The Problem of Natural Evil, Charity, and Free Trade

I’ve recently been arguing for the comprehensible beauty of theological fatalism. The standard response to the problem of evil is that evil is the result of human willing: thus the Holocaust or American racism cannot be laid at the feet of an omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly benevolent God. But I think this seriously ignores the problem of natural evil.

In a world that is literally full of unexplained and uncontrolled phenomena, there’s something sensible in taking the attitude that God’s will requires submission and respect in the face of suffering. If the best guess you’ve got about the fundamental truths of the universe is that nature (and Nature’s God) is capricious and inexplicable, then your attitude to that caprice is going to matter a lot. Can you love your fate without understanding it? Can you avoid telling just-so stories of desert and blaming the sufferer for her suffering? Non-karmic theological fatalism has the major theme that the world is love-able despite the fact that it is full of mysterious natural atrocities.

The predominance of human-caused evils like genocide and slavery have only rivaled natural evils for a few centuries; the long human time span is overwhelmed with misfortunes that could not be understood or even effectively planned against, only endured. Today, it makes sense to try to give a different account, one that enables intervention and prevention. But that modern perspective is rooted in our relatively limited success in rendering explicable and changeable the tremendous amount of suffering that surrounds us.

And there’s still quite a lot of it. I usually only discuss global poverty in the context of utilitarian arguments for rich-world charity obligations. But in fact there’s good reason to think that these rich-world obligations extend infinitely further to an imnipotent and omniscient God. If I can and should save a child in Pakistan or Nepal by forgoing a cell phone upgrade, think how much greater the obligation would be for an omnipotent God.

In 1990, the global under-five mortality rate was 12.7 million annually. Today it is 6.3 million. Because it’s hard to think in terms of such large numbers, I often describe that change this way: every day in 1990, 34,000 children under five died, mostly from easily-treated poverty-related diseases; today it’s more like 17,000. Nearly half of these deaths are directly attributable to undernutrition; other causes include malaria, diarrhea (from unsanitary water,) and asthma (from dung-based indoor cooking fires.) This is pretty obviously evil.

It is probably the case that the contemporary rich could alleviate much of this through charitable action (although this is significantly less effective than we’d like.) In any case, these child deaths could be attributable to human willing, specifically the inaction of rich countries. Yet, even to the extent that that is true today, humanity has not been rich enough to afford to address poverty-related disease for the vast majority of human history.

While it’s hard to measure historical child mortality, estimates suggest something like 300 to 500 child deaths per 1000 live births in pre-industrial societies. That means the 1/3 to 1/2 of all children born would die before their fifth birthday; this even extends to newly industrializing societies: that’s the rate that was observed in Europe through the 19th Century. For every person born under modern conditions, it’s likely that about 15 were born and died in pre-modern times. So roughly 100 billion people have been born and died before the currently living 7 billion. Probably 30 to 50 billion of them died before their fifth birthday. (It’s somewhat surprising that anyone could believe that their God would deplore abortion, given God’s role in this mass infanticide.)

What’s more, it turns out that even if our newfound global wealth enables charitable alleviation of natural evil, these efforts are themselves quite difficult and expensive, and often have very bad unintended side-effects. Often it seems we are forced to respond to this tremendous evil with very imperfect efforts: gifts tend to be less effective than economic development, and competitive global trade has done more than anything else to reduce under-five mortality.

Here’s a sentence I think most of my readers will reject, but I’m never impressed by their reasons: we’ve never found a compassionate system that is as effective as competitive markets for alleviating the specific evil of child mortality, even if it comes with a host of other evils.

In 1969, China alone had 2.3 million deaths for children under-five. In 2012, only 0.2 million children under-five died. That’s directly attributable to US trade with China. Yet we are frequently reminded of how much disruption and inequality that has caused without celebrating the benefits. These policies are described as “off-shoring” or “exporting American jobs.” It’s almost certainly driven massive domestic inequalities that are currently disrupting our democracies. Yet the role of trade in reducing child mortality strikes me as often ignored in these debates.

