Friday, April 25, 2008

The Wrong Question

My wife and I recently went on (and thoroughly enjoyed) our first cruise. The picture is of me standing in front of the boat. I found myself totally fascinated by how *big* the thing was. The day our cruise departed, we could see the boat from our hotel room. If you had turned it on it's side, it would have been taller than most of the tallest buildings that were in the area. And our boat (at 855 ft) is not even close to the biggest cruise ship. Not only do these things have all the accoutrements of a resort hotel, but the thing is mobile! Most of the pictures that I took, much to the surprise of my wife, were to capture the awe that I had of that situation.

One accoutrement that we really enjoyed was the attentiveness of the service staff. For long time cruisers, this is not surprising. But for my first time, the fact that our cabin steward remembered my name after my having told it to him only once, and that our wait staff were genuinely friendly was a level of service that my wife and my frugality do not usually encounter. We really liked the different animals that we'd seen on our bed that were constructed from towels.

At some point, my wife and I started to consider the tip that we should be giving to the service staff. The cruise director made some comment that was created for the purpose of encouraging bigger tips. She said that a large proportion of their earnings came from the tips, so tip generously. So we did a little math, and concluded that these people were making significantly less than minimum wage for the amount of work that they did. When we talked to them, we discovered that 14-15 hour days are normal for them. Our assistant waiter, Erix, had been on the boat for 6 months (a standard length of time). During which time, his most recent child was born, whom he had not yet met. He expressed quite a bit of excitement for the current cruise to end because he was going home to meet his child.

For my wife, this was an unforgivable horror. How could the cruise line not allow him to go home to be with his wife during the birth of their child? For me, considering the pittance of wage that they made, it seemed extreme and I was washed over with a pang of guilt. So much work was being done for us, and we were paying almost nothing for it. I confirmed with my wife that she was feeling the same thing. This feeling was strong enough that it made me seriously consider whether or not I would go on another cruise in the future.

Fortunately, I remembered economics, and I realized that we had assumed an answer to a question, but that it was the wrong question. So I asked our head waitress, Chonmila, why she did this job. Why would she submit herself to long work hours, the long stays away from home, etc. Her answer was what I expected but was a complete surprise to my wife: "Because the money is so good." Chonmila went on to say that she's lucky to have the job. The line of people waiting to get the job is really long.

We had fallen prey to viewing the world of the service staff through the lens of living in the wealthiest country in the world. We assumed that pay that was less than the U.S. minimum wage would be grossly insufficient to make ends meet. But we'd ignored two important things in coming to our initial conclusion:
  1. The cost of living in the country where the person resided
  2. The alternative wages available to each server on the boat
And the 2nd point is the most important. Whatever you think of the U.S. minimum wage for Americans, it's might be a huge salary in some other country. Additionally, if the only other alternative for me is making much less money, then even the minimum wage seems like a great deal.

Now to be certain, there are probably people on the boat who are likely making less money that the people we got to talk to. Perhaps they're making much less than the alternatives available at home, but they're holding out hope for a promotion in order to make much more than their alternatives. Or perhaps they're from a wealthy country, but they take the job that pays them much less because they enjoy taking a day off on a nice sunswept beach. I have no idea why all of them are there. But I'm certain that none of them are their by force. All of them are there because they believe that this is the option that best maximizes the things they want at this point in their lives, be it money, leisure, etc.

So stopping cruising is the wrong thing to do. If all of the customers felt guilty enough to stop cruising, every single person on the boat would have to go get a job that was less than this option for them. We would, in fact, be appeasing our moral sensibilities at the expense of their jobs. We'd be limiting their freedom in order to feel better about ourselves.

There's no rational reason to feel guilty about cruising. I'll gladly do it again... as soon as I save up enough money to afford it.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Update: Hankerin'

In a previous post, I said:
I think God still thinks that all of our governments are unnecessary.

I later thought the statement may have been too strong. But after re-discovering Greg Boyd, it turns out that I'm not alone in my thoughts about government. And it may, in fact, be biblical:
So far I've tried to establish that, according to the Bible, earthly governments are premised on mistrust of the rule of God (I Sam. 8). It was not part of God's original plan for humans, but rather exists as a way of God accommodating himself to human sin. I've also tried to establish that, from God's perspective, all governments are "less than nothing" (Isa 40:15-17). Since our trust is exclusively in this God, the "ruler of the nations," we should adopt this same perspective. To live under the reign of God is to live solely under the reign of God and to therefore regard earthly government as insignificant.

What I now want to argue is that all human governments are not only premised on mistrust: they are actually ruled by Satan. In Luke 4:5-7 Satan offered Jesus all the authority of the governments of the world, for he claimed to own all this authority and claimed that he could give it to whoever he wanted. What's amazing is that Jesus does not dispute his claim. He granted that Satan owned this authority and thus could give it to whoever he wanted. But he refused to put himself under Satan's rule to acquire governmental authority.

What he's describing is something called "Christian Anarchy". I had no idea such a thing existed. But, after my first skim of it, it sounds pretty good to me. (I'm not ready to totally jump on board yet. I may end up disagreeing with it as I learn more about it.)

American Poverty

I am a Crown Financial small group leader at my church. That means that I periodically lead a class where people learn God's plan for the use of money. I say that I lead the class, rather than teach it, because I'm involved mainly because I need to keep the ideas fresh in my mind. In other words, I'm re-learning these ideas every time I participate in the class. I just happen to have done it before so it's beneficial to have me lead the class.

In any case, one section in the class is on giving. And it talks about two general topics: giving to the church, and giving to the poor. And invariably I am in a minority in the class when I report that I simply can't get myself worked up about poverty in the U.S. My claim is that the poor here live like kings when compared to where real poverty exists. Here are some facts about poverty in the U.S:

The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various gov­ernment reports:

  • Forty-three percent of all poor households actu­ally own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.

  • Eighty percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, in 1970, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.

  • Only 6 percent of poor households are over­crowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.

  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)

  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 31 percent own two or more cars.

  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.

  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.

  • Eighty-nine percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and more than a third have an automatic dishwasher.

As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consump­tion of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms.

Now, of course, that doesn't mean that poverty doesn't exist in the US. The above are averages. And there certainly are poeple here who fall below those averages. But compare that with developing nations. And what do you find that's different? Poverty in places like Africa and China is killing people. Here, almost no one dies of starvation. Instead the focus is on increasing access of "the poor" to middle class goods and services.

So what's the difference? Here, we've actually done something about poverty. And what have we done? We have a government that protects liberty better than anywhere else in the world. That liberty allows for innovation which drags the entire country out of poverty. Yes the rich get richer. But by every measurable account, so do the poor. The things we've done here should be the model for attacking poverty throughout the world.

But I find it increasingly difficult to find an organization who's willing to actually teach the world to fish! Now, I give to those programs even though I think they're not helping in the long run, because people's lives are at stake. I'm happy to argue about the most effective way to fix it in the long run as long as we're keeping people from dieing in the short run. But almost no one is talking about how to fix the main thing that keeps poor countries poor: bad government. For example, consider Africa, as reported by this African:

The amount that the developed nations give to Africa creates an incentive for the African governments to dedicate *MOST* of their time collecting more handouts instead of using the generosity to produce an economy that works without handouts.

I'm anxious to read Shane Claiborne's book but before I even crack it, I'm skeptical that it's really going to do much to increase focus on long-run solutions to poverty. Which is where the real gains are. I don't mean to say that we should diminish any short run solutions. I just wish that there was *some* support for long-run solutions.