December 13, 2002
(One Piece of) The *Real* Headline News

One piece of the real headline news: Virginia Postrel is tremendously amazed and excited by her purchase of a five-pound bag of flour for $0.69:


Dynamist.com: The Scene (vpostrel.com): CHEAP STAPLES: I bought a five pound bag of Gold Medal flour yesterday for 69 cents. I find that amazing. [Posted 12/11.]


She is completely right to be tremendously amazed and excited. Consider the overwhelming bulk of our ancestors half a millennium ago--Eurasian peasants circa 1500. Something like three-quarters of the value of what they and their villages produced was foodstuffs. And close to the Malthusian edge as they were, they were lucky if the foodstuffs they produced got them 1900 calories a day.

The sixty-cent-bag of flour contains 7500 calories--7500 calories of higher nutritional quality and easier to digest than the bulk of the calories our ancestors ate. That's four days' worth of food, or a value equivalent to three days' worth of total production.

Today output per capita in the United States is close to $100 a day (not per workday, per day). To one of our ancestors alive in 1500, the bag of flour Virginia just purchased is the same fraction of their economic resources--material welfare--as $300 would be to an American today.

But the bag of flour cost her not $300, but $0.69--it is 450 times smaller a share of economic activity today as half a millennium ago. Or, on the bags-of-flour standard, we today are 450 times richer than our ancestors of 1500.

This is something to be tremendously amazed and excited about--an important piece of headline news of the past millennium. And it remains important, even if the other pieces of headline news are that we can now blow ourselves up with nuclear weapons and that twentieth-century dictators were more bloodthirsty and cruel than the thirteenth century's Temujin Genghis Khan.

I wonder if I should tell her where you can get twenty-pound bags of potatoes for a dollar...

Posted by DeLong at December 13, 2002 11:52 AM | Trackback

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Comments

Potatoes go bad too fast for a family of two to buy 20 pounds at a time.

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 13, 2002 12:43 PM

Marvelous Virginia -

Please think of this problem. No more than 50,000 Africans with AIDS are being treated with medicine that available to anyone in America or Western Europe or happily Brazil. There are more than 27,000,000 southern Africans who are HIV/AIDS positive. A teacher and friend Lawrence Kohlberg used to ask students whether they would steal a prohibitively expensive drug to save a loved one. I would argue that the poor would never have the chance to steal the durg and the loved one would die. I never thought then of AIDS in Africa. How do you and Brad and others understand the problems of drugs cheap enough for all in America, impossibly expensive through Africa? What is the price of such drigs, anyway?

Love your writing....

Posted by: on December 13, 2002 01:03 PM

Virginia you'd be amazed at the things that can be done with potatoes!

An example of this sort of wonderfully amazing availability that I used (with modest success) in introductory economics classes is the filling of midWestern grocery stores with Irish daffodils in the spring. A nice handful of daffodils could be had for $1.50 or so. I was trying to make points about international trade as well as about productivity, but you get the idea.

Posted by: David on December 13, 2002 01:04 PM

the anonymous writer may find some of Michael Kremer's research on economic issues related to support for vaccine development (for very pernicious diseases) which can be found at

http://post.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/kremer/vaccine.html

Posted by: David on December 13, 2002 01:11 PM

'I wonder if I should tell her where you can get twenty-pound bags of potatoes for a dollar...'

'Potatoes go bad too fast for a family of two to buy 20 pounds at a time.'

Not for this family! Do tell.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 13, 2002 01:21 PM

'I wonder if I should tell her where you can get twenty-pound bags of potatoes for a dollar...'

'Potatoes go bad too fast for a family of two to buy 20 pounds at a time.'

Not for this family! Do tell.

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 13, 2002 01:26 PM

December 2001

663,815,000 total population of sub-Saharan
Africa.
291,310,000 population of adults 15 to 49.

28,500,000 sub-Saharan Africans HIV/AIDS
positive.
26,000,000 adults 15 to 49. 9.0% adult rate.
15,000,000 women 15 to 49. 57.7% of
infected.
2,600,000 children 0 to 14.

22,000,000 - 35,000,000 range of sub-Saharan
Africans HIV/AIDS positive.

6.41 - 11.39% range of women 15 to 24
infected.
3.13 - 5.56% range of men 15 to 24 infected.

19,400,000 deaths estimated for sub-Saharan
Africa's adults and children of diseases
caused by AIDS from beginning of epidemic to
end 2001.

2,200,000 deaths of Africans from diseases
caused by AIDS in 2001.
500,000 deaths of children.

1,300,000 - 2,300,000 range of deaths for
adults.
380,000 - 650,000 range of deaths for
children.

3,400,000 Africans newly infected in 2001.
700,000 children newly infected.

11,000,000 orphans cumulatively at end
2001. An orphan is described as a child who
by 15 has had a mother or both parents die of
diseases caused by AIDS. Mothers generally
are the leading care takers of Africa's
children.

44 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
37 countries studied.

20% or more adults HIV positive in 7 African
countries.
11% or more HIV positive in 12 countries.
8% or more HIV positive in 15 countries.
5% or more HIV positive in 24 countries.

Source - UNAIDS

Posted by: on December 13, 2002 01:29 PM

Here is another sad puzzle about impossible pricing in the midst of marvelous cheapness. We need to address such issues along with the true wonders of technical advance. What is democracy after all amidst the cheapness of wheat and the impossible dearness of wheat or, as in southern Africa, drugs?

December 2, 2002

Poor in India Starve as Surplus Wheat Rots
By AMY WALDMAN (NYT)

Surplus from this year's wheat harvest, bought by the government from farmers, sits moldering in muddy fields here in Punjab State. Some of the previous year's wheat surplus sits untouched, too, and the year's before that, and the year's before that.

To the south, in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, villagers ate boiled leaves or discs of bread made from grass seeds in late summer and autumn because they could not afford to buy wheat. One by one, children and adults -- as many as 47 in all -- wilted away from hunger-related causes, often clutching pained stomachs.

Posted by: on December 13, 2002 01:44 PM

ony ~1.4% per year? I feel cheated.

Posted by: on December 13, 2002 02:17 PM

"Please think of this problem. No more than 50,000 Africans with AIDS are being treated with medicine that available to anyone in America or Western Europe or happily Brazil. There are more than 27,000,000 southern Africans who are HIV/AIDS positive."

Please think of this problem. A year's supply of AIDS drugs probably costs 100-1000 times a year's supply of condoms and spermicide.

We have X million dollars to help people. Should we spend it on something that will prevent 100-1000 times as many people contracting AIDS, or should we spend it on 1 person...who will die after that year is over, if his/her drugs are stopped?

In other words, for the cost of keeping that ONE person alive for the next 40 years, we could probably keep 4000-40,000 people from getting AIDS in the first place.

How should we spend our money?

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 13, 2002 03:06 PM

"What is democracy after all amidst the cheapness of wheat and the impossible dearness of wheat or, as in southern Africa, drugs?"

