The Wealth of Man: The True Economy

“Literature was born next to the warm hearth of the family household and has no place in the accountant’s ledger.”


As economists know, the prices of goods in any market are determined by the desires of consumers. The consumer is viewed in traditional microeconomics as being a “rational individual”, thinking on the margins – how much would I pay for another unit of this product? The origins of human desires are not questioned, and it is their satisfaction with which economics concerns itself. This attitude has led to the modern framework of economics, particularly under neoliberal policies, which hold increasing material wealth and economic growth to be the sole goal of “development” and the standard for cultures and societies around the world to be considered “modern”, “progressive” or “developed”.

The traditionalist blog The Imaginative Conservative recently published an excerpt from the book Return to Order by John Horvat entitled “Reviving the Heart and Soul of an Economy.” Note: I am commenting only on this excerpt as I have not read the entire book. Horvat attacks this foundational assumption of economic theory and practice, arguing that it has led to current economic turmoil. Economics must be restored to the human sphere – that is, to the real experience of life and community. The author argues that the end of economic activity must be “to produce, exchange, and enjoy together those goods deemed helpful to the common good and the perfection of our nature.”

This model of economics resembles other critiques which question the neoliberal assumption of “materialist” and “economic” ends, arguing that proponents of economic development must take into account the values of the cultures they are operating in. For Horvat, this is the Christian faith and the Western tradition. Those of us living in the West must read Horvat’s work as something more than a critique, as it concerns our culture, our values, and our heritage. What the Zapatista represents in Chiapas, Horvat represents in the Western and formerly Christian world.

Horvat argues that a healthy social order will be built around institutions which act as restraints on frenetic intemperance – the eclipsing of self-control and rational action by desire or gluttony (for example, the starving student who buys each new iPad simply because of his brand loyalty). It is the breakdown of these institutions in the West and thus the lack of restraints on frenetic intemperance which have led to much current economic turmoil. During the economic crisis in 2008/9, it was assumed that the lack of regulation naturally led to Wall Street making bad loans, which, as rational consumers, those unable to afford a mortgage would then take advantage of. Horvat goes further and wishes to examine what about the human condition causes such decisions to be made. How did the culture of frenetic intemperance arise on Wall Street and society at large, and how can it be overcome?

What are the institutions that Horvat is talking about? There is the family, which “is a dynamic source of uncompensated activity that freely provides its members with shelter, nourishment, education, affection, and healthcare”, and indeed from which the economy was born (the word oikonomos refers to “one who manages a household”). Then there is the Church (the absence of which in the lives of most – including yours truly – would stun our grandparents), which in times gone by led men and women in their inner, moral, and spiritual development, and was a bastion of art, culture, science, education, and charitable organization – and still does so for a billion strong today, as do its counterparts in other religious traditions. Private property allowed families and individuals to participate in economic life and bound them together in common cause. Most of our ancestors, living on the land, would experience the hardships and challenges of farming together. It is no wonder that growing rates of divorce correlated so strongly with industrialization.

The strength of these and other institutions lies in their role as a “”vast world of self-sufficiency” – sources of immense material and spiritual wealth that largely go uncompensated, remain unrecorded, or defy quantification.” These institutions form the basis of the economy by defining what is meant by the common good and discerning the goals of human existence and society. Economists can determine if something can be done; social institutions determine whether it should be done. Moreover, it is not enough to simply attempt to replace these organic structures with the regulatory boards of the State. The Soviet experiment in communism proved what happens when this foundation is “deliberately strangled” – the human being cannot develop under the boot of oppression. The final results of the far longer-running experiment of Liberalism are yet to be seen.

Those of us concerned with economic development must begin asking these fundamental questions beyond a purely sociological level, for they also apply to us. The dialogue of the Western critique of neoliberalism, which so often focuses mainly on the need for “democratic participation” and “localism” in Western societies, as opposed to the importance of culture and identity in other parts of the world, must go beyond the “how” economic management and examine its social foundations. For this, it is not enough to simply make appeals to democracy, for democratic decisions are made by individuals who have been raised in a culture of frenetic intemperance. If we are to remaster our lusts and desires, we need a framework for judging how this should be done, not to mention teachers who can show us the way. The fact of the matter is that we have no standard for the common good today, nor any idea of what the ends of our existence, and thus our social and economic order, should be. Those of us focusing on economics and development must begin to consider the role of social institutions in defining our economic life, and how economic and developmental policy can foster their growth and health. In many cases, we may actually need to work toward their rebuilding. But, as Horvat states, these institutions were not only united horizontally, by social bonds and economic activity. They were gathered around a pole and a center, the Christian tradition and the Church which embodied it (and in other countries, around the Ummah, the Synagogue, the religious rites of Japanese Shinto and Zen, Chinese Taoism and Confucian order, and so on) which created a vertical unity with a cosmic order lying beyond the merely human.

