"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

Posts tagged “academic

Tuesday Tremor: What is the role of the government?

It’s been a while since I’ve been at the blog. Graduate school is rather fantastic at getting in the way of one’s education. But I have been spending the last 8 months thinking about how loosely organised human beings can make a difference to the world’s poor. And today I embarked on a discussion that made me think a little bit more deeply than I had reflected in a while.

This post is an initial muse on the role of the government as it relates to poverty alleviation. I know I have grossly oversimplified principles of economics, political science, sociology, and likely every social science discipline one can think of. Please be kind to a bemused engineer in your comments. I’m likely to pick up with interesting comments in future blog posts. Feel free to read along and think with me as you will.

Poverty, typically conceived, zooms in on what a person lacks materially. The World Bank looks at expenditure (what people buy) and consumption (what people consume) to gain some sense of whether a person is poor. Typically, we think of poverty in terms of money, but a lot of the concerns at the World Bank at the moment involve food. [The world’s poor “work” disproportionately as subsistence farmers with some wage-earning activities so you have people trying to eat both by growing their own food and working for money.]

Yet, poverty has an structural twin: inequality. It’s not exactly a new problem. Entropy aside, stuff builds up in rather predictable places. I know that my dirty clothes will likely pile up beside my bed unless I actually expend the energy to move them into the dirty clothes bag. I know that soda cans will likely pile up on my desk as I’m working on a term paper. I know that spare change piles up on my bedside table. The behaviour of dirty clothes, soda cans, and spare change is all predictable. Moreover, the creation of dirty clothes, soda cans, and spare change happen over the course of daily living. In my mundane expression of living my own life, I have things build up in predictable places. And really, my parents will be the first to tell you that I could benefit from some regular engagement with someone who cares about the condition of my flat.

Generally where we have poverty, we also have inequality. And where we have poverty without inequality, we have some huge problems.

So really, I think one of the first roles of the government is to follow the money. Interestingly, in the United States, the Treasury is one of the original 4 cabinet level positions outlined in the Constitution [alongside Foreign Affairs, War, and Attorney General]. Unfortunately, I think some people might read that sentence and think that I’m asking the government to keep an eye on the spare change atop my dresser. I’d like to propose an alternative starting point: the national border. Every government has some territory that it tends to. Living in the world increasingly means that you have people, stuff, and money crossing the border. Money tends to be exceptionally strange because the government usually provides a very valuable service at borders: letting things in and permitting things out. Therefore the government makes money at the border. We see some of the largest exchanges of money at the borders. By having a good and solid system to track money, the nation has sound financial policies that allow the government to protect natural resources from undo exploitation, streamline economic processes through transparent mechanisms that prevent corruption, and identify big giant huge economic players with a plethora of resources.

The border is also a space to check for the diversity of actors that ensure an attuned market place. Do people have legitimate choice for providers? Increasingly, we trade not so much with other nation-states (do we really have all of the tea in China?) but with multi-national corporations. These multi-national corporations tend to follow money around much like the government, only with some very different reasons behind following that money.

When a government follows the money, I think the government benefits from asking where the money is not flowing. If I start at the borders, the little places that are hard to reach in the middle of the country are the least likely to have money flowing around in those places. Where the money doesn’t flow, we may find ourselves looking at poverty. Money moves around to indicate consumption exchanges. And money flowing makes the economy run. Finding out where money does not flow invites further investigation.

The government, keeping track of what’s going on at its borders, has resources to figure out what’s happening within the borders. If the government only looks at its borders, then we’re dealing with my spare change problem on a much larger scale. For the most part, people and goods move past the borders. In doing people things, the money flows pretty naturally. The government can watch the money like a nice flowing stream, with different things springing up to life along the flow of money. To continue with the water analogy, the government benefits from locating drought and flood conditions.

The problem with floods of money is that most people don’t experience the flood of money as a bad thing. But much like my cans of soda, the money pools in predictable places where some people can’t access the money. Now, money might pool in urban areas because businesses find it easier to do business in urban areas. A government that notices that money pools in urban areas can work with businesses to create new market opportunities for everyone. The government’s perspective adds value to the overall task of helping goods flow to the broader citizenry.

If money starts at the border, money is likely to pool at the border. The government has a ton of options when it concerns how to support business and industry in the middle. Sound investment can create new opportunities to make sure that various forms of stuff can leave the borders and go out to other countries. And so a government following the money knows what’s going on in a broader global context regarding what their people consume and what their people produce. Money flows might get knotted up because of fluctuations at a global level; governments can act to keep people relatively insulated from broader global realities.

