ivory irony

Yesterday this country took a stern position against ivory poaching. In Denver, Colorado, six tons of the illegal but globally prized commodity were crushed to “take the value out of ivory,” according to Edward Grace, the deputy chief of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Office of Law Enforcement. Call me crazy, but I don’t think the crush is going to achieve that purpose.Ivory Crush in Denver, CO November 14, 2013

I have a mild interest in economics—mild meaning: please don’t try to talk to me about futures, make me understand the math in this lecture, or ask me to take a side between Keynes and Hayek. But supply and demand curves, that we can talk about.

When there’s a reliable demand for something, the price people are willing to pay for a good is inversely related to the amount of the good available. In other words, the less of it there is, the more people will pay to get some for themselves. (And vice versa: the more there is, the less people want to pay.) So…how is destroying ivory going to reduce the demand for it? Oh! It’s not going to reduce the demand, you say? It’s just going to send a message that the poachers should be very, very ashamed of themselves? That ought to do the trick.

Michael ‘t Sas-Rolfes, an environmental economist with Property and Environment Research Center (PERC), is one of the critics who pointed out the potential flaw in the Fish and Wildlife Service’s symbolic gesture (quoted here). The service stated officially that the ivory it destroyed would “never be made available to the market. Its destruction has no impact on the overall supply and does not create any incentive for poaching” (here). Another part of the same statement indicates that releasing the ivory back into the market might instigate new trade rather than driving prices down. That’s because “legal ivory trade [of pieces that entered the market before 1989] can serve as a cover for illegal trade.” So it’s complicated.

Back to Sas-Rolfes for a second. I found a Q&A with this intriguing tidbit: The interviewer asks Sas-Rolfes about the African countries where it’s legal to hunt rhinoceros, another animal with coveted facial adornments. He responds, “Legal white rhino hunting started in South Africa in 1968. At the time there were only 840 white rhinos in the country…. Today, rhino trophy hunts make a significant contribution to the South African economy and last year they counted 18,780 rhinos, of which 25% were privately owned. The value of a live rhino has soared during this time, making rhino breeding a highly lucrative business, not only for private owners but also for the state parks who sell their surplus rhinos to the private market. Hunting has played a pivotal role in saving the white rhino, which is now the most common of all the rhino species.” (source, emphasis mine)

A statement like that gives one pause, doesn’t it? It’s counterintuitive to allow an act we deplore, but economic incentive is a strange beast. In the countries most infamous for ivory poaching and smuggling, officials who are supposed to protect elephants sometimes betray them, as you can see for yourself in this Nightline clip. What would happen if the international community dropped the conservationist charade? (Other than environmentalists getting righteously indignant for a while?) Do you think it’s a worthwhile risk, or are publicity stunts enough for now?

less than we bargained for {part 1}

Get up and go; don’t wait for the world to change!” I said. Does that sound like ignorance to you? It does to those of my peers who are making our generation famous for things like technology obsession and living at Mom and Dad’s. These “under-employed” college grads complain a lot about money. They can’t afford gas, can’t pay their student loans, can’t believe the cost of rent. Because of this, I wish personal finance (without a debt mentality) were a required course in all high schools. I pity everyone who left home and school without receiving a warning about the perils of living beyond one’s means and using credit to pick up the slack.

students at commencement ceremony

image courtesy of Smithsonian Institution

Our attitude that we will always be in debt, as a country and as individuals, is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that to embrace the attitude is to reject escape. Many have truly fallen prey to unscrupulous lenders. Read Matt Taibbi’s article “The College Loan Scandal…” on Rolling Stone if you’d like to raise your blood pressure. Then for balance (or to make you angrier) go to National Review Online’s “The Corner” and read Jason Richwine’s “What ‘Profits?’“, a denunciation of Taibbi’s article.

