Sanctions on Iran? Let’s be Daoist about it

The Menso Guide to War’s good friend President Barack is proposing sanctions on Iran. Actually, he is proposing further sanctions on Iran. The history of US sanctions on Iran goes back to the deposing of the shah and the hostage crisis of 1979. Barack thinks more sanctions would be a good way to get what he wants in the Middle East, and many Americans support him. I am afraid, however, he is wading in over his head.

The proposed bill targets Iran’s dependence on imports for gasoline. The UN Security Council has passed several resolutions condemning Iran’s enrichment of uranium, because it could use uranium to make a nuclear weapon. In fact, it may already have a nuclear weapon. More resolutions express more accepted condemnation and as such give measures like sanctions (or military action, depending what the resolutions say) more legitimacy. Iran has violated the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So sanctions are justified to make it stop enriching uranium, right?

Not so fast. Why does Barack want sanctions on Iran? Is it a punishment? My homegirl Hillary has said that, if the sanctions could just target the “relatively small group of decision makers inside Iran”, they could serve the US’s goals. True, it may weaken the regime financially but it would also hurt the people, as sanctions often do–think of the deepening of poverty in Iraq during the 1990s. For instance, the $2b in Citibank belonging to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that the US government froze in 2008 will likely be made up from other assets the Guard own in Iran. Someone always ends up paying, and it is rarely the elites. The people would be pushed into the hands of the hardliners, as I argue they already have been for years since the demonisation of Iran began under Bill Clinton and got no better under George Bush. This outside push on Iran is why a fool like Ahmadinejad can get elected there in the first place. If history is any guide, the people will not turn on their government if threatened or impoverished but run to it for protection.

Will tougher sanctions force a change in policy? Do Iranians even have a right to nuclear technology? For years now, the Iranian government has made it quite clear that it will enrich uranium whether the outside world likes it or not. And why should it? It has become part of the status quo that India, Israel and Pakistan all have nuclear weapons, and though they (along with North Korea) are the only four states not party to the non proliferation treaty, they are allies of the US. Israel gets into wars all the time: in the 62 years since 1948, Israel has fought 7 wars and 2 intifadas. India and Pakistan are continually at odds with one another, and though I disagree with him on Iran, Christopher Hitchens believes the India-Pakistan conflict is the most likely of the world to turn nuclear. Meanwhile, the US is trying to isolate Iran in the kind of double standard that makes international politics the confusing mess it is. If anyone tries to force Iran to give up nuclear capability of any kind, they will look like bullies and hypocrites.

Barack is using a sizeable amount of his political capital in the Security Council drumming up support for sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Meanwhile, the US government talks about how much it would like to talk to Iran and gently persuade it to do the right thing, but the ayatollahs just won’t cooperate. American politicians claim to be wide open to talking to Iran but wide open to bombing it to rubble as well. These arguments play well to the same voters as believe the mindless cliche that our enemies only understand the language of force. Aside from the fact that the claim that the US government is trying to engage Iran is doubtful, how do Hillary and Barack expect the Iranians to open up when they have been pushed away for two decades? You cannot push others away with one hand and expect them to shake your other one.

There seems to be surprisingly little discussion in Washington at the moment about the consequences of putting away all sanctions on Iran. If only American political culture were less impulsive and more Daoist. Daoism considers peace first. It favours non-action, which would be a propitious innovation for a culture that feels the need to move quickly forward in any direction. Daoists remain open minded and flexible, not committed to a single way of thinking, especially after that way has failed. And it believes in relativism, that what path might be right for one may not be right for all.

Perhaps that is why the Chinese government has said that more sanctions on Iran may not be necessary right now, and that it may be prudent to wait. (In truth, I believe Chinese government ideology is pragmatism, not Daoism, but Daoism is a good way to contrast the foreign affairs of the US and China.) It has declared its preference for dialogue over punishment. The Chinese government makes a habit of stating that it is not Chinese policy to interfere in other states’ affairs. It has backed sanctions in the past because like all nuclear powers it does not want anyone new in the club. But perhaps Chinese officials have realised that there are other ways to deal with adamant people.

Why are we so afraid of a nuclear Iran? It is not as if possession of nuclear weapons makes it likely or even possible to use them. The proliferation of nuclear weapons has made them all but useless. Yet Barack has made disarmament a major part of his foreign policy.

I am looking forward to a day when Daoists run the US State Department and liberals run the Revolutionary Guard. Perhaps then we will be able to talk to each other.

Climate Change, Migration, War: the chain of future conflict

The changing of local environmental conditions has affected groups around the world. For instance, in some cases, there are more floods; in other places, more drought. Climate change has become a major political issue but it is still difficult to know what problems it will cause in the longer term. My question is, how might climate change lead to conflict?

At the moment, environmental change is indeed causing and exacerbating conflict. The Sahel Belt of the Sahara Desert has been prone to intense violence, with little sign of improvement. Global warming may be a major cause. Reports (such as this one) are emerging that show that, even when economies improve and states democratise, the consequences of an increase in temperature, such as less water to go round, are having disastrous consequences. I believe things will get worse before they get better.

