What I've been reading

Since I’m presently travelling, I haven’t felt sufficiently up with the commentariat to offer any new thoughts on Lebanon, the Costello dummy spit, or why Casey Donovan has been dropped by her recording label.

However, I just finished one of the best nonfiction books I’ve read in ages. The Shackled Continent, by Robert Guest, is about why Africa is poor, and how it can get richer. Written by an Economist correspondent, you get the pithy writing and punchy analysis for which the mag is famous. A few of my favourite quotes.

On agricultural protection:

Bigger grocery bills particularly hurt the poor in rich countries because they spend a large chunk of their disposable income on food. Lawyers and lobbyists may not bother to read the price tags in the grocery store, but the jobless do.

On the Internet in Africa:

While surfing in Tanzania, I’ve overheard locals using Internet telephony to bypass the price-gouging state phone company, call Hong Kong, and sell hand-carved elephants for hard currency. In Niger, weather forecasts are downloaded from the Internet, relayed to local radio stations, and broadcast to cattle herders with wind-up radios. This tells the herders where to herd their cows for the best grazing, crucial information in a country that is mostly desert.


After the Black Death wiped out a third of the population of medieval Europe, many of the survivors were better off. Because so many died there was a sudden labor shortage, and land-owners were forced to pay their workers better.

Africans who survive AIDS will not be so lucky. AIDS takes longer to kill than the plague did, so the cost of caring for the sick will be much greater. Modern governments, unlike medieval ones, tax the healthy to look after the ailing, so the burden of AIDS will fall on everyone. And because AIDS is sexually transmitted, it tends to hit people in their most productive years.

What happens when Africans cannot use their homes as collateral to borrow:

Zimba sensed there was little future in farming. His ambition, he said, was to be a hawker. He envisaged buying soap and paraffin in the nearest town and selling it in the village. It would be wonderful, he supposed, if he could one day earn enough to buy a bicycle. But, he said: “I haven’t got the money to get started.”

On administering foreign aid in a war zone:

Somalia has no government, unless you count a “transitional” one that controls a few streets in the capital, Mogadishu, and a short stretch of coastline. The rest of the country is divided into warring fiefdoms. Warlords extract protection money from anyone who has money to extract. Clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans pursue bloody vendettas against each other, often fighting over grudges that pre-date the colonial period. Few children learn to read, but practically all self-respecting young men carry submachine-guns.

I was at one of the country’s countless road blocks, one a sandy road outside Baidoa, a southern town of shell-blasted stone walls and sandy streets. The local warlord’s men were waving their Kalishnikovs at approaching trucks, forcing them to stop. Many of the trucks carried passengers perched atop the cargoes of logs or oil drums. The men with guns then ordered all the children under five to dismount and herded them into the shade of a nearby tree. There, they handed them over to strangers with clipboards, who squeezed open their mouths and fed each one a single drop of polio vaccine.

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38 Responses to What I've been reading

  1. Russell Hamilton says:

    Still not convinced that agricultural protection=bigger grocery bills=hurts the poor. The idea that vast amounts of food should be moved around the world is environmentally unsustainable and the consequences will also ultimately hurt the poor more than the rich.

    But how poor are these poor? I live in a ‘working class’ suburb, with quite a few older retirees etc. But it manages to support 5 liquor stores (even more than the 4 chemists!). It’s been mentioned in the recent posts on obesity that it’s the poor who are more obese than the rich -and the junk piled high in their supermarket trolleys isn’t cheap (can’t afford bananas, can afford 4 litres of Coke and a carton of cigarettes etc)

    The poor in Australia might be hurt by the loss of local relatively unskilled jobs as food growing and processing moves to Vietnam, China and the rest.

    There’s something wrong with the trends in the way we’re eating, and I suspect the answer is more likely to lie in “slow food” than free trade.

  2. Sinclair Davidson says:

    What you’re saying is that the ‘poor’ in Australia aren’t really poor. I agree. Got to Africa if you want to see poor people. Let me give alternate version:

    Australian/European agricultural protection = Poor Africans/etc who can’t export their produce.

