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?

get up and go!

You’ve trained for years; your skills on the road live up to your credentials on paper. Your car is a thing of beauty: it boasts smooth new tires; aerodynamic fins and spoilers; and shiny body panels adorned with multicolored decals. Getting here took a lot of time and cost a lot of money. You’re ready to roar out there and show everybody what you’re made of!

Other vehicles pull up near yours as the excitement of race time nears. But something’s not right. The other drivers tower above you in jacked-up trucks. The engines rumble gracelessly. You look around and notice that what you assumed would be a groomed surface is actually a dusty expanse. This isn’t the track race you meant to compete in. This is a demolition derby.

Monster Truck Big_foot

Welcome to life as a Millennial. It seemed like we’d been receiving invective left and right until new voices rose as loud and clear as our detractors’. (Thanks, Matt Bors, Greg Rachke, Telefonica, and others I just haven’t found yet.)

Whether you’re one of the elders who finds Millennials infuriating or one of the “failed launches” the elders love to disdain, here’s the thing. The job market isn’t what we thought it would be. The people who coaxed us into college with promises of easy-to-pay loans and viable jobs didn’t necessarily mean to set us up for the disappointment we face. But now we’re here, sleek and shiny in a world too rough-and-tumble for our taste, so let’s make the most of it.

The skills we devoted ourselves to mastering are still assets, even if we have to learn flexibility in how we apply them. Instead of defining ourselves narrowly—“I have a theatre degree therefore I will be an actor!”—we can be adaptive—“I have a theatre degree which has put me in contact with dozens of creative people, taught me a great deal about human nature, and given me practice in presenting myself with poise and persuasiveness.” What does that translate to, job-wise? The hospitality industry? Copy-writing? Dare I say it…retail? Yeah, okay, we’re all mad that the entry-level jobs don’t exactly line up with our impressive skill sets. And we’re truly steamed that the pay is paltry compared to the salary projections we were shown when we set course toward a “real job.”

But I’m with the naysayers in thinking that we need to get over ourselves in that regard. It’s okay that we’re taken by surprise. It’s not okay to sit there complaining about it, or, as John Mayer put it, “waiting on the world to change.” If you’re reading this in Mom and Dad’s basement, I’m okay with that as long as you’re not feeling sorry for yourself. As long as you’re not planning to live there until you’re forty. As long as you’re still game to grab the steering wheel and at least make a go of it, even if it’s a bumpier ride than you bargained for.

More to come on this….

In the meantime, elders weigh in, but if you got your talking points from TIME I’m not going to publish your comment. We already know what the article says, okay? Millennials, how are you adapting to survive in this unfamiliar landscape?

[image “Monster truck: BigFoot” taken by Jot Powers 10/2004, used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license {cc-by-sa-2.0}]