Future conflict is likely to take the following pattern.

  • Climate change and other environmental damage will put pressure on and destroy local environments in Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.
  • People will be forced to move to other countries to survive.
  • Barriers to immigration will rise.
  • Those who are kept out will fight with the elites over scarce resources.
  • Those who make it into other countries will be looked upon as wretched and unable to integrate.
  • The incidence of war among those whose environments are threatened, whether or not they migrate, will increase.
  • A new kind of refugee, the Environmental Refugee, will emerge.

Most of these things are already happening, which is why we must take drastic measures. The obvious one, the one which most people seem to espouse, is to end climate change. However, there are still many political barriers to taking the steps that need to be taken to make the cuts in greenhouse gases necessary and besides, it may be too late to halt and reverse climate change before it halts and reverses us.

My preferred solution is to remove barriers to migration. Though also politically unpalatable, it is the most realistic way to help people without abandoning them to their fate. If this latter idea appeals, it may help to ask oneself if creating a fortress to keep immigrants out has actually worked anywhere. Majorities in Europe and the United States are against lowering the barriers to immigration but they have no good ideas on preventing immigration. It is not a question of whether we want to keep them out, but whether we can. Either we could throw money down a bottomless pit to prevent immigration or we could work out better policies that fit the chain of future conflict.

Because immigration often causes conflict between locals and newcomers, we also need smart integration policies. Everyone should be educated together, learning each other’s ideas, learning to work together, learning to respect each other. I go into details on this subject in my book, Why Interculturalism Will Work.

By being aware of a possible dark future, we can make it brighter. Ending climate change is a worthy goal, and more realistic immigration and integration policies can help us break the chain of avoidable violence.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it”

It is an industry worth 15 to 20% of the world’s GDP. It boasts among the most global of operations. We see its results all around us, even in our own homes, without realising it. In these difficult economic times, this sector of the economy is thriving. We are supporting it with many of our purchases and people are dying for it on the streets. The industry in question is organised crime.

Misha Glenny’s book McMafia: a Journey through the Global Criminal Underworld is a fascinating thrill ride that traces the roots of the scourge of modern organised crime. He paints a clear picture of the origins, rapid international spread and possible solutions to the enormous problem of the illegal multinational. He begins in Eastern Europe.

As the communist world was imploding, law enforcement was going with it. In the USSR, state companies, the commanding heights of the economy, were being sold at firesale prices. The new oligarchs, as they were soon to be known, needed protection, and they found it in the ranks of the newly unemployed. (For more on the relation between unemployment and violence, see here.) Mob wars became the defining characteristic of Russia in the 1990s. The oligarchs ran complex corporations where the legal and the illegal were indistinguishable. Thousands of criminal organisations arose to work with them and kill for them. Then, they spread.

Glenny details how organised crime went everywhere in search of black markets to exploit. In Yugoslavia, a war that appeared to be tearing people apart was uniting the mafia across the new borders. Bulgarian gangsters tricked and then pimped prostitutes in Europe, Israel and beyond. He describes it as not only a lucrative business but one that pays consistent dividends. The trade in caviar from the Caspian Sea has enriched gang leaders, corrupted officials (further) and nearly depleted the sea of sturgeon. Dubai’s gleaming buildings belie its status as a hub for money laundering. Sanctions on trade with North Korea have pushed all its dealings under the table, and now a nuclear state is selling weapons to the Taliban. (See here.) British Columbia’s marijuana cultivation brings in 6% of its GDP and ecstasy production is rising and bringing Hell’s Angels with it. Sanctions and criminalisation did not end the trade in these things. This lesson, in fact, is central to Glenny’s thesis.

Innumerable women are exploited as prostitutes. They have no protection from violence or disease. Legalised prostitution would mean they have the law on their side. I have been writing for some time about why legalising drugs is the only sensible answer to the billions of dollars and no end of lives lost to fighting a problem that grows nonetheless. An estimated 70% of the global “shadow economy” is in narcotics.

Lev Timofeev, a former Soviet mathematician and analyst of the shadow economy, put it well in an interview with Glenny when he said the following.

“Prohibiting a market does not mean destroying it. Prohibiting a market means placing a prohibited but dynamically developing market under the total control of criminal corporations. Moreover, prohibiting a market means enriching the criminal world with hundreds of billions of dollars by giving criminals a wide access to public goods which will be routed by addicts into the drug traders’ pockets. Prohibiting a market means giving the criminal corporations opportunities and resources for exerting a guiding and controlling influence over whole societies and nations.” (Glenny, 225)

The idea that something is bad, therefore we must make it illegal means trying to end the economic law of supply and demand. Only market based policies will work. Everything else is doomed to fail. But public pressure is mostly conservative on the issue. (See, for instance, here.) I wrote to my member of parliament, Gary Lunn, to end drug prohibition, and he responded by assuring me that he was adhering to more of the same inept, wasteful policies.

