Sunday, October 25, 2009

The Overpopulation Myth, Part 1

Myth: We can't produce enough food to feed the people in the world today, much less in years to come.

Fact: The world today produces enough food to provide every person alive with an adequate daily diet, and there is more land still available for agriculture than is being used now.

In my sermon this morning, I said,
Beginning in earnest in 1968, we have been almost incessantly propagandized that the earth is overpopulated and that responsible adults will not have more than one child each, or better yet, one child per couple. 1968 was the year that Paul Ehrlich, an American specialist in butterflies (really) published a doom and gloom book called The Population Bomb. In it, Ehrlich predicted a catastrophic meltdown of the earth’s ability to support more than the three billion, five hundred fifty-six million people living at the time.
Ehrlich wrote,
The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s and 1980s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate...
Ehrlich’s book was influential far beyond the credentials of its author or the phony science he used. The present world view that overpopulation is a ticking time bomb threatening to end in mass death derives directly from Ehrlich’s apocalyptic fairy tale.

The planet’s population is now six billion and climbing. Across the world, people are better nourished than ever before in all history. Hunger in the world today is caused by politics, not lack of food production. lists the following causes of hunger in the world. I have asterisked (**) those that are purely or predominantly political:
  • ** Land rights and ownership

  • ** Diversion of land use to non-productive use

  • ** Increasing emphasis on export-oriented agriculture

  • ** Inefficient agricultural practices [there are also cultural, economic and educational issues with this one]

  • ** War

  • ** Famine

  • Drought

  • ** Over-fishing

  • Poor crop yield

  • ** Lack of democracy and rights

The majority of these causes are purely or predominantly political. Note that famine is actually not a root cause of chronic hunger, it is a description of local, enduring shortages of food. But famine's relief is not an arcane art. Shipments of food stocks from other countries to the famine area take care of the problem. But whether that humanitarian deed is done is a political decision.

Famine can also result from intentional political decision. The people of North Korea are the most enduringly malnourished people on earth. The reason is simple: North Korean communism cannot organize resources and labor to produce and distribute enough food to feed the people on the one hand, and on the other the ruling classes divert the country's resources to their own use, to arming the country and to cement their iron grip on the masses. If the people finally resort to cannibalism, well then, so be it.

The International Food Policy Institute says that even so about 20 percent of the world's population,

... are chronically undernourished ... [S]ince the mid-1970s the world has produced enough food to provide everyone with a minimally adequate diet. Hunger is one piece of a complex of interrelated social ills. It is linked intricately to global economic, political, and social power structures; modes of development and consumption; population dynamics; and social biases based on race, ethnicity, gender, and age. The world community has both the knowledge and the resources to eliminate hunger [emphasis added].
According to a report published this year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), there are 1.4 billion hectares of land under farm production in the world today. "Some 1.6 billion hectares could be added" and most of that in Africa and South America (OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2009-2018, PDF). I have read some estimates that the amount of arable land in Africa alone could feed produce enough food to feed the whole world, although as a matter of practicality, that will obviously never be the case.

The point is that the amount of arable land used today can be more than doubled. Lack of food production is not the cause of hunger today and there is no reason it should be the cause in the many years to come.

Next: the real "population bomb" is not having enough children to secure our future.

Update: I thought about explaining in my sermon the new twist on Ehrlichean apocalypticism but simply didn't have time. The new twist goes like this from "the world is about to end" bunch:

1. Okay, we admit that we can produce enough food for all six billion of us, plus many billions more.

2. That doesn't matter because human beings are poisonous to the earth. They produce carbon dioxide!
The worst thing that you or I can do for the planet is to have children. If they behave as the average person in the rich world does now, they will emit some 11 tonnes of CO² every year of their lives. In their turn, they are likely to have more carbon-emitting children who will make an even bigger mess. If Britain is to meet the government's target of an 80% reduction in our emissions by 2050, we need to start reversing our rising rate of population growth immediately.
That from the UK's Guardian newspaper. The piece ends,
Some scientists, the German chancellor's adviser, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber among them, say that if the cuts are not achieved, we will end up with a planet with a "carrying capacity" of just 1bn humans. If so, we need to start cutting back population now with methods that offer a humane choice – before it happens the hard way.
To which University of Wisconsin law Professor Ann Althouse responds, "Oh, great. Thanks for the warning about cutting back "population" the hard way, Germany."

