Sunday, October 31, 2010

Scenes from the Rally to Restore Sanity

I suppose it is indicative of the current movements in American political thought that in a year that the Tea Party’s Rally to Restore Honor and the organized left’s One Nation Rally drew crowds of no more than tens of thousands, a decidedly postmodern demonstration could usher a crowd as great as 6 billion people. Okay... in reality it was more like 250,000 – but the point is that the largest demonstration to march upon Washington in recent memory was not pushing for Congress to pass a certain piece of legislation or for the White House to end a certain war, it did not seem to have any tangible agenda in the proper sense of the word beyond the civilization of our nation’s political discourse.

To be honest, I was never able to get close enough to the stage to see exactly what was going on. But that didn’t matter – like at a Phish festival, the multitude of the audience was just as much if not more of an attraction as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert's three-ring circus on center stage. It was an interesting bunch of mostly urban hipsters but also yuppies, hippies and bourgeois squares of all shades and hues and faiths and sexual orientations united by the fact that we are all so appalled by the lack of quality news programming on mainstream television that we have to resort to Comedy Central for our information on current events.

The Rally to Restore Sanity served as a celebration of blue state values; namely, respect for Science and Objective Reality, skepticism of Dogma and Ideology, and faith in mankind’s ability to evaluate arguments with the power of Reason. When the culture of college-educated professionals who develop their opinions from newspapers, policy journals and non-fiction books is withstanding an onslaught of philistinism and bigotry masquerading as a coherent political theory, eventually push comes to shove and someone has to hold the world's greatest flash mob of participatory absurdist theater.

To the barricades!!!

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Who Speaks for America's Jews?

(Click HERE for musical accompaniment)

Deprived for much-too-long of borscht-flavored intellectual ferment, I sojourned to Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut to hear a debate between Alan Dershowitz and Jeremy Ben-Ami provocatively titled “Who Speaks for America’s Jews?” (both men would like to tell you that the answer to the question is “me”). I came with high hopes for this debate between two heavyweights in the Yiddish League of verbal sparring; I assumed that given the speakers’ expertise I might have heard a vigorous discussion of American Jewish activism in relation to the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Netanyahu and Abu Mazen.

For those who are unfamiliar with the speakers, Jeremy Ben-Ami is the Executive Director of J Street – self-described as “the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans”. He is an American Jew descended from some of the first settlers in Tel Aviv, whose father founded a number of American Zionist organizations and who has himself lived a substantial part of his life in Israel. Now as the head of J Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami is asserting himself as the face of American Jewry dedicated to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to guarantee “Israel’s survival as the national home of the Jewish people and as a vibrant democracy.”

Many more of you probably know Alan Dershowitz – the Harvard Law professor who has made a name for himself as an advocate for the State of Israel. Dershowitz’s background as a constitutional liberal makes him an estimable defender, because he vows support for a two-state solution and opposes the Israeli settlement of the West Bank. His argument is that he opposes the singling out of Israel for human rights violations – which he interprets as the product of anti-Semitic prejudice. And likewise, the author of such titles as The Case for Israel, The Case for Peace and The Case Against Israel’s Enemies has spent the better part of the past decade serving as the go-to destroyer of Jimmy Carter, Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the Board of Directors of Hampshire College and anyone else who might criticize Israeli policies in the Occupied Territories – including the new group J Street.

I had come to this debate thinking that Jeremy Ben-Ami and Alan Dershowitz would make a thorough discussion of American Jewish activism in relation to U.S.-Israeli relations, Israeli policy towards the Palestinian issue, the Iranian nuclear program, Lebanon and Syria and the rest of the Arab world – ostensibly, the reasons why one should be interested in who speaks for American Jews. Unfortunately, the vanities of both Dershowitz and Ben-Ami allowed for no such thing – and what could have been a substantive debate on policy descended into a petty catfight between two prima donnas.

Hardly more than a few softball questions into the debate, Dershowitz veered the discourse to file a personal grievance against J Street; in one advertisement, they displayed Dershowitz’s face alongside those of Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh and other prominent opponents of present negotiaions for two-state solution in a group that J Street calls “The Chorus of ‘No’”.

“How dare you lump me together with two people with whom I have nothing in common? You owe me an apology!”

Ben-Ami tried his best to mitigate the apoplectic Dershowitz but could not; “The reason why you appear in “The Chorus of No” is because this is the way you choose to advocate for Israel. As soon as there is something that you interpret in a way you don’t like, the person is immediately ‘anti-Israel’…”

“I think we have to talk about George Soros... George Soros has publicly said he is not a Zionist, he doesn’t want to have anything to do with Zionism, he thinks that Israel causes anti-Semitism, he has compared Israel to Nazism, you have denied that he funded you…”

“As soon as there is a question on the table, you throw out the name ‘George Soros!...”

“…You are a cover for many people who are virulently anti-Israel!”

In such a manner, Dershowitz and Ben-Ami plotzed and kvetched about bupkes for at least the first 40 minutes of the “debate”. It was not until 50 minutes into the “debate” that the discourse turned to actually substantive matters when the moderator asked Jeremy Ben-Ami, “What exactly is it that troubles you about Israel’s human rights record?”

