Posts Tagged planners

Bono Abandons Babel?

U2 singerThere’s been a bit of buzz over Bono’s recent remarks about the positive role of markets in reducing global poverty and spurring economic development (HT):

The Irish singer and co-founder of ONE, a campaigning group that fights poverty and disease in Africa, said it had been “a humbling thing for me” to realize the importance of capitalism and entrepreneurialism in philanthropy, particularly as someone who “got into this as a righteous anger activist with all the cliches.”

“Job creators and innovators are just the key, and aid is just a bridge,” he told an audience of 200 leading technology entrepreneurs and investors at the F.ounders tech conference in Dublin. “We see it as startup money, investment in new countries. A humbling thing was to learn the role of commerce.”

I’m a bit skeptical about the broader significance of these remarks on Bono’s activism, but I do think they’re illuminating. Over at the Acton Institute, I argue that Bono’s new humbled attitude is precisely what we need in our attempts to improve economic development:

Although I’m not overly confident that Bono’s sudden self-awareness is enough to radically shift his aid efforts away from fostering dependency, this small admission helps illuminate one of our key obstacles to doing good in the world: overzealousness paired with overconfidence.

Bono describes his realization as a “humbling thing,” and “humbling” is precisely what the foreign aid experts and economic planners could use. As Friedrich Hayek famously wrote, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” As the story of the Tower of Babel well confirms, man has a natural disposition to think he knows more than he knows and can construct beyond what he can construct—all to make a name for himself. The juice of righteous anger is a powerful enabler, and once it’s pumping through our veins it takes even less time for our human tendencies to escalate. After all, we’re only out to deliver humanity to heaven’s doorstep.

Such overconfidence in our own designs can be particularly destructive in the realm of economics, a science that’s in a constant battle over whether it should seek to explain human action, control it, or bypass it altogether. Such planners find a perfect match in eager activists such as Bono. “We can build your tower to heaven,” they’ll say, “and you can make a name for yourself. If only the right policy buttons are pushed and the right economic equilibrium is arranged, the world can be set to rights.”

Of all people, Christians should be aware of the deeper spiritual questions we should be asking, cautious not to be wise in our own eyes:

The economic engineer’s intrusion goes well beyond barging into more natural and effective social institutions. For in doing so, he treats dignified man and the unpredictable, invaluable relationships in which he engages as the mere mingling of predictable pieces in a larger static game. Such an intrusion should cause great alarm for those of us seeking restoration among the suffering. For how can we hope to improve conditions for the human person if we skip past what it means to be a human person? For the Christian in particular, God instructs each of us to do what the Lord wills. Are we really to Read the rest of this entry »

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Free Markets as a Fruit of the Gospel

fruit merchantIn our discussions of the pros and cons of various socio-economic models, Christians have a common tendency to forget what should be our more fundamental aim: spreading the message of salvation through Jesus Christ and living as Christ would have us live.

In a recent post, Doug Wilson helps us remember (HT), noting that we should stop critiquing such systems in and of themselves—i.e. separated from the reality of sin and the project of salvation—and focus instead on how they impact each individual when it comes to realizing the life-giving freedom Christ has made possible.

As Wilson explains it:

I have written many times that free markets are for a free people, and that only a free people can sustain them. But slaves to sin cannot be a free people. And the only way to be liberated from slavery to sin is through the gospel that brings new life.

Another problem is that when slaves to sin spiral down into the civic slavery that is their natural civic condition, their masters will also be slaves to sin, albeit usually somewhat shrewder — at least for a short while. At some point the whole thing blows up for everybody, but the bottom line is that sin is the fundamental set of chains. You cannot hope to be enslaved by them, and yet be free in any sense that matters anywhere else.

Hayek, Friedman, and von Mises cannot keep people loving the freedom of markets any more than the wisest geologist who ever lived could have kept Cain from hitting Abel with that rock. Knowledge of the world is not the same thing as knowledge of the human heart.

…Other foolish observers within the Christian tradition have seen that this is true, and concluded that the problem lies with Hayek, et al. “We need to have values other than free market values, etc.” This is to say that since sinners cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, we need to haul out the chains of compassionate statism. Make ‘em do compassionate stuff and everything….

There is no salvation without a savior, and Jesus is the only savior. And how will they hear without a preacher? What we need is the gospel, what we need is a reformation, what we need is revival.

But although our political systems and economic models can’t produce revival by themselves, they do make a difference in how we interact and what we pursue. This is where our discussions need to begin.