This is not exactly a new idea in Europe. More than two years ago the K's TimesOnline ran a guest op-ed entitled, "The cry should go up in Europe: more babies, please." It includes this cheery thought:
And there is the hint – but just a hint – from the Optimum Population people that if voluntary restraints do not work, governments will bring in coercive measures. The example that springs to mind here is, of course, China and its compulsory one-child policy. I’ve come across some distinguished academics myself who wouldn’t dream of trying to impose coerced abortion here but have made it quite clear, in private conversation, that we should all be grateful on environmental grounds that it happens in China.
Last year, Dr. Freeman Dyson, one of the most respected physicists in the world, had a long essay in the New York Times Book Review in which he explained why environmentalism is now an actual religion in its own right. Mind you, in his mind this is a good thing. I'll post more about that later on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

"Why Jews Pray"

First Things has an essay by Rabbi Ben Greenberg, Orthodox Jewish Chaplain of Harvard University as well as the Orthodox Rabbi of Harvard Hillel, called, "Why Jews Pray."
Every moment that we stop and begin to move our lips in prayerful words towards God is a testament to the notion of purposeful creation. The basic ability to pray, to yearn for a connection to God, demonstrates the meaningfulness of life. Yet, this only explains a broad universalistic Jewish motivation for prayer. What lies at the core of Jewish prayer?

The question is answered, like most Jewish questions, with a debate. Maimonides (Laws of Prayer 1:1) argues that it is a commandment to pray to God everyday based on the verse “And you shall serve the Lord your God.” The service being referred to in this verse is none other than prayer as the sages in the Talmud (Tractate Taanit 2a) had already noted. However, for Nahmanides (Notes on the Book of Commandments, Positive Commandment 5), the commandment to pray applies only when the community is faced with great distress and then, in that moment, it is an imperative to affirm our belief in a God that listens to prayers and intervenes.

We are thus presented with two differing reasons for Jewish prayer. On the one hand, as expressed by Maimonides, praying daily is of fundamental importance. One can speculate a myriad of reasons why this would be so. On the other hand, however, prayer is only necessary when the community is faced with a tremendous difficulty and needs to turn to God and cry out for help in that very moment. ...

Maimonides, then, is in agreement with Nahmanides that meaningful prayer arises only when one is in a state of difficulty. But the difference lies in the application of difficulty to the circumstances of life. Nahmanides considers trouble to be something that can only manifests itself as a distinct and recognizable event, Maimonides, however, sees life itself as full of difficulty and burden. The very nature of what it means to be alive is one that is rife with existential strife and tension that necessitates daily prayer.
Not a long essay and well worth your time.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Some thoughts on health care

The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church declare, "Health care is a basic human right." The Principles offer the weakest of justification for the claim, citing only Psalm 146, which "speaks of the God 'who executes justice for the oppressed;/ who gives food to the hungry./ The LORD sets the prisoners free;/ the LORD opens the eyes of the blind.'" I have looked in vain online for a philosophical argument, as opposed to mere assertion, that health care is a human right. haven't found any yet, but I keep looking. However, here are some representative sample of the "pro" side that I have found so far.

As far as I can tell, when someone says that health care is a human right, what s/he really means is, "I want all the health care I want to be given to me free."

Amnesty International merely cites the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which lists health and health care (both) as human rights, and pretty much lets it go at that. But Amnesty offers no explanation of why health care is a right rather than, say, an achievement. It simply is a right, and that's that. Same for The Opportunity Agenda.

People's Weekly World is, as the name indicates, overtly Marxist, but let's see whether it can offer an actual argument in favor of the position. Umm, nope. It simply cites FDR's proposal of a Second Bill of Rights, which includes, "The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health," and let's it go at that.