“Have you been to the old market in Hebron?” Ben-Ami asked, and even invited the Stamford rabbi to come with him some time. "It is impossible to be a Jew and not feel shame at the way in which Palestinian people are treated in the center of Hebron… Down the middle of the street runs a barrier; on one side Palestinians are allowed to walk, on the other side Jews are allowed to walk…”

This is precisely the moment when Jeremy Ben-Ami was lobbed a softball down the center and he could have hit it out of the park. He could have leaped upon this opportunity and declared the unequivocal injustice of one nation ruling another under the yoke of military occupation, the fundamental wrongness of any nation annexing the territory of another won in battle as the spoils of war, he could have illustrated the barbarism of Israeli settlers evicting Palestinians from their rightful land by gunpoint and killing those who refuse. He could have eloquently depicted the humiliation of Palestinians whose day-to-day movement is frustrated by cumbersome checkpoints, he could have explained how the economy of Gaza has all but collapsed since Israel laid siege to the city with a stifling embargo and cut off electricity and fuel and deprived a city of a million people of basic functioning water and sanitation treatment facilities. He could have cited reports from groups like Amnesty International and Rabbis for Human Rights documenting the bulldozing of entire apartment complexes, the use of white phosphorus in populated neighborhoods, the IDF’s use of human shields in the 2008-2009 Gaza invasion, etc… But no, Ben-Ami bunted; the most troubling thing he could think of was the layout of the market in Hebron – implying the A-word that alienates much of an audience like the one at Temple Beth El.

Even the purportedly-neutral moderator pounced, “I’ve seen human rights violations that are so extreme in what they do to human beings and how human beings end up dead, maimed and dead… whether it’s in Sudan or Sri Lanka… I don’t understand why of all the things you want to give me as an example of why it’s troubling… I don’t doubt that it would be troubling, but troubling is not what I’m looking for from you!”

Dershowitz seized the opportunity to make the relativist argument: “No country in modern history has had a better record with human rights under comparable threats than the nation of Israel!” he proclaimed, “not the United States – which detained 110,000 Japanese-American civilians during the Second World War, which has killed civilians in drone attacks, which has had much greater human rights violations in administrative detentions in Guantánamo; not Great Britain – with its fights in Northern Ireland, its fights in Kenya; not France – with its problems in Algeria…”

Then Dershowitz laid his trademark “gotcha!” trap: “Jeremy Ben-Ami, I want you to name a country with a better human rights record – that has been more criticized for its human rights record than Israel.”

“I’m struggling to think of another country in the world right now that is occupying another people…”


“… that is preventing them from exporting any goods…”

“China – Tibet! Kurdistan! And I can go on! Fourteen or fifteen countries – most of which nobody has ever heard of because the UN doesn’t spend any time on them!”

The central problem with Dershowitz’s strategy of defaming critics of Israeli policy – illustrated here – is that the crux of his case tends to employ a mixture of the straw man argument and ad hominem attack. When someone like Jeremy Ben-Ami so much as criticizes a specific Israeli policy, Dershowitz makes pains to avoid addressing that grievance and quickly changes the topic of conversation to the criticizer’s own shortcomings;

"Iran/Syria/China/Burma/Sudan/Zimbabwe/Kyrgyzstan is violating human rights. Why aren't you criticizing their human rights record?"

His opponent freezes, can only stammer some weak-kneed excuse: “Well… my organization doesn’t have an official position on the situation in Zimbabwe, so I really don’t know …”

“So, even though Iran/Syria/China/Burma/Sudan/Zimbabwe/Kyrgyzstan is committing gross human rights abuses, you remain silent! You only criticize human rights abuses when they are made by Israel!” Dershowitz thunders, “Therefore, your judgment is tainted with anti-Israel bias! Therefore you are an anti-Semite! You are a Jew and yet you are an anti-Semite and therefore you are a self-hating Jew! Therefore, anything you might say about Israel’s human rights record is an anti-Israel, anti-Semitic, blood lie against yourself!” Dershowitz’s Jewish audience pockets the line of reasoning, proceeds to view his opponent as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in a yamulke for the rest of the debate and thereby dismisses anything of merit that he might have to say.

Indeed, Alan Dershowitz has a valid point to make when he rejects criticisms of Israel’s human rights record made by regimes that are themselves gross violators of human rights with a long history of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic bias; e.g. the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran or the UN Human Rights Committee when it was chaired by the delegation from Libya. He is right when he demands that human rights organizations within the United Nations umbrella, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, etc. be evenhanded and not single out Israel for vilification while remaining silent about the Egyptian and Jordanian governments’ and Hamas’ crimes against the Palestinians, Syria and Hezbollah’s disregard for the human rights of Lebanese civilians. He is right to criticize Hamas and Hezbollah's terrorist attacks against Israeli civilians as violations of Israelis' human rights - and thereby he is right to criticize the governments of Iran, Syria, Sudan and Venezuela for sponsoring these terrorist groups. But that doesn’t mean that Dershowitz is right in shouting down anyone who dares to criticize Israel’s human rights record.

The central plank of Dershowitz’s destruction of Ben-Ami – “You can’t name one country in a situation comparable with Israel’s with a better human rights policy” – is a terrible defense of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of the Gaza Strip. What it amounts to is more or less “So Israel might be flagrantly violating international law in its occupation and colonization of another nation’s sovereign territory… but you can't criticize Israel so long as they are not the superlative worst offender of human rights!" or "Hey, at least it’s not genocide!” Is that really the kind of logic that American Jews want to employ when defending Israel? Shouldn’t people who write books with titles like The Case for Moral Clarity be arguing that the State of Israel have a human rights record not just better than that of blood-stained Asiatic autocracies and African juntas but so immaculate that it is beyond the reproach of fair criticism?

That argument for moral clarity, actually, was what Jeremy Ben-Ami was trying to make before Alan Dershowitz shouted him down.

