Thursday, July 29, 2010
The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty by Peter Singer is a book designed to make a difference in the world. Singer is known as the one who challenges comfortable assumptions such as animals do not feel pain when they are tested through reasoned argument and evidence. You might not have followed him all the way with his last book to make the headlines, Animal Liberation, where animal rights are taken to a bit of an extreme but there is no getting around the quiet persuasive power of this very accessible, more personal plea for global economic justice. Singer is Bioethics professor at the University of Princeton and what I admire and appreciate about his style is that it is not full of academic jargon and intimidating references. Singer write simply and compellingly about the world as it is and our responsibility to pay our part in helping to salvage a modicum of justice amid growing inequality and despair among large sections of the planet.
He starts his book with the story of a man who rescues a man who fell onto subway tracks and despite the lights of an oncoming train being visible, he pushed the man into a drainage trench, covering him with his own body. His story is documented in wikipedia as the subway hero and he became Time's Man of the Year in 2007 in addition to being invited to attend the State of the Union. Asked about all the fuss he just replied "I don't feel I did something spectacular. I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right."
We have a duty Singer argues to help our fellow man who as I write this and as you read this is dying. Unlike the Subway hero we don't need to risk our life doing this, nor do we need to complain if we have a bottle of water or a can of soda in our house that we cannot afford it. Having any of these things means we are willing to pay for something that is safely available from a tap when a billion people struggle to find clean drinking water and easily fall victim to to treatable diseases like diaarhea because they lack this basic necessity.
We live in a world where we can easily eliminate poverty if we had the will to do so. Economist Jeffrey Sachs estimates that extreme poverty can be eliminated by the middle of the century. The time frame could be even shorter if defense budgets were cut by less than one percent but still as Singer points out 9.7 million children under five die annually of preventable diseases. There has been undoubted progress--Singer compares our struggle against poverty as climbers who are now in sight of the summit finally after being in the clouds and can see the route through the mist. Some notable people are now stepping up to the plate--Warren Buffett most notably has pledged to give $31 billion and Bill and Melinda Gates $29 billion--but as Singer points out they are but a small fraction to the effort that needs to be made. The effort needs you and I to contribute as well as the three or four billion of those that live in relative comfort in the western and northern hemispheres.
While we are now mostly familiar with the statistic that one billion people live on less than one dollar a day--the real number is closer to 1.4 billion since the extreme poverty has to be revised upwards to mean $1.25 dollars a day given the rise in inflation. We then need to understand the meaning of this number--it means that this huge group of people are at risk for early death--including 9.7 million children who die each year from poverty related causes. Singer points out the incredible affluence of the west--where most of us are wealthier than generations before us reaching back even to Louis XIV--we have health care they could only dream about and a variety of foods, entertainment and opportunities for travel. Our magazines and TV are full of offers for products we don't need, are pure fantasy status symbols such as Rolex watches and fast cars, priced tens if not hundreds of times beyond what any person living in a developing economy might earn in a life time. Singer points to research that shows that $10 billion of food is simply wasted in the US every year.
Then Singer hits you with an unavoidably direct ethical argument --If it is in your power to prevent something--someone dying unnecessarily--without you having to sacrifice anything very much, it is wrong not to do so. The problem we run into here is that although we may be convinced without too much trouble to save the life of one person--how about the hundreds, thousands if not millions who could also be helped? What would the cost be then and maybe at that point the sacrifice would mean not having much money to spend on our own family and communities. We then tend to think that giving a very marginal amount to helping one child or a few beyond our community is a good thing--it is not wrong to ignore or avoid our responsibility altogether.
But each of the world religions--Judaism, Christianity and Islam teaches us to give to the less fortunate. But perhaps the Confucian tradition puts the obligation more squarely--in one of the teachings recounts a visit to the king where Confucius says:
"There are people dying from famine on the roads, and you do not issue the stores of your granaries for them. When people die, you say, "It is not owing to me; it is owing to the year." In what does this differ from stabbing a man and killing him, and then saying "It was not I, it was the weapon?"
The US likes to consider itself a generous country but according to one definitive report on US giving fully a third of what Americans give goes to religious institutions where it pays for salaries of clergy and maintenance of buildings--only about 10 percent is passed on as aid to developing countries. The US is near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of proportion of income given as foreign aid. The average national effort was "46 cents of every $100 of gross national income--the US gave only 18 cents of every $100 it earned."