"Surplus from this year's wheat harvest, bought by the government from farmers, sits moldering in muddy fields here in Punjab State. Some of the previous year's wheat surplus sits untouched, too, and the year's before that, and the year's before that."

That's a triumph of democracy! The farmers got the government to vote to buy their unwanted wheat, thus artificially boosting the wheat's price! Woohoo! That champion of democracy, Franklin Roosevelt, couldn't have done any better himself!

"To the south, in the neighboring state of Rajasthan, villagers ate boiled leaves or discs of bread made from grass seeds in late summer and autumn because they could not afford to buy wheat."

Oops! I guess there must be an unintended consequence to the government in the nearby state buying wheat, to artificially inflate its price. Well, democracy isn't perfect. Democracy pays for rotting wheat, and cause some to starve. But at least the farmers are getting good money to grow something that will rot. 1 out of 3. Democracy is batting .333. Not too shabby. ;-)

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 13, 2002 03:21 PM

Highly refined foods like Gold Medal flour today have nothing to do with the food they had "half a millennium ago." Highly refined carbohydrates such as flour, sugar, corn products, and high-glycemic vegatables such as potatos and hybrid corn have been conclusively shown to be behind a massive sheaf of public-health problems. These include obesity, diabetes, and various heart diseases.

We were not evolved to eat this stuff. We were evolved to eat meats and wild produce. Fats, protein, and fibre.

So the "cheap" flour is not really so cheap.

On the other hand, "cheap" carbohydrates are the most profitable kinds of foods you can manufacture. You might spend 3-5 bucks for a box of grain that cost less than $0.25 for the basic product. The rest is packaging, advertising, distribution, and profit.

Yes, our food production system is amazing in its efficency at producing junk. Too bad it isn't very good at providing what we need.

Posted by: Alan on December 13, 2002 03:30 PM

"Highly refined carbohydrates such as flour, sugar, corn products, and high-glycemic vegatables such as potatos and hybrid corn have been conclusively shown to be behind a massive sheaf of public-health problems. "

And tiny amounts of laboriously produced foods have been shown to be behind a massive sheaf of public-health problems in the past. I think we've shown a net improvement since then.

"On the other hand, "cheap" carbohydrates are the most profitable kinds of foods you can manufacture. You might spend 3-5 bucks for a box of grain that cost less than $0.25 for the basic product. The rest is packaging, advertising, distribution, and profit."

Still a hell of a deal, compared to $300.

"Yes, our food production system is amazing in its efficency at producing junk. Too bad it isn't very good at providing what we need."

It's also amazingly efficient at producing good food. Yes, it's cheaper still to produce junk, but the good stuff gets cranked out in amazingly large quantities with amazingly little effort.

Posted by: Kenneth Uildriks on December 13, 2002 04:45 PM

I think in actual fact the situation is even better than Brad and Virginia have said. Yes, we are 450 times richer in terms of the amount of food staples we can buy.

However, consider someone who was 450 times as rich as the average person 500 years ago. That person could spend a small fraction of his income on food, and then the rest of his income on other things. However the selection of other things that could be bought was not all that great.

Now consider the average person in America today. He can spend a similar proportion of his income on food as the rich person of 500 years ago. He could then spend the rest of his income on other things. The choice of things to spend the money on today is enormous: vastly greater than what could be purchased in 1500. Cars, DVD players, computers, a much greater selection of foods, and a great many things that would have appeared to be magical in 1500. In purely material terms, the average person today is much better off than a very rich person of 500 years ago, due to the greater choice of products that can be bought. In this instance, greater choice means greater wealth. I think that greater choice indicates at least as great an increase in wealth as the dramatically lower prices (in terms of income) pointed out by Brad and Virginia.

I was talking about similar things when I wrote this article about (of all things) Ikea.

Posted by: Michael Jennings on December 13, 2002 04:54 PM

Also slightly related to this is an article (abstract only available online, sadly) by William Nordhaus of Yale, on the "Price of Light", that is the cost of illumination. He was mainly demonstrating how measures of inflation fail badly (and therefore that statistics understate economic growth badly) over long periods of time by measuring the change in the cost of lights (which steadily improve in quality over time) rather than the actual cost per lumen-hour of light. He concluded that the cost of light dropped by a factor of 400 between 1800 and 1992. (This is in inflation adjusted terms, I think. I don't actually have the papers handy, so I cannot check that. In terms of the amount of light you can buy per hour of labour, it will be even more dramatic). Of course, our response to this is to buy a lot more of it (which is not the case so much with wheat) but this is another remarkable statistic.

(Further googling finds me extensive comments on this paper by Brad Delong, which leads me to conclude that Brad is familiar with it)

Posted by: Michael Jennings on December 13, 2002 06:12 PM

There are roughly 1 billion undernourished people in the world. 1,000 calories per person would probably suffice to give them enough to eat. (I ignore the fact that just white flour wouldn't do it, since a combination of flour, potatoes black beans and brown rice, all cheap, would.) This amounts to 10 cents a person a day or $36.5 billion, which is less than .4% of U.S. gdp. A fraction of a tithe for the Christians in the audience,
Why won't we do it? Americans are not eager to spend the .4% of gdp on foreigners. Giving away that much food would undermine agriculture in other countries and we don't want to create massive dependent populations. India, as has been pointed out, has the food, but can't or won't distribute it to the needy. To some extent this problem exists in other countries with malnourished people.
Over the years, the % of hungry people has declined, though the number hasn't declined much.
In any case, this remains one of the paradoxes "contradictions" of capitalist economics, which is not to say that "really existing socialism" ever did any better,

Posted by: Daniel on December 13, 2002 07:13 PM

hmm.. people aren't keeping up with international news it would seem...

zimbabwe.. the government is INTENTIONALLY STARVING opposition members (more than half the pop) international aid is stolen!!! and amreican offers of FREE FOOD IS REFUSED because EU will impose trade sanctions because of possible GMO enhanced food...

other countries in africa are REFUSING FOOD AID due to possibe EU retaliation... the only possible way to avert this would be to buy food from the EU who are strategically screwing other farmers over (canada, argentina and aussie would be similarily constrained as they use GMOs as well..)

but that's right its the US's fault.. no wait, it's CAPITALISM'S FAULT!!! right..

indians are starving while indian produced food rots in government stores... it's WHITEY'S FAULT!!! right...

JUNK FOOD BAD!! yeah, it'll kill ya from obesity or heart disease somewhere between 45 and 70... which is 2 to 4 times the life expectancy of middle ages peasant... damn those extra 3 generations of life!!!

remember that almost every starvation of 20th and 21st century is because local gov't wanted people to starve (or at least the opposition did)

somalia, zim, ethiopia, nk, china, ukraine.... all politically orchestrated or else aid was disrupted for political purposes of local powers...

but remember, it's WHITEY'S FAULT!!!!

BAD CAPITALISTS, BAD, BAD!!!

Posted by: Libertarian Uber Alles on December 13, 2002 09:54 PM

"I wonder if I should tell her where you can get twenty-pound bags of potatoes for a dollar..."