“The occupation of the West Bank and the way in which the Palestinian people have been treated for 42 years is very, very troubling. I’m not putting it on a scale with the genocide that took place in Rwanda, I’m not putting it on a scale with what happened in Sri Lanka… What I am worried about in the Jewish community is that we’re too self-satisfied that we’re not as bad as Sri Lanka, we’re not as bad as Rwanda – that’s not good enough. We should be treating people according to the values that we were brought up under, the values that we expect other people to treat us with, and if we were treated in Hebron the way that Palestinian people are treated by Israelis, we would be deeply troubled as well.”

“There is a standard of morality, a standard of ethics, a standard of behavior that I was raised to believe is fundamental to what it means to be Jewish. I don’t care where my standard falls vis-à-vis the Kurds, I don’t care where my standard falls vis-à-vis the Chinese. What I believe is that the country that is the nation-state of my people should be behaving and upholding the standards of my people.”

Nevertheless, one would think that Alan Dershowitz handily won this “debate” judging by the reactions of the largely elderly Jewish audience. By keeping his vocabulary within the secular language of human rights and constitutionalism and democracy he was able to swat away Ben-Ami’s criticisms with nary a word that might discomfit a liberal, college-educated audience. He was able to excuse Israeli mistakes with such bombast that it seemed that in making these mistakes Israel was in fact righteous and that it was her accusers who were at fault for the very act of making the accusations. And when he made his applause lines the audience dutifully applauded – even if you disagree with everything the man says, you have to admit that Dershowitz is a masterful rhetorician. Having seen Dershowitz do his song-and-dance routine in person, it is clear why Benjamin Netanyahu invited him to serve as Israel’s Ambassador to the United Nations.

But on the substance of the “debate”, I feel that Dershowitz really didn’t make much in terms of an argument – he didn’t really defend Israel’s policies in regards to the occupation, the settlements and its human rights record as much as he criticized Mr. Ben-Ami’ criticisms of them. I left Temple Beth El disappointed that the bulk of Dershowitz’s shtick was to undermine the credibility of his opponent by associating him with some outrageous thing that George Soros might have said out of context this one time, to showcase the fact that Ben-Ami never publicly denounced this or that left-wing anti-Zionist and to thereby put those outrageous words in Ben-Ami’s own mouth. Instead of responding to Ben-Ami’s criticisms of Israel, he just insinuated that these criticisms somehow originated in ideologies of anti-Semitic prejudice. So if Dershowitz won, it was only because he bullied and crowded Jeremy Ben-Ami out of the discourse so that he never really had a chance to speak. Though I have enjoyed some of Dershowitz’s books and found them to be fairly compelling, I found Dershowitz’s performance in person to be so mean-hearted and pandering to the least common denominator that I left the synagogue feeling more skeptical of his arguments than before I came in.

And thus I have to agree with Ben-Ami when he rejoined Dershowitz’ ¬love-it-or-leave-it posturing; “You and that advocacy are part of the reason so many young, liberal Jews are walking away from Israel”. When people like Alan Dershowitz – or Eric Cantor or Abraham Foxman or Bill Kristol – throw around epithets like “anti-Israel” or “anti-Semitic” so often in so many contexts when it is not even remotely appropriate or they make a point of repeatedly professing their love for Israel to the point that it becomes hackneyed and meaningless, it really turns off a lot of people who are truly interested in hearing a bona fide discourse on things that matter. When a public figure questions the patriotism of his rivals and filibusters amidst the last refuge of scoundrels, it leads certain members of the audience to conclude that the speaker lacks the facts and the law to slam and so he has resorted to slamming the table. Likewise, if the best that the most learned defender of Israel can do is to make a relativist argument, kill a straw man and criticize the criticizers, it leads a number of us to wonder if anyone can straightforwardly defend Israel’s human rights record in the Occupied Territories.

This is part of the reason why the new J Street organization is being embraced with so much enthusiasm by many American Jews – especially youth. A great many of us strongly identify with our Jewish heritage and with the nation of Israel; however, we do not hold any blind tribal allegiance to the Jewish settlers of the West Bank any more than we hold blind tribal allegiance to Bernie Madoff, Scooter Libby or Paul Wolfowitz. We believe that the Jewish people have the right to determine our own destiny in the State of Israel, but we do not believe that Jews have the right to steal the property of non-Jews living in the West Bank. We reject the platform of the Likud Party which "flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan River." We believe in Judaism and Zionism; however, we do not believe in Likudism.

A lot of American Jews who believe in the Jewish democracy have a difficult time speaking as apologists for the State of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. Especially when we factor in the Bronze Age barbarism of the West Bank settlers, our views on every single one of 7.5 million Israelis cannot be described as unconditional respect. This 24-year-old American Jew, for one, has trouble perceiving Israel as at all times the victims as much as my grandfather who considered emigrating to Israel to fight in the War of Independence or my parents who lived through the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. American Jews of my generation know our history of Israeli victimhood, we identify with contemporary Israeli victimhood of suicide bombings and rocket attacks - but we have also been cognizant of Israel occupying 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and laying siege to another 1.5 million on the Gaza Strip so long as we have been able to read newspapers. To many of us, there is solid evidence to portray the Israelis who are colonizing Palestinian lands and the state which facilitates this systematic oppression as victimizers. We are not going to waste our time comparing the human rights records of the State of Israel versus Hamas or Hezbollah, we don't care whose human rights record is the worst, but what we are going to do is to ask that the Jewish State - the state of our people - live up to its moral and legal obligations to respect the human rights of people of other nations.

