Thursday, May 28, 2015

Economic Rhetoric vs. Economic Reality

Minimum Wage and Unions

When Los Angeles voted to increase its minimum wage from US$9 an hour to US$15 an hour by 2020, it was touted as a victory for the working class.

Proponents of the minimum wage claimed that people deserved a life of dignity, that workers were “worth more,” etc. There was no talk of freedom of association or freedom of contract or the possible unintended consequences that the law could have on marginal workers.

(Just to be clear, I have not only opposed raising the minimum wage for a long time, I have also long opposed the very idea of the minimum wage itself.)

So you can imagine the fit of laughter that I had this morning when I read in The LA Times that labor union leaders, who had been one of the strongest proponents for raising the minimum wage, are advocating last-minute changes to the law that could create an exemption for companies with unionized workforces because:

With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them... This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.”

Way back in the day, Milton Friedman once said that the real purpose of the minimum wage is to “reduce competition for the trade unions and make it easier for them to maintain the wages of their privileged members higher than others'.”


If this does not wake people up to the fact that unions only look out for their own interests, rather than the interests of the working class, then nothing will.


Mandated Family Leave

As though I did not get a good enough chuckle from The LA Times, I got another good laugh when I read The New York Times, which reported that mandated family-leave “benefits” often harm many of the same workers that these mandated “benefits” were meant to help.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Spain passed a law in 1999 giving workers with children younger than 7 the right to ask for reduced hours without fear of being laid off. Those who took advantage of it were nearly all women.

Over the next decade, companies were 6 percent less likely to hire women of childbearing age compared with men, 37 percent less likely to promote them and 45 percent more likely to dismiss them, according to a study led by Daniel Fernández-Kranz, an economist at IE Business School in Madrid. The probability of women of childbearing age not being employed climbed 20 percent. Another result: Women were more likely to be in less stable, short-term contract jobs, which are not required to provide such benefits.

So passing laws that increases the cost of employing women compels businesses to hire fewer women? And to add insult to injury, it just makes the glass ceiling just that much thicker? Shocking!

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Income Mobility

Gawker loves to claim that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. Robert Reich loves to make that claim, too. In fact, almost everyone seems convinced that that is true.

Yet today in The Economist, I read an article that showed how much progress Indian immigrants have made in Western countries, particularly the United States. Here's an excerpt:

On the usual measures of success they outstrip all other minorities, including Jewish-Americans. They are educated and rich. In 2012 some 42% held first or higher degrees; average family income was over $100,000, roughly double that of white Americans (see chart). Over two-thirds of them hold high-status jobs. They have done so well that many migrants from Pakistan or Bangladesh like to call themselves Indian, hoping that some of the stardust will rub off on them.

The stereotype of Indians as keeping shops or running motels in their adopted country is thus outdated.

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People who loudly claim that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer can make that boast because they are not talking about real flesh and blood people, but rather about abstract categories like the top or bottom 10 percent of families or households.

These categories have always existed and will always exist. However, the people who make up those groups change. It wouldn't surprise anyone to know that a 25-year-old recent college graduate makes less money than an experienced 45-year old manager because it is a given that older and more experienced workers tend to make more money. It also wouldn't surprise anyone to know that immigrants who have degrees in chemistry or computer science are able to earn more money than native-born workers who majored in Political Science or Women's Studies.

To have a serious discussion about income mobility and the so-called wealth gap of real people, then we have to talk about people's real income per capita – a topic that all these Chicken Littles avoid like the plague precisely because talking about that would expose their little game for the fraud that it is.

It would seem that the distance between rhetoric and reality is quite far, indeed.

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Saturday, May 23, 2015

Movie Review – Mad Max: Fury Road

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Mad Max: Fury Road and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

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I had never seen any of the original Mad Max movies. I knew that they existed but for some reason, I was never interested in watching any of them. I would have also ignored Mad Max: Fury Road had it not been for the hubbub that was generated by a Men Rights' group that claimed that the movie was “a feminist piece of propaganda posing as a guy flick.”