The same simple thinking believes that restrictions on immigration can be effective ways of keeping the barbarians outside the gates. The demand for cheap labour has been rising for years, while barriers to it have been following suit. Many Americans see their country as the destination of poor workers, and while illegal immigrants face various dangers to enter and stay in the US, their counterparts all over the world are doing the same. Millions of people are trafficked to jobs under terribly hazardous conditions to wherever cheap labour is in demand. The criminals running operations kidnap the people and then beat or rape them. The free movement of labour across borders would reduce the risks of being a migrant worker. But being unwilling to embrace cultural change, not understanding interculturalism and scared of losing their jobs, people in the rich world prefer to forget about the problem and watch TV. But more attention to the trade going on under the rug would make our world safer.

The fingers of crime are in every pie, everywhere. Organised crime does not only deal in drugs and prostitutes. It corrupts police forces and governments everywhere. It sells cigarettes. Because of high taxes on cigarettes, cigarette smuggling has cost the UK alone $8b in tax revenue and fueled the brutal conflict in Yugoslavia. It sells diamonds, as we know from the movie Blood Diamond, a gripping, fictional (but true to life) story of a diamond industry that has brought down states and sold millions into slavery. It sells weapons, labourers, DVDs, gold, tin and coltan. Do you know what coltan is? It is a black ore found in almost all cell phones, DVD players, video game systems and computers. Though it is found in many parts of the world, much of it comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The mafia from all around the world have cooperated to exploit the mineral resources of the Congo, and in doing so have been fueling the world’s deadliest war since 1945. (Read more here.)

Though we cannot know the origin of everything we buy, we can choose to stop taking drugs, visiting prostitutes and consuming so much. We can lobby our governments to legalise drugs and prostitution, and loosen restrictions on migration. We can set up regimes to verify the origins of things like diamonds, gold and coltan, like the Kimberley Process has done with some success. It is time to stop standing by and letting criminals corrupt our world when some unpleasant but necessary actions could end their party. I strongly recommend McMafia. You will never look at globalisation the same again.

Finally, an end to poppy eradication in Afghanistan

After years of wrongheaded “War on Drugs” policies in Afghanistan, the United States says it has changed. Richard Holbrooke, a highly experienced diplomat, now US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said “we’re going to phase out eradication” of heroin-producing poppies. This can only be good.

87% of the heroin bought in the world in 2004 was made from poppies grown in Afghanistan. (1) That number has climbed from 70% in the 1990s, a big drop in 2000 due to a ban on poppy farming by the Taliban (2), and a resurgence to as much as 90% today (3) (though figures vary).

Eradication efforts do indeed destroy some acreage of poppy farms, but they do not help reach any of the US’s goals. The UN Office of Drugs and Crime report that “the Taliban and other anti-government forces” earned between 50 and 70 million dollars from poppy production in 2008. (4) Antonio Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, says that the same people may also be hoarding poppy stocks, in order to decrease the amount available on the market and push up prices. (4) Moreover, spraying crops punishes the innocent farmers growing them. If Afghan farmers lose their crops to foreign invaders, who are they likely to turn to for protection? If more poppies are eradicated, the price of heroin goes up, the so-called insurgents make more money and gain more allies. Is it any wonder they are putting up such a fight?

In fact, President Barack’s focus is shifting from Iraq to Afghanistan precisely because it is becoming the more difficult of the two conflicts to win. Iraq has always been seen as the pointless, unnecessary war, the bad war, and the one most frequently designated a quagmire. The reality has changed as Iraq has become more stable and Afghanistan conflict has become to look intractable. Richard Holbrooke has been saying since he was sworn in as Special Representative that Afghanistan will be “much tougher than Iraq” (5), and since a year earlier that US counter-narcotic policy in Afghanistan “may be the single most ineffective program in the history of American foreign policy”. (6) He also said that “Nato’s future is on the line”. He is surely right. More importantly, a collapse of NATO’s operations in Afghanistan could mean more violence in Central Asia, more radical Islamism and more suicide terrorism in America and Europe.

For now, let’s get back to drugs. There are alternatives to destroying poppies (though Afghanistan’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics might disagree (7)). Growing poppies could be considered an advantage rather than a scourge. The Senlis Council suggests using them to manufacture opiate-based, legal painkillers such as morphine. (8) Other countries, such as Turkey, grow poppies legally and sell opiates to the United States. Giving farmers a rich market for their crops would mean giving them a livelihood and delivering them from the Taliban. Decriminalising poppy production in Afghanistan will help the cause of NATO forces.

Spokespeople have used the words “phasing out” to explain their shift in policy away from spraying poppy fields. These words make it sound like a slow process that will not end overnight. Nevertheless, policy is moving in the right direction. An end to the eradication of poppies could be the turning point in the war for a democratic and stable Afghanistan.

Contrarian views on what you may be worried about

Are most people natural worriers? Or are they just worried because all the worriers around them tell them to be?

Boy, there are a lot of worried people out there nowadays. Almost everything you could worry about, people have exaggerated it to the stature of Godzilla, poised to bring down civilisation as we know it. Popular books and newspaper articles warn of the end of everything we hold dear.