The damaging impacts of top-down control are a bit easier for Christians to understand when we observe various governments shutting down churches and persecuting Christians in the streets on the basis of their faith, but what about when the government shuts down, redirects, or prohibits a variety of our day-to-day economic activities? When the government seizes an industry or moves money around to fund Entrepreneur X instead of Entrepreneur Y, What might such a government be preventing or distorting in terms of Christian initiative, creativity, and collaboration? Are we always to assume the Bureaucrat Z is the preferred oracle of Jehovah?

Fundamentally, we must reject the materialistic, deterministic worldviews of self-anointed economic planners of all varieties. If Christians are serious about spreading the truth, we should go about offering the Read the rest of this entry »

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Instagram, Innovation, and the Almighty Government 8 Ball

Instagram, Government 8 BallThe makers of Instagram, a popular iPhone photo-sharing app, recently sold their company to Facebook for $1 billion. The company was founded a mere 18 months ago by a pair of twentysomethings. It has only 12 employees and brings in no revenue. No big deal.

This week at Values and Capitalism, I look at the story through a broader lens, pondering the implications of such sudden, unexpected technological changes and successes, particularly on those who think prosperity comes from creating five/ten/twenty-year plans to boost Industry/Company/Product X.

Here’s an excerpt:

The problem for the predictors and planners is that despite whatever economic or moral arguments they so cunningly concoct to justify shoving widgets X, Y and Z down our throats, one big, stubborn, complicating reality persists: as innovation continues, needs and desires change.

You can shake the Almighty Government Eight Ball all day long, but even if you get it right and are able to calculate some end-game net profitability for artificially propping up Failing Company X or Greenie Wizard Lab Y, who knows if such a plan will stay workable or cost-effective by tomorrow? Obama can toot the Subsidize Wind Farms horn till the ears of his great grandchildren are bleeding with debt, but what happens when Engineer Suzie wakes up the next morning with an idea for a cheaper, greener, more effective solution? Sorry Suzie, but we’ve already rolled the dice.

Yet this, I argue, is more than just an economic argument:

If you haven’t noticed, this is a clear economic problem (e.g. ethanol), yet coming at it from that angle will be unlikely to influence many progressives, whose positions, whether they admit it or not, rest mostly on rash-and-puffy moral superiority and a quest for control (e.g. “Smart Cars contribute to the common good, not your cute little digital Polaroids”). I’ll save those arguments for another day, because within the economic argument against this contorted game of Pick Your Favorites lies a different moral message about the way we view humans and human potential.

In short: Needs and desires change because people change.

To assume that the government can successfully pick winners and losers economically—whether with products, business or entire industries—is to assume that we humans live, or want to live, in a static world filled with static individuals who conceive of themselves in static terms. We will always buy what we currently buy, know what we currently know and pursue absolutely nothing of real value unless ole Goodie Government tells us otherwise.

But that’s not the way humans are, or, at the very least, that’s not what we were intended to be.

As much as folks might want to wield our semi-free economy toward constructing temples to Gaia and propping up eat-your-veggies initiatives, the market is or should primarily be about facilitating human engagement and human interaction. Such facilitation is integral to empowering human vocation, which should primarily informed by God and any on-the-ground cultural, social and religious institutions. All those select progressive “moral” causes might be fine-and-dandy as individual vocations in individual markets on any individual day of the year, but who is to say they are better or more desirable than innovating a new way to use our smartphones? (Don’t answer that, Joe Biden.)

To read the full post, click here.

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Obama’s Fatal Conceit: Top 10 SOTU Pride Trips

This year’s State of the Union address was particularly painful for anyone who understands that human knowledge has its limits.

Fantastical utopian scheming was aplenty, and thus, I was continuously reminded of Hayek’s marvelous bit from The Fatal Conceit: “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.”

And oh. my. goodness. Our dear, dear President has quite the imagination, no?

In my latest post at AEI’s Values of Capitalism, I pick my top 10 favorite pride trips from the speech, analyzing omniscient Obama’s “blueprinted” approach to prosperity with Hayekian skepticism.

Here’s #4:

[Obama:] “I also hear from many business leaders who want to hire in the United States but can’t find workers with the right skills. Growing industries in science and technology have twice as many openings as we have workers who can do the job. Think about that –- openings at a time when millions of Americans are looking for work. It’s inexcusable. And we know how to fix it.”