So I went to watch Mad Max: Fury Road the other day and it was amazing. The cars looked like it might have come out of Henry Ford's most feverish nightmares, the music was in-your-face, the sets were over-the-top, the action scene was breathtaking and kept me on the edge of my seat, Tom Hardy's Max did not sound as ridiculous as his Bane's voice (it was still a little ridiculous), Charlize Theron can do no wrong, and there was actually a story in the middle of all that! I thought the cherry on top of the whole movie was an extra who played a flame-thrower electric guitar on top of a moving stereo-car.

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However, having a one-track mind, while watching the movie, I could not help but be drawn to the world's economic system.

The movie's antagonist, Immortan Joe (who was played by Hugh Keays-Byrne who apparently was in the original Mad Max movie) is a diseased old man and the tyrannical cult leader of a desert tribe.

Presumably as a result of the nuclear war that destroyed Earth's mighty civilizations, his back is covered in boils. He hides his back from being seen by everyone else using a plastic body armor, which actually has what looks like military ribbons painted onto the chest plate. He also hides his face throughout the whole movie behind a wicked looking mask. He also promises Valhalla for his soldiers who martyr themselves for him (amazing how despite the fact that almost everyone has very funny sounding names, Valhalla's name doesn't change at all).

Whereas Immortan Joe's subjects look like they're dying of thirst, he lives in his mountain-lair, which only a select few are allowed to enter – those select few being his sons and his harem of slave-wives. There is plenty of clean water that is pumped from underground and the water is used to grow fresh green vegetables. He occasionally releases the mountain's valve system and allows water to fall onto his subjects for a precious few seconds; after which he admonishes his subjects not to become addicted to water lest they become angry at its absence.

During the movie, it is revealed that he considers his slave-wives and the children they bear him to be his property. Some of his slave-wives whom he no longer uses to breed have another job – being milked. Yes, Immortan Joe literally milks his women dry.

Tyrant. Cultist. Slaver. Hypocrite. Liar. Immortan Joe does not possess a single redeeming quality.

That IS a wicked looking mask though.
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While I watched the movie, however, it struck me that Immortan Joe was running a rentier state, which is a state that accumulates revenue through the exporting of natural resources rather than through taxation. To be specific, there are several characteristics that have to be met in order for a society to be considered a rentier state.

  • Revenues are paid to the governments in the form of rent.
  • Revenues are directly accrued by the state.
  • Revenues must be accumulated via exports.
  • A significant portion of the state's wealth must come from this revenue.

Judging from the scenes in the movie, Immortan Joe did not tax his people. For all intents and purposes, there seemed nothing worth taxing. The same is true of rentier states. As rentier states accumulate their wealth from natural resources, rentier governments have very little incentive to institute extractive institutions such as a tax agency or other ancillary bureaucracies that gather information about their subjects. Of course, this is not to say that rentier states do not gather information about their subjects at all. After all, even rentier states have to carry out the census. However, for most rentier states, patronage works far more effectively than legal institutions.

That is why rentier states (such as Brunei, the country that I was born in) tend to be omnipresent in the lives of their citizens vis-à-vis religion.

Immortan Joe's rentier state was certainly an exaggerated and over-the-top version of the real thing. I don't know if the director, George Miller, actually set out to depict an exaggerated rentier state but regardless of his intent, he did a remarkable job doing so.

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Now let's jump to the end of the movie. At the end, Immortan Joe's dead body is brought back to his city, where he is quickly set upon and mutilated by his former subjects. Immortan Joe's only remaining son is a deformed midget who now fears for his life. The bulk of his army is either dead or stranded in hostile territory somewhere in the desert. More importantly, his wives, who are led by the battered but alive Imperator Furiosa (played by Charlize Theron) are finally free from his iron grip.

Right before the movie ends, however, Immortan Joe's former slave-wives, the ones whom he milked, happily release the mountain's water valves and allow the long-suffering subjects to finally drink to their hearts' content.