    Did anyone see the letter in the Australian/Fin Review where the correspondent indicated they had bought Phillipine bananas in New Zealand for 77c? Poor Australians (such as they are) shouldn’y have to pay $1.20 at best, and usually about $3 a kilo for bananas. That is true for many other foodstuffs too.

  3. Sinclair Davidson says:

    On another note, I’m reading Suite Fancaise by Irene Nemirovsky. Not my usual fare (hard sci-fi) but very good.

  4. Russell Hamilton says:

    “What you’re saying is that the ‘poor’ in Australia aren’t really poor.”

    Or that welfare should allow them enough money (or foodstamps?) to buy decent food. I was annoyed when some things aren’t counted in these simple equations: cheaper food=poor benefit. There are other things to be considered- ecological diversity for one. It may be cheaper to send your children off to boarding school in India from age 6 to 16, but would you ?

  5. derrida derider says:

    What garbage, Russell. If you’re going to feed 6 billion people sustainably you have to do it efficiently – which means you have to grow things where they grow best, which means that you have to do a lot of trading. Far from globalisation defeating Gaia, its the only way that it can be preserved – other than by a very drastic reduction in human population.

  6. Russell Hamilton says:

    “Efficient” may mean huge, genetically modified monoculture plantations – but they are risky and the inputs required may eventually be a problem. Lots of varieties adapted and suited to varying local conditions = genetic diversity = better. Transport has environmental costs. Trade can spread diseases.

    I suppose dairy products can be produced ‘efficiently’ in Ireland, Denmark and France because butter from those places is sold in my local supermarket. Madness. There are cows grazing on pasture just near Perth that require very few inputs – unlike those poor Victorian cows stuck in sheds. There are also social considerations and the future of our rural communities – many things to take into account besides a simple adding up of figures. I don’t think there should be no trade in food – just that local production is better if it can be done sustainably.

  7. Sacha says:

    This just shows that things are interrelated and they aren’t necessarily simple and easy to analyse.

  8. Ben says:


    Feeding the starving millions is an oft used and abused catch cry of economic rationalists. I read somewhere that %30 of food in the USA is thrown in the garbage. Similar figures have been arrived at for Australia.

    This is truly a perversion of your term “efficiency”.

  9. Andrew Leigh says:

    Ben, I’ve always found that to be odd research, since the proponents have no suggestions on how to reduce food wastage. On the other hand, allowing Australians to buy bananas from the Philippines is a pretty clear strategy for making poor people better off.

    And yes, Sinc, we do have poor people in Australia. Just not as many as in Africa.

  10. Sacha says:

    Wouldn’t a reasonable proportion of food that’s thrown away be because of govt. health regulations or because people just havn’t eaten it and it’s gone off?

  11. Sacha says:

    I’ve heard that bananas aren’t allowed into Australia from overseas due to the risk of disease.

  12. Sinclair Davidson says:

    “I’ve heard that bananas aren’t allowed into Australia from overseas due to the risk of disease. ”

    We’ve all heard that. Still doesn’t explain the price differential between the cost of Phillipine bananas and the (normal) cost to Australian consumers.

  13. Russell Hamilton says:

    “allowing Australians to buy bananas from the Philippines is a pretty clear strategy for making poor people better off. ”

    at the cost of destroying our banana industry and the livelihood of the people working in it. We wouldn’t have to worry about disease contaminating our banana crop, because we wouldn’t have one. Balance that against your ‘let them eat bananas’ strategy for helping the poor.

    Anyway who knows if poor people would spend their money on bananas at any price ? There are plenty of other cheap, nutritious things that they don’t buy. I wouldn’t destroy our local industry because some people might eat a cheaper banana. It’s only the cyclone that has made them temporarily expensive.

  14. Ben says:


    One argument against a “comparative advantage” approach to trade in food is clear when one reads this article:


    Your example of bananas from the Phillipines is particularly pertinent.

    With respect to avoiding food waste, I’m sure there are ways of pricing food more appropriately to account for non-harmful environmental practices/transport. The way many of us eat in the West is as if food is free. We’ve forgotten where food comes from and how it gets to us. This is a profound shift from centuries past.

    Food, like petrol, is far too cheap. Any move to more costly food would need to include mechanisms for ensuring that the poor don’t bear the costs disproportionately. I’m not sure how this could be done.