Justifications of Israeli policy resting upon the premise of Arab treachery seem to so many of us outdated; the sneak attack of 1973 was 37 years ago, Egypt and Jordan have long ago signed peace treaties and the Arab League’s Peace Initiative remains the only offer on the table, moreover, Yasser Arafat is dead and buried. In light of these realities in the year 2010, a great deal of American Jews can’t understand why so many of our people still oppose the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. We know very well that certain Arab states and certain Palestinians have committed atrocities in the past, but we have no desire to shackle the destiny of our people to the dictatorship of history or the tribal warfare of yesteryear.

Accordingly, many American Jews are alienated by organizations such as AIPAC and the American Jewish Congress which have monopolized the discourse in recent years because we feel that the Likud-Shas fantasy of a “Greater Israel” which they defend is a very radical, narrow interpretation of Zionism which runs counter to our democratic values. That is not to say that we would necessarily be Laborites, but a great many of us do feel estranged by the American faction which reflexively supports any and every policy that the State of Israel might conduct without any regard for the legitimate rights of other nations. We do not object to the existence of an Israel Lobby - in fact, we consider ourselves a significant part of the Israel Lobby - but we feel that an organization which can stand for the indefinite subjugation of the Palestinian people cannot speak for the totality of American Jews.

That is why the J Street organization is filling a very necessary niche in the constellation of American Jewish political activism. A good number of American Jews – especially youth, including this writer – do identify with the nation of Israel as the spiritual home of the Jewish people, and for this reason we insist that the State of Israel live up to the highest standards of morality, international law and human rights in its conduct with other nations. We insist that the State of Israel live side-by-side and in peace with an independent State of Palestine, because we who consider ourselves the intellectual heirs to Moses, Jefferson and Weizmann count the self-determination of peoples as one of our most fundamental values. We believe that these principles of morality, human rights and international law are not just maxims to be invoked on behalf of Jews but universal truths that are applicable to all peoples at all times. We believe that if we expect to be able to defend our own liberty with these principles then we must abide by them in our own conduct with all other people - especially Muslims. And that is why we have such high expectations for the nation of Israel, because if we are going to call ourselves the Chosen People then we have to live up to our lofty promise.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Do You Cause More Harm than Good by Giving TOMS Shoes to the Poor?

After returning from a two-year tour with the Peace Corps I have only been home in New York for three weeks, and over the course of these three weeks at least a dozen people have told me to check out this new brand of TOMS Shoes and their “One for One” campaign – leading me to believe that this is the new trendy thing in humanitarianism. If you haven’t heard the pitch already;
In 2006, American traveler Blake Mycoskie befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet. Wanting to help, he created TOMS Shoes, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need… Blake returned to Argentina with a group of family, friends and staff later that year with 10,000 pairs of shoes made possible by TOMS customers.
Now in its fifth year of operations, TOMS has given away more than 1 million alpargata shoes to children and adults in Argentina and more impoverished, even more trendy Third World societies where the poor go shoeless such as Haiti, South Africa, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi. Blake does not consider himself to be just another businessman selling a product to make a profit, but as the CEO of a “movement”.
After all, an Argentinean alpargata shoe is not just a fashion choice to impress your Williamsburg hipster friends with your awareness of the oppressed indigenous peoples of the world. So their Birkenstocks were made by high-paid union workers and their Chacos were manufactured with limited carbon footprints – that’s so bourgeois! But if you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes for yourself, you’re directly helping the poor because Blake is going to give another pair to a child running barefoot through the rubble-strewn streets of Port-au-Prince!

The way the TOMS system works is very straightforwardly the way that it is advertised. Similar alpargatas of comparable quality sell for a retail price of $20 to $25, so when TOMS sells their shoes for $38, $44 or $54 the consumer is essentially buying one for the price of two. So yes, TOMS is giving half of their shoes away to the poor, but its not like those donations are coming out of corporate profits - all of the charity is paid for by the Western consumer. TOMS Shoes is profiting from both the shoe the wealthy Western consumer buys for his- or herself and TOMS Shoes is profiting from the second shoe the wealthy Western consumer buys for the person in need.

All through the promotional materials, Blake Myscoskie lays out the case that his shoes are not mere fashion items but humanitarian supplies necessary to promote health and education;
A leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes can help prevent these diseases, and the long-term physical and cognitive harm they cause.
For those Westerners who have never stubbed their toe, Blake explains how the shoeless suffer from mundane ailments;
Wearing shoes also prevents feet from getting cuts and sores. Not only are these injuries painful, they also are dangerous when wounds become infected.
Furthermore, the lack of children wearing adequate footwear impedes education;
Many times children can’t attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform. If they don’t have shoes, they don’t go to school.

Blake seems to have an adequate understanding of the importance of wearing shoes in the developing world. Though I feel the need to elaborate upon one particular “soil-transmitted disease” to which the One for One media implicitly refers: hookworm. If you talk to any doctor familiar with tropical diseases, they will tell you that there are many reasons why one should always wear shoes outdoors; ants, snakes, scorpions, ascariasis, schistosomiasis, rusty nails, broken glass, splinters, etc. But if there is one danger that a doctor is going to cite as a reason to wear shoes in the tropics, it is probably going to be hookworm.