From an action movie's point of view, this was a great ending. A tyrant is dead, people are free, and everyone lives happily-ever-after. Down with the hateful patriarchy! Long live the loving matriarchy!

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From an economist's point of view, however, there remain unanswered questions. There is no doubt that Immortan Joe was an evil man, that his regime was tyrannical, and that his belief in his right to own his women and children is a perversion of property rights. But what happens when that water, which Immortan Joe guarded so zealously, is just given to anyone who wants it?

After all, one would think that fresh drinking water is a very valuable, rare, and finite commodity in a post-nuclear apocalyptic world. If all of those pitiful people who understandably and rationally want to drink as much water as possible are allowed to do so, would that not eventually lead to a quick depletion of the water supply and thus be contrary to the best interests of the whole group? In other words, wouldn't this be the perfect example of the Tragedy of the Commons?

In order to ensure that everyone survives, would the new matriarchy establish a socialist utopia where everyone is given just the right amount of water that each person needs? If that happens, then one is immediately reminded of Friedrich Hayek's seminal book The Road to Serfdom where he warned that government control of economic decision-making through central planning inevitably results in tyranny. Will the matriarchy eventually become as evil as the patriarchy it deposed?

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Alternatively, would the new matriarchy establish a form of currency so that individuals can create a rudimentary market and allow market forces to decide how much water can be consumed and by whom?

We will never know. The movie simply ended far too soon.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road four-and-a-half out of five stars.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Smart Sheriff and the New Normal

Laws are usually passed with the best of intentions. For example, even the most controversial laws such as Korea's National Security Act and the United States' Patriot Act were passed with the intention of protecting the country from enemies, spies, saboteurs, and terrorists.

Of course, how those laws get misinterpreted and/or abused are abundant for all to see.

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Recently, the Korean government funded a smartphone app called “Smart Sheriff,” which is an app that blocks access to pornography and other offensive content. Of course, in its infinite wisdom, the Korea Communications Commission, which regulates the telecommunications industry, required telecom companies and parents to download and install “Smart Sheriff” onto any new Android smartphone when it is purchased by anyone aged 18 years or younger.

However, “Smart Sheriff,” which I will simply refer to as SS for brevity, does more than just block access to pornography or gambling sites. There are also hundreds of words that the app specifically gets alerted to such as crazy, garbage, thief, porn, suicide, pregnancy, dating, boyfriend, girlfriend, breakup, menstruation, adoption, divorce, rape, and homosexual love.

Yes, the law may have been passed with the best of intentions; namely, protecting children. It is also true that it doesn't take a literary genius to figure out that SS is rather Orwellian.

What concerns me more about SS than the immediate feeling of being spied on by Big Brother, however, is the way it could become the new normal of tomorrow.

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There was a time when marijuana was perfectly legal in Korea until it wasn't. Now, however, people think that marijuana is dangerous and should forever be designated as a banned substance. (Yes, yes, I know that marijuana is safer that tobacco and other legal drugs. I don't care to listen to the same conversation that I've had about marijuana since I was twenty. Roboseyo already said everything that I have to say about this subject long before I started blogging.)

There was a time when Koreans thought that employment was meant to last a lifetime. That also changed. Now, I doubt that there is anyone under thirty who is still deluded enough to believe that working at any chaebol company for a lifetime is actually realistic (or even desirable).

Going back to SS, I fear that young people will come to accept being lorded over by the government as being normal. It's true that there are ways around SS. Savvy internet users, and I am sure they are legion, could use VPNs or they could simply choose not to buy an Android smartphone (more good news for Apple!).

However, very few things in the world are as pervasive or all-encompassing as government laws.

What happens when an entire generation of teenagers come to accept that SS, and Big Brother in general, is perfectly normal? What happens if they truly believe that SS is there for their benefit – just like people believe that drug prohibition is for their benefit? Will they eventually lose their sense of rebellion or freedom? Will they become angry and lash out? Or worse, will they actually come to love Big Brother? Will they be socialized into accepting further encroachment on their liberties for a false sense of security?