Singer burrows deep into the arguments as to what kind of foreign aid is best--emergency relief? development aid? advocacy work for a fairer global system? There is also a problem that Singer does not go into much which is the corruption that makes it very difficult in some countries to make progress in any area and the problem of much of the development aid going into the pockets of western contractors. There is also a feeling about the role of government in all this that Singer does not deal with here (Arguing that all he wants to address is the personal responsibility we all should feel) but individual's view of the proper role of government does determine their level of giving. This last point brings up the larger issue related to a diffusion of responsibility that lets people off the hook since we can always shrug off our individual duties to others by pointing to others' role.
But Singer is relentless about bringing the question back to individual morality. In 1999 Singer wrote a memorable piece in the New York Times Sunday magazine that basically recites the major arguments advanced in this book. As a result of that article Oxfam America and UNICEF brought in about $600, 000 more than they usually took in. The point is that people can be persuaded to do more. Here is the power of the pen in action. Singer is willing to stake at the heart of all the handwringing we go through in terms of whether and how much to contribute is the concern with the other--it is as he says "much harder to love the children of strangers than to love your own children." The two he accepts must be in tension--but he argues more defiantly "this doesn't mean that parents are justified in providing luxuries for their children ahead of basic needs of others."
When asked how much is the fair share we should pay--he estimates that according to Jeffrey Sachs the number should be $124 billion in 2001 to raise everyone above the poverty line. The combined gross national income of the OECD nations was $20 trillion--therefore the number should be about 0.62 percent of incomeor 62 cents of every $100 earned. A person earning $50,000 would owe $300, compared to the $116 billion Americans spend of alcohol--this is not a huge number--in my estimate it is $25 a month or $6 a week or the price of a McDonalds meal. Singer wants all of us to commit to giving five percent of our income for those who are comfortable rather than rich and would not involve in sacrificing anything much--you might even find yourself becoming healthier in the process. He names names in terms of those billionaires who could be doing a lot more with their money. Paul Allen co-founder of Microsoft recently did announce that he will be donating half of his funds to charity--perhaps pushed a bit by Singer, but Larry Ellison the highest paid CEO of Oracle has yet to rise to the challenge spending his cash on trophies like a $200 million dollar yacht burning more in a single hour of diesel fuel than a car in seven years of use.
In terms of ethical standards for living it is hard to beat Fair Share International (an Australian community based organization) 5/10/5/10 formula:
+ 5 percent of income to help the disadvantaged
+ Reduce your environmentally harmful consumption by 10 percent each year until you can do no more.
+ Giving 5 percent of your time to helping people in your community
+ Take democratic political action at least 10 times a year --such as contacting your political representatives.
You don't have to agree with everything that Singer says to agree that we could all do more. The book is valuable as a refresher for the key arguments as well as focusing on the question of how to give so you can maximize your contribution and not have it sucked up in administrative costs. Singer refers to the excellent website Charity Navigator that studies the ratio of administrative costs to actual charitable outlays to reassure people that there is transparency and other non profits such as Give Well and Clear Fund study the most effective ways funds are used to help. The ones that come up top of the list are--Population Services International (PSI) that reduces malaria in Africa, Partners in Health and Interplast.
Singer's book has managed to add a huge shot of clarity to the often murky field of what is appropriate and right in the area of charitable giving. It deserves wide readership and as importantly will hopefully spark continuing discussion and debate.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
Robert Reich's book Supercapitalism: The Transformation of Business, Democracy and Everyday Life came out in 2007 before the recent economic collapse and it is prescient not only about the economic volatility that led up to the events circa 2008 but also the kinds of fundamental changes in US democracy that now need to be in place if we are to survive further horrors. Robert Reich is of course best remembered as US Labor Secretary in the Clinton administration's first term--who pushed for a rise in the minimum wage and far more modest economic stimulus. His progressive ideas led him to lock horns with the great nemesis Alan Greenspan who as Fed Chairman opposed as much as possible a proactive government role in the operation of the marketplace whose golden bubbles began to ferment during his tenure. He was also as he writes in his memoir of those years also (to use his title) "Locked in the Cabinet" as the Clinton White House sailed full steam ahead to fast track trade agreements such as NAFTA without labor agreements in place that could have protected American jobs or funding that could help them retrain for new ones. But this is an important book because it understands the present moment far more completely than most I have read. Reich's insights as an economist and his experience as a policy maker allow him to connect together the key elements of our era--and suggest why there are no easy solutions for a new species of capitalism that threatens to destroy the planet unless we have stronger democratic institutions in place than we have at present.