The question is: is there a final cause to be pursued in human existence and if so, how can it be attainedAs demonstrated by our vast framework of myths, ideologies, philosophies, and even the ideology of progress itself, human nature seems to gravitate toward imagining ourselves as parts of a greater whole. If no transcendent ends exist, the framework is provided by those with the charisma and will needed to win minds over or else impose it on them. Long ago, Sir Francis Bacon said that physics concerned itself with the material and efficient causes – which is to say, matter and motion – but that metaphysics was needed to determine final causes. Today, economics allows us to access human desires and how best to meet them. We have forgotten that we must also evaluate these desires, and that the common good stands prior to economics. For this common good, something else is needed. For those of us living in a de-cultured, de-socialized West, it may be worth turning our eyes toward our own forefathers and asking them “what were you living for?” 


Pursuing Impact: My Account

On October 19th, I attended a conference at UBC called Pursuing Impact: A Symposium on International Development. The conference brought together both students and experienced workers in the field of international economic development. Some of the fundamental questions addressed by the conference were about the nature of “impact” in development work. Whose definitions of impact are we using? Who is involved, and who isn’t? What happens when we discover we are having a negative impact, or when the impact on ourselves may be greater than the impact on the people we are working with?

The conference opened with an address from Elder Larry Grant from the Musqueam First Nation, welcoming attendees to his Nation’s territory, which UBC stands on. He spoke to us briefly in the henqeminem language he grew up speaking. Elder Grant talked about how he viewed development in Vancouver as “international” in nature, as all those driving it, Canadian or not, are not members of the indigenous nations which lived here originally.

An opening panel followed, on which several speakers discussed the 8 Istanbul principles, created in order to create a more effective development planning model, and how they played a role in projects which each of them worked on. These principles address the roles which democratic participation, accountability, learning, and partnership play in the development process. Speaking personally, the speaker on this panel I found most interesting was Sister Maudilia Lopez Cardona, a nun and indigenous Mayam Mam woman from San Miguel Ixtahuacan. Her community has been struck hard by the advances which mining companies have made into the area: specifically, the Goldcorp Marlin Mine. Conflicts have become so bad that several people have been killed, including a young father and a teacher who was a community activist. Working with her parish, Sister Cardona has been combating these abuses and has even traveled to Ottawa to deliver an official complaint. This is just one example of the free reign and lack of accountability which Canadian mining companies have had internationally.

There were a variety of breakout sessions throughout the day. Here are the ones I attended:

Learning on the Fly was a talk given by Courtney Loftus, a UBC student who had taken her first field work trip to Swaziland with Sauder. Swaziland has a 40% unemployment and 1/3 of the population is HIV positive. Courtney worked with the organization SOS, and the Siteki Children’s village. She talked about her discovery that short term benefits, ironically offered by another NGO, could undermine long-term focusing ones by drawing away local participants. Most of all, she focused on what pressures young people starting out in the development field can undergo as they begin project work, particularly in terms of culture shock and self-doubt. She encouraged first-timers to focus large instead of doing less than they could be, to be self disciplined and take initiative, and finally to ask for advice and build the trust-based relationships which are vital in the development field. She warned again spreading oneself to thin, and against waiting for work rather than finding it. I found this lecture very helpful, especially in a field where the praise seems to go to those who make their work their entire life, and where it can sometimes be considered selfish to take time for ones’ personal affairs, like family or even relaxation. As someone who has looked into the development field a lot more recently than a lot of my associates, I found this to be an open and honest account of the troubles young people can face and what to be prepared for.