Hmm. I hadn't gone out to twenty pounds but I had noticed long ago that potatoes cost about a dollar, independent of the quantity of potatoes. A few from the stack of select potatoes in the veggie section, a five-pound bag, a ten-pound bag ... all about a dollar.

Posted by: Bill Woods on December 14, 2002 12:08 AM

“zimbabwe.. the government is INTENTIONALLY STARVING opposition members (more than half the pop) international aid is stolen!!! and amreican offers of FREE FOOD IS REFUSED because EU will impose trade sanctions because of possible GMO enhanced food...”

I have tried to bring attention on this website to this horror in Zimbabwe---and have gotten absolutely nowhere. Nobody seems to pay any attention. My hunch is that they are too busy searching for conservatives to bash. Also, Robert Mugabe is a black, and the politically correct Left feels uncomfortable criticizing people of color.

Many people are stunned by my consistent attacks on France, Germany, and the European Union overall. I’m sure that a few even believe that I’ve lost my mind. They fail to comprehend that I’m simply making a logical observation about these disgusting countries. Their imposed trade sanctions on GMO enhanced food have literally doomed millions to death. Why is there so much silence on this issue? Where is the outrage?

Posted by: David Thomson on December 14, 2002 04:14 AM

Starvation (famine) has been eliminated in the modern world except in cases where governments pursue terrible policies or there is no government. War and civil war have always been causes of hunger and starvation and still are. The four horsemen ride together.

Hunger, or malnutrition, however exist widely and in countries whose governments are not trying to starve their own people. Better governments would no doubt help, but it is not easy to create good governments.

I did not say capitalism is to blame for hunger. I said there is a paradox: plenty of food, widespread hunger and no easy way to end the hunger In fact some of the ways of ending or lessening hunger would cause great damage.

Still, it is hard to believe the U.S. couldn't do more if it was not so ungenerous with foreign aid and so uninterested in unthreatening tyrants like Mugabe. The U.S. could wield what Jeffrey Sachs calls "weapons of mass salvation" and support clean water for all, vaccination for all children etc. AIDS work is also needed, but so is work on malaria and other diseases. For relatively little money quite a lot of good could be done. It is puzzling that Americans, a generous people, seem to think they are giving a lot of foreign aid and are unwilling to give more.

Finally blaming the west for being rich or the south for being badly governed or blaming in general is not helpful. It is worth noting that economic development has brought enormous benefits to most of mankind, especially in the last 50 years, but that there are a large number of people who have been left out and some that have been harmed. The question is not who to blame, but how to improve. Always remember it is not our virtue that makes us a well off Americans (or whatever) rather than a hungry Bangladeshi peasants.

Posted by: Daniel on December 14, 2002 06:17 AM

My second comment above was not as clear as it should have been. That will teach me to post late at night when I should be sleeping.

As for there still being starvation in the world, this is terrible. It is especially terrible given that the developed world is now so rich that the cost of food for the entire world is (to us) negligible.

However, the question of why this is so is a separate question as to why we are so rich in the first place. There are ways in which the rich world is culpable (agricultural subsidies, for instance), but these have little to do with why the rich world became rich in the first place.

As has been pointed out, starvation today occurs for political and not economic reasons. How do you fix these reasons? I don't know. I think if anyone did, the fix would be carried out fairly quickly. I don't think many people want there to be widespread starvation in the world.

Posted by: Michael Jennings on December 14, 2002 07:38 AM

a very large problem with feeding the hungry anywhere is that it's very hard to do without inflicting permanent structural damage on the native farmers.

typically starvation occurs in countries where there's some form of civil war or anarchy, compounded by difficult growing conditions and bad weather. that's a very challenging environment for farmers to begin with.

now insert well-intentioned UN workers with free food. what incentive is there for farmers to stick with farming - when the conditions are difficult and dangerous, and on top of that, the market is being flooded with free food. so most farmers leave their land for the cities and the country loses much of its ability to feed itself.

On the happy side, Virginia Postrel and The Atlantic have written good stuff lately about Norman Borlaug, the agricultural researcher who developed the high-yielding short-strawed, disease-resistant wheat that sparked the "Green Revolution."

Perhaps less appreciated is the story of Fred Soper, the man known as the Mosquito Killer. There was a great article on the man in the July 2 issue of The New Yorker. Soper's goal was nothing less than the global eradication of malaria. He almost succeeded. Part of his problem was that the insecticide DDT was and is the weapon of choice against mosquitos. Used in small quantities, DDT is highly effective and doesn't seem to harm the environment. But it's banned and probably not coming back. Anyway, read the whole story, if you can, it's interesting historically and as a character study. And Soper did the world enormous good for all the right reasons, as best I can tell.

Posted by: Anarchus on December 14, 2002 09:00 AM

"Finally blaming the west for being rich or the south for being badly governed or blaming in general is not helpful."

I hate to be a pest, but specific blaming is very helpful! We must make the European Union folks ashamed of their hostility toward genetically modified food. The French and their silly friends are responsible for the deaths of millions. Let the truth be told. Why are some of you running away from reality?

Posted by: David Thomson on December 14, 2002 09:25 AM

Also, Robert Mugabe is a black, and the politically correct Left feels uncomfortable criticizing people of color.

That's such a ridiculous assertion, David, that by making it, you simply call attention to the fact that you don't offer arguments: you simply make groundless assertions. The Europeans that you appear to despise pathologically have been criticising Mugabe for years; the Commonwealth suspended Zimbabwe; the last time Mugabe was on British soil, in 1999, demonstrations followed him wherever he went, led by those you'd describe as 'the politically correct Left'.

Their imposed trade sanctions on GMO enhanced food have literally doomed millions to death. Why is there so much silence on this issue? Where is the outrage?

Enhanced? Yeah, enhanced with a patent and a footnote on the annual report. And again, it's nonsense. The US shouldn't be letting its food aid programmes be exploited by the corporate interests behind patented organisms. In doing so, they create the dilemma for African governments, which for the most part would rather not be sucked into Monsanto and Aventis's nasty little political campaigns. You should really get your news from a source other than FOX News, lest you sound like a pathetic racist bigot.

Posted by: nick sweeney on December 14, 2002 11:32 AM

"The US shouldn't be letting its food aid programmes be exploited by the corporate interests behind patented organisms. In doing so, they create the dilemma for African governments, which for the most part would rather not be sucked into Monsanto and Aventis's nasty little political campaigns. You should really get your news from a source other than FOX News, lest you sound like a pathetic racist bigot."

Oh well, why should you let anything like rational thinking get in the way of your ideology? How many more must die before the radical Left is reproached for its infatuation with junk science? Your contempt for the so-called "corporate interests" has doomed millions to a terrible death. The European Union and the United Nations have done virtually nothing about Mugabe. They are obviously too busy nitpicking Israel. Can anybody point to a recent major condemnation of Mugabe by either the EU or the UN? Heck, is there even evidence of a minor rebuke?