This is supposed to be something upon which Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump agree: that we should massively reduce trade with countries like China, not to mention Pakistan, India, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Yet those five countries are the ones with the highest child mortality. India and Nigeria alone account for half of the 17,000 under-five deaths each year. Even newly-rich trade-enemy China is still the fifth largest source of child mortality, with twice the under-five mortality rate of most industrialized societies.

Thus, the problem of natural evil strikes me as good evidence that the omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent God does not exist; such a God would never force us to choose between the evils of capitalism and the evils of watching our children die. Yet if we truly live in such a tragic world, I doubt we should countenance trade protectionism until we can identify an alternate way to address child mortality.

Bullshit and Journalism

This weekend’s revelation that Mike Daisey’s story about Apple and Foxconn was partly fabricated has led some bloggers and journalists to return to the question of how we should interpret the relationship between something called “facts” and something Daisey is calling “higher truth.” This distinction seems spurious to me, though we often hear it described in reference to art and fiction.

I can certainly see how fiction helps to illuminate fact. At least when they are marked out as created-rather-than-discovered, works of fiction can create vivid and meaningful depictions of the world which would otherwise recede into the massiveness of numbers and complexity. As much as I love fiction, however, I’ve never been quite clear why this fictionalized vividness is preferable to the real experiences of real folks, which are also vivid (literally lived), concrete (literally occurrent), and meaningful (literally full of significance for those who underwent them).

At its best, the fictionalization of an event makes it more palatable by fitting it into a pre-arranged narrative structure: a science-fiction fan prefers the rhythms and conventions of a certain kind of story, so she might be better able to understand the horrors of colonialism through the lens of a film like Avatar than she could through an ethnographic account of the post-colonial misery of the Peyizan Yo of Haiti. The great white savior-gone-native in that film stands as an important fictionalized falsehood that must then be overcome, but we must start from somewhere and fiction is frequently an easier beginning.

But would anyone really want to say that the fiction is truer or preferable to the ethnography? I haven’t encountered that argument, at least, outside of hyperbolic Rortyanism. Instead, we occasionally get arguments like Martha Nussbaum’s “‘Finely Aware and Richly Responsible’: Literature and the Moral Imagination.” Because of her specific views on the role of the concrete and particular in informing and grounding our general ethical views, Nussbaum argues that:

“we will need to turn to texts no less elaborate, no less linguistically fine-tuned, concrete, and intensely focused, no less metaphorically resourceful, than this novel [Henry James’ The Golden Bowl.]”

But even for Nussbaum, who differs a bit from the dogmatic particularists like Jonathan Dancy, it is possible to “take fine-tuned perception to a dangerous rootless extreme” such that we “delight in the complexity of particulars for its own sake, without sufficiently feeling the pull of a moral obligation to any.” Such imagining “too freely strays, embroiders, embellishes.”

For Nussbaum, then, we turn to fictional texts as a pedagogical exercise to cultivate the kind of moral imagination that attends to and improvises with the concrete: “an ability to miss less, while being responsible to more.” But this pedagogical exercise actually constrains the fictional text:

“We must at the same time remember that artists, as James sees it, are not free simply to create anything they like.”

The fictional text must at least aspire to the complexity of the human phenomena it intends to map. Yet one thing that jumps out of Daisey’s show is how heavy-handed and simplistic it is:

“You will carry it to your homes, and when you sit down in front of your laptops, when you open them up, you will see the blood welling up between the keys.”

This is not the cultivation of a bewildering modern tragedy, where harsh working conditions and negligent dangers are the perhaps-too-high price developing countries pay for their development. It is bullshit, a technical term best analyzed by Harry Frankfurt:

 ‎”One who is concerned to report or to conceal the facts assumes that there are indeed facts that are in some way both determinateand knowable. His interest in telling the truth or in lying presupposes that there is a difference between getting things wrong and getting them right, and that it is at least occasionally possible to tell the difference. Someone who ceases to believe in the possibility of identifying certain statements as true and others as false can have only two alternatives. The first is to desist both from efforts to tell the truth and from efforts to deceive. This would mean refraining from making any assertion whatever about the facts. The second alternative is to continue making assertions that purport to describe the way things are but that cannot be anything except bullshit.”

