Coming Soon – Super Crops

I know, I know — Paul Ehrlich said the Green Revolution was a failure in
the late 1960s and that settles it, but a diverse group of scientists recently
told the European Commission that they can continue to improve crops to increase
yields and reduce the environmental impacts of human agriculture.

A July 10 Reuters Information Service report noted that 130 laboratories which
took part in a European Commission project in 1993 reported on their diverse
efforts to improve crops through genetic engineering.

Brian Forde of the Institute of Arable Crop Research used his grant to create
plants that need less fertilizer. Forde says his team has isolated a gene that
controls the important process of nitrate uptakes from soil. Forde’s goal
is to make the plant even more efficient at nitrate uptake.

Michel Cobech and others at France’s National Institute for Agricultural
Research are conducting similar research on aspergillus, a common fungus.

Others reported success in finding genes that help plants live in saltier conditions
or in the presence of drought conditions.

Imagine that — crops which produce more, use less fertilizer and more resistant
to inclement environmental conditions. Don’t get your hopes up too high,
though, because remember — Ehrlich said it was impossible in the 1960s and
that settles it.

Famine In North Korea

North Korea is on the verge of famine. According to the United Nations up
to 4.7 million people are at risk of starvation this summer unless North Korea
gets massive food assistance.

Why are so
many North Koreans so close to starving? The pat answer is that floods of agricultural
regions in 1995 and 1996 hurt agricultural production. A better answer is that
North Korea’s repressive, backward system of government prevents people
from adapting to changing conditions.

Starvation in the 20th century has almost exclusively been caused by actions
taken by governments, and North Korea’s situation is no different. Since
the early 1960s North Koreas has followed an ideology of chuch’e
— a combination of self-reliance and autarky that has proved stifling to North
Korea’s economy.

Combined with a military and industrial policy designed to shift workers toward
industry and away from agriculture, the North Korean government has done everything
in its power to ensure that any floods or drought will be followed quickly by
widespread famine. North Korea is one of the few places in the world which still
attempts collectivized agriculture and now it is paying the price.

The emphasis on industry hasn’t gotten North Korea very far either. Although
some observers note that North Korea’s economy has grown quite a lot since
the early 1960s, they fail to note the growth is largely explained by increases
in inputs such as labor and raw materials rather than improvements in efficiencies
and productivity. As a result, North Korea’s exports are extremely low
and North Korea is unable to use trade to make up for any food shortages.

The lessons of 20th century famines are clear — excessive state intervention
in the economy in general and the agricultural sector in particular can have
deadly consequences.

The Oil Glut

Of course the world is running out of oil and the entire fossil fuel economy
is on borrowed time, which makes me wonder why there’s still so damn much
of the stuff around. A July 8 story by Reuters Information Service reported
that even with a rise in U.S. demand for oil, crude prices declined dramatically
this spring and are expected to fall even further when Iraq resumes exporting

The International Energy Agency
reported that its revised forecast of 1997 world oil demand was 73.8 million
barrels per day. At the same time world oil inventories rose an estimated 1.6
million barrels per day in the second quarter of 1997. The Washington-based
Petroleum Finance Company said, “… crude production will outstrip demand
by an average of one million bpd in 1997.

The result was predictable — crude oil futures have fallen 30 percent in 1997,
hitting a low of $17.32 in mid-June.

“I Don’t Believe In A Global Doomsday Scenario”

In a small blurb in the July 1997 issue of Discover, demographer Wolfgang Lutz
confirmed the main thesis of the Overpopulation FAQ — the doomsday population
scenarios aren’t going to happen.

“I don’t believe in a global doomsday scenario,” said Lutz,
who is a demographer at the International
Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
and editor of the IIASA’s recent
book, “The
Future of World Population
.” The IIASA is a highly respected group
which has been involved in the creation of the often-cited United Nations models
predicting future world population.

Unlike population doomsayers such as Paul Ehrlich, Lutz assembled a panel of
20 experts in areas such as fertility, mortality, population migration to examine
past scenarios of population growth and create a new model. The result? The
most likely scenario produced by the group forecasts world population growing
to 10.6 billion by 2050 and then declining in the latter half of the 21st and
beginning of the 22nd century.

Continuing declines in fertility levels around the world, increased urbanization,
and an increase in educational opportunities for women are just some of the
factors which Lutz and the panel believe will bring fertility rates to replacement
level by 2050.

Shugars’ Vote Correct on Minimum Wage

       Feb. 16 columnist Charlotte
Channing reported that Democrats plan to use state Sen. Dale Shugars’,
R-Portage, vote against an increase in the minimum wage to target him
in next year’s election campaign.

       She quotes Michigan Democratic
Chariman Mark Brewer saying, “Today, Dale Shugars cemented his reputation
as an extremist” by voting against the minimum wage increase.

       What is “extremist”
about not forcing workers with few skills into unemployment? When did
protecting employment opportunities for the poor become an “extremist”

       There is no great mystery about
the effect of minimum wage laws — over the long term, their net effect
is to raise unemployment for precisely those workers who, due to a lack
of skills, most need jobs.

