Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Shouldn’t we just let them die?

I hear this phrased in more benign terms from some of the nicest people I know. And, if you’re being completely objective, the question of whether or not we should work to sustain a population of 7 billion and growing is a valid question, worth considering. But if you decide that it’s better for fewer people to be alive so that more of the living can have a higher quality of life, you have put a rather heavy burden on yourself. You have to choose who dies.

It’s been said that all great men are also bad men. If you look at all of the presidents of the United States, no matter how you rank them by greatness, all of them sent people to their death. Alexander THE GREAT, killed a lot of people. Ghengis Khan decided that it would be better if there were less Chinese and solved the problem the old fashion way. Recently, more and more women are joining the ranks of great leaders. But most of don’t think that way, and don’t have to.

It’s a little more benign to look at a population that is struggling, perhaps starving and instead of asking if we should kill them, ask how much help should we give them? Parents have to make that kind of decision with their own children all the time. How long do you allow them to live in your basement? Maybe a better analogy is our neighbors or friends. Do we keep letting them borrow our tools and giving them cups of sugar, or do we start dropping hints about their lifestyle choices?

If you just arrived here by spaceship and looked at the situation, you might see a hopeless situation in sub-Saharan Africa and wonder why any effort is being put into it. I could say those are not very compassionate creatures in the spaceship, but that would be only focusing on the compassion for the starving children in Africa. Maybe those aliens are feeling compassion for the countries who can grow plenty of food, but still need to consider how to take care of their own.

Now we’re into a classic moral dilemma of the choice of killing one person or five. Most people want to find a way out of having to make that decision.

The answer is easier than you might think. We didn’t just arrive here on a spaceship. We have well documented history of how we ended up with 2 billion people living on a few dollars a day.

One graphic example is Haiti. In the Western Hemisphere full of prosperous nations and fertile land, they are impoverished and hungry. Even on their little island, things get better just by crossing the border into the Dominican Republic. Both sides of that island get the hurricanes and earthquakes, how can they be so different? The reasons go all the way back to where Columbus happened to land and how Spain divided it up, how they cut the trees in Haiti and shipped them off to Europe while the Dominican Republic decided to create a slower growing but more sustainable economy, but a big part of Haiti’s problems happened in my lifetime.
Haiti border with Dominican Republic

Their problems are the result of a decision made early on when America first started sending food aid to other countries. The decision was to not make aid a burden on our farmers. If we were to help other countries with food, that should be something all of us participate in. To do that, our government buys surplus commodities in years when yields are high. Instead of letting the price drop so farmers lose money and even go bankrupt, we all buy that surplus with our tax dollars. Some of it is stored and some is sent to where there is drought or war or natural disasters or wherever there is need.

Haiti has been a recipient of aid like this. Then in the 1990’s, with bipartisan support, tariffs on U.S. rice imported to Haiti were dropped from 50% to 3%. Rice produced in Haiti that was selling for over $5, now competes with subsidized U.S. rice for around $3. Sounds great for us, but what happened there? Haiti doesn’t have the infrastructure we have. They don’t have grain elevators. They don’t have loans for farmers. That doesn’t mean they don’t have farmers. It means those farmers bank on their crops coming in every year and getting a decent price. Economics 101, what happens when you dump a huge surplus of a commodity into a delicate economic system like that?

By providing aid to Haiti in the way we did, we made the work of all of those farmers worthless. It only took one season for many, over half of them had no choice but to sell everything, move to the city, try to find work, and take the handouts we gave them. We destroyed what fragile agri-business they had.
I said the answer was easy, and maybe I over simplify it, but in a sentence, what we should be doing is sending our technology, our ideas about building infrastructure, not just food. Sure, sometimes the food isn’t there, no matter what you do right, and we make the choice of letting our surplus rot or feeding someone who is dying. I don’t find that a hard choice. The hard choices are how much to give away, how to assist without creating dependency, and how to decide when a nation is ready to be on its own.

If you only take that spaceship view and ask why should we help them when they are doing nothing for us, again, look at history. Look at how we stripped resources from Haiti and Africa not to mention exploiting their labor. Europeans did not build the U.S. from a wilderness. It was being farmed and managed long before we got here.

We’re getting better at all of this. The Heifer project doesn’t give away food, it makes a loan of living animals or farming supplies with the expectation that will be paid back. And it usually is. Building infrastructure doesn’t need to be done for free. It may seem strange to profit from an impoverished population, but you’re wearing clothes and using technology that does just that. It can be done in a way that grows their economy and leads to sustainability instead of destroying whole environments. Acumen and Oxfam have been doing this for a long time.

The original question then looms up again, but in different a way. If we grow the economy in these starved areas, won’t they just have more babies? Historically, the answer to that is no. When people see a society that will care for them in old age, they don’t have a bunch of children in the hopes a few of them will live and be able to support them later. That’s the kind of decisions humans made for hundreds and thousands of years. It’s why you are here, but we have better ways of surviving now. When there is a middle class, when people can see a bright future for their children, they have less of them. The phenomenon of well off people having large families is very recent, and I hope it is isolated.
This has happened consistently for hundred of years, since we have been transitioning from an agrarian society to an industrialized one and hopefully now into a sustainable one. This is not a dream. It is not a fantasy. It’s already being done in small ways. We don’t have to choose between our own survival and the survival of millions of starving babies. Our actual choice is between ignoring our neighbors or getting to know them and how what we do affects them.

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