Deliberate fabrication in order to tell a “better story” doesn’t ever really reveal a greater truth, because it undermines the truth-seeking sensibility. From the perspective of truth seeking, bullshitters who don’t care much about truth seem particularly pernicious: the cost of false vividness is the loss of the trust and credulity that make story-telling meaningful. Of course, some readers may not care much about the truth, either. From some other perspective than truth-seeking, like an aesthetic of care, bullshitting is not necessarily a big deal…. except: what happens when that unconcern with truth leads to a threat to the values of that particular perspective?

One group who care about the truth of these reports are the Chinese who read a report on the iEconomy by the New York Times that included many of the same allegations, better fact-checked than Daisey’s theater piece. Here’s some of what they had to say:

There are two stories about Apple: one is about its brilliant business performance, and the other is about the blood and sweat behind Apple miracles. I strongly recommend that all Apple fans read this. Corporations should bear social responsibilities, and customers should also understand and be responsible to the society. — 花甲小猪

Apple is definitely a vampire factory. But if you boycott Apple, what would those workers eat without demand (for Apple products)? By then they would even lose their job! And now the U.S. is planning to move a chunk of manufacturing back to its soil, as manufacturing costs in China are soaring. What would these surplus workers be facing? The profit margin for the entire Chinese manufacturing sector is thin, nobody enjoys high salary and good benefits; yet their work intensity is strong and working conditions are poor. This is common, not only for the manufacturers of Apple! Think first how to change the miserable status quo of a giant manufacturing country! —Quasi-Economist

There are many others, collected by the New York Times. Their responses were not all finely aware or richly responsible, and possibly some of them were working for China’s infamous “Fifty Cent Party,” (a state corps of internet propagandists) but certainly less was lost on them than seems to have been lost on us.

Finally, it seems worth noting that the facts, such as we have them, mostly come from Apple’s own Supplier Responsibility Reports. Watch that space. Daisey’s story and the resultant outrage may well have forced Apple to join the Fair Labor Association and reveal the identities of its suppliers.

Just because his story wasn’t true doesn’t mean it didn’t make a difference: this is largely the reason that police officers lie, right?

Cap and Dividend

C&DimageScu pointed me to this discussion of a Cap and Trade dividend.

One issue, which would also apply to a carbon tax + dividend: this would hit exports but miss imports. Contrast that with a plain-old VAT, which hits imports but is refunded on export. This would make our goods less competitive, while encouraging us to import goods that are carbon intensive, externalizing our environmental effects. Of course, we’ve already been doing this: that’s why China is a larger carbon-emitter than the US: they emit our carbon for us. But this would exacerbate that effect.

Continue reading Cap and Dividend

Walmart Coming to DC

walmart-movie-posters.jpgWalmart is planning to open several new “urban” stores in the District, and I’m pretty excited about it. (viaOne of them will be just two blocks away from me, and I plan to shop there. Right now, I do most of my shopping at the rundown, overpriced Safeway or at the Costco off the 495 Beltway: Walmart will give me and my neighbors more options.

DC has a major “food desert” problem, and Walmart will close these gaps. Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to have scored a Trader Joe’s or a Wegman’s, but this part of the city is predominantly middle-class public employees and retirees, so I don’t think we quite fit the yuppie/hipster grocery demographic.

Of course, I’ve long been a [cautious, caveated] Walmart booster, just check out “Walmart: A sufficiently advanced capitalism is indistinguishable from socialism.” I’d change a few things I wrote back then, but the point basically stands. Most people who shop at Target and Whole Foods are participating in the same supply-chain and wage decisions that plague Walmart, but they justify it to themselves because of the status bump that Target borrows from designers. Whereas there’s ample evidence that cheaper food is beneficial to the urban poor.

My [cautious, caveated] celebration of Walmart is all about Kaldor-Hicks optimality: let’s say you can lower the cost of an item by $20/year for 100,000 people but 90 people will lose their jobs paying $20,000/year. The job losers lose* $1,800,000/year, while the purchasers gain $2,000,000. This is what we call a good move: in aggregate, we’ve gained $200,000. Of course, the gains are small per family, and the losses are large for the few who suffer them, but as a society, we’re better off, and we can take our gains and spend them on job retraining and unemployment insurance and there’s still some left over.