I'm struggling to find an appropriate way to end this post. A pithy quote from James Madison or Voltaire? Too cliché. Simply ask “who is John Galt?” Too many people dislike Ayn Rand.

I don't know how to properly end this. All I feel is as though I were staring into the abyss.

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Sunday, May 3, 2015

Movie Review: Ode to My Father

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Ode to My Father and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

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I did not watch Ode to My Father in the theater when it was released in December last year. I watched The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies instead; much to my utter disappointment. But that's another review for another day.

I watched Ode to My Father for the first time at home yesterday when I saw that it was on VOD. Before having watched it, I refused to read any review or plot summary of the movie. I read the first paragraph of a review once accidentally, where I learned that some have described the movie as Korea's version of Forrest Gump. Anyway, I was very grateful that I watched it at home because for most of the movie's running time, I was either on the verge of tears or I was actually bawling. The movie unashamedly uses cranked-up melodrama and string-heavy musical scores to squeeze as many teardrops as possible from its viewers.

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Let's back up a bit and breeze through the plot. The movie starts with the Hungnam Evacuation. The Yoon family, like countless other families, are fleeing North Korea. In a dramatic scene when the family climbs up a rope net to board a ship that would take them away from North Korea, the story's protagonist, a young boy named Deok-soo loses his younger sister whom he was carrying on his back. His father gets off the ship to find his daughter but not before telling his son that Deok-soo will have to be the head of the family until he comes back. He tells Deok-soo to go to his aunt's house in South Korea where she is running a shop and that he would meet them there later.

After arriving at his aunt's house/shop, Deok-soo keeps the promise that he made to his father and assumes the role of the family's breadwinner. When he grows up, Deok-soo (played by Hwang Jung-min) heads to West Germany to work in a coal mine in order to pay for his younger brother's college tuition. While in West Germany, he meets his future wife, Young-ja (played by Kim Yun-jin). A few years later, Deok-soo heads over to South Vietnam to work as a private contractor (it is never specified what kind of work he does) during the Vietnam War in order to pay for his younger sister's wedding (a different sister) and in order to buy his aunt's shop from her drunkard husband – the same shop that Deok-soo's father told him to wait for him at.

In 1983, Deok-soo manages to find his long-lost sister (played by Stella Choewhom he had lost in Hungnam through a television program, which helped to reunite family members who had lost each other during the tumultuous days of the Korean War. It turned out that his now grown-up sister had been adopted by an American family after she was found by an American soldier in Hungnam and shipped off to an orphanage in Busan.

The movie then fast forwards to the present-day when an aged Deok-soo (in rather unconvincing makeup) who is now in his twilight years tells his wife that perhaps the time had come to sell his shop, the same one that he and his family fled to all those years ago. The movie ends as Deok-soo wistfully says that his father probably won't be able to come to see him at the shop now because he is too old.

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The Absence of Foreign Devils

One of the things that I really appreciated about this movie is the absence of foreign devils. In a movie that starts out with the Korean War, it would have been easy to portray American soldiers as snarling warmongers, as was the case in Welcome to Dongmakgol.

Instead, the movie showcases an American major general who chooses to dump weapons and supplies into the sea so that there would be more room for refugees to board the ship to safety. This unnamed major general was actually based on Leonard LaRue, the skipper of the SS Meredith Victory, a United States Merchant Marine cargo freighter.

In a different scene, a German manager prevents Korean coal miners from attempting to rescue their co-workers from a collapsed mine, not because it is not worth saving those workers, but because it is unsafe to do so. Of course, the miners refuse to heed the manager's warning.

More importantly, however, during a scene in present-day Korea when a group of Korean juveniles hurl racist epithets at South Asian immigrants living in Korea, the aged Deok-soo comes to their defense as he knows just how difficult it is to live as a working class immigrant in a foreign country.

I spent the first twenty-eight years of my life as an immigrant in foreign countries as well. I could not help but feel moved when I saw that scene. Considering the fact that Korea is one of the least welcoming countries to foreigners, I thought that this was an important scene for all Koreans to see.

