Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wealthy and healthy leads to decline in infant mortality

As someone who spent a decade of my life living in the Third World I have long challenged the gloom and doom advocates. The reality was never as dim as the pessimists made it out to be. For the most part, in most places, the poor of the world have seen vast improvements in their lives.

The new Matlhusians, like Paul Ehrlich, had a tendency to be wrong. Wrong would be a vast understatement. They have been spectacularly wrong. Even phony psychics had better “hit” rates. But then “psychics” know they are frauds and make educated guesses. The neo-Malthusians are blinded by ideology and thus unable to digest unpleasantries such as facts.

Today’s New York Times has an article based on the most recent data from the United Nations Children Fund which confirms that reasons for optimism are still strong. The paper reports, “For the first time since record keeping began in 1960, the number of deaths of young people around the world has fallen below 10 million a year....”

This achievement is more spectacular when you realize that the size of the childbearing population has grown significantly since 1960. The report notes: “In 1960, about 20 million children died annually, but the drop since then has been steeper than 50 percent because the world population has grown. If babies were still dying at 1960 rates, 25 million would die this year.”

UNICEF says they expect further massive drops in infant mortality rates in the next few years. There are storm clouds on the horizon, however. The report notes that “malnutrition is an underlying factor in 53 percent of all child deaths, anything that feeds children — whether that means large-scale aid during famines or simply better seeds and fertilizer — reduces deaths.”

Actually this is partially right, about the role of hunger in mortality, and massively wrong in suggesting food aid is necessarily a panacea. Not everything that is done, in regards to food aid, helps. Sometimes it is counterproductive. Here are a few reasons.
  1. Food aid is bureaucratic and often takes so long to arrive that it becomes available only after the underlying cause for the aid is over.
  2. The aid, if it arrives after the problem is mitigated, tends to suppress or destroy local food production making future food problems more likely.
  3. Food aid is often channeled through national governments who use the aid to cement power for themselves. Yet these governments, through various policies including armed conflict, are often the underlying cause of the malnutrition. Food aid helps these regimes remain in power which allows them to inflict higher death rates on their people for decades to come.
  4. Food aid is periodically channeled by corrupt national regimes to the world market where it is sold. The revenue from the sale of the aid has been used to purchase arms used to attack the very people it was meant to help.
And the dark clouds include the so-called global warming “solution” of biofuels. As I have pointed out in Save the Planet, Starve the World, biofuel programs, pushed by the political elites in Europe and the United States, are consuming vast amounts of food to produce biofuels of questionable advantage. At least with oil consumption drivers weren’t directly taking food off the plates of the world’s poor.

Now to make matters worse the Stalinists who run the current Russian government are pushing to create an “OPEC” of grain producers to cartelize grain production the way the OPEC governments control the supply of oil. I suspect this measure is likely to fail as the US is the Saudi Arabia of grain and unlikely to join such a cartel.

China is so worried about the use of food to produce fuel that it has stopped the building of new biofuel production facilities. Yet wealthy “environmentally active” governments in the West are throwing billions in subsidies to produce this fuel, which has little advantage over normal fuels. The net result is that politicians in the West are using the confiscated wealth of their taxpayers to bid food away from the world’s poor to turn that food into fuel for other wealthy people to use. They call this “caring”.

And this ill-conceived “solution” is only going to get worse as the U.S. presidential candidates jockey for position. They will use biofuels as a way to throw money at America’s prosperous farming community, in order to buy support. And then they will coo about how “environmental aware” they are in addressing “the global warming crisis.”

Environmental disasters like Al Gore promised to drive up food prices to “protect our vital agricultural lands” (which weren’t under threat to begin with). And they did. Gore says “I’ve always supported ethanol, I have a consistent record of shoring up the farm safety net.” This translates into policies that starve poor people in order to subsidize rich American farmers. As vice president he promised, “Our administration’s goal is to triple the use of biomass technologies, ethanol, gasoline additives, plant-based textiles and other environmentally friendly products by 2010.” He got his way, biofuel is the new rage and people are dying because of him. So much for the compassion of this sanctimonious sermonizer.

Keep in mind the UNICEF figure that 53% of all child deaths are the result of malnutrition. Diverting food from tables and into fuel tanks is contributing to the death of almost five million children per year.

We should also note that almost 1 million infants die from malaria every year. One of the most efficient methods of preventing malaria was DDT which, after the hysteria whipped up by Rachel Carson in 1962, was eventually withdrawn from the market. Infections from malaria skyrocketed as a result of the ban and millions more died every year. After several decades of shunning DDT various governments, along with the World Health Organization, have realized that the ban, once touted as a “solution” to problems, actually made the situation worse. The ban is being lifted and we should see more improvement in the infant mortality rates as a result of ignoring the greenies on that issue.

Apparently the politicians learn slowly. While realizing that the DDT “solution” of the past created problems worse than the problems they were meant to solve they are still embracing new policies which have similar results.

UNICEF says that “public health” measures are the reason infant mortality rates have declined. And no one disputes that such measures are a contributing cause. But UNICEF, which funds such measures, is also blowing their own horn to the exclusion of the other instruments in the orchestra.

A large degree of improvement in the life span of individuals is caused by changes that are not normally seen as health measures but as wealth measures.

There is a direct correlation between economic freedom and individual wealth and a direct correlation between wealth and health. Prof. James Gwartney, of Florida State University says: “Free economies grow faster, have a cleaner environment, a lower infant mortality rate and less political corruption. The per capita gross domestic product is about 10 times the income level of the least free quartile. Further, the life expectancy of the freest group is 77 years, compared to 52 years in the least free group."

Nowhere is this more apparent than in places like China, India and Vietnam. All three nations experienced famine -- though in Vietnam is was much less severe -- when their populations were significantly smaller. Yet, in spite of increased populations they are more food secure today than in the past. All three instituted major reforms which liberalized the economy and all three have seen food production increase along with massive declines in poverty.

Public health measures in these nations are minimal, especially compared to West. But economic liberalization has improved individual prosperity and that has resulted in better health, including lower infant mortality rates and longer life expectancy.

UNICEF, however, can’t take credit for changes in economic policies so one can understand them ignoring the role of prosperity in reducing infant mortality. After all the purpose of the press release is also to promote UNICEF. But the role of economic freedom in improving living standards can’t be ignored by those who are truly concerned about the poor of the world. Nor should we ignore the reality that “environmental solutions” that once were chic and politically popular inflicted a great deal of harm and that it took decades to remove those policies. The DDT ban may now be removed but it took the deaths of millions and millions of people for that to happen. I suspect deaths caused by the ethanol craze will continue to climb for decades to come before this disastrous program is finally taking off political life-support.

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