It all started around the 1970s when the federal government flush still wanting to figure out how to battle the former Soviet Union to the death invested in some very sophisticated new ideas in technology that led to the development of the Internet.
Prior to this period roughly 1945-1970 the US was the unquestioned economic leader in what amounted to the post-war economic boom in which real incomes tripled around the world and world trade quadrupled. In 1953 as a result of a CIA plot to topple a legitimately elected democratic government, the US was guaranteed access to Iranian oil when the US friendly Shah was installed as leader. The US corporations could control prices and wages and stability and security was assured for America's growing middle class even as battles to win rights for minorities and clean air and clean water as the cold war cooled down after the Cuba debacle and the LBJ administration tried to prove that it was not soft on communism by fighting a futile war in Viet-Nam.
As Reich writes "Starting in the mid 1970s the large oligopolies that anchored the American system started to teeter. Their sales, profits and employment became far more volatile...Between 1970 and 1990, the rate at which companies disappeared from the Fortune 500 quadrupled." In a word barriers to enter the market place started to collapse as deregulation of huge industries became the norm--cable television changed the prior reality of three great TV networks controlling the airwaves--now 100s of channels were available. The AT&T phone monopoly was being broken up as cell phone companies and cable companies wanted a piece of the telecommunications networks that AT&T had previously regarded as their own. Airline companies that had owned major routes were challenged by smaller regional carriers to give them some room to compete.
Then the digital revolution and Microsoft challenges IBM and then Google challenges Microsoft for world dominance. In this period no company could feel safe as costs to compete with the big boys was finally lowered so anyone with a great new idea and a good business plan could get investors to buy in. Think Fed-Ex, AOL,Yahoo and of course Apple. It meant that because these companies could literally sell to the world and had few of the old labor and transportation costs returns could be sky high for modest investments as cargo containers (perfected by the military in the cold war period) could ship goods for far less cost and manufacturing could span the globe as supply chains became extended. This as Reich persuasively argues created enormous challenges for politicians--on the one hand consumers enjoyed far more choice in the marketplace--and with the advent of global giants like Walmart and other huge buyers of merchandise far lower prices. Did anyone worry too much where these goods were being manufactured? Was anyone concerned with the fate of unionized labor in the US or anywhere in the world? Did people really care about the environmental damage or the consumer culture that was being engendered with its appetite for credit card spending?
Or whether companies like Walmart, Nike or a hundred other brands exploited workers while making huge returns for investors and obscene salaries for their executives?
Not when they were taking campaign contributions right, left and center from the lobbyists these new companies employed to ensure that their products were favorably treated by regulators and prevent any new labor or consumer credit laws from having any teeth. But for Reich this issue of how the corporations make money is not really important. He simply does not care as long as they obey the typically very weak US laws. It is the business of government to try to set boundaries and define legal and illegal practices. He is not in favor of either consumers banding together to pressure companies which he sees as random and often based on single interest politics--or companies setting their own voluntary and thereby unenforceable codes of practice. Under the unwritten supercapitalism rules companies simply have to fiercely compete with each other so they can continue to keep making higher and higher returns for their investors or vanish. They cannot count on the great advantages of stable markets that companies in the pre supercapitalism phase were allowed.
One of the more worrying features of this new era is that there is no debate about these kinds of issues. As Reich writes,
"A change in labor laws making it easier for employees to organize and negotiate better terms might increase slightly the price of products ans services I buy" (but) he argues. "my inner consumer won't like that very much, but the citizen in me thinks it is a fair price to pay." Reich sensibly believes everyone would strike some sort of balance between the two hats we wear-the problem is that the discussion is not available to us. "Instead, our debates about economic change tend to occur between two warring camps representing the extreme positions: those who want the best consumer and investor deals, and those who want to preserve jobs and communities much as they are. Instead of finding ways to soften the blows, compensate the losers, or slow the pace of change..we go into battle. Consumers and investors almost always win, but sometimes citizens get so riled up they temporarily put a stop to things--blacking a new trade agreement or blocking a Wal-Mart."
