Monthly Archives: March 2011

Thoreau on poverty

There are a thousand hacking at the branches of evil to one who is striking at the root, and it may be that he who bestows the largest amount of time and money on the needy is doing the most by his mode of life to produce that misery which he strives in vain to relieve. –Henry David Thoreau

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Is fair trade really fair?

Many churches in my area carry Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee. They do this because they think that it helps the farmers in 3rd world countries.

From the Thousand Hills site we are told:

In an effort to change the coffee industry – one of the most exploitative in the world – Land of a Thousand Hills participates in Community Trade, a term we coined to mean Directly Traded, paid for with higher-than-Fair Trade wages, and where investment in the farming community is our top priority. We believe that by paying our coffee growers just, Living Wages and supporting economic and community development in the region, not only does the region thrive with higher quality coffee, justice is pursued. Our special projects include building a sustenance farm for the region’s malnourished orphans, creating soccer programs to promote community and coffee education, giving microfinance loans to entrepreneurs, lending coffee bikes to ensure safer and more efficient travel, and donating shoes to farmers and their families.

What if your coffee could transform a village? It can. Embrace the power of the bean. Drink Coffee. Do Good.

This all sounds great. Who could possibly have a problem with this arrangement?

Jay Richards has an excellent section in his book, Money, Greed, and God, about the total effects of fair trade and how, by ignoring basic market principles, it ends up doing more harm than good.

The main tenant of fair trade, or “Community Trade” as Thousand Hills likes to call it1, is that goods are purchased at a “fair” price supposedly capable of producing “living wages”. The net effect is that fair trade certified coffee costs more than its free market alternatives.

Here are a few problems inherent with this arrangement:

  • Fair trade trades in the same markets of empathy that charities do.
  • It does not have the power to lift whole nations out of poverty like free trade has because it ignores basic market principles.
  • It preys on the desire to feel good (as opposed to actually doing good) that many people (mostly liberals) have.
  • It assumes an unsubstantiated predatory view of markets.
  • It encourages inefficient economic practices (by discouraging mechanization)
  • It encourages people to stay in agriculture when they could move to other industries which could produce more wealth for more people.
  • It fosters a moral hazard where lower quality goods can be foisted onto artificially captive markets (ie. moral-minded churches) while higher quality goods are sold on the free market. I’ve been the unlucky recipient of this sort of deal where a local church provides fair trade coffee which costs as much as Starbucks but tastes like burnt rubber. This is wholly unfair to the consumer.
  • Fair trade is based on a Marxist economic understanding where equality of outcomes is held to be the standard of “justice”. For this reason you’ll hear a lot of talk of “social justice” in pro-fair-trade material.

The paper, Grounds for Complaint, sums it up like this:

Critics of free markets maintain that the coffee crisis highlights the failures of globalization. In fact, however, it is their response to the coffee crisis that showcases the failures of the anti-globalization movement. That movement proclaims its sympathy for the world’s poor, but its economic illiteracy leads again and again to
the advocacy of measures that would actually exacerbate global poverty. With specific regard to coffee, those who single out particular companies as scapegoats and advocate various halfbaked schemes to prop up prices may have the best of intentions, but they are not really helping. At best they are diverting time and energy into dead ends; at worst they could end up making the situation even worse. It may feel good to ignore market realities, but it won’t do any good.

Here’s a short talk given to the European Coffee Symposium in Vienna by Dr Peter Griffiths. The gist is that “Fairtrade does very little for farmers in the Third World. It kills some. But it is very good for Western Business”.

Here is an excellent debate held by the Cambridge Union on the topic “This House Believes that Fairtrade is Unfair”. Here’s part 1 of 12:

  1. Why shy away from the commonly understood fair trade term? []
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Spiritual Capital and Virtuous Business Leadership

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Book Review: Doing Virtuous Business: The Remarkable Success of Spiritual Enterprise by Theodore Malloch

I had never heard the phrase “spiritual capital” until I had the chance to review Theodore Roosevelt Malloch‘s book Doing Virtuous Business: The Remarkable Success of Spiritual Enterprise for Booksneeze.com.

Until I read Mr. Malloch’s book, I was only vaguely aware of corporations with a spirit-infused culture. Companies like Chick-fil-A (which surprisingly doesn’t make an appearance until the end of the book) readily spring to mind as well-known faith-based companies. But through numerous case studies to backup his claims, Mr. Malloch meticulously makes the case that doing business in a virtuous manner is the only way to ensure long term success and profitability.

Doing Virtuous Business is divided into 6 chapters where Mr. Malloch deals with related topics such as spiritual capital (1), virtue (2), faith, hope, and charity (3), hard virtues such as leadership, courage, patience, perseverance, and discipline (4), soft virtues such as justice, forgiveness, compassion, humility, and gratitude (5), and some common objections (6).

This book struck a chord with me because early on in my career I decided I wanted to start a business with the express intent on building it around Christ-centered values. Though I possessed precious little knowledge of business itself, I instinctively knew that if I were to form a business that would not only survive (the failure rate of start-up businesses is astronomical) but thrive (meaning it would fulfill my deepest desires and goals in life) it would need to be build on something more transcendent than quarterly profit reports.