The idea is that the economy is better in aggregate and we worry about distributional problems at the state level through taxation, transfer payments, and welfare institutions. It hasn’t always worked out that way, but that’s the theory and it can be very effective if executed correctly. Our experience over the last three decades shows that it works out more often than not: while income inequality is at an all-time high, the standard of living for the poorest is significantly higher. We’ve decreased the rates of domestic childhood undernutrition, to the point that we’re worried about childhood obesity! At the margins, all those different decisions that add $20/year to a family’s budget make the difference between poor people breaking even or failing to put food on the table, and now we can start working on the malnutrition attributable to food deserts.

*(It also helps that those jobs don’t just disappear, they move to China, where they help people who had been living on less than the local equivalent of a dollar a day move up to the middle class, making the local equivalent of five or ten dollars a day and avoiding poverty-related mortality from easily preventable diseases like diarrhea, asthma, or malaria. Many of Walmart’s detractors seem to genuinely favor protectionism, but to my mind that’s a grossly irresponsible, jingoistic, and just plain selfish position to take.)


I understand why folks do retrospective blog posts and best-of lists in early December, and I certainly benefit from it as I’m thinking about Christmas gifts, but it seems to violate the spirit of the list or retrospective itself to start before the year or decade is done.  If this is the *only* lesson that we learn from Mutallab’s attempted attack on Northwest Airlines Flight 253, I’ll be happy: just because you’re going on vacation for the last few weeks of the year doesn’t mean the year is over. Having safely escaped 2009 and the whole ‘Naughty Aughts’ decade, here are my reflections, predictions, and lists:

Trend for the past decade: The Blog

Domestically, this was the decade of the blog. Like many Americans, I started the decade accessing the internet through AOL via a phone line and a modem: today I don’t even have a landline and my cell phone gets e-mail. Whether it was terrorism,  the Fuehrer principle, sorry, theory of the unitary executive in the White House, the dual wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s first black president, or the almost zero economic growth we experienced this decade, the place where most of us went for more information was the internet, and specifically to that mix of news and opinion that was pioneered on cable news networks but found its home here in the blogosphere.

Of course, that’s a pretty narrow-minded view of what’s been going on: the blog has primarily been revolutionary for, well, bloggers, and the journalists who’ve been losing their jobs to folks who’re willing to do the work for free. The biggest trends are largely not domestic American trends at all:

Internationally, I think the big economic story was China, which succeeded in achieving tremendous economic gains for the least advantaged through trade liberalization. Since the end of the Cultural Revolution, China has lifted HALF A BILLION people out of absolute poverty. In this decade, it managed to befriend its biggest competitor through the simple expedient of loaning us 3/4 of a trillion dollars. As a consequence, it’s true, relative inequality has exploded. For my part, I spent the decade deciding that trading absolute poverty for relative poverty was actually a good deal.

On the international political scene, I think Iran steals the cake, though this presumes, falsely,  that our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are not international political stories closely tied to the troubles of the nation stuck between them. The Green Revolution in Iran will overturn the government there, whether it happens this year or in five years. Watching the Twitter feeds of Iranian dissidents made me feel like Immanuel Kant listening to reports of the French Revolution: “a wishful participation that borders closely on enthusiasm.” Details aside, it’s an unbeatable lesson in what Arendt called “the elementary grammar of political action.”

Trend for the coming decade: Lowered Expectations

I predict that Americans will lower their expectations in the Teens. Basically, a bastardized version of the ‘Small is Beautiful‘ movement will finally gain mainstream status. The new normal will be a lower trend line for growth, higher taxes, higher savings, and risk aversion. I expect some counter-cyclical grandiosity, but I think in general we’ll learn to live with less, and even the rich will come to disdain conspicuous consumption or else meet with the derision of their fellows. Simplicity will be in style.  The fads that remain will continue to surround expensive and compact electronics like the iPhone or Kindle.