Challenges Experienced While Working to Create Impact and New Businesses in Kenyan Slums has a rather self explanatory title. The session was led by students who had participated in the Sauder Africa Initiative and had gone to Nairobi to assist entrepreneurs whose work takes place in extra-legal markets based outside the city itself, in the poorer neighbourhoods and slums. One of the things discussed in this workshop was that many of these entrepreneurs want nothing more than to work in a company in a legal market, with a steady income flow. I have studied these markets before in my Wealth and Poverty of Nations course (ECON 234 – take it). The fact is that there are hidden costs associated with these markets – bribes, inability to grow, difficulty of storage, and so on – which makes the legal markets more desirable, taxes and all. The discussion turned into a project analysis, with students suggesting what might have caused some of the existing shortfalls, such as a lack of continuity when new practices were taught and introduced. A large part of the group came to the conclusion that the summer-only nature of the program was a primary cause and that Sauder might be better suited to assisting and consulting roles with already existing projects – Nairobi is chock full of NGO’s, after all.

Business as Usual was presented by four SAI participants who had visited the township area of Phalaborwa, South Africa. As much of my family comes from and lives in the country, I was excited to see what experiences the students had had in this rural region of the “new South Africa”. The town was built around a mine, which employed the vast majority of people in the area. The Phalaborwa Mine had a social arm, called the Phalaborwa Foundation, which played a major role in providing education, skills training, and other social aid in the town and surrounding communities. Because of the laws instituted by the ANC government following the fall of Apartheid, the mine was mandated to give 3% of its revenue to community development, which meant that the Foundation was able to fund these projects with relative ease. The colonial mindset was an important issue in the discussion, especially since students were there to try and assist the community. The lack of continuity between projects was yet again an obstacle in creating lasting change, even with things as small as using excel instead of paper and pencil to do spreadsheet calculations. The discussion then began to focus on the quandary of many students coming away with more benefits than were given to the community by their projects, such as career focus, experience, and so on. The question is: is it ethical to leave a community having benefits more than they did? Is that colonialism, or at least using other people’s needs to benefit yourself? For my part, I wondered about the principle put forth by the economist Vilfredo Pareto, who stated that if a person or group has any tangible benefits, or even experiences no change, from an experience, then the fact that another group or individual may have benefited more does not matter. When the alternative is that the community might be left with nothing at all, there seems to be a certain logic to this argument: after all, if a person helped you in a way let you earn a million dollars a year, would you care if he earned 50 million from it? This was for me the most interesting of the conferences, due to my personal connection to the country and the issues raised in it.

Jackie Essombe

The closing was given by the African dancer Jacky Essombe, who comes from Cameroon but grew up in Paris. She offered the perspective of the African experience when it comes to Western aid and development. She described it as being one of admiration of the West, but to an extent one of idolization. That is to say, Africans working with development groups and NGO’s will sometimes take advice even when it may not fit their needs; the assumption is, so to speak, that “the West knows best.”  I found this to be a particularly startling revelation, as I have always focused in my goals going into this field on being “partners, not benefactors.” Being a European who grew up in Canada, I would like nothing more than to overcome the mindset and history of colonialism through a mutual overcoming. Apologies may make us all feel nice inside, but in the end they don’t do a thing for the person in Sierra Leonne or the DRC who is suffering from a paramount Chief system instilled by the British or a play-off between tribes which benefited first colonial powers, then the tyrants who followed them. As Essombe danced following her closing statements (and had us do so with her), this was one of the chief issues on my mind. The relations between this, mass immigration, and the perspectives and goals of development is one I intend to pursue in future.

Walking home afterwards, I felt that this conference was extremely helpful in giving me focus in a field which I have found, to say the least, daunting as a relative newcomer. I have a better picture now of what to expect as I move further in my studies and work, and also a better perspective on how I want to approach things. I encourage  anyone who is just starting to become interested in this field to attend a few of these conferences and learn from the experiences of others. A textbook is, after all, no substitute for experience, and it’s by building on the experiences of others that we make true progress and without which real impact is nigh impossible.


Waste Not, Want Not: We Can Already Feed Ten Billion

One of our LFS 350 lectures this week was a TED talk by Tristram Stuart. He spoke about the extent of food waste in both developed and undeveloped countries today, and the numbers are shocking. A worry often presented about population growth is that we will not have enough food to feed ten billion people. In fact, we already do. The problem of course, is that this is testing the planet’s ecological limits severely.