Not that Americans didn't have much of a PR nightmare...
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The Forrest Gump Comparison

The movie begins with a fluttering butterfly that flies around Seoul before landing close to an aged Deok-soo. And the movie ends with the butterfly fluttering away. It was clearly a homage to Forrest Gump's opening and closing scenes.

Also, through several twists of fate that can only exist on the silver screen, Deok-soo gets to meet several historically important Korean figures such as Chung Ju-yung, Andre Kim, Lee Man-ki, and, Nam Jin.

However, this is where the similarities to Forrest Gump end. When it comes to addressing historical facts, though it was certainly done in a lighthearted and comical manner, Forrest Gump did not shy away from America's darker past. For instance, the movie does not try to brush aside the Ku Klux Klan, the immorality of segregation, the hypocrisy of some in the anti-war movement, or the drug abuse that existed within the counterculture movement. The movie also did not shy away from the corrupt politicians of that era – in particular Kennedy's philandering ways (or the fact that he and his brother, Robert, were assassinated) and Nixon's Watergate scandal (and his subsequent resignation).

On the other hand, Ode to My Father deliberately makes no mention of any of Korea's darker past. There is no mention of the corrupt Syngman Rhee government, the student protest movement, the Park Chung-hee dictatorship, the Chun Doo-hwan junta government or the Gwangju Uprising. The movie treats Korean history as though none of those things ever happened.

It's true that the movie does not pretend that life was happier under the authoritarian regimes of the past. No one can watch the scene where blackened and grimy Korean migrant workers toil away in coal mines and then think that people's lives were being portrayed overly idealistically. That being said, however, those are some pretty big chunks of history to gloss over.

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Philosophical Objection

Before Deok-soo leaves for Vietnam, his wife Young-ja angrily objects to his decision. When Deok-soo tells his wife that he is obligated to head to Vietnam to earn more money for the family because it's his role to play as the eldest son, Young-ja asks him why he seems to be the only one who seems to be making sacrifices. She tells him to stop living for others and to live his own life. She asks him rhetorically why he seems to be absent from his own life.

However, as soon as she says that, the national anthem plays for the day's flag-lowering ceremony and everyone has to stand at attention and place their hands on their hearts while looking at their closest flag. While the flag is lowered, a speaker plays the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, which states:

나는 자랑스런 태극기 앞에 조국과 민족의 무궁한 영광을 위하여 몸과 마음을 바쳐 충성을 다할 것을 굳게 다짐합니다.

It translates to: “I pledge, in front of the proud Taegeukgi (the name of the Korean flag), to devote my body and soul for the eternal glory of our country and our people.”

Koreans had to participate in a nationwide flag-raising ceremony twice every day until the mid-1980s.

During the Pledge of Allegiance to the Flag, as Deok-soo dutifully makes his pledge, Young-ja refuses to stand until she notices a random stranger glaring at her disapprovingly for her lack of patriotism.

Young-ja then reluctantly stands up and also pledges her fealty to the flag, the country, and her compatriots; thus answering her question as to why Deok-soo cannot seem to stop living for others and start living his own life.

In part, this scene was reminiscent of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, whereby the protagonist, Gregor, slowly turns into a cockroach after he has spent many years working at a job that he hates because he feels obligated to pay off his father’s debt and care for his family (although it turns out that his family members are more than capable of taking care of themselves after it is revealed that Gregor's mysterious and unexplained condition prevents him from working).

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I was also reminded of Ayn Rand's quote from Philosophy: Who Needs It.

Now there is one word – a single word – which can blast the morality of altruism out of existence and which it cannot withstand – the word: “Why?” Why must man live for the sake of others? Why must he be a sacrificial animal? Why is that the good? There is no earthly reason for it – and, ladies and gentlemen, in the whole history of philosophy no earthly reason has ever been given.

