Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Opposing the $100 Computer

It just figures that the writers on this site would come out opposed to a plan to put cheap computers into the hands of people worldwide, even when such a plan wouldn't cost then a dime out of their precious tax dollars.

In a rambling and poorly reasoned post, David Henderson rails against the plan because, at heart, it isn't sufficiently free market enough for him.

He writes, "We judge that by their willingness to pay, and the reason free markets work so well is that they get goods and services to those who are willing to pay the most. Note that those who are willing to pay the most aren't always, and aren't even typically, the wealthiest: even poor people regularly outbid rich people for food, clothing, and shelter, which is why poor people survive."

Henderson is wrong about one thing: the poor don't survive. They die in appalling numbers; life expectancy in poorer nations is well below that in the west, while infant and child mortality is substantially higher. Even in the United States, poor people die earlier than their richer compatriots.

Free markets work well if you have money, or at least, if people have relatively equivalent buying power. A distortion of wealth creates a distortion of valuation; a rich person would, in fact, pay $100 for a doorstop, because it represents a much smaller percentage of his wealth. People with little or no money, meanwhile, aren't able to express their choices at all. If you have less than $100, then you cannot opt to purchase a $100 computer, no matter how much you value it, not even if your life depends on it.

Henderson further observes, "Many people in those poor countries -- the vast majority, I suspect -- would not be willing to spend even close to $100 on laptop. What that means is that they would prefer to spend $100 on other items -- food, iodine pills for water, DDT to protect them from malaria, basic generic drugs, maybe even a sewing machine."

This is probably true. This is because poor people have little more than $100, and as noted, you cannot eat a laptop. It does not follow, however, that such people do not value a laptop (or other things, such as education, medicine, or clothing). It simply means that they cannot afford even things that they value greatly, because their income is so low. Survival comes first.

So what is the purpose of a $100 laptop? As has been widely noted, one of the greatest gaps between the rich and the poor is access to information. Many poor people live in land that could support them comfortably, but they have no means to support themselves because they do not have access to a basic education, information they would need to survive. It is true that you cannot eat a computer, but it is also true that you cannot eat a fishing pole. This does not mean that either is not valuable, it means merely that neither will be the first choice of a starving person with little or no money.

Henderson is concerned, moreover, that the governments of these countries should spend money on things of more value to citizens. He writes, "what started off as a completely innocent, let's-help-the-poor-in-poor-countries proposal will end up, with government involved, as just one more way of government using force against its own people to buy goods for them that they regard as luxuries, preventing them from buying the goods that they need to make it to next year."

The implication is, of course, that if the governments were not buying these computers, they would be buying things people need. But this, too, is something he would oppose, because, as he notes, "governments are notoriously bad at getting resources into the right hands."

Well maybe, but the free market isn't more effective. The free market is notoriously willing to tolerate the existence of poor people. And typical free-market solutions, such as tax reductions, do not help poor people - a tax break on a $100 per annum income doesn't translate into much of an increase in purchasing power, nor is the corresponding tax break to a rich person likely to find its way into the hands of the poor (it will find its way into the hands of another rich person, or into an investment account).

The fact is, unless the government provides resources to poor people, then because poor people do not have the resources to lift themselves out of poverty, they will remain poor and eventually die. It thus becomes a question of how best to provide for the needs of poor people, and while sustinance is of no doubt the top priority, so is giving such people the means to cease being poor.

Feeding people, and placing computers into their hands, in other words, cannot be and is not, as implied by the article, an either-or proposition. The $100 computer is intended as part of an overall strategy, one which aims not only at keeping people alive, but also at putting the means to lift themselves out of poverty into their hands. They should be combined with other programs, such as electrification, transportation and communications infrastructure, banking (and, for example, microloans) services, the rationalization of trade laws, and more.

Private enterprise and free markets do none of these things. They do not lift a country from nothing to something, because there is no profit in it. This is something most genuine capitalists recognize, which is why they routinely call on their various governments to provide these sorts of infrastructures, from roads to police and defense to universities and space programs. Most genuine capitalists regard this correctly as a pooling of their incomes, placed in the hands of a neutral agency, that will eventually produce new productive capacity and new markets.

This sort of wisdom seems to have escaped the writers on this site, however. They somehow believe that people can express economic choices without money, and that the engine of the marketplace will move to serve them without any reasonable expectation of profit.

This attitude is not only empirically wrong, it commits them to an economic and social policy that is repugnant and morally repelling.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Going Big Time

So I got a note from Progressivebloggers, with which this blog is affiliated, that our comments will be aggregated by a major media network during the upcoming election campaign. I guess I'll have to pay more attention, then.

In all seriousness, I welcome the election, not because I expect that it will solve the logjam in Parliament (the current balance is, roughly, just about what Canadians actually want) but because it will make it clear that business as usual isn't an option any more.

