Friday, February 25, 2011

An American Lawn

My two youngest chaps have gotten the giggles over our neighbor’s front yard. We lean on the couch by our big front picture window and study the sight diagonally across the street. A tall flagpole with a small golden cross atop it supports an American flag, and beneath that a yellow Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) banner. To the right is a statue of an American soldier, at night doused in floodlights.

The chaps find this display simply gaudy. I see it as an example of some very well-intentioned ideas wrapped in unintentional cognitive dissonance.

The cross, Old Glory and the Gadsden flag could not be more dissonant. The first represents a kingdom not of this world; the second, an empire beyond even Alexander Hamilton’s wildest dreams; and the latter the kind of spirit that would no longer countenance the second. The cross aside, the Star-spangled banner/Gadsden combination is as humorous to me as the American/Confederate battle flag pairings frequently seen in this part of the country. But I understand the intent. Southerners are proud of their regional identity, but equally proud to be American. Likewise, I give my neighbor the benefit of the doubt; he intends to show that “America” and the U.S. federal government are not one in the same, and the Gadsden flag is there to remind Uncle Sam that there are limits, natural and/or constitutional, to his power (especially, he might add, if the occupier of the Oval Office is a Dimmycrat).

But then there is this matter of the soldier statue. Has it not occurred to my neighbor that the soldier it represents is a government employee, one that could conceivably be used against his own people? As George Mason wrote in the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), a standing army is a threat to liberty. But I understand where he’s coming from. As the father and grandfather of two women in the armed forces, both stationed in Afghanistan, he supports the troops. He also wants them brought home, which is why he supported Ron Paul’s bid to become the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. Apparently a majority of soldiers were on Paul’s bandwagon as well.

But his tone has changed some in the three years since. He has become more pragmatic. It’s more about getting Obama out of the Oval Office than Ron Paul in. “He ain’t purty enough,” he says of Paul, “and he ain’t a good enough public speaker to get nominated.” I understand those sentiments. “I don’t know,” he continues, “maybe that Romney can do somethin’.”

And that is beyond the limit of my understanding.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

"Fair" For Some

Just before Christmas St. Jude's Mission, along with other Anglican Mission churches, was asked to contribute to a "miracle" that would save a "fair trade" coffee operation in a certain East African country. I think the total amount this enterprise was seeking to raise was around $100,000. Apparently, if the business didn't raise this money it was going to default on a loan for a wash facility. So I asked myself, what kind of operation has to beg churches for a hundred grand in order to remain viable?

"Fair trade" coffee is an emotional subject because the people that support it do so passionately. And I am quite fine with that -- as long as it is clearly understood that "fair trade" amounts to a subsidy of a business based on supra-market prices. Furthermore, fair trade patrons ought to acknowledge the unintended consequences that attend this cause.

The term "fair trade" insinuates that there exists "unfair trade," i.e. free-market failure. Actually, we must understand that free markets are really few and far between. Yard sales (without a permit), flea markets and the like qualify as truly free markets. Coffee, like real estate and most other products, involves a regulated market. And no doubt certain Third World producers are jilted thanks to government regulation, corruption and patronage at some level.

But a price floor of $1.26/lb as stipulated under the provisions of fair trade licensure is its own kind of market distortion. A price floor, like a minimum wage or an agricultural subsidy, creates excess supply of the good in question. And excess supply means that marginal producers, e.g. some Third World farmers, are excluded from the coffee market. Therefore, this "good cause" is actually unfair to those farmers not a party to contracts held by the plantations. Just as a minimum wage creates the unintended consequence of higher unemployment among youth and lower-skilled workers, so the fair trade price floor results in the unemployment of some Third World farmers.

To point this out to some fair trade coffee drinkers is akin to insulting their mothers or questioning their religious convictions. So it goes on most economic questions. That people voluntarily choose to pay a higher price in support of their favorite Third World coffee plantation is perfectly their prerogative.

But it rubs me wrong when a church -- especially one as small and vulnerable as SJM -- is asked to shell out a goodly sum to bail out an enterprise that obviously isn't holding its own. There is nothing particularly "fair" or just about that in my reckoning.