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?


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?

Is moderation possible?

Have you noticed how much easier it is to have extreme opinions than it is to have moderate ones? I’ve been thinking about it. A couple months ago one of my friends who was about to have a baby started a thought-provoking conversation with me about the challenge of balanced parenting. Both of us had strict upbringings we didn’t care to recreate for our own kids (hers actual, mine theoretical), but we didn’t want to react by being laissez-faire parents.

Then recently my husband got caught yet again in the scenario where he tries to provide clarity on the composition and behavior of high fructose corn syrup. (My husband has a chemistry degree; do not talk hype to him if you cherish your opinion.) He feels frustrated that so many people accept media fear-mongering instead of analyzing the facts.

The point is that the middle ground can feel shaky. Moderation requires us to step into the fire between both extremes. No one is really an enemy, but neither is anyone really a friend. We don’t get the joy of jumping up and down shrieking, “Oh my stars; we agree on everything!”

It feels good to agree with others, or to have them agree with us. Problem: it’s not healthy to agree on everything.  As Benjamin Franklin said, “Approve not of him who commends all you say.”

Here’s another thing about moderation. Between Extreme One and Extreme Two stands a third party to the conflict: self. Liberals might swipe from the left; conservatives shoot from the right; while in the midst of that a time bomb known as your mind persistently ticks off its questions. “Am I right? Is this worth standing alone?” Too much pressure from right or left, or too much self-doubt in the middle, and suddenly the ground can give way, prompting you to seek shelter on one side or the other.

On most issues we actually have more than two choices. On every issue we should ask ourselves whether one of the extremes is truly our philosophical home or just a cozy place to nest amid other people’s ideas. To me the path of least resistance, politically speaking, looks suspiciously like the road to hell.

What are some issues where you’d like to see third (or fourth, etc.) options become more viable? What are your ideas for helping those options gain momentum?