One of the reasons (Reich does not discuss) that the consumers/investors win is that the media has been largely, if not bought off by corporate interests, so afraid of offending them that they are incapable of framing the issues in ways the public can understand. Most of the time they don't even bother --moving on from one sensationalized issue to the next--never remembering or caring to return to any one of them so we are capable of putting them into any real human, historical or global perspective.
Reich repeats again and again the arguments as to why supercapitalism is incapable of having a conscience about the kind of destruction it is wrecking on the globe. Over and over we read they are just there to be in business to make as large a return as possible for their investors. But after banging that particular drum for so long the arguments start to sound hollow. Reich takes the example of China and how both Yahoo and Google have made every effort to appease the Chinese government even when they have used their technologies to push their clamp down on human rights. Reich argues that they are blameless because under Supercapitalism there are no rules except to make money --if they were to retreat from China they would lose out to Microsoft etc. But Reich does not acknowledge sufficiently that these companies risk damaging their image as a smart but humane companies (Googles' motto "do no evil" comes to mind) and they could lose customers and investors if groups decide to boycott. But the problem is that they so rarely do. The other way that companies could be harmed is if the Congress gets so incensed with some morally outrageous behavior that they pass a law to stop that conduct. But Reich is savvy about the reasons why --particularly with respect to China's human rights abuses Congress tends not to act. Instead they hold hearings where they haul up CEOs in front of them and try to shame them in front of the media but seldom go the next step and take legislative action--preferring instead to collect nice campaign handouts from those very same companies who show their gratitude for the policitians restraint in not really addressing the core issues. Then to counter any remaining negative effect from morally dubious policies and acts, companies typically invest in media campaigns to reconfigure their image. Reich is particularly good concerning the way BP in a whole series of incidents reminiscent of the Gulf spill invested millions in making people believe it was environmentally friendly and "beyond petroleum" when the facts show that the company was investing a fraction of its huge profits in things like alternative energy to keep the bad publicity at bay.
The answer to all this? Nothing new here -take the money out of politics by having publically funded campaigns. Reich would also abolish corporate income tax--because corporations should not be treated as individuals and should be denied "any right or responsibilities or a legislative role in State matters." Too bad that the Supreme Court in an inexplicable move just gave corporations a bucket load of more rights as they can freely express their political views in elections even those based off shore.
My own sense from reading this book is that while opinion poll after opinion poll suggest that only a tiny fraction of consumers would prefer to buy from companies that favor socially responsible practices over those that have no concern for them, that dynamic can change. We as teachers should help our students better understand the central trade off that Reich focuses on between choice,low prices and high stock returns versus lowere wages, obscene profits for a few and growing inequality.
It is our duty as educators to help our students to understand the world they now live in, the kinds of choices we have in this world and to help them to look beyond that shiny new gadget that they want to sell you to how that buying decision effects you, your families and your communities. In particular we should enabling students to spot the double games that corporations and politicians sometimes play with the media around these issues. I don't agree with Reich that being a business in a supercapitalist era gives companies the right to run roughshod over human rights. While our politicians and media have turned a deaf ear to the issues--we as citizens can remind them that they exist because of our vote and our airwaves. It may well be a long time before we get the third party politics that might rid money from politics or at least significantly reduce its impact, until then we might want to continue to understand how the many consumer campaigns that have been successful --from Greenpeace to the ones that took place with regard to the South African apartheid regime and Nike, worked and could be replicated. In the last analysis democracies have to be educated to care--as Thomas Jefferson said so well "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
Saturday, July 17, 2010
Our era will no doubt be written about in terms of the rise to power of China and India. As statistician Hans Roesling has pointed out in the earlier blog their post war emergence has come as a result of a growing progress in health, food production and easing of trade restrictions and it is truly a remarkable story. What is not told as often is the cost of such a rise in terms of environmental damage. A new book --When A Billion Chinese Jump by Jonathan Watts and recently reviewed by Guardian book critic Isabel Hilton, indicates the scale of the way the Chinese made no accomodation in their plans for the environment. They simply tore up forests, polluted rivers and did basically whatever was necessary to forge a new industrial economy out of what was basically a feudal agrarian society. As Hilton grimly explains,
"In the past 10 years, the bills have begun to come in: they include acute and chronic water shortages, toxic algae blooms, desertification, acid rain, dying grasslands and angry people. The new middle classes in the prosperous cities of eastern China now want dirty factories closed or cleaned up, but the inland provinces further back in the queue for prosperity are keen to welcome them. In 2007, the World Bank conservatively estimated the cost of Chinese pollution at 5.8% of GDP. (Others have put it as high as 8 to 12%.) If we subtract these sums from China's headline growth, the present looks substantially less impressive and the future more worrying still. Illegal deforestation in China continues, despite belated prohibition; the pollution carried down China's rivers poisons the sea from the Bohai Gulf to the Pacific; particulates are carried on the winds to other countries and China's contribution to the great brown cloud helps to create a giant smog blanket even over otherwise unpolluted areas of Asia."