Roosevelt did make an argument, albeit a very brief one, postulating that the original Bill of Rights, being oriented on political freedom, was no longer adequate for an industrial America. And yet his argument was only pragmatic, claiming that, "People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made." Which is pretty interesting, seeing as how FDR once fancied himself a strongman ruler if not actual dictator (he actually drew up legislation for Congress to authorize him to rule by edict, but he never sent it to the Hill).

I think that history, however, would show that "people who are hungry and out of a job" bring down dictatorships as often as they enable them. Say, France, 1789 and the downfall of the French monarchy. It wasn't hunger that caused dictatorial rule to return later to France, but chaos. And again: Russia, 1917, the overthrow of the Czar and the establishment not of dictatorship but of proto-democracy, well, until the Bolsheviks got the upper hand. Germany: Hitler was not elected chancellor- twice! - by hungry, jobless Germans, though his elections in 1933 and 1936 did take place in the depression. It was improving prosperity in Germany, combined with runaway nationalism and anti-Judaism, that enabled the Nazis to consolidate their power. Nor did jobless, starving Japanese demand the bushido government that took them into World War 2, although starving Japanese in 1945 would almost certainly have overthrown that government in 1945 had it not surrendered to the Allies first.

However, FDR didn't stop at health care in his Second Bill of Rights. He listed all sorts of ingredients for his rainbow pie. For example, the right of every farmer "to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living." Growing plants is now a human right? How can there be a "right to sell" without a corresponding obligation for someone else to buy? And just how shall "decent living" be defined? All of FDR's Bill is chock-full of inexactitudes like these, such as, "The right of every family to a decent home." Just what does that mean?

Well, continuing to march: we turn to Ryan Dashek, writing in The Daily Cardinal, that, "Health care is a human right, not a costly luxury." Again, no explanation of why this is so, just assertion and a litany of presumed benefits that would come from nationalized, single-payer health care. Nor, for that matter, is there the slightest recognition that health care is going to be costly whether we classify it as a luxury or not. (The failure to distinguish between cost and price is very common among universalism advocates.)

Well, the National Economic & Social Rights Initiative lets the cat out of the bag.

When visiting a doctor, clinic or hospital, patients should not have to pay. Health care funds should be collected independent of the actual use of care, to avoid creating a barrier to care. Services must be provided based on clinical need, not payment, regardless of the financing mechanism used.
This is so economically uninformed that I hardly know where to begin its rebuttal. It treats medical care as a resource rather than a service. It absolutely makes the bean counters and accountants in charge, not doctors or patients because medical care is going to allocated somehow ("rationed," as we say) and the main important question is how it shall be done.

Contrary to what the NESRI thinks, access to medical care will never be unlimited. I have personal experience with government-run health care. It was a CHAMPUS-run clinic that opened in Fayetteville, NC, while I was stationed at Ft Bragg. (CHAMPUS was the military health-insurance program used when treatment at actual military facilities was not available. It's called Tricare today.) The object was to encourage family members of military members to use this clinic rather than go to the base hospital. The Army contracted with a civilian company to staff and run the clinic.

Being a contract, there was a dollar amount to pay for a specified number of patient treatments. The clinic was overutilized (or underfunded, take your pick). So the company, as allowed by the contract, reduced the number of days the clinic was open and the number of hours per day it was open. Otherwise, it would have continued on until say, the end of July, and then been shuttered until October.

Like Mr. Dashek, NESRI does not understand that price and cost are not the same. Making health care free for patients does nothing to reduce its cost. All it does is shift the small-minority costs to the provider that are presently borne by most, but not all of the patients. But the costs will neither disappear nor be reduced. It will still cost the doctors and hospitals the same to provide the care as before.

What "free" (in scare quotes because, you know, TANSTAAFL), health care will do is increase demand without increasing supply. That always leads to shortage whether we're talking about medical care, gasoline, hotel rooms or any other good or service. Without price movements to bring demand and supply back into alignment, reductions will follow in access to or quality of care or both.