Fortunately, there are some skeptical optimists out there to shed a little perspective on things, put a stop to all the irresponsible fearmongering and help you get back to living your life. I should note that I do not read just to maintain my optimism, I read to maintain a balanced viewpoint on things. When everyone seems to think something is bad, there is always someone else to tell you the good side of things. This post will give you the pessimists’ side of things, followed by a contrarian’s. Both are worth listening to before you decide to worry. (Please follow the links I provide to get my full side of each story.)

Pessimist: Climate change is the biggest threat to our civilisation and the biggest challenge to our generation. It threatens to destroy everything we hold dear.

Contrarian: That is unlikely. To be clear, I am not denying climate change, nor that it could be harmful. What I am not convinced about is that everything is going to blow up in our faces and our grandchildren will be left with nothing. Climate change is one of those issues on which we have too much certainty, too much worrying that the end is near, and not enough debate about the facts.

Furthermore, every generation worries about environmental collapse. When I was young, it was the ozone layer. Thirty years ago, it was global cooling. And so on for the past hundred years. None of these problems has destroyed us yet. I guess we are just more resilient than the doomsayers realised.

Pessimist: We are running out of natural resources. Oil has peaked, wood is disappearing, and wars are brewing over water. We are in big trouble.

Contrarian: The first problem with these arguments is that they are trying to predict the future without firm grounding in the present. Sure, those things could be true, but we are always finding ourselves wrong about them. We thought gold, silver, copper, iron and so on would all run out completely twenty or thirty years ago, and they have not. Oil might have peaked but we do not know. Existence of debate about something (like peak oil) does not mean it has been proven. And water supplies are getting thinner in some places, where there is indeed water war, and greater in other places, as global warming frees up water supplies embedded in glaciers. Besides, how could we run out of water? It could become harder to find for some people, and harder to clean and desalinate, but surely we are not going to run out.

The second problem is that the future changes every day. Predictions by the wisest experts are notoriously unreliable, partly because every time there is a new, disrupting technology, everything changes. For instance, a big environmental problem at the end of the 19th century was horses. Everyone was getting around in horses, but horses were leaving messes all over the streets. Flies were being born in great numbers and spreading disease. What was to be done? Then, the automobile came along and saved the day. The point is, we do not know what new technology is coming or when. Every time a new technology comes along, yes, of course, it causes new problems, but it also solves old ones. The better technology gets, the better our understanding of science is, the more likely we can find our way out of the mess. I admit we could be in trouble, but people talk as if, if we turn on another light or start up another car, society will collapse. We are stronger than that.

Thirdly, I am not worried about the depletion of any of these things. Humankind has proven itself highly adaptive to change, and the depletion of one or another natural resource will be shaken off so we can go destroy something else.

Pessimist: China’s rise is a military and economic threat to everyone else, especially us westerners.

Contrarian: We are really scared of China, aren’t we? But why? First, China is not as “rising” as some might have you believe. As I wrote earlier, China is not about to overtake the United States in anything except instability of its environment.

Second, the rise of China is, for the most part, a good thing. It means a big new market for companies from the rest of the world, and new businesses, ideas, products and so on for the world outside China. The China of Mao’s era or before would not be helping to stop piracy in the Arabian Sea, or terrorism on its Central Asian borders. It means more wealth and, in my opinion, more security, not less.

Third, the rise of this or that country is always feared, and always has been. When Japan was ascendant in the 1980s, the bookstores were full of books saying how powerful it would become and take over the world. How many books do you see about that now? What are you afraid of? That China will take over the world? That Chinese business will be more competitive than your country’s? The only problem I see is that Chinese consumers and businesses will use more and more natural resources and create more and more pollution. But it would be hypocritical of me to tell them to stop trying to achieve a better life.

BUT, say the pessimists (and I was one of them a couple of years ago), China could be the source of the next world war. No doubt, China’s Taiwan policy could mean a war between China and Taiwan that the United States might step into. But what is the likelihood of that?

Contrarian: First, a war between China and the United States would be immensely costly. The Chinese government and some of its people would be behind a war to regain Taiwan, but they are not so arrogant as to think they could simply defeat the United States in a year or two. Americans, on the other side, are unlikely to want to engage one of the most powerful militaries in the world simply for the sake of Taiwan’s independence.


Second, there are many people from
China in the United States and many from the United States in China. These are people who will do anything to avoid war between the two countries. That means thousands of people saying, “if you want them, you’ve got to go through me.”

What are some other looming wars you may be building a bomb shelter for?

Pessimists: Iran is building a bomb and war is inevitable.

Contrarian: War with Iran is highly unlikely. Aside from a few opportunists, nobody wants it. Iran is not attacking anyone and Barack is not attacking them.

Pessimists: North Korea is shooting rockets and threatening everyone. Won’t they go to war too?

Contrarian: They cannot. Nuclear weapons are so powerful that no one can ever use them. North Korea is a complicated matter but nuclear weapons are among the least of our worries.

Besides, who would want to fight a war when this economic crisis will bring the world to its knees alone? The pessimists, including one of my favourite historians, Niall Ferguson, say that it could lead to depression and war, like the 1929 crash did. (To be fair, Ferguson said “there will be blood”, not “there will be world war”.) I, contrarian, think things are fundamentally different and are not as bad as in the 1930s.