Of course we do! All we need to do is, like, double our workers in the most popular industries. (Don’t mind the “how,” because “we know how to fix it.”) Is Little Jimmy content to live in Mommy’s basement until he’s 38 years old? There’s an app for that.

But what if those industries aren’t going to have twice as many openings in, say, 5 years? What if a new industry is birthed right when Obama’s grand old plan finally gets passed (or right now)? Yeah, yeah, yeah … we’ll just pump up the jams on the next crop of growing industries and it’ll all work itself out. The federal government isn’t just smart; it’s quick.

And another goodie:

[Obama:] “Extend the tuition tax credit we started that saves millions of middle-class families thousands of dollars, and give more young people the chance to earn their way through college by doubling the number of work-study jobs in the next five years.”

How does the President know that twice as much work will exist in the next five years (or that it exists now)? Or are we talking about “shovel-ready” work-study jobs? Like “free” room service for the dorms? More research assistants for the Chair of Transgender Post-Colonial Literature? Or perhaps you’d prefer to help Librarian Betty pick her nose when her hands are full? Double up!

Read the rest here.

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You Can’t Plan a Market: Transforming Culture from the Bottom-Up

The White Man's Burden by William EasterlyWhy has post-Soviet Russia not panned out to be the bustling, prosperous economy that the freedom folks predicted it would be? Is this the fault of the free market, or is there something deeper at work?

This week at AEI’s Values and Capitalism, I examine the question, channeling economist William Easterly to make the case that “you can’t plan a market.”

Although many Western tinkerers wrongly ignore the structural limitations in improving developing economies, many on the opposite side make the mistake of pretending that the structural stuff is a cinch.

I argue that it isn’t:

In our modern, polished system (with the wear-and-tear steadily increasing), we are tempted to look at other countries and think their problems are simple enough to be fixed by scribbling a couple solutions on paper and circulating it through the right hands. Even for free-market types, there is a rash assumption that all it takes is a magical structural concoction and a semi-functional government to get a poor country in motion.

Forget the individual habits and beliefs of the people on the ground. Forget the spiritual and cultural factors that limit or propel that society forward. Forget the psychological damage caused by previous (or current) totalitarian rule. “Just give them a market,” we say, “and let them be.”

As I say in the piece, “spontaneous order is not spontaneous order unless it is spontaneous.” Even in America, lest we forget, our thriving economic system did not come from the wave of a magical capitalism wand. Look no further than the 19th century to behold the painful and chaotic emergence of what we know today (and appreciate it).

To demonstrate this lesson, Easterly’s book points to several key market components that are difficult to “invent,” particularly from the top down: trust, property rights, social relationships/unity, peace, etc.

Such features — what Nick Schulz and Arnold Kling call “intangible assets” — must originate from Read the rest of this entry »

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Planners and Searchers: Locating Demand Among the Poor

farmer, foreign aid, development, AfricaIn today’s post at Common Sense Concept, I summarize economist William Easterly’s marvelous dichotomy of planners vs. searchers.

Here’s the gist of the contrast:

The planners are the high-level organizers, sitting comfortably in their air-conditioned offices as they crunch numbers and try to plan their way to global prosperity. The searchers, on the other hand, are the folks on the ground, working effortlessly to locate direct needs, collaborate with on-the-ground resources, and create value.

The deeper issue, in my opinion, is that we need not confine such a contrast to matters of economic development. We as Westerners also need to transform our worldview to being that of a searcher.

Here’s another excerpt:

We as individuals, moral agents, and Christians, must become the searchers ourselves. Like an entrepreneur launching a new business opportunity, we need to get as close to the demand as possible. We cannot rely on a “fail-proof” plan for eliminating poverty. We cannot cower to a policy that promises to make the proper transfers on our behalf. Instead, we must expose ourselves to the searching process.

To read the full post, click here.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Coffee in Rwanda: A Lesson in Individual Empowerment

Rwanda Coffee Exports by Unit Value of Destinations

Source: William Easterly / Aid Watch

William Easterly and Laura Freschi recently posted some encouraging words about Rwanda’s coffee industry over at the Aid Watch blog.

According to Easterly and Freschi, there have been some recent signs of success:

“There is preliminary evidence that the coffee industry is creating jobs, boosting small farmer expenditure and consumption, and possibly even fostering social reconciliation.”

In any other country, such progress might seem ordinary or mundane, but as you probably know, Rwanda has had its fair share of economic turmoil. Most are familiar with the tragic genocide that rocked Rwanda in 1994, but Rwanda’s socio-economic woes have roots that go back much further.