It is only mysticism that can permit moralists to get away with it. It was mysticism, the unearthly, the supernatural, the irrational that has always been called upon to justify it – or, to be exact, to escape the necessity of justification. One does not justify the irrational, one just takes it on faith. What most moralists – and few of their victims – realize is that reason and altruism are incompatible.

This brief scene encapsulated all the things that I detest about Koreans' belief system – the collectivist nature of 우리 (our or us) – the subjugation of the individual to the group. It is the morality that states that the only meaning and value that an individual possesses is only insofar as he is able to serve the collective; that the group may sacrifice him at its own whim to its own interests.

It is a poisonous philosophy that I learned to reject a long time ago, a philosophy that I think that the Korean people have been marinated in for far too long.

What is absolutely true is that this philosophy has been part of the Korean people's worldview for a very long time. It would have been dishonest to pretend that it has never existed. And to be fair, I think the director, Yoon Je-kyoon, leaves just enough room to let viewers decide for themselves whether living for others is the proper way to live one's own life.

However, what is also true is that all forms of art are selective recreations of reality as perceived by the artist. It is the artist's way of expressing his own metaphysical value-judgments. Yoon Je-kyoon does his best to obfuscate his own personal views in this movie.

Regardless of his view, taking the middle-of-the-road approach, especially in regards to something as profoundly important as an entire people's philosophical approach to life seems like it was more of a disservice.

It is my view that the Korean people need to have a soul-searching discussion about what it means to live for others and to live for oneself. Though there is no guarantee whatsoever that people on my side of the debate will win, if this movie helps to nudge people toward having that discussion, then I think the movie would have succeeded in more ways than just box office returns.

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Verdict

I highly recommend this movie for those who are looking for a good cathartic release that can only come with crying. However, it isn't just tears. The movie manipulates your emotions by taking you on a roller coaster ride full of laughs and tears, even if the laugh is made uncomfortable by the fact that there is one scene that makes light of male rape.

If that is what you are looking for, this movie will deliver in spades.

However, if you are looking for something that is more historically accurate, or if you are looking for something that treats philosophy more seriously, this movie might not be for you.

I give it three-and-a-half out of five stars.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Sweatshops vs. Social Justice Warriors

One thing that the world never seems to have enough of is economic knowledge. The other day, John Oliver produced yet another segment on his show that was full of heart and low on gray matter.

(I know. A third post about John Oliver? At some point, I might have to pay him royalties.)

In this segment, John Oliver took aim at some of America's biggest retail clothing stores and put them to task for continuing to use sweatshop child labor in third world nations.


One of the clips that Oliver used in this video was a news clip from the BBC that was taken in 2000. At the time, it was discovered that some of Gap's clothes were manufactured in a sweatshop in Cambodia, which employed underage children. Specifically, the video shows two young girls who were twelve and fourteen years old at the time. They had lied about their age to work at the sweatshop factory.

Gap announced its plans to enhance its age verification requirements after the BBC aired that discovery. Oliver gives them a backhanded compliment but then the video moves on to show how despite those promises, Gap and other retailers are still continuing to employ child labor throughout the world.

Well, so fucking what?

It's incredibly easy to get on a high horse and start moralizing. Any idiot can do that. And many idiots do. But what Oliver fails to do, yet again, is to ask the more pertinent questions. Case in point, why would a twelve-year-old Cambodian girl lie about her age to work in a sweatshop? Could it be that working at a Gap-owned sweatshop is preferable to the alternative?

In a country that is as poor as Cambodia (the country's GDP per capita is a little over US$1000), childhood, which is very much taken for granted in affluent societies, is a luxury that very few can afford. So, Cambodian children have to work.

If they can't work at Gap-owned or any other clothing apparel-owned sweatshop, a practice that Oliver seems to want to see ended, Cambodian children do have other alternative types of employment to choose from.

For instance, another alternative source of employment that Cambodian children can look forward to is prostitution (see here, here, and here). Of course, prostitution is not the only kind of employment they can pursue. There is also begging (see here, here, and here).