We have lower trade barriers and fewer suffocating regulations than in the days of the Depression. The stock market crash in 1929 was inevitable: stock markets sometimes go up and down slowly, but when they reach such dizzying heights as in 1929, they crash painfully. The crash was pretty big in 1987, too, but then things recovered. The Great Depression was brought on, however, by excessive protectionism and regulation that I do not think we will resort to. Though today there is, of course, a risk of war, none of the major powers are about to become socialist, fascist or communist, and none of them have tariffs even approaching those of the 1930s. You might lose your job, but this economic crisis will not mean the end of the world.

The reason we are told to worry about all these things is that people want to draw attention to their cause, and they know that it is not enough to say “the climate is getting slightly warmer” or “there is a remote possibility of war”. Instead, one person exaggerates, then the next person doubles it, and so on around the circle until everyone is screaming and throwing their hands in the air.

To answer my original question, my guess is that worriers on one end tell everyone else to worry, so they do. Please do not let yourself get caught up in the hysteria.

Conflict and rainfall in the Sahel

I love reading books by economists that try to solve the world’s problems. They always have an interesting perspective on poverty and conflict. Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence and the Poverty of Nations is one such book.

In one chapter, it discusses the conflicts in Chad, Niger and Darfur, all part of the Sahel Belt, perhaps the most violence-prone area on Earth, and finds an interesting statistic. Where it might be common to see ethnic, religious or cultural divisions as the causes of these conflicts, the authors of Economic Gangsters find that the most significant cause is the weather.

The authors find no statistical correlation between war and political and social factors. African countries that are democracies (as difficult as it is to call an electoral democracy a democracy) are just as prone to war as dictatorships, and ethnically homogeneous states are as likely to go to war as heterogeneous ones. But the capriciousness of weather patterns in the age of climate change could mean the collapse into violence of the poorest parts of the world.

First, in any given year, armed conflict is six times more likely in the world’s poorest countries than in the world’s richest countries. So far, nothing new. But they also found that, when GNP declines by 1 percent, the likelihood of conflict increases by 2 percentage points. If it drops by 5 percent, the risk of conflict in the following year is 30 percent higher. Well, what does the economy depend on in poor desert countries? The rain.

In the Sahel, rain can mean life or death. If there were steady, predictable rainfall every year, the people could grow the same crops every year and build houses and farms and live comfortably. But, in large part due to global warming, many of the poorest parts of the world suffer from floods or droughts. If there is no water, your crops cannot grow. (If there is too much water, the problem in other parts of Africa, your crops are destroyed.) And it is difficult to raise animals if there are no plants. People become desperate. Many of them tried to move to neighbouring states but were repatriated soon after, right in time for another drought. People are in dire need of food, but there is no water to grow it. They try to move and are ejected. If you add in the fact that members of the government rarely starve, you see rationale for an armed rebellion.

Solutions? Allowing more immigration would help. People need to be able to move away from poor areas to places where they can survive. Better irrigation and water sanitation systems could keep crop growth consistent, provided rebels do not steal farmer’s food first. Halting global warming could also help tame harsh weather in the Sahel, but that is an even more distant prospect than throwing the doors open to migrants. For now, the authors conclude, the people of Chad, Niger and Darfur can only pray for rain.

No more debate on climate change? Let’s hope we don’t die of ignorance instead

Why do we hear people tell us that climate change is proven, there is a consensus in the scientific community on it and there is no more debate on the subject? These assumptions scare me more than climate change itself.

Of all the books that exist on the environment, the Menso Guide to Life’s recommendation is the Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. His thesis is that the environmental alarmists are wrong. Through careful analysis of data that is available to all of us, we can see that many environmental “problems” such as air and water pollution, depletion of natural resources such as minerals, forests and arable land are not problems at all. Instead, postulates Lomborg, we should put our precious human resources to work tackling the real problems, such as sustainable management of fresh water where it is scarce, and reducing air pollution in big cities in the developing world. We have the data; our next step should be to prioritise. If climate change is a priority, it deserves rigorous debate.

Bjorn Lomborg and I are not cynical people. Cynics are people who automatically do not believe what they hear. Skeptics, on the other hand, are those who question the knowledge of themselves and others, and educate themselves on the many different sides to the issues that concern them. Cynical versus skeptical is the difference between an open and a closed mind. Be skeptical whenever someone attempts to close a debate. Be suspicious even when someone tries to narrow the discourse by, say, dismissing evidence of beneficial effects of climate change or confining blame for it to humans. Discourse that closes minds rather than opening them is not discourse at all. “Consensus” is a pretty suspicious word in itself: it rhymes a little too well with “groupthink”.

Losing argument on any subject implies that you are no longer thinking critically about it. I see argument as an excellent way to gain (and spread) new perspectives. When we have decided there is no more debate, we’d better be damn sure we are not discarding our critical inquiry into the subject along with it. Debate keeps our brains sharp and reminds us that we can be certain about very little. And in case you need an impractical reason to argue, do it as a middle finger to any self righteous environmentalists who refuse to admit they might be wrong.