Posted by: David Thomson on December 14, 2002 01:12 PM

Consider such a wonder as Nelson Mandela before running on widly about a most unfortunate leader of 1 of 44 southern African countries. There are so many other wonderful political figures in Africa.

Africa is in dire need. We can do far far more to help. Jesse Helms has come to understand that. Time for the rest of us to understand. The help we extend to Africa is called for morally, and is in our social and economic and security interests.

Posted by: on December 14, 2002 02:24 PM

Ah, I see. Now, we must direct Europeans on how they are to eat. Sad how the French never did figure out how to properly appreciate a good meal. We can show all those French folk what food is really about.

Posted by: on December 14, 2002 02:56 PM

Oh well, why should you let anything like rational thinking get in the way of your ideology? How many more must die before the radical Left is reproached for its infatuation with junk science?

Hey, you're the one who has swallowed the Monsanto propaganda along with the GM corn syrup. How many must die before David Thomson stops spouting drivel? Many hundreds of thousands, I fear.

Your contempt for the so-called "corporate interests" has doomed millions to a terrible death.

A completely unfounded statement. Shrill histrionics from a corporate apologist.

Can anybody point to a recent major condemnation of Mugabe by either the EU or the UN? Heck, is there even evidence of a minor rebuke?

How about this? "The European Union has condemned the government of President Robert Mugabe for diverting food aid to its own supporters and ignoring opposition activists." (7 November 2002)

See, it's not hard, you ignorant buffoon. Use a bloody search engine. You could come up with the details of EU sanctions and their implementation, too. Or are the evil French stopping you from entering "www.google.com" into a web browser as well? Zut alors!

Posted by: nick sweeney on December 14, 2002 03:56 PM

If we have persistent 2% real growth, society will be producing and have annual per capita real income of:
7 as much as present income in 100 years,
52 as much in 200 years,
380 as much in 300 years,
2754 as much in 400 years,
19956 as much in 500 years,
398264651 as much in 1000 years
Unless the growth is incredibly skewed towards the rich, in 1000 years, people at the bottom of the economic ladder might be living like Bill Gates.

Posted by: Bobby on December 14, 2002 04:22 PM

A while ago, I wrote that we should send David Thomson to Coventry while ever he ever he preferred abuse to argument. I considered that to be a better strategy than counter-abuse ("ignorant buffoon"), provoked (and accurate) as that counter-abuse can be.

David wrote a hurt comment which, inter alia, accused me of wanting to get him thrown out of this blog. Thinking about what he said, I've concluded that he was right, and I apologise. David should be allowed free speech - particularly as his posts are unlikely to persuade anyone whose opinions are worth taking account of. So now I propose arguing against him with his own strategy:

David Thomson is:
- is an ignorant bigot who has never bothers to test his ideas against the real world;
- is chronically intellectually dishonest in argument;
- sometimes resorts to abuse when his 'arguments' are exposed as fallacious and his 'facts' as untrue;
- but often prefers just to change the subject, usually by proffering an irrelevant, equally ignorant, 'argument'.

Seriously, David, some free advice:
1) travel more - especially to some 3rd world countries - and talk to the locals;
2) do a course in some field of study that puts a premium on both logical thinking and empirics;
3) resist the temptation to accept something as fact purely because you'd like it to be a fact;
4) accept that not everyone who differs from you is a fool or a knave;
5) most of all, post less often but more thoughtfully.

Posted by: derrida_derider on December 14, 2002 05:33 PM

“European Resolve?

Once again Europe demonstrates its superior sophistication in matters international. As the Telegraph reports, Europe’s foreign ministers have decided to move a meeting with the Southern African Development Community from Denmark to Mozambique. The reason for the move is simple: to accommodate the foreign minister from that pillar of humanitarianism, Zimbabwe.

And why not hold the meeting in Denmark? Well, the European Union recently placed a travel ban on all Zimbabwean officials to protest Robert Mugabe’s government’s policies of confiscating the land of white farmers. Not that this has stopped Zimbabwe’s fat cats from coming to Europe. As the article notes, there have been quite a few sightings of Zimbabwean government ministers in Europe since the ban was enacted.

In this case, however, the Europeans, under threats by other southern African nations of boycotting the meeting in Denmark, have not only ignored the ban, but are actively doing all they can to assuage the whims of the dictator by moving the entire venue.

So, who’s playing rogue state now? I’d write a satire about the whole thing, but this seems to be one of those times when reality itself mocks even satire.

posted by Collin May at 10/24/2002 05:05:21 AM”

http://innocentsabroad.blogspot.com/2002_10_20_innocentsabroad_archive.html

“The degradation of the U.N. is symbolized by the nose-thumbing action of the majority ensconced in the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. This is the same group that booted the United States last year in a fit of pique. Whom have they now seen fit to add to the commission? Zimbabwe, whose dictator Robert Mugabe has violated about every principle that the commission presumably stands for.”

http://www.weeklystandard.com/content/protected/articles/000/000/001/241unezk.asp

Posted by: David Thomson on December 14, 2002 08:09 PM

“The next important question: where was Britain when the Ndebele (of Zimbabwe)were being butchered? Though the politicians from that era would have you believe that they did their utmost, the answer is simple. Britain was sitting on its hands. The Tories tiptoed around the butcher while the Labour party regarded him as a fraternal ally.”

“The next important question: where was Britain when the Ndebele were being butchered? Though the politicians from that era would have you believe that they did their utmost, the answer is simple. Britain was sitting on its hands. The Tories tiptoed around the butcher while the Labour party regarded him as a fraternal ally.”

“And let us not forget that Britain was also training Mugabe’s army. Not long after the massacres had finished and with Mugabe steaming towards a one-party state, Britain sold him Hawk 200 jets. Mr Blair would later obligingly sell him spare parts for these jets so that he could pursue a murderous campaign in the Congo. “

http://www.spectator.co.uk/article.php3?table=old§ion=current&issue=2002-03-16&id=1669

Posted by: David Thomson on December 14, 2002 08:42 PM

This whole post was incredibly stupid. Ever hear the joke about large corporations? "MegaCorp is like a log floating down the river with 600 ants on it, and every ant thinks he's steering." I suggest you replace "MegaCorp" with "Technology" and "ants" with "economists" and you get pretty much this Onanic fest we see here.

I respectfully suggest that for once it's wrong to compare apples to apples, but you actually have to compare apples to oranges. So we don't pay much for flour, huh? Well, guess what, in order to get and keep the job from which you source that 69 cents in most of America you need a CAR, at about $0.52 for every freaking mile. So maybe you should think about that, instead.

In a larger sense, I wish you all would stop patting yourself on th back (or whatever it is you're doing with your right hand) and figure out what this brilliant modern economy has done with all the free time everybody had as recently as 40 years ago. Wasn't that supposed to be the third leg (food, shelter, and leisure time) of the platform that economics was supposed to deliver to the human race?

Jesus deliver us from this sort of idiocy.

Posted by: a different chris on December 15, 2002 06:06 AM

I tend to agree with "a different Chris." Commodity foods may a lot cheaper today than in the distant past, but our ancestors paid much lower costs in many other areas. What, for example, was the cost of housing 500 or 1,000 years ago?