When it comes to the country’s coffee industry, Easterly and Freschi provide a brief history:

The history of coffee in Rwanda is intertwined with the country’s political fortunes, and stretches back to the 1930s when the Belgian colonial government required Rwandan farmers to plant coffee trees, while setting price restrictions and high export taxes, and controlling which firms could purchase coffee. These policies helped create a “low-quality/low-price trap” that would bedevil the post-colonial governments that continued similarly heavy-handed policies.

This poor foundation held the country down for most of the century, but it reached its inevitable collapse after the Read the rest of this entry »

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Organic, Local, and Slow: the Pampered vs. the Starving

Pesticide to be sprayed on food crops.

You can thank "poison" like this for helping us feed the world's billions.

Robert Paarlberg has a fantastic piece over at Foreign Policy on the negative organic food is having on the world.

“What’s that?” you say. “You mean I can’t improve my body, heal Mother Earth, and fix poverty in Africa all with one chomp of my socially-conscious organic apple? But I paid an extra dollar!”

People “go organic” for plenty of reasons, but whether it’s for health, the environment, or charity, Paarlberg argues that your efforts are ill-conceived and counterproductive.

But what’s his primary problem with the organic movement?

Helping the world’s poor feed themselves is no longer the rallying cry it once was. Food may be today’s cause célèbre, but in the pampered West, that means trendy causes like making food “sustainable” — in other words, organic, local, and slow. Appealing as that might sound, it is the wrong recipe for helping those who need it the most.

Indeed, the way people obsess over the food they eat has always struck me as downright bizarre. I understand that we should eat healthy and take care of our bodies, but this global effort to organicize the planet has always seemed a bit overhyped and preachy to me — particularly because the evidence for the argument never seems to match the impetus for its execution.

The more I watch the organic movement’s momentum increase, the more I realize that its implications are much grimmer than I originally suspected. This isn’t so much on the health side of things — in fact, I don’t think there is really any difference on that front — but the push for organic food is doing great harm to the environment, as well as our efforts to decrease global poverty.

In case you didn’t know, many moons ago all farming was “organic,” and people were starving to death.  Some things never change, for you’ll notice that in most Read the rest of this entry »

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Foreign Aid: Charity, Justice, and Bono’s Anti-West Prejudice

Bono at the World Economic Forum

Bono says that Africa remains poor because the West is greedy and prejudiced.

Every time I hear Bono talk about Africa’s problems, his passion makes me want to be on board with his mission. The problem is, whenever I hear about his actual solutions, I realize that the guy cares more about having compassion than achieving success.

Bono loves to talk about justice and equality, but the conversation is always entirely based around materialism. For Bono, Africa’s plight is primarily about a lack of resources, and thus it is simple enough to be solved by 40 cents here and an iPod there.

Bono & Co.’s efforts in Africa have been ineffective and counterproductive, as plenty of critics have pointed out (e.g. here, here, and here), but what I’d like to focus on at the moment is the false premise behind those efforts, which holds that success in Africa is dependant on the financial benevolence of Western governments.

The Cato Institute’s Marian Tupy recently wrote a piece in the Wall Street Journal focusing on this video’s assertion that financial aid to Africa is “not about charity. It’s about justice.” The video is pretty light on specifics, but Bono has since adopted the language on several occasions, offering a bit more illumination on why he thinks our donations are a matter of justice rather than charity.

My first reaction would usually be, “Of course the solution to poverty is justice,” but Bono and the ONE campaign consistently misconstrue the word “justice” by applying it to Read the rest of this entry »

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“Excuse me, operator, but do you know where I might find a toilet?”


If you had a choice between making a phone call or taking a dump, which activity would you prefer to modernize?

According to this article, there are now more cell phones in India than there are toilets. In fact, as the article reports, “this lopsided statistic is true around the globe, as well.”

The detailed statistics are as follows:

It’s an irony that applies globally, too: this year, the International Telecommunication Union reports, the number of mobile subscriptions is expected to surpass five billion. By contrast, some 2.6 billion people — or nearly 40% of the world population — live in conditions with dismal sanitation. Fully 16% of the world is still forced to defecate in public every day.

So why is this the case? How has such a cutting-edge technology become available in so many areas that still don’t have proper sanitation? Is it really that much more important to call Aunt Mable than it is to be able to flush your stuff to kingdom come? Read the rest of this entry »

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