       People such as Brewer make
a faulty assumption about raising the minimum wage. They assume that if
a business employes 10 people before a minimum wage increase, it will
continue to employ 10 people after the minimum wage increase. In some
business this will occur, but in most the owner will find a way to eliminate
employees until his labor costs are as low as what they were before the
increase in the minimum wage.

       One way an owner can do this
is by replacing human beings with machines. A machine that might not have
been cost effective when an employee was paid $3.35 an hour merits a second
look when the employer is forced to arbitrarily raise wage rates to $4.75
an hour.

       Other business will respond
by eliminating or consolidating positions, and not expanding their hiring
as quickly as they would have before the rise in minimum wages. Downsizing
is already prevalent in many industries, minimum wage laws only accelerate
that tend.

       Even when businesses don’t
reduce their staffs, the raise in minimum wage hurts people with few skills
by making low skill jobs attractive to more highly skilled people. Kalamazoo,
for example, has many college students in its job market. As the minimum
wage rises to $4.75, they will tend to compete more for jobs which seemed
unattractive at $3.35. The result, which has been documented by several
studies of states which raised the minimum wage, is to benefit workers
from middle class families at the expense of workers in poor families.

       Yet those who propose raising
the minimum wage portray themselves as the ones who care and are compassionate
about the working poor, while those, such as Shugars, who oppose a measure
harmful to the poor are excoriated as “extremists.”

       If indeed Shugars is an “extremist”
for opposing a measure which hurts the working poor, then what this state
needs is more extremists in the state Senate.

       This article originally appeared
in the Kalamazoo Gazette.

Free the Athletes – Scrap the NCAA

A group called Trial Lawyers
for Public Justice is suing the National Collegiate Athletic Association
(NCAA). The group claims that the use of Scholastic Assessment Test
(SAT) scores to decide who can play college sports discriminates against
black athletes. The real problem, however, is that the NCAA is a cartel
that harms the interests of all athletes, black and white.

The NCAA’s main goal is to reduce
the labor costs to member schools by providing athletes who earn next
to nothing, while bringing in millions of dollars in revenues to member
colleges and universities.

In its lawsuit, the trial
lawyers group notes that students who fail to achieve high SAT scores
are still eligible to act in school plays or any other assortment of
extracurricular activities. Somehow college drama clubs manage to survive
without any sort of national governing body. Why are sports different?

Because sports, unlike other
extracurricular activities, can earn millions of dollars for their universities.
The huge sums of money involved, however, put universities and colleges
in a bind. Only a small number of talented athletes are available. If
colleges were alllowed to compete for players by offering them salaries
commensurate with their abilities, labor prices for athletes would quickly

The solution colleges have
agreed on is one diverse groups — from oil-producing nations to grain
producers — have tried at one time or another.

They have formed a cartel.
In this case, the heart of the cartel is an agreement between colleges
never to offer players anything more than a scholarship as compensation.
Since the stakes are so high, though, each school has an incentive to
cheat, as scandal after scandal of players getting paid with money and
other gifts has revealed. The primary job of the NCAA, then, is to enforce
the agreement.

In most industries, this
conduct would be highly illegal. Executives who conspired to artificially
lower the wages of their workers would likely find themselves in court.

To convince people to support
its cartel, the NCAA trots out arbitrary SAT requirements and appeals
to the academic mission of the university. Intercollegiate athletics
long ago passed from the real of normal extracurricular activity to
a huge money-making machine. All the NCAA does by imposing the SAT and
other academic requirements is give kids with few options even fewer
options by denying them a chance to show off their talents.

The sad thing is that the
NCAA cartel doesn’t necessarily save schools money as much as it shifts
that money around. Consider the Division I football champions, the University
of Florida. None of the players for Florida earned anything more (officially,
at least) than their scholarships. Yet Florida head coach Steve Spurrier
earns $1.1 million a year. All the NCAA does in Florida’s case is take
money that would otherwise go to players and instead give part of it
to the coaches, who are allowed to have different universities compete
for their services by offering higher salaries.

This bowl season, games paid
out an astounding $200 million, none of which can be given to any of
the players responsible for the wins without violating NCAA rules.

Some people are concerned
that paying athletes to play would hurt already low graduation rates
among athletes. In fact, according to the NCAA the graduation rate among
athletes is already higer than among the general student population.

The problem wth graduation
rates — fewer than half of the students who enter a four-year university
as freshmen ever receive their degrees — is a probem endemic to the
particular way American higher education is financed and administered.
Paying players is unlikely to affect it either way.

What paying players would
do is free them from a system in which they do most of the work and
assume all of the risk, yet are prevented from sharing in the results
of their labor. The best way to accomplish this goal is to get rid of
the NCAA.

Postscript: in the summer of 1997, University of Florida football
coach Steve Spurrier signed a contract paying him a reported $2 million
a year. His players are still legally forbidden to accept any compensation
aside from their scholarships.

This article originally appeared in the Detroit News.