As governments look to see where flows get cut off owing to broad trends, it’s possible for governments to become aware of the people wholly outside of the whole money game. And again, the word for government action here is options. Just like most people aren’t the big giant huge entities moving stuff constantly across the border, most people aren’t wholly outside of the whole money game. A government works well to be mindful of these people at the very bottom. Knowing what’s going on at the very top and knowing what’s going on at the very bottom helps the government be a good tying-together force in society. After all, at the very bottom, the money doesn’t flow.

It’s in this tying together that we encounter the stickiest wicket of them all: taxes. No one, particularly the people most poised to support the activities of the government, wants to do so with taxes. Yet, the government creates an environment to enable money to flow. If a doctor creates an environment to help a patient heal, we expect that doctor to be paid for the doctor’s work. When the government watches money flow around, the government watches for places where the money pools. Money can pool at individual levels through inheritance and massive mergers. But in both of these activities, the government provides a service.

Additionally, getting to know the people at the bottom helps us understand what might be helpful to start money flowing. For instance, a person may be working full-time but garnering absolutely insufficient resources. Something like living wage legislation might make sense. Another person might be working a range of jobs because of family obligations. Creating options for health care support, more flexible hiring, or respite for family obligations might make sense. Still another community might be completely out of the money game because all of the major employers left town. Working to harness the creative potential of that town along core economic sectors might prove exceptionally fruitful. The government may also discover needs in areas where markets consistently don’t work very well (especially in a locally-grounded service like education or natural resource management). Taking a long-haul look at service provisions might be extraordinarily fruitful.

The government should recognise where the government adds value to society (such as by tending to national border and enabling goods to move within the country) to generate the government’s income and invest accordingly along key priorities that improve the well-being of people apparently out of the game. I would contend that without looking at inequality, a government cannot look at poverty at all. Poverty exists mainly as a relative term with few absolutes. How can you know the poor if you don’t also know the wealthy?

As a final aside, I would like to point out that my suggestions involve the government focusing on the big giant huge players and the people completely sidelined in the system. Most people in the middle get concerned about being perceived as a big giant huge player. This post is called a Tuesday Tremor because it hits a bit of my nerve to post such a reflection. Again, please be kind in the comments.


Two Great Distributions

Because I study poverty, I spend a considerable time thinking about income distributions. Largely, we can speak of countries with high incomes, countries with low incomes, and countries with medium incomes. You can see a map that shows the global income distribution here in terms of purchasing power parity (which I think is a better income indicator than say GDP or GNP). So we have one great distribution: the distribution of income.

Additionally, when you consider the map, I cannot help but think about global fertility rates. Have a look at the global birth rate. We see a lot of overlap in that the countries with lower incomes have a higher birth rate. So we have the other great distribution: the distribution of people.

The rhetoric around these two distributions could not be further apart. When it comes to money, we seem to be universally of the opinion that we should have more of it. Go, go economic growth! Depending on where you fall on the political spectrum, you generally do not favour either reducing production or redistributing existing resources.

But when it comes to children, the dominant picture requires having less of them. The birth rates in the developed world are impressively low. [And as an aside, the UK’s rate is 1.66 kids per woman. The US’s rate is 2.05 kids per woman. I miss seeing little people.] Because population growth significantly taxes the planet’s resources, we should all embrace all forms of birth control including abortion.

If a high birth rate can stand as a proxy for income, then we have a problem related to the policies we encourage. Correlation does not equal causation. For instance, raising the legal marriage age and encouraging compulsory education will lower birth rates while simultaneously building human capital. Improving child survival odds can also lower the birth rate and build human capital.

Additionally, the desire for children is often like the desire for income. Some people would legitimately like more than they have. Yet, as we have emphasised the biological relative to children, we have families with large amounts of income devoting that income towards procedures like in vitro fertilisation. Sometimes redistributive solutions have their place.

Be careful what you read

Things began innocuously. I, according to my traditional custom, tried to read a book on the train completely unrelated to my course of study. The book focused on the power of weakness. I had never really given the idea much thought.

But, then, in the introduction, I found them discussing Down’s Syndrome. Down’s Syndrome, an unpredictable genetic condition, can only be eradicated through abortion. The book captured the obvious in a way that made me think. And when I think, I connect the various ideas screaming through my head.

My mid-term paper about the nature of development dominated my thinking. One question asked the advantages and disadvantages of defining development as “good change.”

Do I include the deliberately provocative example of abortion as a response to a difficult and unexpected pregnancy in my paper? If we consider something like eliminating disease and disorder as a good thing, then what methods will we use to obtain our goal? The provocative example survived not only my colleague’s feedback, but also a change in my title. Moreover, the tutor assessing my paper thought the example provided a very solid line of reasoning that could have been developed still further.