I think these lowered expectations will have cultural implications as well: just as we had a bit of a letdown when the world didn’t end as the millennium came to a close, we’re going to be busy realizing that a black president won’t save us from ourselves or eliminate racism, and that there’s no easy solution to the messes we’ve made. Hopefully we’ll buckle down and work at paying back our parents’ debts. More Americans will ‘settle’ for second-tier cities rather than flocking to New York or Los Angeles or Chicago. I predict we’ll have more kids (which is consumption of a different sort) and that there will be another demographic bulge to rival the Baby Boomers from the children born over the next decade.

What’s the 21st Century going to be like? Slower and Hotter

As the Financial Times has recently pointed out, we rarely realize the themes of a century during its first decade: whether it’s World War I starting in 1914, or Napoleon’s downfall in 1814, the events that end up defining a century’s character for historians tend to occur in the century’s ‘adolescence.’ So I don’t think this will be a terror century just because the US finally realized how devastating domestic attacks on civilians by foreign nationals can be in 2001. Terrorism is a thoroughly 20th century problem, but like knives and forks, some things don’t go away when their time is past.

If anything, I think this century is most likely to be defined by two factors: the environment and peak oil. The fact that we still don’t have a functioning international carbon regulation regime suggests that there’s plenty of time to make that the crowning achievement of the next decade, and fighting the fraud that’s likely to emerge from a carbon cap trading system is going to take us a bunch more decades still. Then we’ll have to deal with the hangover from the last fifty years of carbon emissions.

Peak oil itself would just spell the loss of the standards of growth and development that characterized the post-war Anglo-American experience, and the post-Cultural Revolution experience in China. Combined with the growth of communications technologies, however, I think we might see a set of competing trends around geographic decentralization and information centralization, a la Google. Why send people to interact by expensive & polluting aeroplane when you can video teleconference or communicate via wiki? On the other hand, the physical goods that still satisfy our biggest needs will be in increasingly short supply: we’ll compete with our cars and trucks for calories, we’ll find that we’ll make do with less space in order to live close to city centers, and we’ll make do with less medicine and health care.

At the same time, I don’t think peak oil will significantly effect international trade: the really inefficient transportation is the one-person gas guzzling car. A container ship is still the best way to get goods from low labor cost countries to high labor cost countries, so I don’t expect a re-industrialization of the first world or a major sectoral shift towards manual labor. The benefits of education (and greater and greater specialization) will only increase, with the attendant inequalities and impoverishment of those who aren’t the recipients of educational largesses by the state or rich families. So China, Brazil, Russia, and India will continue to decouple their economies from the growth of the first world, even as they continue to supply many of our needs.

I’m well aware of the poor track record of futurists, so if this turns out to be the century that we perfect immortality and the Alpha Centauris finally show up to say, “Hi,” I’ll be embarrassed, but those sorts of mistakes are par for the course.

Best Political Philosophy:

The folks at Crooked Timber gave me much to chew on a few weeks ago, but here’s my (unordered) list:

  • Thomas Pogge World Poverty and Human Rights
  • Martha Nussbaum Frontiers of Justice
  • Amartya Sen The Idea of Justice
  • Iris Marion Young Inclusion and Democracy
  • Sheldon Wolin Democracy Incorporated
  • Claude Lefort Complications
  • Stephen Breyer Active Liberty
  • Phillip Petit A Theory of Freedom
  • Diana Mutz Hearing the Other Side
  • David Estlund Democratic Authority
  • Charles Taylor A Secular Age

Best Films and Television

A person could do worse than just read through the Slate Interactive List or the Metacritic list and add things to their Netflix queue, but here’s my personal short list for true greatness:

  • Pan’s Labyrinth
  • Up (really, everything by Pixar, but especially Up)
  • 25th Hour
  • The Road (absolutely destroys the post-apocalyptic genre: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose“)

Jon Stewart ruled late night, but this was a decade of serial narratives on television. This is a highly contested space, and most peoples preferences are closely tied to their class and background, so I’ll just say that, for my part, I think the best of these were:

  • The Wire
  • Dexter
  • The West Wing
  • Six Feet Under
  • Lost

Some other best-of lists: io9’s 20 Best Science Fiction Novels, The Onion AV Club’s Best Books of the 00’s. I’d say that Freakonomics was the most influential book of the decade, that Zadie Smith was the best new novelist, and that Harry Potter was the best fantasy/science fiction.