The book basically tells the story that the Chinese want to do their best to cover up as they tried so earnestly to do in their hosting of the Olympic games last year, by Watts' book shows the true costs of those cheap Chinese goods we have been so keen to import,
"..there is Linfen, a coal town in Shanxi province, said to be the most polluted place in the world, where birth defects run at six times the national average which, in turn, is three to five times the global norm; where the miners' death rate per ton of coal is 30 times that of the United States and nearly a million people's homes are affected by subsidence; where the cost of damage to human health and the environment in the province in 2005 was estimated at £2.9bn...
The Yellow river, the birthplace of Chinese civilisation, is all but destroyed. The government has encouraged people to move west from the overpopulated heartland into the arid and mountainous lands of the Uighurs and the Tibetans, places able to support sparse populations but where ecosystems rapidly collapse under the weight of numbers. The days of the last remaining paradise, the astonishingly biodiverse province of Yunnan, according to Watts's account, are numbered."
The scale of the devastation in other words is almost unimaginable. Nowadays --if there is a ray of light in all this the Chinese are ostensibly for sustainable development and a low carbon economy as it seeks to dominate the green energy technologies but it will take more than words to change what Watts uncovers as a cultural bias away as Hilton puts it "the entrenched idea that nature exists to be exploited and plundered and that any environmental problem can be fixed by engineering."
The title of the book is derived from Watts' childhood where the belief was shared among school children of my generation as well that if a billion Chinese jumped at one time, they could knock the world off its axis. Now the actions of a billion Chinese could do the same and it maybe time to remind them and ourselves of that. As Hilton neatly states--"The west invented unsustainable living; China has taken it up with enthusiasm." The same maybe said of India by the way the other billion people sized neighbor to the west.
Saturday, July 10, 2010
This will be an occasional series where I recommend some of the podcasts that have consistently helped me develop a global perspective. One of the problems in living in any country but particularly the US is that the media often focus on national and local issues and give international stories short shrift. When they do focus on international issues such as the wars in Iraq and Afgahanistan and various emergencies the reporting can be of a very high quality but much of the actual discussion related to the meaning of those reports frequently gets lost in talk shows. The commentary often just has people who reflect the major party viewpoints and are naturally focused on the US interests. Everyone needs to develop counter perspectives to the conversations that tend to dominate their national media. One of the podcasts that makes an effort to invite new thinking and global perspectives is Andrew Marr's Start the Week on BBC 4--that can easily be found and downloaded from the I-Tunes Store. All 56 shows can be downloaded from the BBC website
What I like about Marr's show is the fact that he seems to have read the books that are often featured on the show (and to be honest why he is able to attract some stellar guests) and he is capable of conducting a conversation that genuinely explores issues in an open, accesible and clear way.
Some of the recent ones I recommend include the following broadcast on July 6 with the novelist Yann Martel, "who wrote Life of Pi, explains how a donkey and a howler monkey are central to his latest book, Beatrice and Virgil." Martel helps describe how his latest book is an attempt to understand the holocaust and why art and imaginative writing can uniquely assist us in the important act of remembering the holocaust so we can connect the event to today's realities.