Here's an illustration: I visit many hospitals and occasionally those visits are to emergency rooms. There is a sign in waiting and admission areas I have seen many area emergency rooms. It says something like this: If your illness or injury is not a true emergency, you will be directed to a routine-care facility.

Why that sign? Because federal law requires that emergency rooms cannot charge patients for treatment if the patient says he cannot pay or is uninsured. I don't object to the law, but emergency rooms have become choked with uninsured supplicants for free treatment who are not suffering a medical emergency. I have seen this many times in person over the years. But emergency rooms are called that for a reason, and if you fill your treatment bays with patients who, though ill or injured to some degree, are not facing an actual medical emergency, you are in fact decreasing access (rationing) care for true-emergency patients.

That's what happens when you make medical care free. It will always become over-demanded and under-resourced. Costs will rise and will not be recuperated by monetary price. Hence, price will be paid in other coin, and that coin will always include availability and quality.

Any economist understands this. Pity that so few others do.

Endnote: Philip Barlow, Consultant neurosurgeon at Southern General Hospital, Glasgow, explains why, "Health care is not a human right."

Philip Niles says that the real question is not whether health care is a human right, but "How much health care is a human right?" Good question, since health care is finite.

Friday, October 2, 2009

We are under authority

Every year the Tenn. Conference Board of Ministry (BOM) interviews, in person, candidates for probationary service as pastors, called commissioned ministers, and serving commissioned minister who are ready for ordination either as deacon or elder.

The BOM also sends a member to the seminaries where most Tennessee Conference candidates matriculate to talk to the Methodist students about going before the BOM. Candidates are interviewed by the entire BOM twice, first for commissioned status and later for ordination. These interviews take two days.

When I was still working toward my M.Div. At Vanderbilt, the BOM's representative visited and spoke to us for some time. One of the things he talked about has stuck with me all the years since. I can't quote him exactly after so long, but this is very close to what he told us:
One of the things you need to understand about going before the BOM is that there are some things we are flexible on and some things we are not. We are not necessarily of one mind on things such as the theology of worship, for example, but there are other things for which we will be entirely inflexible.

One of those things is baptism of infants. I need to let you know as clearly as I can that if you do not unambiguously affirm to the BOM that you will baptize infants, you will not be commissioned or ordained. Believe me when I say that the BOM makes no exceptions for any reason.

Despite the fact that we always emphasize this fact when we send BOM members to talk to seminary students, every year there are always about two candidates who appear before the BOM and say that they cannot bring themselves to baptize infants. And they always seems to think that they have a compelling or new argument in their favor that will convince us to approve them. Or they think that their candidacy record is so strong in other areas that the BOM will excuse them for not affirming they will baptize infants.

They are always wrong. I need to be very clear: there is no argument you can possibly present that will justify your unwillingness to baptize infants in the United Methodist Church. And the strength of the rest of your candidacy will not be relevant to this issue.

Ministers of The United Methodist Church baptize infants, period. If you cannot do that, save yourself a lot of time and trouble and withdraw from candidacy now.
You can see that this was an unusually blunt advisory, but as he indicated, it needed to be. And yet when I went before the BOM, one of the seminary students who was sitting at my table on that day told the BOM he would not baptize infants. And the BOM voted "no" on his continuation.

It behooves us now and then to remember that, as the centurion told Jesus, we are under authority in the church. Even if we were an independent congregation, not affiliated with any denomination, we still could not simply make up our own rules and call ourselves a church. The New Testament can't be ignored nor can the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

As United Methodists, we are bound by the UM's Book of Discipline, which sets forth the doctrinal standards of the Church and many matters of local-church governance and organization. For example, the Discipline directs that every charge shall have certain committees and be structured certain ways. (A charge is one or more congregations who have the same pastor.) We cannot decide to ignore the Discipline in these matters or in others where the Discipline is directive.

The Discipline is not directive in every part; some of its sections say "should" rather than "shall." Even so, it is the Discipline that makes us a United Methodist Church rather than a generic Protestant one. Our challenge is to remember that we are under authority when it seems burdensome, for it is no merit to do obey instructions that are pleasant to us.