  15. Russell Hamilton says:

    Ben …. Lord, apart from bird flu we now will live in terror of black Sigatoka fungus ! Was very depressing article until – “said FAO Agricultural Officer NeBambi Lutaladio” The idea of someone called NeBambi Lutaladio kind of brightens the day.

    If there are people in Australia so poor that they can’t afford a normally priced banana (not the hurricane price spiked banana) heaven knows what else they’re doing without, but they will be things more essential than bananas, so, the needs of that very small group will need to be addressed properly through the welfare system.

  16. Sinclair Davidson says:

    “a normally priced banana” is 77c per kilo. if australian “poor” for were paying world prices and not monopoly prices for food, they coul probably buy a whole lot more other stuff.

  17. Russell Hamilton says:

    Sinclair – what are you saying (well, nothing) about the environmental risks / costs ? Do you really not care how food is produced, what the environmental and social consequences might be ? just how much it costs in the shop.

    As you said earlier, nearly all of us can afford bananas … so I repeat my point that the very few of us that can’t need more help then some cheaper imports.

  18. Sinclair Davidson says:

    Russell, it all revolves around what is important. I care more amount low-income Australians buying cheap, but good food, than I do about rich farmers who allege catastrophe if we allow free trade in bananas (insert almost any food stuff here). I certainly care more about poor Phillipine banana farmers (insert any developing economy here producing almost any food stuff) than I do about vaguely defined environmental costs (afterall, almost no Australian food crop is actually indigenous to Australia). The agricultural risks and costs can be insured. I would be far more likely to believe the story about quarantine and environmental costs if the cost of bananas in Australia were at worlds best price, but they’re not. This is not about the environment, this is about rent-seeking.

  19. Russell Hamilton says:

    Sinclair, that’s about as convincing as the nuclear industry’s concern with global warming. I see you’ve changed the goal posts from the ‘poor’ to ‘low-income’ Australians to try and better make your case. After all you don’t think there are any poor in Australia. To repeat myself, those so poor that they can’t afford decent food probably have complex ‘issues’ that we should immediately and directly solve with welfare, employment etc … not imagine they will simply be better off in a sea of cheap imports.

    Do you really think that all Australian farmers are ‘rich’ and all Philippine farmers poor ?

    “Low-income” Australians buy a lot of junk – they don’t necessarily buy good, cheap food with the money they have. Maybe that’s the problem to be solved.

    “Vaguely defined environmental costs” – oh, so economists will only deal with dollars and cents equations. We know enough to apply common sense – that it will be a bad thing if Chile is covered in orange orchards, Kalimantan in palm oil plantations, the Philippines in banana plantations etc. Just as it was to think that we could clear so much of the South West of WA and supply the world with wheat – now the salt has risen and the land poisoned. I don’t have a deep green fanaticism (proved by camellias and azaleas looking fantastic in my backyard at the moment), but we can’t ‘insure’ against environmental catastrophe, other than by being careful.

  20. Russell Hamilton says:

    Sinclair – reading your posts again, and you seem to think that Australian bananas cost more than Philippine bananas because local producers are pocketing the difference in price. Obviously it costs more to produce bananas here – costs of labour, land, regulatory compliance, taxes etc. I suppose we could produce bananas at the same price if we were willing to adopt the Philippine way of life – but we’re not. Saying that Australia is creating a ‘monopoly’ in banana production, is like saying the Philippines ‘subsides’ the cost of banana production with cheap labour.

  21. Sinclair Davidson says:

    ‘we could produce bananas at the same price if we were willing to adopt the Philippine way of life’

    “we” do not produce bananas – Banana farmers produce bananas. If ‘we’ could purchase Phillipine bananas, over time, the Phillipine”way of life” (and the whole third world way of life) would improve.

    “Obviously it costs more to produce bananas here”

    well it’s not obvious, but assume it is. Why force consumers to purchase expensive bananas.

    The overall point is this: Let Australians buy the bananas they want from the producer they want. The benefit: Australians get cheap bananas, and the poor get customers.