Posted by: David Davenport on December 15, 2002 07:19 AM

“Well, guess what, in order to get and keep the job from which you source that 69 cents in most of America you need a CAR, at about $0.52 for every freaking mile. So maybe you should think about that, instead.”

It seems like somebody might like to return to the days of Ned Lud. We are still far ahead of the curve than our ancestors. I don’t envy them in the slightest. William F. Buckley once attended a party where the discussion turned to the subject of childhood diseases. Virtually everyone in the room conceded that they would have died before reaching adulthood if born only around fifty years earlier. The so-called good old days is a laughable delusion.

Posted by: David Thomson on December 15, 2002 07:50 AM

To the Different Sort of Chris and David Davenport: No one in America HAS to own a car. I have first-hand knowledge: I did not own a car from 1984 through 1991 (3 years in Chicago on the near north side and 4 years in Manhattan). After I got married in '91 and moved to the suburbs I got a car, but that was a free choice. IF most Americans did not want to pay $0.52 per mile for their cars then we would have differently organized cities and suburbs and we'd have a lot less cars (and the unit cost might be dramatically higher, but that's off topic). But we'd only be "better off" if that's what everybody wanted, and at the moment it's not what they want, many of them, myself included.

Besides, I spent a lot of time with horses in my youth - and they stink. Getting all the horse manure off the island of Manhattan was a huge problem back in the late 1800s. And if anybody had to go from Virginia to Boston in the good old days it took days, not hours. What value do you put on an hour of your time? That impacts the cost a lot too.

I don't know that free time is the right measure of how well-off we are. Hunters in a hunter-gatherer society are famous for their spare time (in part because too much hunting rapidly thins out the food supply), but are they better off than we are? I don't think so. Anybody today who wants to maximize their free time can have a heck of a lot, it's just that most people want to live fulfilled lives doing as much as possible. I don't think that should bother you; I know it doesn't bother me.

500 years, or a thousand years in the past, housing may have been cheap - but there was no indoor plumbing, no safe water, no air conditioning and fuel for heat in the winter wasn't always available. And candles burned a lot of those old wood houses down to the ground, and insurance wasn't available. Worst of all, in most places there was no real personal security. If the King or Prince or Ruler you were living under lost a battle with another Ruler, the men were killed and the women and children enslaved, en masse. Not my idea of fun. And it happened ALL the time, and nobody was safe.

It's too bad that some people are so unhappy with life in the modern world. But if they're miserable and wretched here and now in the present, they'd be a heck of a lot unhappier in the past, though their unhappy lives would be a lot lot shorter.

Posted by: Anarchus on December 15, 2002 08:00 AM

My thinking about genetically engineered food was greatly effected by Charles Perrow's book Normal Accidents: Living with High-Risk Technologies. It is possible to build systems that are fundimentally very dangerous. He argues this is one.

Posted by: Ben Hyde on December 15, 2002 09:57 AM

I could write these responses myself. I guess I'm "objectively pro-Luddite" because I refuse to sit there and listen to all this vapid posturing about how a peasant's bag of flour from a time longer ago and farther away than "Star Wars" has something to say about our current state of heavenly bliss. Guess what: I'm well versed (probably more than you) in the Middle Ages and they sucked for most but it has about as much to do with what we should be thinking about today as canals on Mars. What's ridiculous is, given all these gifts from McCormack and Watson and Edison, how mucked up everything still is. That's what I have a problem with.

If I have to defend the statement "you need a car in America" I gotta wonder....but I don't gotta bother.

BTW, did anybody find small "l" Anarchus' rift starting with "500 years ago.." where he pretty much runs through all the problems enlightened government solved by wresting control from the libertarian fiefdoms (where the strong made the weak's lives miserable), pretty amusing?

Posted by: a different chris on December 15, 2002 11:25 AM

"I tend to agree with "a different Chris." Commodity foods may a lot cheaper today than in the distant past, but our ancestors paid much lower costs in many other areas. What, for example, was the cost of housing 500 or 1,000 years ago?"

Gosh, it must have been wonderful living in a hut virtually unprotected from the elements. Allow me to also add this nauseating bit of reality: they usually had no toilets! There's no doubt in my mind that if one were to take a time machine trip to Shakespeare's London---the overwhelming odor of human urine and feces would make you immediately want to vomit. Most people stunk because they rarely ever bathed. Elderly people were few and far between. I suspect that most people died before they turned forty. Do I really need to go on?

Posted by: David Thomson on December 15, 2002 11:33 AM

different (egomaniac) chris: the 500 or 1,000 years ago timeframe came from David Davenport's riff (that's riff, not rift) on the cost of housing.

my only point was that in the distant past, nearly everybody everywhere was constantly at risk of their stronger neighbors taking over, with no qualms and no mercy. certainly before the Treaty of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, there was absolute rule by force. and the preceding Thirty Years War killed 30%-50% of the population of some areas, how fun was that?

and I stand by my statement on cars. in the "micro" sense, nobody has to have a car. if you don't want a car, you can't live anywhere you want, but there's lots of nice American cities where you can live without a car - where in fact having a car is more of an inconvenience than a convenience. in the macro sense, we have cars 'cause that's how the population chose to live. So what?

Posted by: Anarchus on December 15, 2002 01:35 PM

If Anarchus truly believes that "...nearly everybody everywhere was constantly at risk of their stronger neighbors taking over, with no qualms and no mercy. certainly before the Treaty of the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, there was absolute rule by force...", he might want to read up on how the Feudal System actually operated. I remember reading Ganshof, some thirty years ago.

The crucial point is not whether force worked, but where the force came from. If power comes from the muzzle of a gun, the superior person asks where the gun comes from. While THESE days economic resources release that sort of strength, in THOSE days it was more a case of mobilising and bringing on side resources that were around and inherent in manpower (that includes training up the manpower in advance and releasing t from other commitments). But that meant a formal system of networking, that only led to something Hobbesian when it failed. People ended up respecting those forms rather than simply resorting to force, precisely in order to maintain their resources of force. Montaigne mentions the Ottomans withdrawing from Italy for just these reasons. In these respects, countries that nowadays feel they can resort to unilateralism are less civilised in their practices, whatever their inner motives!

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 15, 2002 03:31 PM

I didn't realize that Ganshof held all the answers to the feudal era.

Which is not to say my comments were ever directed specifically to the feudal era - I'd rather start with King Menes (or Narmer or Aha if you prefer, the history is confused depending on whether you like Herodotus, or not), work through the adaptations evolving out of the Hyksos invasion and go forward from there. I'm sure you're familiar with all those details as well, since you claim to know everything.

Posted by: Anarchus on December 15, 2002 05:14 PM

"BTW, did anybody find small "l" Anarchus' rift starting with "500 years ago.." where he pretty much runs through all the problems enlightened government solved by wresting control from the libertarian fiefdoms (where the strong made the weak's lives miserable), pretty amusing?"

