connected place, so blogging should continue apace once I’m settled.  If the personality of this blog changes as a result, it should be for the better–but much as I’d like to engage in more self-indulgent speculation on the matter, I’ve got bags to pack!

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Even as I read The Black Swan for the first time, I’ve already read it. I’ve listened to several in-depth interviews with Nicholas Nassim Taleb since the book came out in 2007, and he’s had a recent resurgence in attention as the credit crisis fits his titular metaphor aptly.  Despite my familiarity with the main thesis I’m still enjoying the book, just as one might still enjoy slurping down the spiced milk after finishing his Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Indeed, I’ve not come across another book that so completely elucidates (in a far more sophisticated and erudite manner, granted), how I’ve come to think about things generally.

I’m 2/3 of the way through the book and have come across many passages tempting me to blog, but the following will probably be the only one I excerpt (you, yes YOU, should really just read the book).  In it, Taleb describes the limitation of making predictions in a complex system by using an example computed by a mathematician named Michael Berry:

If you know a set of basic parameters concerning [a billiard] ball at rest, can compute the resistance of the table (quite elementary), and can gauge the strength of the impact, then it is rather easy to predict what would happen at the first hit. The second impact becomes more complicated, but possible; you need to be more careful about your knowledge of the initial states, and more precision is called for. The problem is that to correctly compute the ninth impact, you need to take into account the gravitational pull of someone standing next to the table (modestly, Berry’s computations use a weight of less than 150 pounds). And to compute the fifty-sixth impact, every single elementary particle in the universe needs to be present in your assumptions! An electron at the edge of the universe, separated from us by 10 billion light-years, must figure in the calculations, since it exerts a meaningful effect on the outcome. Now, consider the additional burden of having to incorporate predictions about where these variables will be in the future. Forecasting the motion of a billiard ball on a pool table requires knowledge of the dynamics of the entire universe, down to every single atom!

(…)

In a dynamical system, where you are considering more than a ball on its own, where trajectories in a way depend on one another, the ability to project into the future is not just reduced, but is subjected to fundamental limitation. (p. 178)

Austrian economists like Hayek used similar reasoning in the early 20th century to critique Soviet-style central planning. One oft-forgotten miracle of prices is that they provide a basis of comparison for completely different things. If I decide to use my $100 for golf lessons, I know exactly what I’m giving up for them: $100 worth of Braeburn apples, Suzie’s babysitting, Tide laundry detergent, Clive Owen’s acting, the neighbor’s stash of dope, the additional interest I would earn in my Citibank savings account, a lecture by Al Gore, Hamburger Kunsthalle tickets, the copyright on Beatles sound recordings, taxi rides from JFK to Manhattan, common stock in a Mumbai start-up, etc. In other words, prices tell me about relative values. In the absence of a price system, the Austrians argued, it would be impossible to ration resources effectively, and even if prices were used, no central planner could ever hope to set them correctly because prices reflect an incomprehensible amount of dispersed knowledge particular to time and place.  Just think about the task Mr. Planner would have to face:

  1. Set the price of every resource (including, for example, the time of every person in the economy)
  2. Make sure each price is correct relative to every other price both now and in the future.
  3. Repeat steps 1-2 every second as conditions change.

Could we, like Camus, imagine Mr. Planner happy in his Sisyphean task? And to extend it to Taleb’s point, do we really think anyone could make a certain and accurate forecast of where prices will be in a decade? A year? A day? For that matter, are my powers of clairvoyance to be trusted?

Happily I can report they are, for after reading the above passage and forming this post in my head I turned the page to find a brief section discussing Hayek;  Roma Downey has my undying gratitude.

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Thanks to Drudge, I come across two articles today and  laugh in bewilderment as I keep up this blog’s recent tradition of covering topics in unplanned couplets.

The first article is short and sweet…well, short anyway:

Berlin city officials, summoned by complaints over the noise, found a 60-year-old man sharing his two-room flat with 1,700 budgerigars.

Apparently the man adopted two birds out of loneliness, and when the extended family showed up, he was loath to ruffle any feathers. The article’s author gracefully omits from the story the obvious implication that getting old really, really sucks.

The second article has to do with a creative proposal from the head of the Free Democratic Party (fairly analogous to America’s Libertarian Party, but with more sway):

A Berlin politician has come under fire for suggesting that poor people should be encouraged to catch rats by offering them €1 per dead rodent. The intriguing idea entails some gnawing practical problems and has been called “inhuman and cynical”.

The idea seems to have been inspired by the success of the Pfand in Germany, which has reduced litter by paying out cash for empty plastic bottles. It may well be the case that cash for corpses would not work similarly well, but this doesn’t appear to be the focus of the criticism. Instead, critics complain that it would be inhuman to pay (poor) people to kill rats.

Now, I would not enjoy killing rats for money. Nor would  I want to be an owl vomit collector or a septic tank technician (both real jobs). I doubt you’ll find many people who take great joy in unpleasant tasks such as these, but nonetheless do them after having made a calculation that the pay made it worth their while. It may be distasteful that for some some killing rats might be a viable source of income, just like it’s distasteful that some sell blood to make ends meet. But isn’t it rather inhuman to deny them a way to improve their lot just because it’s distasteful to someone in power? You can believe that it’s unjust for people to have to make these decisions in such wealthy societies, but denying people a choice to mask a disagreeable reality helps no one.

If those birds adopted by the lonely pensioner had been bountied rats, after all, he might have been left with something other than a flat covered in poo.

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