  22. Russell says:

    Ah, you’re using “we” in the Margaret Thatcher sense, ie there is no such thing; I was using it in the sense of we the Australian community. Never the twain shall meet.

    Adopt free trade and see the whole third world way of life improve ? not an experiment I would make – too risky for the environment and for society. Because free trade won’t result in DD’s idea of things growing where they grow best – have a look at what they grow in the deserts of Arizona – all you need is irrigation, fertilizer, pesticides, huge capital investment in machinery, cheap Mexican labour, genetically modified crops etc etc

    “Let Australians buy the bananas they want from the producer they want” – well, that was the argument we had recently in WA about letting shops open at nights and Sundays – and that position was convincingly defeated at a referendum because people thought that it was not that simple a proposition.

  23. Sinclair Davidson says:

    I’d be happy for a referendum on banana prices and imports.

  24. Ben says:


    You’re referendum would almost certainly get up. People do funny things. Depends how you ask the question. Ask these two questions and the populace will certainly agree with both:

    1) Do you support large, across the board reductions in tax?
    2) Do you support large increases in govt funding for health and education?

  25. Russell says:

    Is there a political party brave enough to go to a referendum on bananas ?

    Perhaps that master of the wedge Howard would throw down the peel just to see Beasley slip on it.

  26. Sacha says:

    I remember when the shops in Brisbane opened on Saturdays but only till midday (Joh was Premier) – and certainly didn’t open on Sundays. People had to rush to do their shopping on Saturday. There were quite a few little expensive corner shops.

    I wonder if you asked Brisbanites whether they would go back to these opening hours what their response would be? I’d bet they’d say to not go back to those opening house. I would say no as well – could you imagine shops not being allowed to open night times or sunday in inner Sydney? No.

    I would find it challenging to buy food (except at expensive corner shops) during the week if they weren’t open at night – and being open for 4 hours on a saturday morning would ensure major rushes on supermarkets those mornings.

    Of course, the way people live now takes the greater opening hours of shops into consideration, and it would probably be challenging to turn the opening hours back to what they were.

  27. Sacha says:

    This web-page claims to state Thatcher’s quote about society…


    “I think we’ve been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it’s the government’s job to cope with it. ‘I have a problem, I’ll get a grant.’ ‘I’m homeless, the government must house me.’ They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It’s our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There’s no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation.”

  28. Ben says:


    2 consequences of shops being open all day Sat and Sun:

    1) Young people (who are over-represented in retail employment) have less time for socialising and for family time.

    2) More people/customers spend time during their weekends doing shopping “chores” and disengaging from community activities.

    There are always pluses and minuses. Reminds me of Andrew’s post advocating more public holidays.

  29. Tanya says:

    Funny that, Ben … that people spend time working and shopping would seem to indicate their preferences. They’re not being forced to shop, right? It would be nice to think folk would choose to do the family / community thing because they want to, not because there are no alternatives. Perhaps we should also have the TV and radio switched off as well. Should probably get rid of non-shopping chores too … enforced sabbaths to combat the fetishisation of commodities, what an election-winner that would be!

  30. Sinclair Davidson says:

    ‘Reminds me of Andrew’s post advocating more public holidays. ‘

    Andrew had a good story, but I don’t know that I agree with it. First, as James Buchanan writes, we can all work more. Second, many Australians don’t use up their annual leave (if the tourism industry are to be believed). To my mind, a large constraint on individuals taking leave etc. is the school holidays. If schools staggered there holidays (within the state) prices wouldn’t rise so much ‘in-season’ and individuals (with their families) could afford to take leave.

    On the other issue, I’m all banana’d out. The coalition won’t do anything to upset farmers (while advocating free trade in agriculture), and the ALP are beholden to greenies. So the wealth transfer from low-income Australians and the poor in developing economies will continue.

  31. Ben says:


    Thank you for your pithy response. You will notice I didn’t actually express a preference for changing the status quo – I haven’t a very strong opinion about it – but what the hell lets go with it.

    Tanya imagine there is a country called Workardia, where they never developed the social convention of “weekends”. What rules, regulations or incentives might need to be put in place to create this phenomenon if the people generally thought it might be a good idea. Or do you think it might just somehow be a wonderful coalescence of people’s preferences? What are the defining features of a weekend? What makes weekends exist at all? Do you like weekends? Are they a good idea?