The hookworm is a parasitic nematode which lives in the bodies of carriers and the soil, or to be more precise, in soil soiled with fecal matter. There are many species of hookworm which inhabit different kinds of mammals. People who walk barefoot around places where pigs and humans shit freely are prone to stepping in dirt teeming with larvae of the hookworm species Ancylostoma duodenale or Necator americanus which prefer to reside in our digestive tracts. The larvae need a host in order to feed so they penetrate the skin – usually the underside of the foot. Hookworm larvae then migrate under the skin through the vascular system and into the lungs, and from there they crawl all the way up to the trachea where they are eventually swallowed. The larvae then travel down through the esophagus and the digestive system until they finally reach the intestine where they mature into adult hookworms and grow to a size of 5 to 13 millimeters. Once female hookworms have reached reproductive maturity they can lay as many as 30,000 eggs a day – or 15 to 54 million eggs over the course of a single worm’s lifetime. Hookworm eggs pass through the host’s feces, and once they hatch a pig will eventually lay in the muck or a barefoot child in Nigeria will walk through a schoolyard without adequate latrines… and the life cycle of the hookworm continues…

Hookworm causes a host of physical symptoms among its human hosts, including nausea, fevers, painful diarrhea and anemia. Children born to mothers who were also incubating hookworm eggs in their intestine tend to suffer from low birth weight and prematurity. And I am inclined to assume that Blake Mycoskie’s One for One campaign is referring to hookworm when it invokes the “long-term physical and cognitive harm” caused by diseases incurred by barefoot-walking poor people; after all, hookworm is by far the most widespread ailment which causes cognitive harm which could be prevented by wearing shoes. Especially if contracted at a young age, unwitting hookworm hosts become increasingly more unwitting as the natural development of their brain is retarded and their cognitive abilities either level off at early childhood or they pointedly regress. This is among the many reasons why adequate sanitation and hygiene is so vital for improving education in the developing world, because when children are shitting all over the schoolyard and walking barefoot across the contaminated soils at least a quarter of the student body will probably contract hookworm and become neurologically incapable of learning.

Accordingly, one must understand that the combination of people walking barefoot, inadequate sanitation infrastructre and open defecation is one of the primary reasons why all of the above symptoms are so pervasive in the developing societies of Africa, South Asia, Latin America and Oceania. It is estimated that 576 to 740 million people are afflicted with hookworm worldwide; a stunning majority of 198 million are estimated to reside in sub-Saharan Africa (about a quarter of the total population of 800 million). If you haven't digested that statistic thoroughly enough, that means that - in addition to Down Syndrome and Klinefelter's Syndrome and general malnutrition - as much as a quarter of sub-Saharan Africans might be suffering from some degree of mental disability because they have been walking barefoot in fecal matter.

However, after a thorough reading of all of TOMS Shoes’ literature, I could only find indirect allusions to and one single fleeting mention of what is perhaps the gravest reason why anyone who walks around in the tropics should not walk barefoot. The sole explicit mention of hookworm I can find in the entire plethora of One for One materials is presented in such a way – buried in a misleading post titled “Let’s Talk About Podoconiosis” – that the symptoms of hookworm can be easily confused with this very completely different disease that is only related in that it can also be prevented by wearing shoes.

The One for One campaign explains the relevance of shoes to public health by focusing on podoconiosis – an illness which causes the grotesque swelling and deformity in the feet and legs properly known as elephantiasis.

Not to be confused with lymphatic filariasis – the elephantiasis-causing disease caused by parasitic worms transmitted via mosquito bite – podoconiosis is the significantly more obscure elephantiasis-causing disease found almost exclusively in certain populations of people who walk around barefoot over red clayish soils associated with volcanic activity and thereby rich with the alkali silicon dioxide. Repeated absorption of alkalis into the skin causes the lymphatics to form fibrous tissue and block and for the femoral nodes to enlarge; eventually the skin of the infected area swells with fluid, and it becomes thicker, nodular and rough like the skin of an elephant (hence “elephantiasis”). Podoconiosis disables its victims to such an extent that they cannot work and it disfigures them in a way that they are usually shunned as social outcasts.

Since the environment for this disease exists only in remote mountainous areas, podoconiosis is found almost exclusively amongst isolated subsistence agriculturalist and pastoralist societies in places like Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and especially Ethiopia. In certain pockets of the Ethiopian Highlands where the soils are particularly rich with volcanic alkalis and the traditional farmers and herders walk around their fields barefoot, as much as 6 percent of the population is thought to suffer from podoconiosis. It is very difficult to conduct an accurate census in these parts of the world where such a significant part of the population migrates with the seasons or is properly nomadic, so compiling reliable statistics on this particular disease is a rather arduous task; nonetheless, epidemiologists estimate that anywhere from 500,000 to 1 million people worldwide currently suffer from podoconiosis.

Let’s say that you were looking for a way to reduce the spread of disease in Ethiopia. If you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes it will cost you anywhere from $38 for a pair of Youth Canvas Classics to $79 for a pair of Highlands Botas - plus shipping and handling. Equivalent products cost $20 to $25, so the cost of manufacturing a cheap shoe like this cannot possibly be more than $10 - it's probably closer to $5. The average markup from American shoe retailer to the consumer price is around 40 percent, the average markup from a shoe company to a retailer is around 50 percent. What that means is that even if you're buying two of these shoes, TOMS is making oodles of money on both the shoes you buy for yourself as well as the shoes you buy for charity. Yes, a single pair of these shoes per se is really only worth about $5 - but that figure is only applicable if Blake Mycoskie is manufacturing these shoes and sending them to the Third World himself; but if you buy a pair of Pink Murray Organic Cotton Men's Vegans online for $54 the cost which you pay to give a pair of shoes to Ndugu the Amhara cattle herder is more or less half that - or $27.

If there are 1,000 children at a school in an Ethiopian village, for you to provide TOMS alpargatas for the entire student body should cost about $27,000. I will be generous and assume that these foam-and-rubber-soled, twill and suede-topped shoes will last their wearer an average of 2 years before they inevitably rip, degrade and fall apart to the point that they either no longer serve any protective function or they cannot be worn at all – seeing that these kids will be walking over rough terrain and doing heavy labor in the fields, 2 years is an extremely generous estimate. And I’ll be even more generous and assume that 100 percent of the recipients of these free shoes will be protected from contaminated soil as long as their shoes remain intact and wearable. So by handing out 1,000 pairs of free shoes to the sum total of $27,000, you could theoretically protect 1,000 children from hookworm, ascariasis, podoconiosis and stubbed toes for about 2 years.