Business as usual was what we had during the Chretien era, a period of time of prosperity and growth and of general contentment with the Liberal government. Contentment, that is, except within the Liberal government, some members of which couldn't leave well enough alone.

What transpired was the ouster of Chretien (and various Chretien loyalists) in what was in some corners charaterized as an internal coup. From my perspective, wht we saw was the right, despairing of any hope of electing a Conservative government, lining up behind right-wing factions in the Liberal party. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

And, surprise, they were successful. The moderate-left liberal government of Chretien was replaced with a moderate-right corporatist government headed by Paul Martin. And while outwardly they carried on as though nothing had changed, a closer look revealed a swing further and further to the right.

The corporatists must have thought they had it made when a Liberal-Conservative budget was tabled last spring, a paean to the siren call of lower corporate taxes, reduced social programs, and creeping privatization. We all know of the back-stabbing that followed, and so the Liberals were forced to pass an NDP amendment in an attempt to stay in power - an attempt that would have worked, long term, except that these Liberals are fundamentally uncomfortable with a left-wing agenda.

We are, in short, having an election because the Liberals want one, not because the opposition has forced one. Because the Liberals have some internal issues to decide, and most specifically, this: to stay the conservative course, follow the Martin agenda, and hope for a coalition to the right; or to engage in counter-coup, dump Martin, and follow the oft-promised but seldom delivered leftist agenda Canadians really want.

I think that the Liberals are in for a much deeper shock than they expect. Yes, they will bleed support to the Conservatives, who will benefit from a compliant press and corporate backing, but not so much as you might think, because Canadians are not ready for a Conservative government (they still remember - and are still paying for - the last time we got one). And the moderate right - mostly economic conservatives with little or no social agenda - haven't abandoned the Liberals completely.

The Liberals will lose support to the Bloc Quebecois, which is the closest thing to an alternative voters in that province have (there is no NDP support to speak of, and the Conservatives are, if anything, anti-Quebec these days). And they will lose support to the NDP, especially in the Ontario heartland, hard hit by the ongoing free trade issue, and in British Columbia, where the NDP missed out on big gains last time by only the slightest margin.

This is, in my view, a good thing. This election should result in a more populist government. It should, all other factors being equal, reflect the left-wing sentiments of the Canadian people, underscored with western conservatism. It should, in other words, reflect a people's agenda, rather than a big business agenda. It should split the elctorate into roughly four equal parts, and should be enough for a Liberal-NDP coalition - but one which Paul Martin will not survive.

Is it too early to say Prime Minister Jack Layton? Perhaps. But it sure sounds good. And, from where I sit, it sounds like the kind of government Canadians want. And will vote for in increasing numbers this time out.

This time out, my lawn sign - and my vote - will be with Jack Layton and the NDP.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Global Warming and the Future

Eric write, It seems so strange/absurd, though, that most Newstrolls regulars never could "get it" despite all the evidence of the global warming urgency posted here over the years. (And still don't get it, now.) Then again, maybe it was too late ten years ago, and we just didn't realize it. All this debate and bickering over the years about global warming may have all been for naught.

Well with those sentences you have just moved light-years.

I don't think it's the case that none of us 'get it'. I think we all get it, all except the lunatic anymice dissenters.

Where does that leave us?

First, we have some time. Even a dramatic climate change is going to take a lifetime. What we're trying to plan for is for our descendents, not ourselves. Sure, there will be disruptions in our lifetimes, but certainly no more dramatic than in the last century. Which beings us to...

Second, there will be casualties. Most likely they won't be us; casualties will be for the most part the poor and for the most part in the developing world. We can't change that, we can, at best, mitigate the suffering and plan to make our own actions less destructive than those of our predecessors, the harvest of which we are reaping in these unavoidable deaths today. But we have, at least, some room. And it gives us some directionality toward our efforts. Specifically...

Third, people who are well educated and living in a reasonably stable society should be able to survive. The big danger in changing conditions is ignorance; the second big danger is civil strife. People can live on a lot less, and in much worse conditions, than we currently do, and given the chance, most people will survive climate change. That said...

Fourth, a lot of the ecosystem won't. We are already in a situation where fish stocks have been depleted, forests are denuded, desertification is rampant. The world will survive - it has survived mass extinctions on numerous occasions before. The loss of species is, at heart, a human problem - not because we're all touchy feely, but because we need those species to survive. We will have to develop alternatives and it's going to be a biotechnical race, but again, we have time, if we keep our act together.

These are hard realities. But they point to a strategy...

First, don't panic. It's a serious situation, but we can deal with it. We have a lot more to fear from each other than we do from climate change. Cooler heads, not the panic-stricken, will prevail.

Second, the developing world must stand on its own. For us, living in western democracies, that means easing and eliminating our dependence on these countries. The exploitation has to end - the cheap imports and low-cost labour will end either way, and we stand a better chance of survival as a planet if these nations help themselves rather than imploding.