One problem with any debate is that everyone exaggerates to make their point. If we all take that into account, it is fine; but exaggerating to extremes or lying is wrong. Fearmongering is not the right way to get people on your side because they will turn against you when they see you are wrong. Alarmists want to make the situation more dire than it is because even in the best of times, hardly anyone stands up to act for a cause. If they say that there is no problem (or just a small problem), no one will do anything to combat it at all, and sooner or later it will be a problem. But if they say we’ll all die if we don’t act now, then best case, a few people start conserving energy, etc, and the small or nonexistent problem does not become big. But after fifty years of hearing about the impending crises caused by humankind’s mistreatment of the planet, and fifty years of being afraid of something that has not happened yet has led to three things: a militant environmental movement, a populace that makes misguided choices and a lot of cynicism about preserving the environment.

Many environmental theorists set limits that we have not reached and may never reach. A classic example is the best selling book Limits to Growth from 1972, which predicted we would run out of minerals like gold, silver and zinc by the 1990s, and most significantly, oil would be gone by 1992. In fact, if I had a penny for every chart I have seen with the year we will run out of oil on it, I would live in Beverly Hills. Not only do I think we have another century of oil left, I will go as far as to say we will never run out of oil. If you disagree, I encourage you to read this article and see where I’m coming from. But the limits imposed on us by the alarmists are unnecessary. For many reasons these people do not take into account (partly because no one predicted all the variables and partly because the future is never what we imagine), we have not run out of any of these “scarce” resources. Moreover, these alarmists seem to forget how adaptive humans are.

Part of the alarm comes from a belief that these limits are significant because our economies, our institutions, our society will collapse if we exceed them. Climate change will wreak havoc on the world because we are unprepared and foolish. I don’t believe it for a second. First of all, barring the possibility of a “Day After Tomorrow” type disaster, nothing happens suddenly. As things get worse, we will accord them a higher priority for our time and money, our human resources. Second, we have an unprecedented understanding of science today that, combined with our unprecedented wealth, will enable us to overcome environmental crises if and when they come. Third, humans are smart. We have always found ways of recovering after a crisis or turning crises into opportunities. We find solutions to all of our problems. If the sea levels rise, we will relocate people, and perhaps we will make new land or construct floating structures to live on. If oil runs out, we will create alternatives (for that matter, we already have them). If fish stocks go too low, we will regulate them even more, or we will learn to farm them sustainably. If the air becomes too polluted, we will stop driving and start planting more trees. Before you know it, we will have clean air again.

So stop worrying and get back to arguing like you should be. Here are some things we could be debating.

1. The effects of our behaviour on the environment. That means what are the most likely outcomes 50, 100 and 200 years from now. It includes the good that can come from climate change as well as the bad.

2. How we should allocate resources. If we are going to find solutions, we should know what are the most pressing problems. If we spent all our money on recycling or took every last car off the road we might feel good about ourselves for a while but we would not have solved anything. If climate change is the most pressing environmental issue, we must decide how to allocate resources to take it on.

3. What the individual’s role should be. I have two suggestions. You could live among the trees and the forest creatures, give up your wordly possessions and be at harmony with all nature. If you don’t want to do that, my second suggestion is continue to educate yourself on environmental issues and engage in debate about it with those around you. When we cease learning and debating, we have lost something even more precious than a stable climate.

Why I don’t care if the gap between rich and poor is growing

The point from my last post that attracted the most attention was the one challenging you to tell me why it is bad that the gap between the rich and the poor is growing. It’s a commonly uttered phrase that assumes that there is something inherently wrong with this gap and its growth. What is wrong with it? Let’s take a closer look at the phrase and our assumptions.

Assumption #1: The gap between the rich and poor is growing.

Whether or not this is true is irrelevant. This phrase is entirely without context. Who are the rich and how much wealth do they own? Who are the poor and how much wealth do they own? Do you mean the differences between the upper one percentile and the lower one percentile? Do you mean all over the world, in one country, in the developed or developing world? Or is it simply a blanket statement made by leftists to argue their points? If we do not define our terms properly, there is no point in our arguing. And if you think the poor are truly poor, read the Mystery of Capital by Hernando de Soto and the Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad.

Assumption #2: The poor are getting poorer.

If the poor were poorer, if the rich were cheating or stealing from them, then we should take action. But they are not. By all accounts, the poor are getting richer. It is easy to say that the rich are getting richer at a faster pace than the poor, but do not begin to think that they are getting there at the expense of the poor. If anything, they are bringing the poor up with them.The poor have more opportunities to escape poverty today than they ever had. Do not pity the poor until you understand them; and something tells me you don’t.

Assumption #3: The rich want to keep the poor poor.

This statement has not been true for at least 100 years, when industrialists like Henry Ford and John D. Rockefeller began paying their employees more, in part so that they could buy from the corporations for which they worked. No one who is not simply cruel wants the poor to stay poor. The more buying power the people have, the better off the rich, as well as the poor, are.

