Monthly Archives: May 2014

Fat Man

Trolley Problem. You’re standing by the side of a track when you see a run-away train hurtling toward you: clearly the brakes have failed. Ahead are five people, tied to the track.  If you do nothing, the five will be run over and killed. Luckily you are next to a signal switch: pushing the switch level will send the out-of-control train down a side track, a spur, just ahead of you. Alas, there’s a snag: on the spur you spot one person tied to the track: changing direction will inevitably result in this person being killed.  Will you pull the switch lever? Yes or No.

Fat Man. You’re on a footbride overlooking the railway track. You see the trolley hurtling along the track and, ahead of it, five people tied to the rails. There’s a fat man leaning over the railing watching the trolley. If you were to push him over the footbridge, he would tumble down and smash on the track below. He’s so obese that his bulk would bring the trolley to a shuddering halt. Sadly, the process would kill the fat man.  But it would save the other five. Will you push the fat man? Yes or No.

In the comment section below, please comment on why you answered as you did.  Especially if you gave a different answer to each problem.

Show Them the Money

Robert just read the article “Show Them the Money: Why Giving Cash Helps Alleviate Poverty,” in Foreign Affairs Quarterly.

The article, written by a couple professors, claims there in increasing evidence that the best way to help the poor is not for aid organizations to give them stuff like cows and training, but rather to simply give them cash.  It has a much higher return on investment by eliminating the cost of delivery.  For example, it was found that delivering a single pregnant cow to a poor person costs Heifer International up to $3,000.  Many of the common arguments against giving cash  (e.g., that the money will be wasted) are just not true. The article cites an experiment in which grants of $200 were given to some of the least disciplined men to be found: drug addicts and petty criminals in the slums of Liberia.  Bucking expectations, these recipients did not waste the money. They spent it on basic necessities and on starting businesses. The poor know exactly what it is best for them to spend the money on, and giving them cash gives them flexibility. This idea matches Robert’s existing beliefs. Robert has had this idea since his school-building project in Nicaragua. Giving money to families may have been better and much more efficient than dealing with the logistical complexities and expense of planning, getting permission for, and building a school.

Here’s a website of a charity that identifies poor families and transfers cash. They claim that 90% of contributions get to the hands of poor people in East Africa.  Sounds good.


Robert is reading Inferno, The World at War, 1939-1945, by Max Hastings.  It has been called “the best single-volume history of the war ever written.”  So, perhaps Robert will finally learn about the war. If anything, he hopes to get a decent understanding of the order in which things happened.

Here’s a summary thus far.

1. Chapter 1: Poland Betrayed.  Poland Invaded. In March 1939, the British and French each gave guarantees that in the event of German aggression against Poland, they would fight. In August 1939, Russia and Germany agreed to not fight each other while each invaded countries. In August 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Britain and France did declare war against Germany, but did not provide any meaningful support to Poland.

Chapter 2. No Peace, Little War. Finland Invaded. In the Winter of 1939, the British and French continued to be in a state of war without doing much of anything.  In November 1939, Russia attacked Finland. Finland was part of Sweden until the Napoleonic wars, then ruled by Russia until 1918, when Finnish anti-Bolsheviks won a civil war. To the world’s surprise, Finland initially repelled Russia, making Russia look ill-prepared. But Russia finally won an armistice and took 10 percent of the country. Britain and France continued in indecision in the face of Russia and Germany.

Chapter 3. Blitzkriegs in the West. Germany invaded Norway, Holland, Belgium and France beginning in early April 1940 and ending three months later. Despite warnings of an attack, the country’s tiny army had not been mobilized. Britain and France pledged to fight, but failure of planning and general confusion resulted in Britain evacuating after a short fight. Holland and Belgium were then taken by Germany in May 1940. The allies expected a long war, not the lightning fast blitzkrieg. France was then invaded not from the north, but unexpectedly from the central part of the country. In late may, the British evacuated 338,000 soldiers at the Dunkirk, to Dover. According to the British ambassador to France, “France was a man who, stunned by an unexpected blow, was unable to rise to his feet before his opponent delivered the ‘coup de grace.’  While the eyes of the world were on France, Russia annexed  the Baltic states. Russia also took Bessarabia and Bukovina. Italy entered the war alongside Hitler on June 10. Mussolini sought the rewards of war in return for a token expenditure of blood.  On June 22, an armistice between France and Germany was signed.  Germany had taken Norway, Denmark, France, Belgium and Holland in 3 months’ time. Churchill took the Prime Minister position in England, and Britain was to fight on its own.

Chapter 4. Britain Alone. Battle of Britain. Starting in August  of 1940, Hitler launched an air assault on Britain, choosing to not invade, but to focus on bombing British air forces. Germany lacked amphibious shipping and escorts to convoy an army across the Channel in the face of a powerful British fleet and undefeated RAF. The French were now the enemy, and it resisted every British encroachment on its territory until the end of 1942. But the decision to not invade Britain and instead assault only from the air was a big mistake for Germany. The RAF was able to outgun the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain and it resisted the German’s through more advanced technology and better planning. Then Hitler doubled his mistake by giving upon on his attacks on the RAF and instead beginning to bomb British cities. This was a strategic mistake, as the cities could take the punishment which RAF facilities were more vulnerable. In September, Hitler gave up indefinitely a plan to invade Britain. But the punishment of British cities continued from the air. The bomber assault continued until May 1941, when Germany’s attentions were focused on an attack on Russia, which was Hitler’s biggest strategic mistake of the war.

Chapter 5. The Mediterranean. Germany had no intention of fighting in the Mediterranean, but Mussolini wanted to be in the war just enough to claim some booty. He sought to expel the British from north and east Africa. In August 1940, Italy took Somaliland. Britain raided Libya and Italy invaded Egypt.  All of these were colonial holdings.  Germany arrived with Rommel in February 1941.


Dinner-Time Conversation

Tonight over dinner Robert explained the term “rent seeking”.  He told Mira that if she is at a cocktail party and wants to sound smart, she can say something like: “Well, that’s largely a rent seeking activity.”

“Rent seeking” is always used as a way to negatively describe a person’s or a group’s activities. The problem is that one person’s rent seeking is another person’s idea of progress.

From Wikipedia:

In public choice theory, rent-seeking is spending wealth on political lobbying to increase one’s share of existing wealth without creating wealth. The effects of rent-seeking are reduced economic efficiency through poor allocation of resources, reduced wealth creation, lost government revenue, increased income inequality,[1] and national decline.

Current studies of rent-seeking focus on the manipulation of regulatory agencies to gain monopolistic advantages in the market while imposing disadvantages on competitors. The term itself derives, however, from the far older practice of gaining a portion of production through ownership or control of land.