May 17 2010's show gathered together a fascinating panel leading to a wonderfully far ranging global discussion that included "historian and former advisor to Margaret Thatcher, Norman Stone, gives his personal take on the Cold War. The journalist, Ben Judah witnessed the toppling of the President of Kyrgyzstan last month and reflects on the fate of this former Soviet state. The Director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor explores what historical objects can tell us about leadership, and Marina Warner looks back at the art and music that expresses a genuine dialogue between East and West."
Ian Buruma expounded upon the interplay of religion and politics clash in three continents based on the research for his book "Taming the Gods: Religion and Democracy on Three Continents" in the May 25th program.
An all star line up was present on January 3, 2010 when "Anthony Julius tells Andrew Marr how far he thinks anti-Semitism pervades English culture, while Alexander McCall Smith argues against the hegemony of the English language, in favour of Scots. Jonathan Safran Foer explores what we eat and why and whether meat is murder and Graciela Chichilnisky explores the links between danger, risk, climate change and changing behaviours."
Another worthwhile 45 minutes can be spent listening to the show broadcast on January 11, 2010, where Andrew Marr's discussion included "the Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk about obsessive love and his decision to blur the distinction between fiction and reality with the opening of The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul; Barbara Ehrenreich exposes the downside of America's culture of positive thinking and irrational optimism; Simon Schama invesigates the Obama effect; Russian expert Susan Richards explores the importance of national myths."
The real virtue of podcasts of this kind is that they can remind you what really informed discussion looks like when it takes a more leisurely less frantic less nation centered take on the world. We seem in this busy and hysterically minded age to have lost some of the ability to step back and reflect--Marr's show is welcomed antidote to these tendencies.
Friday, July 2, 2010
The question of how to teach history in schools is a hard subject to avoid these days as countries around the world struggle to rethink their place in response to rapid globalization trends. It has come up afresh in my mother country, England where there is talk by the new coalition of government of revising the history curriculum.
The Independent in an interesting interview with Niall Ferguson, the noted historian and media personality who might help the UK government revising the curriculum, made some interesting points about some of the challenges involved in teaching history today in schools. In order to get away from the inevitable tendency by all countries to conceive of history as a great national epic and as a result become one of the least liked subjects, he suggests a question based approach that does not assume that historians or teachers are ‘omniscent’ and that history is just a set of dates to be learned. He would model the approach on the course he teaches at Harvard, “a broad global history from the 1400s to the 20th century, which seeks to ask the question: "Why did the West conquer the rest?” More interestingly he goes on to recommend that the approach be non-Eurocentric: "if you went on a world tour in the 1420s you would not have bet that the West would come to dominate the globe". How it happened, agrees Ferguson, is not simply a matter of Western triumph or still less triumphalism; Ferguson has spent time in China, India and Latin America to investigate why some other civilisations simply "imploded" of their own accord, while others were indeed overcome by European military prowess, or microbes.”
While Ferguson is not saying anything particularly new --his media stardom may now give the approach the extra push it needs to move the debate forward so we resist the temptation to move backwards to the traditional narrative approach favored by so many textbooks and examiners. That temptation seems harder to resist at a time when national identity is being questioned in so many countries faced with issues related to immigration and devolution.
Not that the traditional narrative approach is toast. It can be incorporated into history classrooms but we should concede it can be done so much better on TV. As Ferguson suggests, one of the reasons history is such a hit "on television and in the bookshops but, apart from the Third Reich and Martin Luther King, a lost cause in the classroom” might be because (as Shakespeare understood so well) we need plenty of visual images and drama) for us to soak in the wider import of our past. So rather than shun the History Channel let's use it in the classroom along with the other plentiful sources of multimedia source material available on the Internet. By clearly stating the one fact about history all can agree on that no one story is adequate to describe the past.
Can we persuade the examiners and the politicians to move in this direction? Can we shift classroom history from solely focusing on the special genius and other merits of a national citizenry, or the stories of kings and queens and encourage more "higher order thinking" We need to have more teachers swing open those virtual Smithsonian and the British Museum archives for their students and conducting their own conversations with experts and fellow students so they can discover for themselves that the past is never completely past and the future still open. Given the kind of prestige that Ferguson brings to the current debate it seems that we may just be ready to take this leap.