Presuming the evil of the rich is ignorant. First of all, do not generalise over a big (and as I said before, poorly defined) group of people, whatever single characteristic binds them together. Some rich people are greedy and spend all their time finding new ways to make money; some do not. Second, the rich do not simply hoard every penny and not give any of it to anyone else. Some of it goes into taxes, some of it goes to banks, insurance companies, stockbrokers, lawyers, doctors and so on, and believe it or not, some of it even goes to charity. Either way, almost all of it goes back into the economy; and if you have enough initiative, you can get some of it. Third, when the rich make money, they make it providing things that society wants. Rich people own corporations (you can too, by the way) that provide goods and services for society while creating jobs. Moreover, how do you think hundreds of millions of people in Asia have found their way out of poverty over the past forty years? The right economic policies and a lot of help from big corporations. (On this note, I don’t care that Americans are losing their jobs because for each job offshored from the United States, at least one other is created.) I get tired of hearing these people talk about why big corporations and rich people are inherently bad. They look at a small number (relative to how many big corporations there are) of cases of corporate malfeasance and infer that the entire capitalist system is irretrievably perverted. Don’t paint all corporations or rich people with one brush—that is stereotyping. If you want to learn a little about the effects big corporations have on poverty, check out this article on Wal-Mart. It might surprise you.

Assumption #4: Equality of wealth is a good thing.

If all of us were equal in every way, we should all be equally wealthy. BUT we all have different goals, motivations and values. Some of us value economic security, some of us value a big screen tv; some of us want to retire early, others want a nice car with a big stereo in it. We are all different, we save and spend differently, we take different opportunities and risks, so why would we have the same wealth? And tell me this: why else has every attempt in history to equalise wealth led to dictatorship, poverty and the collapse of the state? Because no one is in a position to decide who deserves how much wealth, many people squander what you give them, no one can use their capital and people tend to cheat their way out of receiving the minimum.

What should be equal for all of us should be opportunity. Provided we do what we can to give everyone the same opportunities to attain their goals and live their values (as long as they do not infringe on those of other people), mostly through education, it is not important to have the same wealth and possessions.

Here is the only reason why the gap between rich and poor is a bad thing. The rich have money because they create money: they learn the ways of finance, spend wisely, take risks and provide what others want. If you are not willing to do these things, fine; but do not be resentful of those who have. When people see others who have more, they want to possess more; and many people, instead of patiently working hard, educating themselves, saving, sacrificing and investing, they feel they should not have to work for it and instead try to expropriate the wealth of the wealthy. When that happens, they elect governments that put up trade barriers, tighten labour markets, raise taxes, redistribute incomes and otherwise satisfy their voters in the short term and make things worse for everyone in the long term. Envy and its consequences is the only reason this gap is a problem.

In conclusion, I believe that, while we should be tackling poverty at its roots, it is counterproductive to tackle wealth as if it were a problem of the world. Instead, become wealthy yourself through socially responsible means and then you can decide what to do with the money you have created. If you do not want to be wealthy, you can still do good in the world; but do not avoid money out of guilt. That guilt comes only from ignorance.

Privatise it

The philosophy:

The underlying philosophy of this post is libertarianism. If you want to learn more about libertarianism, check out one of the following websites: the Libertarian Party of the United States; the Reason Foundation; the Cato Institute; Privatization.org; the Fraser Institute; the Ayn Rand Institute; and plenty of others. My belief is that the government’s role in society is to protect human security, private property and freedom, and to keep the economic playing field as level as possible, meaning that everyone can compete on the same grounds. In theory, the government should retain the ability to dissolve a corporation; but it should never exercise that right. The power of the market, the ability of consumers to speak and vote with their dollars, is the most powerful check against corporations, not government regulation. Most things that are today provided by government in most countries should be provided by the private sector unless it violates the above. And even most government services have expenses that could be reduced through competitive bidding (Chinese textile workshops could make army uniforms, Russian arms manufacturers could make their weapons—whoever is best and cheapest).

 

Why we should privatise everything:

1) Personal responsibility. If the government is no longer relied on for these things, people will take responsibility for their actions and will thus act differently.

 

2) Freedom. The less government intervention into the economy, the more business and labour can do what they feel is right and compete on a level playing field. The less government intervention into people’s lives, the more choices and responsibilities they have. The government does not always (or even very often) know best, and policies designed to protect people often end up punishing them. Many consumers have already realised that the government is not there for them and they must protect themselves. To this end, they have created ripoffreport.com, consumerreports.org, underdogs.ca and other independent watchdogs untainted by the biases of government or business.

 

3) Creating wealth. Pushing more responsibility for oneself will lead to people who realise they cannot simply count on others to take care of them. When they realise that, they will do more to create their own wealth. More people will own more assets and have more wealth to spread around. Moreover, publically owned corporations and government intervention in the economy requires bureaucracy: saving on bureaucracy saves on taxes and reduces the likelihood of corruption.

 

What shouldn’t be privatised:

Government:

To remain democratic, the three branches of government (executive, legislative and judicial) cannot be beholden to private interests. That said, here is a question for you to consider: should we be able to buy and sell votes?