Another way to improve public health would be for you to donate to a reputable non-profit on the ground in Ethiopia to build latrines at a public schoolyard so the students wouldn’t have to walk through each other’s feces in the first place. I’ve built a row of latrines at a school in Mali for a total price of $1,969, and I've built latrines in private homes for an individual price of $41 per latrine. Though I have never built a latrine in Ethiopia, my understanding of cement prices gives me no reason to think that the cost of latrine construction there should be all that much more expensive than in Mali. Even if no one ever conducts any repairs beyond superficial maintenance, a decently-built concrete latrine should last for about 25 years. Though it would not protect them from disease transmission outside the schoolyard, a disproportionate amount of disease transmission is concentrated around schoolyards without adequate sanitation - so these $1,969 latrines could thoroughly reduce the chances tens of thousands of children contracting hookworm, ascariasis, giardia, dysentery, cholera and schistosomiasis over the course of a quarter century.

For $1,969 you could give 72 kids in Ethiopia a pair of shoes which will inevitably rip and degrade into rags within a few years – or you could send your money to a Peace Corps Volunteer or Oxfam or Water Aid to build one row of concrete latrines at a school which should last for decades. For the price of sending TOMS Shoes to a school of 1,000 kids for 2 years, you could build 13 latrines at 13 schools to benefit the health of tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand kids over the course of 25 years.

Giving a child in Ethiopia a pair of shoes might very well be a moral thing to do, but when a development agency or NGO is pursuing some sort of public health agenda they have to do these kinds of calculations to determine which of many policy options available to them are worth the expenditure of finite financial resources. If you are going to donate your money to some sort of humanitarian cause, you should do the same kind of math to determine which charity you feel best deserves your money.

Even if cement prices fluctuate and building latrines becomes relatively more expensive, it’s fair to say that – dollar-for-dollar – you could reduce the incidence of disease incredibly more cost-efficiently if you were to stop giving away free shoes and use that money to contribute to the construction of latrines at public schools. Or you could contribute to the construction of a water pump so people don't have to drink unpotable water contaminated with guinea worm. Or you can pay to build a hangar at the clinic so that parents don't have to stand in the blistering sun for hours at a time during polio vaccinations and more kids will get vaccinated. Or you could pay for a village community health organization to get their hands on visual educational materials so they can train illiterate people to recognize the warning signs of tuberculosis. Or you could pay for the training of midwives in a rural village. No matter how expensive constuction materials might become in Ethiopia, the fundamental issue is that money spent on public sanitation infrastructure or education programs is going to be inherently more cost-effective than money spent on personal hygiene products because they last much longer for the direct benefit of a much greater number of people.

If Blake Mycoskie were running a non-profit charity mandated to reduce disease as effectively and as efficiently as he could on a dollar-for-dollar basis, then he would be spending money on sustainable water and sanitation infrastructure or rural health clinics or AIDS education materials in public schools. But he’s not – he’s a shoe salesman. As much as TOMS Shoes considers itself to be a “movement” rather than a mere profit-based firm, let us not forget that they are a shoe company first and a humanitarian aid agency second. And their niche in the galaxy of non-profits and quasi-non-profits-that-are-actually-for-profits is that if you buy a pair of TOMS Shoes, they give a pair to a poor person in Haiti or South Africa. Epidemiological or economic data be damned, their policy is to give away shoes.

But unless you yourself own stock in the TOMS Shoes company, you don't have any vested interest in sending a Tutsi girl a pair of shoes. You can donate to one of infinite charitable causes. Why not pay for her to have clean water? Or a mosquito net? Or a year's worth of antiretroviral treatment?

So what if we assume that podoconiosis is the only disease that you care about, that you are dead-set on contributing to that one particular cause - and the only way to prevent podoconisis is to get more Ethiopian Highlanders to wear shoes? Or let’s even forget about disease transmission and assume that you want to decrease the number of people without shoes as an end unto itself. Does that mean that giving away shoes is the best way to clothe the naked? Not necessarily.

To shed some light on my own point of view, as of late I have developed a strong sense of skepticism towards rich people who aim to improve the lot of the poor by simply giving things away because I have seen firsthand how such acts of well-intended charity can all-too-often result in painful belly flops of failure and can even be counterproductive to its stated goals.

While I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali from 2008 to 2010 I lived in a concrete home built by the Christian NGO World Vision to house its own development extension agents (missionaries with secular humanitarian agendas) who lived there from 1988 to 1998. Though World Vision’s personnel had never returned since they closed down operations in Sanadougou in 1998, 10 years later the legacy of their actions remained tangibly apparent. Not only had they built the house I lived in, but they had built a clinic across the street from my house which was full of patients and decently staffed every day. They built a kindergarten which was still used despite the fact that it was falling to pieces. They built a solar pump system which could provide the town with potable water, but it was never managed, never maintained, in need of serious repairs and was for all practical purposes non-functional. They built a library that no one ever borrowed books from. They built a dance hall that was used a total of 4 times in 2 years. And even more durable than their legacy of steel and concrete structures, the well-intentioned NGO had completely distorted the incentive for perfectly rational economic actors to spend their own money to buy shoes for their children.