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A number I found especially interesting was the statistic of 3-4 times the amount of food being available in the United States as is needed to feed the entire US population a nutritious diet. I do think that Stuart fails to mention that excess food is not as bad a thing as some might make out. I would argue that it should be considered an essential aspect of food security that a population not only have healthy, accessible, culturally appropriate food available at any given point in time, but also be able to maintain that diet for at least a year’s time using food and resources which are available at that time and do not need to still be planned for or produced. This is essential when we consider the need for preparedness and self-reliance in a community, particularly in harder times. If even minor disasters like deaths in the family, unemployment, and so on occur, having a barrier of food available takes away the major stress factor of having to see to those needs as well. On the individual and family level, this should mean buying extra. When we look at a population, however, this will show up as “excess” food. It should not be considered as such. When larger disasters, such as flooding, forest fires, or blizzards hit (all things that happen in Canada every year), it means that emergency response has these resources at their disposal.

Even with this consideration, developed countries obviously still have a lot of excess food. Sure, we might be able to feed ten billion people with available food…but not with its current distribution and accessibility. The EU regulations on things like the shape and size of cucumbers and bendiness of bananas are rather memorable examples of the nature of some of laws contributing to waste. It would be a rather funny look into the strange minds of the Eurocrats if it were not also the case that laws like these contribute to the waste of atrocious amounts of food each year. The following images are striking:

The amount of bananas wasted because of improper shape on a single day on a single farm. Numerous farms throw out similar or higher numbers each day, for months during harvest.

Now I’m sure not all of those are unusable. Soups or sauces?

In line with the preparedness theme, it would be a great idea to use some of this waste to make storable, nonperishable foods. Soups and stews which can be canned are an example. For some entrepreneurs out there, it might be worth seeing if this can be done so that the end product can be sold at lower cost. It’s a common and valid criticism that many of the local , healthy foods hitting the market are only accessible to higher-income families. Yuppies, hipsters, etc, can benefit, but can the downtown east side of Vancouver? Providing low-cost, healthy, and maybe even local food would be a great way to overcome this obstacle, and hopefully allay some of that waste at the same time.

I highly recommend this video. As well as looking at more sustainable food production, finding ways to decrease waste is essential in order to create food systems which can serve us in the coming decades.


Whose Consent?

Today as part of my LFS 350 readings, I read this article detailing the experiences of researchers, mostly students, working with Northern indigenous communities and the trials they faced balancing the needs of their work with the requirements of ethics boards. The article focuses especially on conflicts which can occur between the boards’ standards on the one hand and the customs of aboriginal communities on the other. The conclusion the article comes to is that researchers should be given more leeway, particularly in the field, in the methods of negotiating consent. Moreover, it would be far more efficient for boards to allow previous consent forms and other documents to be edited and reused, rather than starting each project from scratch. I believe that the article is quite correct on this point. Indeed, it reveals a lot about the strict and unyielding ways in which consent is conceived of in universities in general and academic research in particular.

A frequently-cited example of an obstacle was that researchers realized that written consent forms and anonymity conflicted with traditionally accepted methods of interaction in these communities. It was considered disrespectful to not cite a person who gave you certain knowledge, or to require further contract when oral consent had already been given. This begs the question – given the extreme focus on consent, should it not be rooted in the way consent works in the real world, especially given the heavy academic and even legal penalties which can result if consent is not considered to be present in research. Take this statement by a researcher who had developed close relationships in the community, saying that they had even begun to consider her a friend:

“From an empiricist standpoint, this would be coercion but from my feminist and post-modern perspective this is reality and the lived experience of conducting research . . . in a small northern community. I wondered whether anyone would refuse consent considering I was thought of as one of their co-workers?”

It seems ridiculous to consider consent to be so narrowly present that only contracts can communicate it. Indeed, in the case of practices like written contracts which can violate cultural mores, certain regulations of the ethics boards makes consent harder to obtain than it would otherwise be. While realizing the need for ethical oversight, it seems certain that reconsiderations need to be made.

A comment in the article that I found interesting was the mentioning of requiring community consent and not only individual consent, due to less distinctions in aboriginal cultures between these notions. It caused me to think, however, of situations where the former may undermine research. This is especially true if we are investigating the views of community members on the way in which things are being run, asking questions about leadership and corruption, and investigating topics which community leaders may have vested interests in keeping out of the public eye. Community consent interpreted as consent of the leaders (chiefs, elders, etc)  may in fact have drastic effects in these areas. It also fails to realize that the person within these communities does in fact have individual agency, and refusing to acknowledge this inhibits research and is quite plainly dishonest.