Third, help people help themselves. Don't save people, empower them. Educated people will for the most part work together because they know their odds of survival and a decent life are improved. People who live in open, democratic, and supportive societies will succeed, and so empowered, people will tend to choose this form of organization. People who live in dictatorships will die in increasing numbers as things get worse. The more people we can empower, the more people we can save. It's that simple.

Fourth, we press ahead with research and development across the board - our very existence will depend on it. There will be some things we cannot solve - maybe a strain of avian flu, maybe key shortage - but for each problem we solve, more people will be saved. Things like space exploration, biosphere, cloning, artifical intelligence, etc., are not long-shots. They are best bets.

What does that mean for each of us as individuals?

First, don't jump to easy solutions, don't focus on blame and scapegoating, don't zone out and join a cult - don't lose your head, in other words. People who do not treat this as a complex long-term problem endanger not only themselves but also the others they come into contact with. It is one thing to oppose people who are making this worse - make make no bones about it, the rational will begin to push back against the superstitious and irrational with increasing force as the stakes get higher. It's quite another to be the one whose mad throes are threatening to sink the whole boat.

Second, learn to live with less. People who can live with less can not only better survive hardship, they are also more independent and able to resist threats and actions by the lass stable elements of society. If you find yourself voting or acting in such a way as to defend your possessions, merely for the sake of having possessions, you are being manipulated into the danger zone. Living with less also, collectively, puts less strain on our carrying capacity, which will be seriously stretched in the years to come.

Third, get smarter. Not simply smarter in the sense that you know more things (though it never hurts to hone a craft or a skill) but in the sense that you can understand and read the signs better. People who ran inland when the sea receeded survived the Tsunami; people who evacuated New Orleans ahead of Katrina lived (and people who had evacuation and accomodation planned ahead of time avoided the worst of it).

Fourth, when it comes to knowledge and research, take the gloves off and get to work. This means not only doing the front-line development, but in doing everything that can be done to foster greater social knowledge, including open content and open source, the free flow of ideas, civil liberties, and more. Focus your efforts on building an adaptive, learning and knowing society, and don't be distracted by mere short-term (and often exploitive) economic gain.

OK, this isn't everything. But it's a plan. A starting point. And in my view, even if some of the details are wrong, something like this is our best - and possibly our only - means of survival.

Standing Alone

I find myself standing alone a lot, lost in my own thoughts, and it from time to time crosses my mind: what do great thinkers think about when they stand alone?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, for example: a former prisoner of war, master logician and theorist of language (whose mere thoughts would likely have been themselves a masterpiece, were they to be captured and printed), possibly gay (and who would have witnessed the destruction of colleague Alan Turing from close range). What would go through his mind? When he stood alone and looked at a tree or a squirrel or the rowers on the canal, what questions would go through his mind?

Or in a similar vein, Albert Einstein, famous for his 'though experiments' regarding the nature of the speed of light - these most probably would have occupied him as we waited for the bus or taxi, or stood in line at the bank. While the rest of us think about what we're having for supper or whether the books will balance at the end of the week, what would einstein be thinking about?

Do they ponder their place in history? Run through mathematical equations? Write their forthcoming texts in their head? Or do they empty themselves of thought, achieving peace through satori? When Bertrand Russell went to the bathroom (presumably alone) did he review in his mind the great discussions of the past, did he ponder his next move in the interminable discussion with Whitehead?

Here's what I think: that they thought of all these things, and more, their personal thoughts a vivid mosaic of abstract expressionism, formulae and calculations, internal dialogues, topics randing from the abstruse to the mundane. That they were, first and foremost, human beings, and when alone with their thoughts must need have dealt with their very human condition.

And that there is a time when such minds, when they stand alone, speak to and are accountable only to themselves, when they think about what is good, and right, and important.

This I think accounts for the fact that the vast majority of these great thinkers - all of them, I think - eventually evolved into what is oft-times thought of as a 'radical' philosophy. Because when a great mind turns only to itself for counsel, certain things emerge as self-evident: the need for peace in the world, the imperative to reduce suffering, the fundamental humanity of all who walk this planet, the sameness that defines each of us, from the greatest thinker to the tiniest baby. Great thinkers understand best and most of all, I think, how little they differ from those assigned a more mundane place in history, and would be accutely aware of the accident and happenstance that put themselves in a position to be, in fact, great thinkers.

It is when you think that you are (or should be) special or privileged that you are willing to tolerate the inequities and inhumanities necessary to place you in such a position; but when you are special or privileged, through your own merit and through the twists and turns of history, you understand that the inequalities and inhumanities that create such privilege are intolerable.

Because, when you have only yourself to account for, when you see only yourself in the mirror, then awareness or tolerance of inequities or inhumanities cut like a knife. They diminish you, devalue everything you believe and have worked for, make you less of a person.

Standing alone, the only merit stems what what you've become, and none from what you have abased. And when this is the only standard that matters, the philosphies don't seem so radical any more, rather, the world merely more intolerable.