 

Police and intelligence services:

As the most immediate insurers of human security, the police and intelligence services should remain in the hands of democratically elected government.

 

Fire protection:

Although there could be benefits to privatising the fire department and making it a part of the insurance industry (you pay for fire protection and if you don’t pay, the fire department won’t come to you), it is an issue of human security and for that reason should be available to everyone, regardless of their wealth. Even though having to pay for fire service could reduce the reliance on the fire department and thus the risk of fire, that does not reduce the risk that someone else (who does not pay for fire protection) will start a fire that harms the security or property of others. So fire protection should be provided by the government to everyone.

 

What SHOULD be privatised:

Media and the arts:

All government subsidy of media and the arts is undemocratic. If the people do not demand Canadian television, Canadian art, Canadian books and so on enough to pay for them, they will not pay for them. If the government pays for them, they are taking money from people for things they would not otherwise pay for. That is undemocratic.

 

Welfare, childcare and low cost housing:

Welfare should be provided to those who simply cannot earn a living for and take care of themselves. No one else should be offered it. To everyone else it engenders dependency. Humans respond to incentives. If there is an incentive not to work, many people will take it. If welfare is eliminated for those who are capable of working, the dependency and entitlement mindsets will go with it over time.

 

When the government pays for childcare, it provides an incentive for parents to leave their children with other rather than take care of themselves and to have more children. Parents should be the primary caregivers and so should have incentives to stay home with the children rather than go out to work. People should not have incentives to have more children when there are enough people in the world already who will immigrate to countries in need of new workers. If they do, the taxes they pay can go to lower the taxes of the working parents to make up for the revenue lost by staying at home.

 

Like welfare, low cost housing tends to institutionalise poverty rather than relieving it. Like welfare, it creates dependency and does nothing to address the underlying problems of poverty, which are caused more by lack of education and defeatist or dependent mindsets than lack of money. The money spent on housing or childcare would be better given more directly to the poor in terms of lower taxes so that they can decide what to do with the money themselves.

 

Foreign aid:

I think foreign aid is generally a mistake and the whole idea (not just the method) should be overhauled. (That will be the subject of a later post.) Nevertheless, if governments insist on providing it (and can find a win win way of doing so), they should outsource it to NGOs. NGOs are motivated by the mission, and there are enough of them that they compete for government contracts just like corporations do. The government is motivated by the next election. That leads the aid they provide to comprise too many flashy projects that do not contribute to their societies. Leave it to the NGOs: outsource it.

 

Military:

Military operations should only be sanctioned by governments and only in defense. That said, there are plenty of private military firms that are capable of performing these operations, and the competition among them and contractual nature of private military work lowers the costs to the taxpayers. If you think this isn’t happening already, read this entry in Wikipedia. Of course, there is always the worry that they will start wars for the sake of the company owners. It is the responsibility of the government to keep them in check, and the institutions of democracy (such as the courts and the voters) to keep the government in check.

 

Health:

An article by the Reason Public Policy Institute shows that the privatisation of health care in Sweden, Germany, Australia and the UK can not only lower overall costs but also decrease treatment waiting times and increase hospital capacity for patient examination and care. The article also finds that, even today with quasi private health care in the United States, overregulation and mismanagement cause thousands of deaths and millions of wasted dollars every year. The Institute offers the various options available to governments that run hospitals and list the benefits and obstacles. I suggest that, if governments do not outright sell the hospital, they should at least outsource most of their functions. To anyone who wonders why hospital workers such as cafeteria and cleaning staff make at least twice as much as their counterparts in the private sector, the latter option at least should not sound outrageous.

 

Education:

All schools should be privatised to encourage competition among them, prompting the schools to provide not what the government wants but what the parents want. School fees and teachers’ salaries should not be determined by government regulators but by the market, like everything else. If the government wants to intervene into education, let them offer more scholarships so that those who work hardest get a leg up. But even that isn’t necessary because as the government pulls its hand out of education, business will fill the gaps with its own scholarships, which is already happening. And if you are afraid that the rich will get better education than everyone else, perhaps you should consider that is already happening as well. Privatising schools education will not necessarily increase the gaps between rich and poor; giving the poor the wrong education will. (What is the right curriculum? That is the subject of a later post.)

 

Endangered animals and habitat:

A lot of government regulation and “protection” has clearly not helped the environment. Another article from the Reason Public Policy Institute shows both the failures of the US Endangered Species Act and cites the merits of an ecotourism firm in Australia as an example of the successful—and profitable—privatisation of animal species threatened by extinction. The theory is that, if animals become private property, individuals, corporations or NGOs will protect them. Individuals and NGOs will protect them for the sake of protecting them, while corporations will be in check by a) the necessity of the animals for their long term profitability and b) the pressures of the market. The same goes for habitat: if it is at risk or can provide a financial benefit, they will keep it safe.

 

This post aimed to justify wide scale privatisation by addressing the most controversial issues in privatisation. What’s more, like most of this blog, it also aims to provoke. If you disagree with me, great! Let’s argue!