It’s clear that this issue is one most of us will have to face at some point, if we haven’t already. Hopefully we will be fortunate enough to be dealing with more enlightened people on the ethics boards. While keeping consent in mind, it’s essential that it not be legalized and formalized into an abstraction. The results can end up making the whole project an exercise in futility.


September Startup: Let’s Get Blogging!

Hi everyone! Classes are starting again and hopefully things are looking bright this year. I got to talk to a number of people during the first Global Resource Systems class and it seems like there’s potential for lots of interesting projects and developments this year.

I’m writing this post for a couple reasons: first to update where it looks like I’m heading in this program, and second, to provide something of a plan for where this blog is going over the next semester.

I transferred to the GRS program in my second year from Arts. Originally, I was looking to combine my interests in politics and economics with the Econ/Polisci combined major. GRS allowed me to take a closer look at food production, and I was considering the policy field.

After having done a course in International Agricultural Development (FRE 340 – fantastically taught by Chris Bennet), plus LFS 250, and ECON’s Wealth and Poverty of Nations course, I’ve become more focused on development as a field. By development I don’t just mean the economic development of the Global South, but also redevelopment in Western countries as our economic needs undergo radical shifts in the coming decades, due to technological progress on the one hand, and climate change, economic turmoil, and political and social changes on the other. After having followed the Idle No More movement over the past year, the possibilities for First Nations to initiate economic growth on traditional lands beyond natural resources is a subject I would like to examine. That includes consulting in getting businesses started, food production, and also sustainable natural resource opportunities. Internationally, I want to look at ways in which Europe, Russia, Canada, and other “global North” countries can devise development policies and programs to work toward mutually beneficial social and economic outcomes with the global South, and particularly to better manage the underlying causes of mass migration.

On this blog, I plan to start looking at these and other development topics in depth. If possible, I would like for other people in development, GRS, or simply interested parties to begin networking more and using our blogs to discuss these topics online. I will be posting more regularly – I’m going to try for a new post every two weeks or so, in order to balance quality writing and regularity in posting.

LFS 350 offers a particularly exciting opportunity this year: my group will be working with Inner City Farms in order to identify future retail opportunities. As I want to look at business consultation for growing firms in the development field, I’m pretty stoked. I’ll cross post from the group blog when those begin coming out – currently I am still waiting for authorization.

Hopefully this year will bring about greater focus as well as a broadening of horizons – no, that’s not contradictory. I’m looking forward to working with you all again. Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll join in the fun!

Warning: further reading of this and related blogs may result in increased awareness levels and tendency to adopt sustainable lifestyles.


An Ocean of Troubles: Water Management in BC

British Columbia has water problems.

Does that sound crazy? After all, we’re the Wet-coast, constantly complaining about the rain and surrounded by insane amounts of freshwater. And yet it’s true. The Province published an article this month listing 8 surprising facts about BC’s water resources. They can be boiled down to 3 main points:

  1. BC is suffering from a drastic shortfall in information about and supervision of our water resources.
  2. Because of this lack of supervision, corporations such as Nestlé have been able to gain access to our water resources without needing to properly compensate the province and affected communities.
  3. People living in the province are being adversely affected in different ways because of insufficient access to good quality water and environmental damage caused by the lack of oversight previously mentioned.

Point 1 is for the most part uncontested. The current Water Act became law in the year 1909. 104 years later, the Water Sustainability Act is soon going to be introduced into the legislature by the governing Liberals. The Ministry of Environment hopes that it will bridge the existing gaps (some might say chasms) in the way BC deals with water resources. For example, while other provinces charge fees for water use by businesses, no such regulation exists in BC. Moreover, companies need not provide any information to communities which may be affected by business activities, be they reserves or municipalities. Groundwater is another issue which this Act will need to address – that’s the water which well-users (including yours truly) depend on. That water is part of different watersheds which can vary from small to very large in size. Although different organizations do exist for individual watersheds – organizations which are essential for integration into whatever framework may arise – the state of groundwater as a whole in BC isunknown. These watersheds play an important role in the broader ecological systems and their state also tells us about the health of rivers and wildlife such as salmon. Finally, sanitation has been problematic even in Vancity itself. Each year, rain causes sewage to flow from water treatment plants into the Burrard inlet and Strait of Georgia. Although diluted, accumulation could certainly lead to health and environmental problems in future, if it is not already doing so unmonitored.