The point is that people are signing papers without understanding the fine print. There is a reason the ancient proverb warns, “The rich rule over the poor and the borrower is slave to the lender” (Proverbs 22:7). As high school grads prepare to become college students this month, I hope they’re thinking long-term. It’s a high hope, I know.

Here are my thoughts on college and what it sets a person up for:

Go to college, yes! But not by all means. Guidance counselors, teachers, admissions reps, and parents have bees in their bonnets. Those bees buzz madly in your elders’ ears: “Only failures skip college.” But, um, college itself is not the maker/breaker. Don’t tell them I told you.

-College is not your birthright but it is a wonderful opportunity. It’s a semi-controlled environment where you can practice being an adult (or not). You can meet great people, have well-organized opportunities, and learn things that are harder to learn independently. I don’t know many people disciplined enough to sit down and analyze literature or practice algebra on their own.

-College can pave the way for you to get hired, but there are also “unmarked” entrances to the job market. I probably would not have landed my post-college job in a public library except by working for free for a summer. The library directors preferred to hire people with Master’s degrees, but my volunteering gave them a chance to “test drive” me as an employee, and they decided I was alright. My point is twofold: some employers will completely ignore you if your education ended after high school. Sometimes you’ll get dismissed even with your Bachelor’s degree. But there are ways around this.

You can go to college without debt. Really. I didn’t say this year. But you can. You can put off going to school until you’ve saved some money and secured some scholarships. You can complete basic courses at your community college—just make sure they’ll transfer. In hindsight I wish I had done this because the rates per credit hour were much cheaper at CC than at the private school I chose instead! Another option is to head straight for the four-year campus and work your way through. Sometimes that may hamper your social life, but…pay now or pay later, I say. After college it will be the borrowers who have to work all the time. You may even find campus activities—things you’d do for fun—that pay. I paid part of my way by editing the campus yearbook.

Only go to college if you can articulate your reasons for going. If it’s just because “all my friends are” or “my parents want me to,” see if  you can wait a while. Getting a degree simply for the sake of getting a degree could be a huge waste of money. It all depends on what you want to do. Find out if people who hire entry-level positions for your dream job value education or experience more. If everyone with whom you share your plans retorts, “What are you going to do with that?” by all means give them a sassy answer but then think about it. Do they have a point?

-That said, when you know what you want and have the financial wherewithal to accomplish it without signing your life on a dotted line, go!

Okay, anyone who’s been there, done that—or bucked expectations and not gone there, done that—what advice would you offer to high school grads with college in their sights?

equal footing on yahoo news

It may sound as if I’m picking on Yahoo but I’m only using it to illustrate a trend in news reporting and aggregating. Since I started using Yahoo email (recently) I’ve found the juxtapositions on the home page startling.

screenshot of headlines on Yahoo News August 23, 2013

We live in a world where news of wildly differing degrees of importance is presented on equal footing. Do I want to read about a “wacky hairdo” or the plight of a Syrian refugee? Developing details of the apparent murder of a WWII veteran or the first public appearance of North West? It’s fine with me if people want to read entertainment news and other “fluffy” fare. I’ll come right out and admit I’m obsessed with Kate Middleton, but it bothers me that a beautiful picture of a duchess and her family shows up above a picture of a young man receiving oxygen after a chemical weapon attack.

Maybe this is pandering: news services want to offer what people want to read. And I can definitely see the possibility that if the serious stuff were relegated to a “serious place” there’s a chance fewer people would read it. Mixing it in with things that are fun to read may actually allow it to reach a wider audience.

Something about it still troubles me, though. Would it make sense to divide an aggregate’s home page into sections–each quarter devoted to its own type of news: world headlines, celebrity gossip, nutty trends, U.S. politics…? What do you think?