Every Christmas countless churches throughout the affluent West decide that they should spread their love for all of God’s children by putting together boxes of gifts to send to poor kids in Africa. By May or June hundreds of these boxes of gifts would have arrived in World Vision’s Bamako bureau and eventually a portion of them would make it to Sanadougou and the World Vision agents who lived in my house would go out and distribute these gifts to Christian children in villages around the area. As I have been told by my neighbors in Sanadougou, these gift boxes contained soccer balls for boys, baby dolls for girls, and every gift box contained an age- and gender-appropriate pair of shoes. Depending who was telling the story, I was told that “the White People gave us cadeaux” on various years with occasional differentiations in the contents of the box – my understanding is that the Christian NGO personnel distributed shoes to kids around the village to celebrate a number of Christmases in June.

None of these shoes from Christmases past still existed for me to see in 2008 – even the most professionally child-sewn Nikes could never last a decade’s worth of wear in Africa. The enduring legacy of these well-meaning Christian philanthropists was rather the dog that did not bark; at least part of the multitude of bare feet. In Sanadougou all but the poorest adults would walk around in a pair of shoes, so did most kids 12 or older – those old enough to work in the fields. But the majority of kids younger than that – young enough that they are most susceptible to serious complications of hookworm, ascariasis, etc. – always walked barefoot. Of course, part of this is because many a farmer did not have all that much monetary income to spend on shoes for every single one of his 9, 12, 15, 20 children. But there were also a lot of people who did have enough income from cash-cropping, livestock sales, blacksmithing, carpentry and assorted other trades, people who could most certainly afford to pay for shoes for their kids but decided to spend their money elsewhere.

In Sanadougou’s market a pair of the cheapest, lowest-quality Chinese-manufactured plastic shoe costs 800 francs CFA (~$1.60). The equivalent pair of flip-flops costs 500 francs (~$1). A packet of tea costs 200 francs, a kilogram of sugar costs 450 francs, a cigarette costs 100 francs, and a full motorcycle gas tank costs 2,000 francs – 3,000 if it’s a Yamaha. In a small town like this, phone cards are sold for denominations of 1,000 or 2,000 francs. 500 francs for a pair of flip-flops is not so unaffordable to explain why so many kids in my village walked around barefoot.

Some adults in Sanadougou were very, very poor and could not afford shoes even for themselves – but they could afford to brew three rounds of tea and sugar every night. I’d go to the butigi to buy some matches and there would be Nouhoume sitting in his place as usual enjoying his afternoon cigarette and he’d point at his cracked, broken feet,

“Madu, you have so much money! Why don’t you buy me a pair of shoes?”

“Y’know, Nouhoume, if you forego cigarettes from today until Thursday, on Thursday you will have saved enough money to buy a pair of shoes yourself!”

What really infuriated me was when people would show off to me their conspicuous consumption of top-of-the-line Western electronics that they absolutely could not afford – because it was always shamelessly juxtaposed with the abject want of necessity. In particular I remember this one guy Sori Sogoba; Sori is a 22-year-old who farms millet and peanuts and goes to Bamako every cold season to sell phone cards, and he has a wife and three kids who walk around town barefoot. And he has an iPhone. Just about every time I saw him he would always steer the conversation to “My iPhone is better than your dinky Nokia. Your telephone can’t even play music videos!”

“Yeah, but everyone in my family has a pair of shoes.”

I would try to make the connection between the abundance of unaffordable luxuries and paucity of necessities like shoes and mosquito nets whenever granted the opportunity. And I pissed off a good many people in the process – especially Sori.

He would respond, “Yeah, well, I don’t have to buy them shoes because one day The White People are going to come back and give shoes to the children. My kids don’t have shoes because The White People haven’t come yet!”

In so many inversions, dozens of Malian parents have told me this same sorry excuse on even more numerous occasions. They would always cite the fact that once upon a time the World Vision gift-givers drove around the village in their big SUV and handed out shoes to a couple dozen children every other year or so from 1988 to 1998. The Time That the White People Came and Gave Shoes to the Children is one of the few legends of Sanadougou lore that is recounted over the teapot on a fairly regular basis, and in accordance with their Messianic creed they had every reason to have faith that one day The White People shall return – with shoes, of course. Back in 1997 many of today’s fathers were then among the recipients of the White People’s Christmas gift drive, so it seems only natural that this formative experience has made a lasting impression on their parenting now that they have kids of their own.

Of course this is a completely unscientific survey, but from my casual conversations with dozens and dozens of poor Minianka farmers in Mali, I only have reason to think that a significant number of people were telling me the truth when they told me that they had decided upon the inaction of not splurging 500 francs on a pair of shoes for their child at least partly because of the expectation that The White People would take care of this expenditure for them – and therefore they consider that to spend their own money on shoes would be a waste of 500 francs that could otherwise be spent on… say, five cigarettes. Likewise, I don’t think I’m going out on too far of a limb when I conclude that there exists a significant population of children running around Sanadougou barefoot and contracting hookworm, ascariasis, etc. who are lacking shoes precisely because once upon a time between 10 and 20 years ago World Vision decided to give away shoes for free.

Indeed, it is also quite likely that a number of men who told me that they didn’t need to buy their children shoes because in the past a Christian charity gave away free shoes were just making sorry excuses and that they would have never bought their kids shoes even if this precedent of Western intervention in the local shoe market had never been set. Even so, these men were still able to abdicate personal responsibility for the welfare of their children by citing the (in their minds reasonable) expectation that someone else would do their job for them – because this one time they did.