"libertarian fiefdoms"? You're kidding, right? You think that arbitrary rule by local warlords, disarmed peasants, and slavery had anything to do with libertarianism?

Also, you are making the common mistake of assume that just because modern socialist governments were in place during the last several decades and therefore coincided with the development of the most recent (and therefore most advanced) technology, that large intrusive governments actually facilitate technological advancement. This ignores the fact that technological development flourished during the late 19th century "laissez-faire" era; while the technological attainments of that time compare unfavorably to what we have today, they compared very favorably to what came before. Just because modern socialistic governments haven't quite managed to bring progress to a complete halt doesn't mean that we should give them credit for the development that did occur; I would say instead that what progress we've had since WWI, and especially since the FDR administration, has happened in spite of, rather than because of, our expanded, activist government, and the development we've missed out on over that time period is truly depressing to contemplate.

Posted by: Kenneth Uildriks on December 15, 2002 05:36 PM

Last week I was in New York, at a party where the subject of cultural and economic change in Africa came up.

One woman, her name was Angelica, had gone to South Africa for three months with the goal of volunteering time at a health clinic in a small rural village. She also meant to offer her time to any project the locals thought would help them. She knew many of the mistakes that Westerns tended to make when they went to help in 3rd World countries, the arrogance and presumptions which doomed their efforts ahead of time, and so she tried to keep certain rules in mind, above all that she should listen to the locals, adapt herself to their ways, let their opinions dominate, listen more than she talked, learn more than she taught, and focus on what the people themselves said they needed, rather than have any pre-conceived ideas in her head about what they needed. She went in with all these principles in the front part of her mind, and she found them all to be useless. Beneath all of her conscious presumptions, which she was on guard against, she’d had one that was so fundamental she’d never even been aware of it before: that human life can be improved through effort. At the village where the health clinic was located she asked the local women what their most pressing concern was. The answer was that the pump which drove the village well had broken, and so the village no longer had water, and they had to walk many miles every day to neighboring villages to get water. Okay, she said, we’ll get that pump fixed. She thought this is what the local people really wanted and, in fact, this was, in a sense, what the local people really wanted. And yet it was nearly impossible to get that pump fixed. Who can fix this well, she asked. The local mechanic, she was told. Where is he? Visiting a cousin in another village. So she got in her jeep and drove to the other village, where she found the mechanic and told him what had happened to the pump. Okay, he said, I’ll come home tomorrow and fix it. She drove back to the village with the good news. The women smiled and nodded, politely. The next day, of course, the mechanic did not show up. Nor the next. Angelica got back in her jeep and drove back to the other village. There was the mechanic, still visiting with his cousin. Why didn’t you come back yesterday, she asked? Oh, so sorry, I was delayed, my cousin did not feel well, I will be home tomorrow. So Angelica returned to the village of the health clinic, but this she time she was more careful, and did not spread the good news. The mechanic did not come home the next day, nor the next, nor the next. Who else can fix this well, she asked. Well, there is another mechanic in a further village. She jumped in her jeep and drove over to meet him. Upon finding him, she introduced herself, and explained the problem. Okay, he said, I will come over tomorrow. How will you get there, she asked? Don’t worry, he said, I will come over. But Angelica was wary. Suddenly it occurred to her that maybe she was up against some kind of 3rd World bargaining style that no one had warned her about, that, in fact, she was supposed to offer money at this point. So she offered some money: come tomorrow and I’ll pay you, she said. Oh, that wasn’t necessary, said the mechanic, but he would be over tomorrow. Angelica drove home feeling defeated. The next day, sure enough, the mechanic did not come. A week later the village’s own mechanic returned from visiting his cousin. Okay, she said, can we now fix this pump? Yes, of course, he said, let’s fix the pump. They went and looked at the pump. Ah, he said, I will need a drill. Where can we get a drill, asked Angelica. Well, my brother owns one. Okay, said Angelica, can we go visit your brother? Oh yes, sure, let’s go. Tomorrow. A few days later they drove over to see the brother. They could not call ahead since phones were non-existent in this part of South Africa. The brother did not have the drill, he had lent it out months before to a friend, and it had not yet been returned. But he agreed, as soon as it was returned, that he would bring it to their village. The weeks went by, and every day Angelica tried to get that pump fixed, but every day she ran into obstacles. She chased rumors of drills, which were always rumors, or the drills were broken. Finally they found a battery operated drill but then they had to find batteries for it. No matter where she went or who she talked to, everyone was polite, everyone was friendly, everyone smiled, everyone promised that everything would be done tomorrow. And somehow three months went by, and nothing was done. It was like chasing a mirage, no matter how fast she ran the horizon was always the same distance away. The day she finally left, three months after she had arrived, the well was still not fixed, and the women of the village were still walking many miles everyday to get water from neighboring villages.

Like most Americans, she had not realized how American she truly was until she was until she had gone overseas. She had never before realized how much the basic task of problem solving was a part of her personality. It came naturally to her: if there was a problem, figure out what needed to be done to fix it, and then do those things. But she had encountered a culture where such a way of thinking was alien. But without that problem solving mentality, how could they ever rise out of poverty? The obvious answer, she thought, was that they could not. Until there were vast cultural changes in rural South Africa, rural South Africa would remain poor.

Still, she said, “I do wish the multinationals would stop fucking them.”

By this she meant mostly, though not exclusively, the pharmaceutical companies.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on December 15, 2002 07:38 PM

Re. Time travel to Shakespeares London. One can, of sorts, minus the smell and disease. On a two week canal boat trip to the west Midlands we stopped in stratford and visited Shakespeares house as well as his wife's natal homestead, 3 miles outside of town, (the name escapes me) its on the canal. The docents giving tours describe two interesting facts. One was that people and their bed were afflicted with vermin, bugs and such. People put saucers of blood under the bed so the bed bugs would jump in the saucer for and easy meal instead of burrowing into them during the night. Also women wore chunks of raw meat under their clothes during the day for the same reason.

The custom of June brides is from this time. There was a saint day in May when people went to church to cleanse their souls. This was good time to take their yearly bath (hard to believe) and after that a good time to marry and honeymoon. You know, after a shower and all.

Think about that while you curl up in your clean sheets and take your morning shower.

Posted by: david in mass on December 15, 2002 07:57 PM

"Still, she said, “I do wish the multinationals would stop fucking them.”

By this she meant mostly, though not exclusively, the pharmaceutical companies."

That's right, blame the multinationals because of the backward culture of the indigenous people. It’s always the fault of the West when these people’s own culture dooms them to living in poverty. When will this nonsense stop? There are two main reasons for this young lady’s refusal to face reality. Number one is the politically correct notion that one can’t be brutally frank about the deficiencies of a nonwhite culture. She would probably have no hesitation in taking to task the culture of the red neck of Louisiana. What is number two? It is actually related to number one. We of the Western World are supposedly so disgusting that we have no right to “impose” our values on these folks. They are actually pure of spirit and possess the wisdom of the uncorrupted and we should instead be listening to them.