Point 2 may come as a surprise to many BC residents, particularly those in the GVRD and Fraser Valley.  Vice recently revealed that the BC government is allowing Nestlé  to extract millions of liters of groundwater from the municipality of Hope’s water table in the Fraser Valley – enough to fill 107 Olympic swimming pools each year. That water gets sold back to us in plastic bottles. Although Nestlé does volunteer some information, it is in no way obliged to inform surrounding communities about its activities. Some minor regulations aside, there is no limit to how much they can withdraw. As Nestlé does, so may other corporations. If the Act doesn’t fix these problems, the systems which depend on water tables being sustainably managed may find themselves thrown off balance – that involves wildlife, rivers, agriculture, and residents living in BC. The State of Vermont down south has been faced with this issue recently as well, causing them to “declare water to be a public trust”. Vermont and BC are only the first examples of an issue which is already becoming worldwide and will become far more public than it is now as resources become more and more depleted.

Point 3 may be the biggest shocker of all. After all, in a province with this much water, how can there be people who don’t have enough? And yet, see the case of the Toquaht First Nations reserve, which recently ended a decade-long boil-water advisory. First Nations reserves are especially hard-hit by this crisis, having less access to infrastructure than the municipalities of the lower mainland, where most of the population resides. The Province’s report states that at any given time, such advisories may affect “as many as 500 communities.” This, in the Wet-coast. Environmental damage occurs not only in the Burrard inlet because of sewage problems. Metro Vancouver is one of two areasexamined in a Fraser Institute report on the need for improved water monitoring. The other is a river lying near Alberta’s tar sands. Think that one over very carefully. The implications for health and safety and the future expenses which continuing the current practices may incur are alarming.

Clearly, it is in the interests of British Columbians to consider the future of our magnificent water resources. The Water Sustainability Act needs to be examined by qualified and experienced non-profits, universities, experts in the fields of water management, environmental economists, and those in government responsible for maintaining these resources. Furthermore it must take into account the diverse needs of poorer and rural communities, urban centers, First Nations, and also businesses which depend on water. After all, not everyone using these resources is a giant food conglomerate – BC farms depend on our water for irrigation. In the long term, more sustainable farming practices must also examine water usage as a key component. With these goals in mind, it is essential for the information gathering to be as decentralized as possible, based on the principle of “centralize nothing that can be done as well or better locally”. This will ensure that information is as accurate as possible and that recommendations consider the varied needs of the population. As a final point, future valuation of water must be addressed. Subsidies for the agricultural sector and concern for the “right to water” has caused water to be highly undervalued on the one hand; the possibility for abuse when water becomes privatized has to be addressed on the other. The fact remains, however, that water must be properly valued for any sustainable policies concerning usage to be implemented, and economic concerns factor into this. We have ignored this issue for far too long, and it is essential that partisanship be placed aside in exchange for a scientific approach to water safety and infrastructure and policies which focus on sensible and sustainable governance in future. Anything less may well cause the passage of the Water Sustainability Act to bring the issue to a close prematurely, until it surges back because of medical, economic, or environmental disaster.


Wendell Berry: The Good Life Lived

Wendell Berry, born in 1938, is a unique figure in the American landscape. In many ways, he is reminiscent of an older America, where self-reliance did not preclude participation in public life. If he is known as a conservative, it is because he is conserving of community, sustainable farming practices, and the values which are birthed from them. If he is known as an antiwar advocate, and suspicious of corporate biotech and Monsanto-esque GMO promotion and privatization of genetic diversity, it is because of these same dearly-held values. In many ways, he is one of the few in the political sphere who takes his positions based on a firm foundation, and thus is viewed by the small minded as something of a maverick.

Berry began his career as a writer, and to this day continues to produce works of poetry and narrative connected by the themes of local and agrarian existence, and how these have been continually challenged through the many years he has seen. Aside from poetry and nonfiction work for outlets like the New York Times, he also has farmed for many seasons at Lane’s Landing, the same Kentucky farm which inspires much of his poetry.

