Saturday, April 11, 2015

Zion Starts in Your Head

I've begun reading Working Toward Zion by James W. Lucas and Warner P. Woodworth. Sadly, it proves the notion that most things you anticipate will end up disappointing you.

Part of the problem is something they couldn't really control: right when they sat down to write a book about the terrible economics of the developing world, the developing world really started to get its act together. So what reads, in 2015, like a problem with the book could actually be seen as one of its strengths. Global poverty was a giant problem, they wrote about it right when lots of other people agreed with their assessment, and now it's not such a problem. Criticizing this book for that would be like criticizing Uncle Tom's Cabin for making a big deal out of American slavery, which everyone knows doesn't even exist anymore. Maybe there's still room for critique because Lucas and Woodworth didn't see the change coming and wrote many dire predictions of extreme poverty's advance, but I think it's kind of unfair to tell someone, "You should have foreseen a major change in the long-term trend." In the words of Monty Python, "No one expects the Spanish Inquisition."

As for the part of the problem Lucas and Woodworth could have gotten right but didn't, their economics is suspect. Since the book begins with a lot of economics to motivate the search for a different economic system, that's a big problem. For instance:

While ineffective policies of Third World governments bear considerable blame for their economic plight, from the view of the Have-nots, it is still principally the Haves that are causing the growing gap between rich and poor. To illustrate, India's nearly [at publication] one billion people make up 16 percent of the earth's population, yet they use only 3 percent of all energy and account for only 1 percent of the world's GNP. At the other extreme, the United States has only 5 percent of the earth's population, but uses 25 percent of all energy and accounts for 25 percent of global GNP. These two extremes are not unique cases; rather, they are typical. [p. 37]

I should hope they are typical.

Here's another way of writing about these same figures: "The United States has three times the energy efficiency of India, and eighty times the productive efficiency." Given that we have limited resources available to us, where should resources be channeled?

It's as if Lucas and Woodworth aren't aware that the P in GNP stands for product. They write of GNP distribution like it's something everyone has equal right to, and that countries with disproportionately-large shares are somehow cheating the others. Rather, GNP is made, not received. America makes more because America is more efficient. Even in a Zion system, we would want the productive to produce. Instead of writing about shares of global GNP (are there non-global citizens producing here, or why can't we just talk about "global output"?), what really matters is the after-production holding of income. Use your talents and the resources over which you have stewardship, produce as much as you can, and then share your excess with those who don't have enough.

This imprecise equivalence of production with exploitation is matched by an imprecise equivalence of calories and nutrition. More than once, they write of the high percentage of Americans on diets to show the decadence of the rich while globally malnutrition is a problem. However, America's obesity problem has its roots in malnutrition. People eat crap food (I just had some bean paste bread and a bottle of peach juice, and when I finish this post I'm going to eat a dark chocolate candy bar, so I know of which I write), so they are malnourished. In America, they are rich enough that they address the problem by eating more of the crap food that caused the initial problem. (Writing about the candy bar made me realize it was sitting there not being eaten, so now I've begun eating it. This is perhaps the most ironic paragraph about malnutrition ever written.) In a section on childhood malnutrition, Lucas and Woodworth end up writing about childhood mortality rates without analyzing how many of Angola's 172 deaths per 1,000 children under the age of one are actually related to malnutrition. UNICEF says "malnutrition is an underlying cause in most child deaths" in Angola, but the previous paragraph notes, "malaria, diarrhoea, respiratory infections and neonatal problems compounded by low birth weight are major killers of children...." That sounds to me like a contributing factor, not an underlying cause. Do mosquitoes favor feeding on the malnourished? Malaria eradication (something which, to their credit, Lucas and Woodworth note, as early as 1996, was a possibility only unrealized due to insufficient funding) would end malaria more completely than nutrition programs would. (The candy bar is gone now.)

Lucas and Woodworth want to motive their readers to seek alternative economic programs. It's unnecessary and a distraction. Keep capitalism (or, as Deirdre McCloskey calls it, "market-tested betterment"); Zion isn't a product of the method of production. Zion is a system for the post-production distribution of acquired resources. Now, if we all had a Zion mentality, I doubt modern capitalism would fail to undergo some significant changes, but starting with the criticism of capitalism is missing the point.

This is good news and bad news. Good news because I can actually do something about it. My efforts to eradicate Angolan childhood malnourishment will be as a fart in the windstorm, but my mind is something I can influence. Bad news because it's hard work and I'm left without excuse. I can't shrug and say, "Zion would be nice but what are you gonna do?" The Lucas and Woodworth approach is satisfying to such armchair consecrationists, and that's why I don't like it.

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