Posted by: David Thomson on December 15, 2002 09:07 PM

If I may - Anarchus wrote something on which I intersperse comments:

"I didn't realize that Ganshof held all the answers to the feudal era..." He didn't; however, even a slight acquaintance with the topics he covered will show that it was not a case of simple force against force before 1648.

Also, "... I'm sure you're familiar with all those details as well, since you claim to know everything." While I am aware of much previous sublimation of force, I do not recall claiming to know everything. Perhaps this is yet another limitation of mine - unawareness of omniscience.

Posted by: P.M.Lawrence on December 15, 2002 09:45 PM

>>don't know that free time is the right measure of how well-off we are. Hunters in a hunter-gatherer society are famous for their spare time (in part because too much hunting rapidly thins out the food supply), but are they better off than we are? <<

I note in passing that Chris had specifically made the comparison in terms of spare time to the 1950s; the United States of America was not a hunter-gatherer society during this period.

Posted by: dsquared on December 16, 2002 09:10 AM

Lawrence Kubner tells a very interesting story about his friend Angelica and her experiences trying to get the well pump fixed in Africa.

I wonder to what degree the problems had to do with problem-solving skills and to what degree they had to do with the difficulty of finding resources that we take for granted (drills, batteries, phones, etc.) As a thought-experiment..suppose the pump had been made entirely of wood, and the replacement parts could be carved. Would the experience have been different?

No assertions here, just a question for discussion.

Posted by: David Foster on December 16, 2002 06:39 PM

Fascinating story about the well in SA. One thing I wonder about when I hear stories like this - if all these people seem to be more-or-less satisfied in their poverty, who are we to tear our hair out trying to better their lot? Give a man a fish, feed him for a day, tach him to fish, feed him for life - but what if he doesn't like fish?

Posted by: Jimbo on December 16, 2002 07:22 PM

"Still, she said, 'I do wish the multinationals would stop fucking them.' By this she meant mostly, though not exclusively, the pharmaceutical companies."

Oy, vey! She has a very interesting story about taking 3+ weeks to fix a pump, such that many women are wasting hours every day...and the problem that she focuses on is "multinationals...*deleted by censor* them!"

All because multinationals (especially the pharmaceutical companies) sell them drugs at a price that's almost certainly far *less* than they'd pay here in the U.S.!

Thinking about the problem here...the real, problem, not the problem as viewed by the kind-hearted-but-clueless aid lady...I'd say it's probably one of lack of property rights.

I'll bet no one owns the underground water, and that the women draw the water for free.

That's why the pump doesn't get fixed. Since no one gets money for bringing up the water from underground, no one's revenue stream is interupted by *not* getting the water from underground.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 16, 2002 08:00 PM

I'd just like to add that I too have a lot of stories from acquaintances who went on adventure holidays to aid projects, steamed in and started ordering people about, got nowhere and came back more certain than ever of the cultural inferiority of the people they'd gone to help.

Oddly enough, I also have a few friends who are old hands in the aid industry who are outright contemptuous of "short-timers" who think that they know what the Africans' priorities ought to be better than the Africans do. I'm not saying that "Angelica" could have perhaps learned a couple of lessons about humility and listening, rather than learning that those naughty Africans didn't do as they were told because they weren't blessed with the "problem solving mentality" of a spoiled Western aid tourist. I'm just sayin'.

Sorry to be cruel, but anyone who can spend three months living in an African village and conclude that the locals lack "problem solving mentality" deserves at the very least a stinging rebuke, and possibly a jug of cold water in the face. I am hardly surprised that her views on the predicament of pharmaceutical companies were equally silly and simplistic.

Posted by: dsquared on December 17, 2002 08:38 AM

“I also have a few friends who are old hands in the aid industry who are outright contemptuous of "short-timers" who think that they know what the Africans' priorities ought to be better than the Africans do. “

This single sentence to should be read by everyone at least ten times. The mindset of this individual clearly reflects the disastrous attitude of the radical Left. We should have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that many of the inhabitants of the Third World lack the cultural values required to improve their lives. It is sad that these folks don’t have a clue, but we should not embrace the foolishness of the politically correct Liberals and ignore the obvious. The values of Western Civilization are superior to those of the backward cultures. We should never hesitate to convert the people of the Third World to our way of life.

Do I posses the audacity to declare that someone’s priorities are out of whack because they are indifferent about repairing the equipment which provides water to their community? You better believe that I do!

Posted by: David Thomson on December 17, 2002 09:09 AM

>>. We should have absolutely no hesitation in declaring that many of the inhabitants of the Third World lack the cultural values required to improve their lives<<

David "Intellectual Integrity" Thomson, I charge that you have no more knowledge of what the "cultural values" of inhabitants of the Third World might be than you do of the inside of a book by Noam Chomsky or Jacques Derrida. This habit of yours of holding strong opinions on matters about which you know nothing, is beginning to make you a laughing stock.

>>It is sad that these folks don’t have a clue, but we should not embrace the foolishness of the politically correct Liberals and ignore the obvious. <<

As I was told while a young cadet in the British Army, the problem with the f**king "obvious", is that what's f**king "obvious" to you may not be f**king "obvious" to anyone else, and that what's f**king "obvious" to someone who hasn't f**king checked, might not be so f**king obvious at all! Now go and peel some potatoes, you horrible little man!

If there is an aid project in a village (and there must be, if young Americans are going out there on three-month stints), then if the village water pump is broken, it is likely that there is a very good reason why it remains broken. It is also likely that if Angelica had bothered to ask politely, she might have found out what that reason was rather than wasting the time of people who were too polite to tell her where to get off.

>>Do I posses the audacity to declare that someone’s priorities are out of whack because they are indifferent about repairing the equipment which provides water to their community? You better believe that I do! <<

Do you have the slightest idea what you are talking about, "Intellectual Integrity"? You better believe you don't!

Posted by: dsquared on December 17, 2002 10:32 AM

"Do you have the slightest idea what you are talking about, "Intellectual Integrity"? You better believe you don't!"

The predominant cultural values of the Third world should be perceived by any decent person as pathetic and downright evil. Unless, of course, one is anti-women, hostile to individual freedom, and contemptuous of secular rational thinking. These unfortunate people are usually superstitious and ill equipped to handle the challenges of the modern world. They need to be converted over to the essential values of Western Civilization. Furthermore, their suffering has been significantly increased by the Socialists who often dropped them from the pan and into the fire. Decades have been wasted because the politically correct Liberals despise their own Western roots. They can hardly teach what they don’t believe in.

Posted by: David Thomson on December 17, 2002 12:31 PM

Angela was an amateur. If she had donated the cost of her trip to UNICEF or Oxfam, more lives would have been spared, but her party conversations would have been more conventional.

Aid agencies are very familiar with the problems of free food, and build local production while feeding the starving.

Anyone reading this should consider a donation of any size to Oxfam or UNICEF down to giving pennies to UNICEF with a Coinstar machine. Such is the difference of our economy and Africa's that such a modest gesture can save a life.

