Global vs Personal Priorities – DON’T keep mixing them up people!

Major breakthrough today in my confusion about why everybody gets so angry at me for suggesting the obvious – that we are pretty selfish, and than many of the concerns that today masquerade as “selfless” are in fact … selfish concerns.

My frustration and confusion stems from the fact that I know a lot of good folks really want the world to be a better place, are willing to devote time and treasure to that end, and are bright, generally rational people.    Yet I also see so many of these folks working – often as “activists” for the right or left – in ways that don’t really seem to me to be productive.    More like obsessive compulsive, and in many cases actually counterproductive, where the activism simply polarizes the debate and makes it harder to reach the compromises needed to move ahead.   (Health care reform comes to mind in this respect).

The breakthrough?    Good people are too busy trying to convince themselves that their personal priorities line up with global priorities when in reality …. they usually do NOT line up at all.     It’s this conflict that leads people to  get angry at me when I say  “hey, why not devote the time and treasure to health care in 3rd world rather than a new hospital wing or university wing in USA?”.       The reason is that folks can’t bring themselves to admit that the hospital / university donation is a more accessible kind of charity (for those of us in the wealthy world) and will have a lot more visibility and personal satisfaction for them than giving that money for a bunch of PlumpyNut or Oral Rehydration Therapy in the third world.

This, I maintain, is a moral travesty and an unconscionable state of affairs.     The return on investment by any rational measure is spectacular  with one form of giving and trivial with the other.

Opposing comments are, as always, very welcome…

Cuba and the Human Development Index

Cuba’s economic failures are now in the spotlight as they finally realize they need to change their socialist nightmare economy into something more … sustainable.    But Cuba’s problems are too often cited without a recognition of the success they have had in health care and education and poverty reduction.      This has come at what most would say is a serious expense in terms of personal freedoms, economic, and especially political freedom.   However it is important to note that on the best measure of overall “well being”, Cuba ranks 51st of all the countries.

Now, if we can only get all the fake conservatives to stop supporting the embargo which is a violation of free trade principles we *REAL* conservatives hold dear, maybe the good folks in Cuba can get cracking on the sustained and sustainable economic progress they so richly deserve.

More about the HDI:

The UN’s Human Development Index
From WikiPedia:

The HDI combines three dimensions:

Feeling Good vs Doing Good

It seems these days I’m often pissing off friends and family for suggesting something that, frankly, is pretty obvious.     Most of what passes as “doing good” these days are activities that make the feel-gooders feel good about themselves, their community, and life in general (that’s fine of course), but don’t do much to make the world a better place.    It’s fine to engage in things that you enjoy that do not contribute to the greater good, but it is very important to recognize the difference, and not to conflate feel-good stuff with actual do-good stuff.

Real good comes in many forms, and thank goodness their are a LOT of people doing real good all around us.  Friends and neighbors working and volunteering in health care, teaching, law enforcement, and hundreds of other public service jobs,  NGOs  building schools all over,  Church groups teaching, etc, etc.    Many of the folks doing that stuff are heroic, braving all kinds of bad conditions to bring health care, education, food, and good will to those who need it most.

But without even pointing out those obvious ‘feel good’ activities I’m going to hope we make better progress than we seem to be *re-defining* what it means to “do good”.

Those of us in the middle and up classes here in the USA enjoy historically unprecedented standards of living, and even those on welfare here in the USA live well by any reasonable global standards.    Bringing this higher *standard of living* to the small numbers in the US and the huge numbers in other countries who do not benefit from our system is the greatest moral challenge of our time, yet I can’t help but think that the many “feel gooders” (and even worse – the political spenders on both sides of the political aisle) are distracting us and redirecting resources very inefficiently to projects that will have little significant positive impact.

As always, hoping folks chime in with their views about this, and for what it’s worse I’d agree that blogging is probably NOT an example of doing much if any good!     Maybe I’m my own best example of the problem?

Misplaced compassion … kills

One of the most obvious things I assert is also the thing that bothers people the most.   It’s that most of us tend to fret or show  compassion over trivial or questionable things while we ignore the catastrophic circumstances that plague so many people around the world.

A great recent example is the effort to “find Paco”, a dog that was “lost” by Delta Airlines during a trip back to (the UK?) from Mexico.     As with most stories like this, the perception  at first glance is heart wrenching.    But then the facts clear up why this story is ridiculously overblown.

Paco was a stray, picked up by a tourist couple, who then had him shipped home.   It appears he escaped from his cage while on the tarmac in Mexico City and  (I’m speculating here) headed back to the places where he’s more comfortable living.    Sad for the couple, but hardly all that newsworthy, especially given the apparent outrage against Delta.