Berry is important, because he is a living example that the tradition of Buen Vivir addressed in my first post is not isolated to indigenous non-western countries, uncorrupted by industrialism, but exists everywhere, including the rural United States. In order to look to the future of our values, we will have to look to our own ancestors and a lost way of living. This cannot be done through the rosy red lense of romanticism, but with a rational eye searching for values which can serve us well in times to come.

“The gods are less
for their love of praise.
Above and below them all
is a spirit that needs
nothing but its own
its health and ours.
It has made all things
by dividing itself.
It will be whole again.
To its joy we come
together – the seer
and the seen, the eater
and the eaten, the lover
and the loved.
In our joining it knows
itself. It is with us then,
not as the gods
whose names crest
in unearthly fire,
but as a little bird
hidden in the leaves
who sings quietly
and waits
and sings.”

– Wendell Berry

Translation: “It is ourselves, who we have awaited.”


BC’s Budding Underground Economy

Yesterday, I had the chance to watch Vice Canada’s documentary BC Bud (parts 1, 2 and 3 available here). As my specialization is in food and resource economics, it certainly got me thinking. We often address marijuana from a moral standpoint (be it the evil gateway drug or God/Mommy Nature’s gift to man), from a health standpoint, or from a legal standpoint. But I have seen precious little in the way of a look at the industry through an economist’s lens, which is strange when one remembers that it is estimated to have an output equal to 5% of the province’s GDP.

There are two things which interest me about this industry: first, the diversity that exists in marijuana production across BC (and indeed the rest of Canada), and the ways in which legalization will impact this diversity. Second, the ways in which prohibition has allowed for the centralization of production in some areas by organized crime.

As things stand now, marijuana production both in the lower mainland, the interior, and the north is varied. Small growers coexist with large operations. In the small town of Grand Forks, BC, it is estimated that 300 of the less than 4000 souls who call it home grow marijuana. Much of what is produced finds its way into the USA. It is this decentralized system which has created what can legitimately called one of the few truly free markets in Canada, in the sense that it is made up of so many buyers and suppliers that no one entity can control the prices. And the fact that it is illegal means that few if any regulations by way of quality or price controls exist. Economists have an interesting opportunity to look at how this markets works, given its unique extralegal parameters.

Moreover, it is necessary to differentiate between different kinds of legalization, a fact pointed out by activist David Malmo-Levine in his interview with Vice:

 The coffee bean model is based on what we do with coffee beans right now, anyone can sell them, anyone can grow them, and anyone can use them. The wine model is for adults, and Prop 19 is more exclusive in that not any adult can grow and not any adult can deal, you have to be rich and well connected…

In the case of Prop 19 or the current “legal” structure in Washington state with I-502 being passed, you have a situation where in I-502 people aren’t allowed to grow at all at home and it’s basically a monopoly for the retail outlets. In Prop-19, you were allowed to grow one big plant if you had your landlord’s permission or if you owned your own home. And that was one big plant per household. So that also guarantees the retailers that a lot of people would have to go to them. Any legalization model that does not include a liberal allowance for home-grow operations is a monopoly of sorts; it will force people to have to buy from retailers…It’ll create a few very, very rich growers and a few very, very rich retailers and everyone else is out of work.

It is clear that certain trends in legalization do not bring the entire market into the legal sphere. A key question for economists, especially those concerned with the ability to participate in markets and in local economies, is what the impact of Prop-19 style legalization will be. Because of the ease of access for seeds and equipment, it seems unlikely that demand for cheaper, stronger marijuana will cease. And where demand exists, business goes, legal or not. Clearly, not all legalization is created equal. For pro-legalization activists, perhaps the question may be rephrased as “what is the best way to bring the existing markets into the legal sphere?”

The centralization of production leads inevitably to the question of organized crime. The ability to use marijuana profits to then buy harder drugs like cocaine has been an important motivating factor for gangs to enter the business. To their credit, many officers are doing what they can do break up these operations, which out of the many producing entities cause by far the most social harm. However, it is also the case that, as was the case with alcohol prohibition, it is the extralegal nature of the market that allows them to thrive in the first place. This is the second question economists may find interesting: to what extent would the different forms of legalization destroy the opportunities for organized crime to operate? How would the effect on prices and availability change how gangs work within the marijuana and wider drug markets?