One point of concern I had with this book is how Mr. Malloch seemed to posit a view of faith which made it more of a blind leap into the dark (ie. Immanuel Kant’s upper/lower story dichotomy) than simply a conclusion based on evidence that is held on to in spite of uncomfortable external circumstances.

Where other authors have taken on the task of defending capitalism from its critics, specifically showing Christianity to be compatible with capitalism. Mr. Malloch’s book is unique in that it attempts to meld the valid concerns many liberals instinctively raise with the historical success of capitalism as fleshed out by businessmen who understand their chief aim is not simply to turn a monetary profit, but a cultural and spiritual profit as well.

I must also point out that I found Mr. Malloch’s section answering skeptical questions to be rather apt. I think the answer to the person of no faith’s objection was excellent. I’ve known many companies that operate either knowingly or not on the spiritual capital invested by others. I’ve also, unfortunately, seen companies (or unscrupulous businessmen rather) attempt to pillage spiritual capital from others and/or fake their.

I also loved how Mr. Malloch pointed out how modern spiritless attempts to infuse ethics and virtues into businesses ring hollow. There is, simply put, no substitute to real spiritual virtues like compassion, forgiveness, charity, etc.

Overall I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to know where business and spiritual interests intersect, why it matters, and how they can work together to provide a rich blessing for everyone.

Additional resources:

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Parallel universes: The materialist’s comfort in the face of death

If you want to get a good idea of the best way materialists have to deal with the otherwise nihilistic implications of their philosophical system, take a look at this clip from the movie “Rabbit Hole“.

I find it interesting how the boy makes the assertion that the notion of parallel universes are 1. infinite and 2. well evidenced by science. The truth is that 1. parallel universes are not infinite (as a matter of logical deduction) and 2. have absolutely no evidence for them whatsoever.

I’ve studied this theory for quite a while now. Ever since 5th grade in fact. And while stories like Quantum Leap and Number of the Beast may be wildly entertaining, the fact is that they simply don’t hold water scientifically (for a number of logical and philosophical reasons) and they ultimately provide no hope for anyone searching for real answers worth staking your life on.

Additionally, here is a documentary which attempts to breathe spiritual life into the otherwise dead philosophy of materialism. If you listen closely you will be able to pick up on the distinct fingerprints of post modernism. In order to add any weight to an otherwise vacuous theory, it is wholly necessary to wage an all-out epistemological assault on the mind. If we call into question what we know and how certain we can be of what we know, then we can sneak in a theory like parallel universes which has no real evidence to speak of.

However they do raise a very valid point about the question of where our knowledge really lies. I would argue, along the lines of Alvin Plantinga, that without God, the ability to reason and trust our thoughts is clear evidence of a personal creator.

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God just needed another little angel so he took her

Have you ever been in a small group where someone has uttered something like the couple in the video above? Papering over a deep tragedy with answers that were not only paper-thin but actually damaging if closely scrutinized?

I have.

And like the grieving mother, I’ve also felt like an ass when I couldn’t stomach it anymore and decided to call everyone to examine the implications of what was actually being said.

I often wonder whether regular church goers actually realize how shallow and trite they make following Christ sound when they offer answers like the one above. I wonder if they know how much damage they do.

Like the couple above demonstrates, most often these answers, this shallowness is only allowed to grow and flourish in the absence of cross examination or close scrutiny.

The question of pain and suffering is immense. It is perhaps the largest question Christians face. It certainly is the root of why many cannot (note the inability here, not merely the unwillingness) place their faith in Christ. Accordingly, it requires us to spend many hours studying it.

We need to have both an immediate answer to those freshly grieving as well as a more nuanced answer for those able and willing to explore the deep questions surrounding death and suffering in the world God has made.

Here are three resources I highly recommend on this subject:

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Kick Ass: Common heroes


View on YouTube

I loved the movie Kick Ass, especially the first part where we follow the story of an ordinary kid whose yearning to become something more leads him to don a goofy looking costume and almost get himself killed for the sake of others.

I think the clip above as one of the most powerful lines ever uttered with regard to heroism. Watch it, you’ll be glad you did.

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Michael Crichton on Environmentalism as a Religion

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Meet Blinky, the helpful robot

Blinky™ from Ruairi Robinson on Vimeo.

The above video is EXTREMELY well done for a 12 minute short. What makes it even more chilling, however, is how in a recent debate regarding the meaning of life, the question was asked about making sure Asimov’s 3 laws of robotics should be imprinted in all robotics. One of the responders, and it was left unchallenged by all, emphatically said “No!”.

The lesson is simple, morality does not come from within a being.

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A journey to flatland

It appears that Rob holds what Francis Schaeffer described as a two story model of knowing where in the upper story we have faith (what Bell calls “3D objects”) and the lower story which contains science, reason and all that jazz. So how about it? Is it possible for a person living in flatland to know, with any degree of certainty, anything about 3D land? Are we forced to make a blind “leap of faith” into the upper story?

Copernicus described his idea with mathematical models based on a Christian worldview which taught him that metaphysical constructs like mathematics comes from the same source the physical world. So the analogy Bell uses is not only scientifically and philosophically flawed, it is also epistemologically and apologetically deficient.

Its possible for the two worlds to coexist without putting one above the other. Its possible for someone living in flatland to accurately describe something in 3d land.

It just takes some effort.

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