Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Ultimate Resource

I recently attended the inaugural screening of a new film society. The film screened was The Ultimate Resource from Free to Choose Media™. The title comes from a Julian Simon book title: that human inventiveness is the ultimate resource. The film starts with a West African ceremony celebrating the birth of a daughter (who has been declared likely to live and so no longer merely a visiting spirit). This hopeful and colourful ceremony is the lever to present the masses of children being born around the planet as potentially including those who will come up with ideas that may benefit huge numbers of people. It is a vision that presents people positively, rather than a plague species on the planet.

It is also a perspective that is positive towards other people’s ideas. (Having the view that your ideas show one to be morally and intellectually superior is antipathetic to such a perspective.)

The Ultimate Resource is divided into five vignettes, each treated informatively and positively.

The first, in a Ghanian fishing village, was Victoria’s schooling. We meet a fisherman whose father barred him from going to school while his wife’s father could not afford to send her to school. Their daughter, Victoria, wants to be doctor.

Government schools in their area have 75 student in a class, open for 4 hours a day, for boys and girls. Yet private schools dominate schooling (as they do in much of the developing world). They have less qualified teachers, but smaller classes and operate 7 hours a day. The parents send Victoria to “Supreme Academy”, Theophilus Quaye’s school that he started with a few students and now has almost 370 students.

The “pertinent expert” for the segment was James Tooley, Professor of education policy at Newcastle upon Tyne University. Prof. Tooley describes his discovery of private schooling for the poor in this excerpt from his book The Beautiful Tree.

We then move to the valley of Macchu Picchu in Peru and Eusebio’s dream. Eusebio is a small farmer, working land that three generation’s of his family. A man had come to his grandfather and claimed to own the land he worked. For two generations, they worked the land that someone else claimed to own.

In 1969, the Peruvian state nationalised the land and created cooperatives. Eusebio said things got worse, because now they worked for for low pay for the cooperative directors appointed by Lima bureaucrats while the cooperative directed wealth to the directors, who did not work but lived off the labour of peasants like Eusebio.

Now, a process of giving individual titles is operating, based on the advocacy and ideas of Peruvian property rights advocate Hernando de Soto (founder of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy) who talks of billions of people being locked out of the capitalist system by the lack of property rights. We see the process where individual titles are handed over. Eusebio says “I am 47 years old and I have finally seen my title. My parents have died and they did not see it”. It was the very moving satisfying of peasant land-hunger.

Then it is on to Pennies a day about a married pair of weavers, Minara Begum and husband, in a small village in Bangladesh, the benefits of microcredit and the work and vision of the Muhammad Yunus and Grameen (“Rural”) Bank (joint winners of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize). Professor Yunus had been teaching elegant principles of economics while poor people were struggling and starving around university.

He studied what was happening (and not happening) in the villages. Getting hold of even small amounts of money was a big problem, due to the only credit available being high interest loans from moneylenders.

The answer was micro-credit. Now the Grameen Bank makes 96% of its loans to women: they find that the women are cautious, have a family-focus, with long-term aims. The bank requires a village centre meeting each week. At these meetings, friends are developed, information swapped. The system works on peer pressure and individual pride with the required 16 principles being recited each centre meeting.

As Muhammad Yunus says, people “discover themselves and their creativity comes out.” As for the effect of lending to women, “now she has the power of money”. The loans average $85, with a 99% payback rate.
We then have quite a change of context to Estonia Freedom’s Sound and the Estonia Piano Company. We get a sense of how bad things were under the Soviets (and the Nazis) and how different it is now. As one of the workers in the company says of the Soviet era, “just to buy an orange you had to know someone”.

The “visiting expert” was Johan Norberg from Sweden, the most “rah, rah” speaker in the film. The Estonia Piano Company had existed under Soviet Union. With the break up of the Soviet Union, their market disappeared. From 500 pianos a year, production dropped to 94 in 1997. A young pianist bought up the stock as it fell in value. When he became the majority owner, he revitalised the company by getting it to focus on quality. Now the Estonia Piano Company’s pianos rank close to Steinway™ in quality at about half the price. His father, Venno Laul, a choirmaster (whose father was executed by the Nazis) helped to improve the piano quality. The father was eloquent on how a free society was worth any price.

The final vignette was a 34 year old computer game entrepreneur, Sir Hai, owner of Snailgame™, a computer game company using 3D animations: his wife Jo is the company’s chief financial officer and The people’s economy. This segment had a more mixed overall tone than the other segments. The “talking head” was an economics professor from Fudan University, though his role was notably less than the other experts, both in screen time and content.

This is the China that has the fastest-growing major economy in world history. There are estimated to be 300,000 millionaires in China. Full of enthusiasm for the economic growth, the segment also notes the problems of corruption, rural poverty, underdeveloped legal system, the problems with political freedom (of which Sir Hai says “that is a difficult question”, the perennial code for “this can get me into trouble). Sir Hai makes the striking observation that “our generation is like the generation in Japan after WWII”.

The Ultimate Resource is both informative and uplifting. Rarely has a film had such a cheering and encouraging effect. It is also a powerful film, particularly as it addressed the real situation of the poor: things that mattered in their lives.

There was a discussion afterwards, which brought up various issues. It was the sort of the discussion where I found myself, in the one set of comments, pointing out that Peter Walsh held that working on his farm helped teach him to learn economics, that I preferred the term ‘free commerce’ to ‘free market’, that the among indigenous Australians during the 1960s and 1970s there had been a debate roughly between women (who wanted to develop their community’s internal resources) and men (who wanted to see how much money they could get from grants) and how notions of the possibility of change and progress enter into developing societies.

One of those present was able to provide further details on how the Grameen Bank work: in particular the existence of small circles were the next person does not get a loan until the previous one has been paid back and the centrality of the 16 points (which a lot of Muslim conservatives/fundamentalists strongly opposed to). Muhammad Yunus was the most impressive speaker in the film.

There will more documentary films put on by the film society: the organiser, has tapped into an “below the radar” movement of pro-liberty documentary makers.


  1. Muhummad Yunus is doing such amazing work. There’s a new documentary coming out about him and you should check it out since it sounds like your readers would be interested.

  2. Agreed, and yes, that documentary does look fascinating, thanks.