These are just a couple of the questions that came up in my economist’s mind as I watched the documentaries linked above. Perhaps someone knows of work being done in this field, and if so I’d be glad to hear about it. The implications for the industry, for activists, for politics, and for the future of the law may be interesting indeed.


Freezing the World: The White Man’s Indulgence

Does the attitude of “let every child go to school” in fact harm traditional cultures? Is it based on a newer, nicer version of the White Man bringing progress to the natives of the world? This is the question asked by the documentary Schooling the World: The White Man’s Last Burden. It comes to the conclusion that the education system impressed on the world forces youth to take part in the urban consumer culture by making them incapable of existing within their own cultural spheres, as well as many times instilling them with a sense that their worth is based on their economic success. The latter phenomenon affects elders and the non-educated, the educated but unemployed, and the educated who find jobs in the cities and may even meet the promised success.

The criticisms made are valid indeed. Viewing the film, however, one gets a sense that many of the criticisms are given while viewing non-western (or, one might gather from the title, non-white) culture through a highly romanticized lens. We see many scenes of Ladakhi farmers taking their livestock through fields of crops waving in the breeze, for example. We did not see, however, the infant mortality, which was 19% in 1981 (the last info available), the result of a lack of medical services.

The important principle which the creators take to heart is that one must be careful of presuming that ones’ own culture is the standard for the world. This is important as a principle of ethnopluralism, and maintains that the dignity of a culture and way of life is not objectively defined by those of any single one. As such, the fact that a tribe or group may choose to live a lifestyle which was practiced thousands of years ago rather than as a result of globalization is a choice which must be respected. However, the error that the creators appear to fall into is one on the other end of the spectrum. Cultures are not static; they develop out of a relationship between people and an environment, and as such are always subject to change. When new technologies come about, cultures take them and adapt. This is something which the film seems to overlook.

The point that the documentary makes rather well is that a cultural change should not, however, be based on values which are not that of the culture in question. The feelings of inferiority reported should not be the basis for change. Rather, technology ought to be suited to the needs and values of the people acquiring them. If this does not preserve the way of life shown in pictures seen in tourist books, so be it. Upon this principle lies the cultural autonomy of all peoples, including the peoples of Europe and the Western world. The creators of the film asked the question, “how can we preserve cultures”? But then, preservation is for jam. Perhaps we should ask how we can have living ones.


Account from the Student Leadership Conference

I’m writing this during the evening, having spent my day with the 2013 Student Leadership Conference. I and others represented Common Energy on the committee planning the Local Lunch, which was served to the delegates attending the conference. Doing social media publicity work for the committee was something of a learning experience, and I had fun doing it. Even better was being able to eat some of the food served; I can’t say I’ve seen marinated carrot and goat cheese or squash and cranberry sandwiches, among many others, served anywhere before. AMS Catering did good work.

The committee tried to keep the radius from where food came within 100 miles, although we had some outliers, such as the Okanagan apples. As delegates got their food, they passed our Local Lunch booth, where we sought to answer the question “so what?” One of the conclusions our committee came to early on was that we should try to point out how eating local benefited the person doing it. It’s all well and good to talk about the abstract “local eating”, or even about the environment and “creating local jobs”. But it’s a funny thing about people that the best of intentions and the most idealistic affirmations of how vital these things are can often fall by the wayside when looking at cheap California berries at Superstore in the dead of winter. I do it myself all the time, because of efficiency, money and so on.

So we talked about health, and why eating better would be better for us biologically and nutritionally. I didn’t know before this that pasture-raised cows have more omega-3 fatty acids than the industrial ones. We talked about economic benefit: when eating locally in foods which are specialized in where you live, you can many times get more bang for your buck due to the amount of varieties available. Just look at the hundreds of types of heirloom tomatoes out there! Environmentally, we know that eating locally makes it easier to monitor quality, which both benefits the environment, but also serves to make sure that we are eating better food.

Taking this approach helped me confirm an attitude I have long had: that to make changes in these vital areas it isn’t enough to talk about the “big” changes it can lead to. We have to tell people how it benefits them to make a change: here, now, for their wallets and health and quality of life. We’re a lazy species, all told. We’ll make the little changes if we need to, but much easier if there’s something in it for us. Yet we’re also a dynamic one, which is why this dialogue and discussion is happening and has led to things like the SLC and the ideas and projects presented there. The variety in our collective personalities is as vast as the variety of foods we can find locally, if only we try.