Delta’s offer to credit the couple only $200 for a lost pet was obviously a stupid move on their part, but I resent that people don’t get all the facts out there when trying to push these stories to a gullible public.    If you are a compassionate person you MUST IGNORE PACO and spend your time thinking about the daily deaths of thousands from Malaria, rotovirus, and lack of clean water.    Yes that task is more than  overwhelming, but the whimpy “Find Paco”  sentiment that people think makes them a “compassionate person” does nothing of the kind – it hardens them to the plight of millions who live in conditions we could largely fix if people would pay as much attention to that as they pay to missing stray dogs in Mexico.      (How?   If the developed world cut defense and entitlement spending by about 10% we could rebuild most of the developing world’s infrastructure  IN ONLY A FEW YEARS.     The strategic benefits alone would be staggering, but military enthusiasts are too blinded by irrational post-cold-war thinking while entitlement enthusiasts are too busy sending subsidies to the American lower and middle class, who contrary to our constant whining cost far more in bureaucracies and benefits than we pay for  (can you say “National Debt”?)

The millions spent sending poor Free Willie back into the wild also comes to mind (he died soon after, lacking the skills needed to survive).       Did people seriously think Willie would be happier in the wild?    It was as if their *need* to fight against captivity programs trumped the animal’s own well being.

So instead of fretting over things that don’t matter much, why not pick your favorite extreme poverty charity and help out – then you can feel good…. AND actually do some good too!    Here’s a start:

Hope for Haiti Concert – Beyonce

Donate Now: 1-877-99-HAITI in US/Canada, or go to

The music from this concert was pretty amazing, and if you buy it from iTunes it’ll help Haitians recover from what now appears to be one of the greatest natural disasters in many years.

There’s a lot of political discussion that should center around how to best help developing countries, but I think that should wait until after we address the emergency needs with water, food, medicines, and security. After that I hope we start an international discussion about what it takes to rebuild a failed state into the healthy and vibrant democracy people deserve to live in – the kind of country we in the USA take for granted.

Cost Benefit Analysis and the Environment

One of the most interesting topics right now is how to allocate risks and costs with respect to environmental problems like climate change.    I’m having an email discussion with my good pal John and thought I’d bring some of that online for others to comment:

RE:  Cost Benefit Analysis and Environment:

John’s:  It is very easy to distort their definitions towards a point of view rather than towards something necessarily valid.  Not that cost/benefit is never useful.  It is very useful when the costs and benefits are relatively simple to define.  Unfortunately costs from environmental degradation and benefits from efforts to change behavior are very difficult to delineate.  In the end through the early environmental movement persistence and intelligent thinking about clean water and air prevailed over those who used cost/benefit analysis.

Joe:  Very good points except I’m not at all convinced about your last sentence.   I used to agree with that but (without enough research) I’d say we needed cost benefits and failed to do them, leading to massive spending or bans on things that had little impact on the overall quality or simply shifted industrial damages to poor countries.   I’ve lost a LOT of respect for mainstream US environmentalism because I think it is not a global perspective and it’s mostly emotional rather than analytical, leading to bizarre policy and spending recommendations that don’t line up with long term planning and well being. Kyoto – now partially discredited even in environmental camps as an ineffective and bad approach – is an excellent example of how emotion drives policy.

Although there is enough right wing froth to confuse the analysis, another example of emotion trumping reason seems to be the Silent Spring / DDT ban which as far as I can tell will eventually be seen as one of the greatest and catastrophic (in terms of lives lost) errors of environmental thinking – though it would be very hard to model/evaluate the damages to ecosystem if we’d kept spraying.  Still, the facts suggest we had a moral imperative to keep using DDT which would have saved *tens of millions* who have since died from Malaria.   If those had been US kids there is NO WAY the ban would have stuck.
The same imperative – I would argue – that should focus us on malaria and malnutrition while we should largely ignore climate change.
You are certainly right about Lomborg being a lightning rod for controversy, but I’d encourage you to look at his TED talk or other writings.   I’d suggest he’s a very clear thinker, pilloried unfairly by the vested interests of an increasingly entrenched climate and environmental bureacracy.    It’s not logical to think that the public sector is above all economic and political influences while the private sector is a prisoner to them.  Both are compromised, which is why the clearest voices come from people like Lomborg who have no dog in the fight other than “optimizing human experience”.   We can disagree about how to optimize things, but I want to hear more from people who have no stake in how we allocate resources.   That leaves out industry scientists …. and NASA as well, leaving us with thin pickings.    Still, I’d argue strongly – very strongly – that the best policy recommendations are coming from the economists who are looking at both costs and benefits.

Comments very welcome!