Posted by: Tom Loria on December 17, 2002 02:59 PM

'The mindset of this individual clearly reflects the disastrous attitude of the radical Left.'

David, I somehow wouldn't be surprised to see you blame the Cubs's World Series drought on "the radical Left."

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 17, 2002 03:05 PM

"Sorry to be cruel, but anyone who can spend three months living in an African village and conclude that the locals lack "problem solving mentality" deserves at the very least a stinging rebuke,..."

I'd give her a medal. ;-)

Poverty depresses me. And inefficiency bugs me. I probably couldn't last a week there.

Posted by: Mark Bahner on December 17, 2002 03:27 PM

>>The predominant cultural values of the Third world should be perceived by any decent person as pathetic and downright evil. <<

Met a lot of them, have you, "Intellectual Integrity"?

Just out of interest, David, what is it that you *do* know about?

Posted by: dsquared on December 17, 2002 11:26 PM


A interesting companion essay on POOR nutrition
(in Britain) is posted at

www.city-journal.org/html/12_4_oh_to_be.html


Food is cheap and plentiful, and yet people are starving. Is socialism really at fault?

Posted by: Melcher on December 26, 2002 01:09 PM


David Thomson wrote "That's right, blame the multinationals because of the backward culture of the indigenous people. There are two main reasons for this young lady’s refusal to face reality."

My sense is that she is very in touch with the reality on the ground. She was, after all, concious of various cultural attributes that were getting in the way of fixing the well. However, she was less judgemental about them than you, and she tended to see her own cultural values (to fix problems) as being as suspect as those of the locals. After all, she had no right to impose her own values on the locals.

But one thing I didn't have time or space to go into - she saw the people being destroyed by disease, especially AIDS, and she wished the people had access to cheap generic drugs. The historical background to this was, I think, 2001, when the debate about Brazil selling cheap generics to other 3rd World countries was at its height. We were sitting in a restaurant in Manhattan talking about it, but the Brazil story had been in the news often during the months before our conversation.

David Foster asks "I wonder to what degree the problems had to do with problem-solving skills and to what degree they had to do with the difficulty of finding resources that we take for granted (drills, batteries, phones, etc.)"

I've nothing intelligent to say on this subject but she might. I've sent these questions to her and if she finds time to respond then I'll post her response here.

"Fascinating story about the well in SA. One thing I wonder about when I hear stories like this - if all these people seem to be more-or-less satisfied in their poverty, who are we to tear our hair out trying to better their lot?"

That is the conclusion she reached as well, but she reached that conclusion long before she ever went to Africa. She went over there determined to be lead by the locals, to do what they wanted, to be of service in ways they found valuable, to leave, as much as possible, anything that might be her own preconcieved agenda behind in America. She concluded that South Africa would become wealthy when the South African's themselves were willing to commit themselves to becoming wealthy. However, wealth is more a preoccupation of the people on this discussion board than it is of hers, or of the people in South Africa. She was mostly concerned about the AIDS epidemic, and whether any cultural changes could be wrought to slow the epidemic. Please understand that the epidemic is very bad over there. She said she visited one village where there were 500 children but only 15 adults. Because of the epidemic, the health clinic she was volunteering at has been slowly morphing into an AIDS orphanage.

Mark Bahner wrote "Oy, vey! She has a very interesting story about taking 3+ weeks to fix a pump, such that many women are wasting hours every day...and the problem that she focuses on is "multinationals...*deleted by censor* them!"
All because multinationals (especially the pharmaceutical companies) sell them drugs at a price that's almost certainly far *less* than they'd pay here in the U.S.! Thinking about the problem here...the real, problem, not the problem as viewed by the kind-hearted- but-clueless aid lady...I'd say it's probably one of lack of property rights."

Mark, that's a very intersting point about property rights, things certainly work diffently out in the rural area she was in, and property rights are, I think, less formally defined there than what we would be used to. As to her comments about the multinationals, I suppose I should have left that remark out or gone into it more fully. I'm surprised at the extent to which people are reacting to it. Please understand, we spoke for 3 hours and it is difficult for me to summarize all that she said. She was volunteering her time at a health clinic in an area hard hit by the AIDS epidemic. The debate about whether the American government should protests Brazil's decision to sell cheap generics was then at its height. When you are on the ground, there, in Africa, watching the people suffer, the morality of the question seems straighforward. There was a time when it looked like the American government was going to block Brazils attempt to manufacture cheap generics for sale to other 3rd World countries. Her anger over that lead to her remark. I'm sorry I didn't explain this in my original post.


dsqaured wrote: "I'd just like to add that I too have a lot of stories from acquaintances who went on adventure holidays to aid projects, steamed in and started ordering people about, got nowhere and came back more certain than ever of the cultural inferiority of the people they'd gone to help. Oddly enough, I also have a few friends who are old hands in the aid industry who are outright contemptuous of "short-timers" who think that they know what the Africans' priorities ought to be better than the Africans do."

You're putting words into my mouth, and into hers. She never said, nor did I write, that she knew better than the Africans. If that is what you got from the story than you're missing my point, and I think hers. Her point was that their culture is different, and though she'd gone down there thinking she simply wanted to help them, on their terms, with no preconceptions, still she found she had preconceptions that she was not aware of. She had been on guard against preconceptions of content, but not on guard against preconceptions of process. She was determined to be lead by the locals when it came to what projects she worked on, and she was, but where she had preconceptions was about the process of fixing problems.

"Fixing problems" she came to realize, was an American obsession, not a South African one. I don't recall her attaching any judgement to this observation, negative or positive. One can certainly make a case either way. The habit of viewing life as a series of problems that are to be fixed is one possible philosophy one can hold toward life. The habit of viewing life as something that is to be endured is another possible philosophy one can hold toward life. Both of these philosophies have their rewards and their costs.

As to her being a short timer, that is only partly true. She spends short burts of time in South Africa, never more than 4 months I think, but this was her 6th visit over the course of 10 years. Her best friend from college is over there, running the health clinic, and has been there for almost 10 years now.


Tom Loria wrote: "Angela was an amateur. If she had donated the cost of her trip to UNICEF or Oxfam, more lives would have been spared, but her party conversations would have been more conventional."

There are problems with these organizations that you mention, problems of overhead and mission and agenda and action, that cause her to avoid them. There are also occassional problems with corruption. The implication of your remark is that people should stay home and send money, but one could make a case for just the opposite - people should never send money, but they should go and see for themselves what the circumstances are over there. Think about how much more intelligent this discussion would be if everyone of us had been over to visit Africa.

In my circle of friends the concensus is that you should never, ever send money. Go over there yourself if you want to go, but don't send money.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on February 6, 2003 11:41 AM

Sorry, it was a long post and my writing is sloppy.

When I wrote this:

"Fixing problems" she came to realize, was an American obsession, not a South African one.

I should have written this:

Fixing problems" she came to realize, was an American obsession, not one widely held in the rural area of Swaziland where she was.

Posted by: Lawrence Krubner on February 6, 2003 11:53 AM
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