The incentive problem caused by the free distribution of shoes in Sanadougou seems quite similar to the problem with the free distribution of mosquito nets. As I have written in prior musings, every year the Sanadougou clinic gets a shipment of a few hundred mosquito nets from UNICEF which they give for free to every pregnant mother whom they admit to the maternity. Even though the overwhelming majority of the population is never going to be eligible for one of these free mosquito nets, the fact that some people are getting free mosquito nets allows for an economy in which no one – not even the wealthy and educated who do understand the value of this product and have more than enough money to obtain one by their own means – will ever feel obligated to buy mosquito nets for themselves and for their children. Even though sleeping under a mosquito net is the simplest, cheapest, most cost-effective way of preventing malaria, the knowledge that foreign charities are intervening to help some people obtain a mosquito net for free allows everyone else to completely relinquish any self-determination of their own health and well-being. Once a precedent like this has been established in the collective mind of the tribe, it’s really difficult to undo.

Philanthropic Westerners must understand that even though their intentions in giving might be perfectly benevolent, in practice just giving things away to people can have destructive implications. Before you give to a certain charity or purchase a pair of TOMS Shoes, it is imperative to comprehend that in these parts of the world where people have next to nothing, incentives can work in such ways that the recipients of your aid might adopt behaviors that Western do-gooders simply cannot conceive. I’m not saying that you should not give to charity – all I’m saying is that before you give whimsically to just any humanitarian-sounding cause, first take into consideration that it is possible that your unconditional generosity might just distort incentives to such a perverse extreme that any good that they might have achieve in the short run might be negated by the greater harm that they might cause in the long run.

So should Blake Mycoskie get out of the business of distributing shoes to poor people? Not at all. I do think, however, that he should consider getting out of the business of giving away shoes for free. Blake Mycoskie is a shoe salesman – he should be selling shoes to poor people.

In a study by Population Services International, a campaign to distribute free mosquito nets in Zambia resulted in only 30 percent of all recipients ever actually using their free mosquito net. However, as economist William Easterly describes the effort in culturally-similar Malawi:
PSI sells bed nets for fifty cents to mothers through antenatal clinics in the countryside, which means it gets the nets to those who both value and need them… The nurse who distributes the nets gets nine cents per net to keep for herself, so the nets are always in stock. PSI also sells nets to richer urban Malawians through private-sector channels for five dollars a net. The profits from this are used to pay for the subsidized nets sold at the clinics, so the program pays for itself. PSI’s bed net program increased the nationwide average of children under five sleeping under nets from 8 percent in 2000 to 55 percent in 2004, with a similar increase for pregnant women. A follow-up survey found nearly universal use of the nets by those who paid for them.
If people are still going to buy their $20 shoes for $54, TOMS Shoes should consider tinkering with the current “One for One Movement” and replacing it with some sort of distribution method that aims to decrease the number of people who are shoeless and nevertheless abstain from doing anything that might create a perverse incentive for people to not buy shoes with their own money. Why not try to emulate PSI’s successful Malawi Model? Step up efforts to sell alpargatas directly to Guatemalan and Rwandan and Haitian elites at a price that they can most likely afford – and only after the style catches on amongst the trend-setting upper class reach out to potential middle class and working class and subsistence agricultural class customers and set prices accordingly at levels that each respective class can most likely afford. Sell a pair of alpargatas to the poor for one dollar or fifty cents – a price that is low enough that it is within their price range and yet somewhat more expensive than free.

If TOMS is making profits giving away a free pair of shoes for every pair they sell, I find it difficult to believe that they could run into financial trouble by charging a nominal price for the shoes they now distribute pro bono. The only way that selling shoes to the poor could possibly be detrimental to the company’s bottom line is that a significant number of wealthy Westerners are buying alpargatas solely because of the premise that they are giving a pair to a barefoot kid in Ethiopia. But TOMS Shoes doesn’t even have to abandon the “One for One Movement” – only now, their slogan should be “For every pair you buy, we will sell a pair of shoes to someone in need for only fifty cents.” I find it hard to believe that the class of customers who will buy a pair of shoes because they want to make a political statement with their wallet is going to abandon the TOMS line if they're only selling shoes to the poor at 95 percent off.

Selling a quality product for a profit in places like Ethiopia and Rwanda is nothing to sneeze at. There are already shoes for sale there – the problem is that the only shoes that most people can afford are cheaply-made Chinese shoes that are of poor quality and they do not last through the rigors of farm work and they break too easily. Some people can afford decent shoes, but too many cannot. That is why the world needs entrepreneurs like Blake Mycoskie to devise a successful business model to sell durable shoes to the poor at prices that they can afford.

Nevertheless, as the company’s policies now stand, at the moment I remain a skeptic of TOMS Shoes and the “One for One Movement” because I think that its goals are misdirected and that its model does not seem to be cost-effective compared to viable and proven alternatives for reducing disease. I believe that at best this company is selling its customers a bunch of overpriced earth shoes whose expense can only be justified because they come with the satisfaction of thinking that one has made a difference, and at worst they might actually be increasing the likelihood that more children will walk around barefoot. But I also believe that this basic premise of TOMS Shoes is not without hope, and with some structural changes to the way that they do business in the developing world this firm can make a much better long-term, sustainable change in the clothing market which allows for more of the world’s poor to afford a decent pair of shoes.

In the meantime, I think that anyone who is buying one pair of mediocre shoes for the price of two is just wasting their money. If you want to spend your money in a way that helps the world's poor, you might as well just buy another brand of alpargatas for $20 and take that other $34 you would have spent had you bought a pair of TOMS and donate it to Oxfam, Habitat for Humanity, Doctors Without Borders or some other genuine non-profit that is more likely going to spend it on more worthwhile projects that will make a much greater impact.