Are the people who design the presentation of this information finally achieving the journalistic ideal of being fair and balanced, or are they mistakenly encouraging their readers to view all headlines as equally weighty?

doing good vs. knowing God

I was raised going to church, Sunday school, youth group, Bible studies, and even a Christian summer camp a couple times. After all that, my understanding of what it meant to be a Christian was still incomplete. It included a lot of pressure to do certain things regularly and with great enthusiasm. I thought I was supposed to:

-read my Bible every day

-pray, but without focusing too much on asking for things, especially for myself

-listen to only Christian music, or at least music without any swear words or references to violence, sex, or criminal mischief (Good Charlotte was popular at the time, what can I say?)

-I want to add “vote Republican” to the list, which would be a joke…sort of. This list could go on but you get the idea.

On the one hand it was easy to do these things because they were concrete. “Did I read my Bible today?” was a yes or no question, a pass/fail test. The problem was that I often failed. My main motivation to do the things on the list was simply the fact that they were on the list.

That sounds stupid, doesn’t it? But remember when we talked about extremes? I think “should do” lists are a mild but still damaging form of religious extremism, often directed against oneself. I’m not saying spiritual discipline is undesirable. I am saying that if spiritual discipline is pursued as a drudging duty, then it misses the mark.

Just over a year ago, after years of alternating between performing the empty rituals of religion and posing it some furious questions, something clicked for me. It was in a Power of a Praying Wife study with a group of three other women, all of us newly married or soon to be married, when it dawned on me  that we weren’t reading this book and praying together so we could get good grades on our spiritual report cards. We were doing it because it made a difference in our lives. We wanted to change, so we prayed for ourselves. We wanted to support our husbands, so we prayed for them. We wanted to understand how God wanted us to pray, so we read Bible verses and a book. None of the activities were ends in themselves. They were all things we did because we wanted to do them, and we wanted to do them because they led us somewhere we wanted to go. We weren’t trying to do good. We were trying to know God.

All it took was a subtle shift in perspective and suddenly I started to understand things I had gone years without understanding. Maybe the most important thing was that God hates sin but he’s not keeping score. In the past, if I skipped a day of Bible reading I would sometimes feel so guilty and defeated that the next day I wouldn’t even try. My thinking went something like, “I already failed so what’s the point?”

Now I understand the importance of some of the little bits of the Bible I used to ignore. For example, the part where it says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). So, wait. God offered us his greatest gift—defeating death and offering life through Jesus—before we had done anything we might consider good? Then there’s the oft-quoted, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Do you know what comes next?! (It’s so exciting!) “All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24).

This is bizarre. I want to know more about it. I’ve swum in a sea of religion my whole life, cycling both truth and deceit through my gills so many times I find them both familiar. But now I want to sort them out from each other. I want to figure out which ideas about God are right, and I know I can find out by reading the Bible. Sometimes what I read there makes me mad. Sometimes it fills me with hope. Sometimes it sounds too good to be true. But now I believe it all is true, and that’s not just a Sunday school answer.

What about you? What’s your perspective on the idea of doing good? What helps you to know God?

he struggles

I just read that the name Israel probably means “he struggles with God.” Wow. This week I had a conversation with a friend about how we struggle in our faith. We question its place in a pluralistic society. We revisit certain doubts over and over. So I find it encouraging to read that Israel is named for struggle.

That means God knows us as we really are. Israel was the name of a man before it became the name of the nation of his descendants, but what man and nation share is a history of struggle. Israel was born Jacob, the conniving twin of Esau; the man who dreamed of angels on a stairway from earth to heaven; the man who wrestled with God. Much like him, I have pretended to be what I am not. I have dreamed big, then gone back to my old ways of living. I have tried to take hold of God with the same demand Jacob made after fighting all night: “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

The blessing in Jacob’s case was a new name. The blessing in my case is knowing that God understands. He may not answer all my questions, at least not right away. When Jacob asked, “Please tell me your name” he only replied, “Why do you ask my name?” But Jacob, now Israel, knew. He said, “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”

I think sometimes we believe that God doesn’t want anything to do with us until we have our lives and our thoughts in order. Doesn’t this prove otherwise?