  32. Sacha says:

    “1) Young people (who are over-represented in retail employment) have less time for socialising and for family time.

    2) More people/customers spend time during their weekends doing shopping “chores” and disengaging from community activities.

    There are always pluses and minuses. Reminds me of Andrew’s post advocating more public holidays.”

    There may be pluses and minuses – but to my mind having shops open on saturday afternoon and sunday allows people more opportunity to organise their lives the way they want to – eg I can buy groceries after work or on the weekend, or when I get home to Sydney tonight (I’m currently in Brisbane).

    (1) I would think that having retail open more hours is a very good thing for young people who work in it, eg as it makes it easier for them to earn money in retail, which is quite a common thing, while studying.

    (2) If shops were mostly open 9-5 Mon-Fri and Saturday morning, a lot of people would be doing their grocery chores on saturday morning as they work mon-fri during business hours.

    I actually quite like days when shops are closed – eg Christmas – I like the non commercial nature of them. But me liking occasional “non-commercial” days is not a reason to have many non-commercial days.

    I agree with Tanya – if people shop on a sunday, that’s their preference. I dislike the state saying that “because it’s socially good to have non-commercial days, we shall prevent people doing commercial things that might lead them to be less engaged in ‘community/family’ events.

  33. Tanya says:

    Apologies Ben, I should have made it clear you weren’t suggesting a reduction in opening hours. I am, as I suspect you suspect, extremely partial to weekends and am thankful to be able to benefit from Judeo-Christian conventions and the work of earlier labor rights activists.

    While we do need to invest more in ways of increasing social capital, I’m not convinced that closing shops on the weekend (not that you are suggesting that) would significantly increase family or community involvement. Increasing female labor force participation has simultaneously reduced community involvement and increased the need for longer retail hours. Folk need to shop on the weekend. On a more general level, I don’t think that shopping is an anti-social activity – we count time spent talking in restaurants and coffee shops as family time but we might want to see that the recent increase in coffee shops in suburban shopping areas is connected to social shopping with mum, grandma, and friends.

    I’m not so worried about students working in retail on the weekends for the reasons Sasha outlined. I am however concerned about the lowly-qualified, older folk who hold two jobs part-time/casual jobs – often one a weekend retail job – in order to support themselves on incomes that are low but not so low that they are eligible for government benefits. (I’m specifically thinking of divorced women in their late 40’s – 60’s). For many of these people, not sharing weekends with others does make for a lousy life. I’m just not convinced that the best way to deal with this problem is to shut down the few work opportunities that are available to them. The loss of a retail job will only push them into lower-paying, and typically just as unreliable, personal care jobs …seven-day-a-week jobs that will remain that way.

    And I agree with Sinclair: poorer Australians lose when our government fails to enforce its supposed free trade ideals.

  34. Russell Hamilton says:

    Tanya — how about the careless ( or reckless ?) disregard of the environmental implications of free trade in agriculture ?

  35. Sacha says:

    Russell – I am very much in favour of looking at environmental implications of various policies… this should/must be done.

  36. Russell Hamilton says:

    Sacha – I can see that ‘protection’ isn’t necessarily a good thing either .. I was just annoyed by that tunnel vision thing economists have about free trade: cheaper bananas from somewhere – that must be good.

    It’s so nice not having to comment about shopping hours. And this illustrates why the right is wrong to say that the ABC and publishers etc selectively favour left wing views. It’s just that the left feel they have more to criticise so they do. Since I’m in the unusual position of having got what I wanted and voted for with regard to shopping hours, really I’m feeling relaxed and comfortable about it, and not provoked to comment.

  37. Sacha says:

    A few clicks brings up the actual referenda questions:

    Question 1

    Do you believe that the Western Australian community would benefit if trading hours in the Perth Metropolitan Area were extended to allow general retail shops to trade until 9 pm Monday to Friday?

    Question 2

    Do you believe that the Western Australian community would benefit if trading hours in the Perth Metropolitan Area were extended to allow general retail shops to trade for 6 hours on Sunday?

  38. Russell Hamilton says:

    No comment

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