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If sweatshop work is actually put to an end, might that inadvertently condemn those workers, children and adults, to even worse conditions? Maybe it's possible that working at sweatshops is not the worst thing that could happen to children who live in countries like Cambodia?

But who has time to ask such questions? There are social justice warriors who want to watch faux-intellectual comedy shows and feel smug about their sense of self-righteousness!

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Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Sustainability, Horse Manure, and Carbon Emissions

Seeing how today is Earth Day, it wouldn't be appropriate for me to pass this day without mentioning it. What I want to focus on is what many environmentalists call “sustainability,” and explain why it is quite an odd concept.

The word “sustainability” has been part of our zeitgeist for so long that many people from environmentalists to economists bandy about the word without ever seeming to clearly define it first.

So, we must first define “sustainability.” Especially when it comes to political rhetoric, words can oftentimes mean something that is different from what the words mean in everyday speech. Therefore, in order to get a proper definition of sustainability, I thought that it would be best to get the definition from Greenpeace itself.

However, when I went to Greenpeace's website, I learned that there is no fixed definition that everyone can agree with. For instance, this one writer thinks that sustainability means:

  • No longer being necessary to bulldoze forests, erode soils, drain aquifers, dam rivers, deplete non-renewable resources, and fill the atmosphere, land, rivers and oceans with our waste.
  • Valuing localized trade over globalization, without relying on fossil fuels to ship food and materials around the world.
  • Including social justice, because our current state of injustice breeds conflict, violence and additional destruction of nature.

And those were only three of his very long list of what he thought had to be achieved for his definition of sustainability to be satisfied.

The most succinct definition that I found is a quote from the World Commission on Environment and Development, which defines sustainability as:

Meeting the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

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That sounds like it would be difficult to argue against. However, there is a problem with that logic. The logic only makes sense if we know for certain that the things we do today will be the same things that future generations will be doing in the indefinite future.

A good example that shows that we cannot know for certain how the future will unfurl is the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894. In the nineteenth century, cities such as London and New York City were home to tens of thousands of hansom cabs. All those horses, of course, produced massive amounts of manure and urine, which attracted flies, which in turned caused further problems such as the spread of typhoid fever.

That year, The Times newspaper predicted:

“In fifty years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.”

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Obviously, that prediction never came to pass due to the invention of the automobile (not to mention Henry Ford's ability to mass produce them).

Had the governments of the world at the time heeded the environmentalists' dire predictions, and adopted sustainability as an important goal of environmental protection, such a program might have included the preservation of grazing land for all those horses into the indefinite future and the creation of jobs that involve manure removal. In other words, the government would have prepared for a future that was never going to come.

So we have to ask ourselves this important question. Are we today so much wiser than our ancestors that, unlike them, this time, we know for a fact that what we are doing today will still be done in the indefinite future? We have not yet even seen the full potential of Bitcoins and 3-D printing!

Today, the concerns of environmentalists is not drowning in horse manure, but rather from the melting polar ice caps due to the increase in the amount of man-made carbon gases.

But is the emission of carbon gases something to be that overly worried about? Case in point, the cost of producing solar energy is getting cheaper. Furthermore, industry experts also think that even with the recent fall in oil prices, increased oil consumption will not come at the expense of solar energy. Assuming that current trends continue, in about a decade or two, fossil fuels will no longer be needed for much of their current purposes.

Also, there is a team of young scientists here in Korea who are currently developing a new plasma technology that could potentially convert carbon dioxide and methane into hydrogen and carbon monoxide, which could then be sold at a hefty profit. Assuming that this technology pans out, and combine that with continuously declining costs of solar energy, it becomes conceivable that worrying about carbon emissions might become a thing of the past.

Of course, this is not to suggest that people ought to pollute like as though there will be no tomorrow. After all, breathing in clean air is much more pleasant than breathing in air that has been saturated with coal ash.

However, the rush to cut oil consumption or coal consumption, finite sources of energy, in order to ensure that the needs of the present generation are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs, might be an unwarranted act of fear.

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