Friday, September 17, 2010

A Poverty of Ideas

We’ve been investing tiny amounts of money through Kiva in microcredit ventures in the developing world. What began as a $25 loan a couple of years ago has grown to a couple of hundred in a half dozen small ventures in places such as Pakistan and Afghanistan and Uganda where a few dollars can make a difference.
One of our loans was just repaid this week so we began looking for another small enterprise to reinvest that $25. We found one young woman with a textiles venture in Eritrea where she is raising two children on her own. The Kiva write up says she makes $44 per week.
I am quite certain that some weeks I have spent that much in coffee shops.
On the other hand, according to, her annual income of $2,200 (I gave her two weeks off in my calculations) puts her in the richest 15 percent of the earth’s population.
The same day that we were playing McRockefeller, the United States Census Bureau released figures indicating that there are more people in the United States living below the federal poverty line than at any time in the past 50 years.
The current federal poverty line is $22,000 for a family of four, or 10 times as much as the young woman in Eritrea who is among the richest 15 percent. The U.S. poverty line puts you just outside the richest 10 percent, and translates into a hourly wage of roughly $11.00.
Comparative poverty is more art than science, although there are helpful measurements. For example, about ten years ago the average American household spent 13.5 percent of its income on food while the average family in rural India spent a bit more than 60 percent of its income to eat. You’d have to do more with numbers than I care to if you want to figure out the percentage the average poor American household spent on food.
In any case, at some point comparative poverty becomes a race to the bottom that cannot be measured in purely economic terms. I don’t have direct experience with developing world poverty, but I’ve spent a lot of time in poor corners of the U.S. in cities and in rural places, and have spent a few years living on the narrow ledge just above the poverty line.
It is almost as easy to romanticize poverty as it is to demonize the poor, but neither attitude comes close to capturing the reality of being poor. Earlier this year economist Carol Graham published a book called Happiness around the World: The Paradox of Happy Peasants and Miserable Millionaires.
Writing in the Post last January, Graham noted some key findings from a decade of studying happiness around the world:
Wherever I look, some simple patterns hold: A stable marriage, good health and enough (but not too much) income are good for happiness. Unemployment, divorce and economic instability are terrible for it. On average, happier people are also healthier, with the causal arrows probably pointing in both directions. Finally, age and happiness have a consistent U-shaped relationship, with the turning point in the mid- to late-40s, when happiness begins to increase, as long as health and domestic partnerships stay sound.
In my own experience, to be sure, there is joy among the poor, just as there is sorrow. That’s just true of life, and being poor does not change that fact. Graham’s research suggests that income level does not much change the balance of joy and sorrow, although in some cases the research actually suggests that those at the higher end of income distribution are more dissatisfied than others. Money, it seems, does not buy happiness.
Graham’s research is not alone in showing greater measures of happiness among the poor in the developing world than among the affluent of the industrial North, but it’s crucial to note that the patterns she found that make for happiness include “enough income.”
Ah, and there’s the rub.
The unsettled state American politics this fall probably has dozens of causes, but one of them is surely the anger and unrest arising from the millions of lives represented in the new poverty statistics. However relatively poor they may be on a global scale, locally speaking they are not real happy just now at least when it comes to the nation’s leadership. In the U.S., we have the November elections – and the football season – to provide a nice escape valve for some of the pressure building within the body politic.
I don’t know what the cost of living is in Eritrea (and this is a blog post not a research project), so I don’t know what percentage of my young entrepreneur’s $2200 annual income it would take to feed a family of three in her village. What I do know is that the vast majority of the world’s population gets by on much less than that, and whether or not they are happy about it will have much to do with the peace and stability of the coming years. Most of those folks don’t get to vote, and they don’t have football season, either.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

In Praise of Moderate Republicans ... Really

This is going to sound like the grumpy lament of a middle-aged man, or, perhaps like a wagon train tale. But I can remember the election, in my home state of Tennessee, of moderate Republican lawmakers and executives. I doubt that my children will have such memories for the moderate Republican is a dying breed.
Why should a life-long liberal lament this fact of contemporary American political life? For one thing, I have always been more of a small "d" democrat than a capital "D" Democrat. While I am an unapologetic liberal, I also know that every perspective is sharpened by the contest of ideas, and I don't believe any person, party or point of view owns a monopoly on ideas for the common good.
I can count on the fingers of one hand the Republican candidates for whom I have voted over the years, but I am always suspicious of concentrated power and that includes power concentrated in the hands of a political party with whom I more often than not agree. Lord Acton was right: power corrupts, as the long list of disgraced public figures from both parties attests.
The best balance to the corrupting influence of power is the force of other power, but when that power arrives as the bow shot of extremists it may seem to balance power but it undermines stability in the system as a whole. An unbalanced system is chaos.
The creation story in Genesis tells us that God brought forth the world from out of chaos, and thus chaos might be seen as the fertile ground for creative growth. The problem arises when the agents of chaos mistake themselves for God, or, at least, as God's messengers.
It is no accident that the most divisive aspects of our politics right now revolve around issues such as the Muslim community center in New York or the threatened Qu'ran burning in Florida or the mosque arson in Tennessee. God is the real Ground Zero of our politics right now.
Unfortunately, our politics has been so thoroughly debased that it is not nearly large enough to cover that ground. Which brings me back 'round to this week's primary results, and, in particular, to the sorry state of the Republican Party in Delaware.
I have no personal stake in that contest. I have never met Mike Castle, but I have long been aware of him. He has always struck me as being like one of those Republicans whose election I can recall from a generation ago in Tennessee -- Howard Baker, Lamar Alexander or Gene Roberts.
Baker and Alexander became nationally known figures. I mostly disagreed with them on the issues, and increasingly so over the years as they drifted with the rest of their party further and further to the right. Nevertheless, when I was coming of age during Watergate I was proud that a Tennessean played a key role in holding President Nixon accountable, and, though I voted for the other guy (Jake Butcher) for governor in my first election (1978) it is clear that Sen. Alexander has done considerably more good for the state than Mr. Butcher, who wound up in prison for massive bank fraud.
Gene Roberts, who was never as well known as Baker or Alexander, became mayor of my home town of Chattanooga in 1982, and served for 15 years. When I was growing up he was our next-door neighbor, though his family had moved to a considerably more upscale neighborhood by the time he was elected mayor. I babysat for his kids, and one of his sons was my baby brother's best friend.
In 1982, Chattanooga was a dying steel town in the throws of the Reagan recession. These days Chattanooga is known as a beautiful, thriving city. When I tell folks that I grew up there, they often remark on what a nice place it is to visit. I inevitably say, "yeah, it's so much nicer since I left!"
That is true by virtually any measure, but it probably doesn't have much to do with my leaving. It does, however, have a great deal to do with Mayor Roberts' leadership.
Why does he come to mind this week? Because I seriously doubt that he could be elected today. He was genuinely moderate, and actively sought to work with folks from across the political and economic spectrum of the city. That willingness to include the people -- the demos -- in decisions is precisely what enabled Chattanooga to move from a city of shuttered steel mills in the 1970s to the thriving and livable city it has become.
The country as a whole seems so much like my hometown was 40 years ago, and we need practical leaders from a lot of perspectives. When one party takes itself off the deep end and purges its ranks of all but one, extreme ideological position, the entire body politic suffers.