Because that piece of writing remains relevant to my thinking today, I will post the Introduction.

Learning about Development from Unlikely Sources

What can the experience of a child still in the womb teach us about the Western development agenda? Our responses to pregnancy and our hopes for children illumine our attitudes towards the weak. Additionally, our hopes for our children may reveal our ideological predispositions. Critical observation of how we respond to a child with anticipated disability may enable us to question assumptions inherent in assorted development projects. When confronting disabilities, people living today have greater interventions through technological changes than people living in the past who did not have the range of relevant technologies. We find ourselves in situations where we have power over people we have never met. Moreover, we may rethink how we rely on technology to change circumstances for people in places we have never properly lived.

Persons with Down’s Syndrome live within a web of compounding difficulties. Down’s Syndrome is a genetic condition that can occur in any population. The likelihood of a child with Down’s Syndrome increases with the age of the mother (Macnair and Hicks, 2010). Prenatal testing can confirm the genetic abnormalities; one often-cited study (Mansfield, Hopfer and Marteau, 1999) reports that over 90% of positive Down’s Syndrome prenatal diagnoses in the UK and Europe end in elective abortion. Additionally, advocacy organizations in the United States have issued position papers exhorting that any woman who wishes to continue her pregnancy after a prenatal diagnosis should be supported in that decision (National Down Syndrome Society, 2010). The presence of these position papers suggests clinical practice frequently involves pressuring the woman to terminate her pregnancy. Moreover, support organizations for persons with Down’s Syndrome hold the promise of living a normal, semi-independent life (Down’s Syndrome Society, 2010). The pressure to end Down’s Syndrome and the goal of an approximately independent life point to an ideological position that favors eradicating and mitigating perceived weakness through technological interventions.

Using technology to eradicate and mitigate perceived weakness reflects the ideological character of development. Development began with an agenda to rebuild Europe and expanded to building various economies throughout the world. Engineers and economists served as the first development professionals. The opening agenda of large-scale industrialization indicates the technocratic nature of development. Over time, development practitioners adopted various guiding doctrines that continue to support ideas of Western professionals providing technical assistance to communities (Thorbecke, 2006). Vocal critics of the development agenda have emerged with the exhortation to reflective practice (Nolan, 2002; Chambers, 2005) and the rise of post-modern critique (Esteva and Prakash, 1998; Rapley, 2004). In order to stay relevant, the development industry must adopt a different ideology towards human weakness and technological power.


If you would like the full citations of anything I’ve offered here, you can leave your request in the comments.

A Glimpse into my Academic Life

I’ve been really busy as of late, too busy even to keep up on my blog. I find myself always writing here. New ideas are everywhere.

I just finished my last major set of papers a week ago. Ideas come at me from strange places, especially as I have several news feeds on my twitter account. When I was writing my papers, there was a provocative piece in the Guardian Development blog asking if Facebook can keep people poor. The article is certainly intriguing. I embedded the concept in a stronger framing that our culture creates the things we aspire to.

I’ve excerpted my paper below. I welcome your thoughts!


Empowering aspirations

The relational dimensions of a standard of living can shift aspirations as the previously poor exit poverty.  Intrinsically, people can understand their socioeconomic status only in comparison to others they know.  As globalization continues, more people encounter visions of middle-class life in developed countries.  These visions travel across many diverse networks.

Development initiatives improve access to information.  Unintentionally, these initiatives may increase aspirations amongst the poor.  For example, the e-Chopal initiative sought to improve the profitability of soya (Prahalad, 2009).  Farmers check essential information like weather and local crop prices at various purchasing centers online.  However, villagers use the computer in a myriad of ways.  They review the commodity prices in Chicago, search for information that improves the marketability of diverse crops, print children’s report cards, and follow cricket.

Companies connect their marketing to cultural aspirations.  Prahalad (2009) reports that even the poorest consumers have brand recognition, desire considerable value for money, and aim to improve their standard of living.  In Brazil, Casas Bahia serves customers at the lowest income levels, providing these customers with the essentials of life.  These stores carry top brands such as Sony, Toshiba and Whirlpool.  Furthermore, companies desire brand recognition.  Coca-Cola deploys considerable resources to create culturally relevant messages that when you open their sodas, you “open happiness” (Gates, 2010).  Similar aspirational messages guide and direct branded marketing of essential staples such as soap and salt (Prahalad, 2009).  Additionally, as companies become more creative about employing local people to champion certain brands, more people receive these messages.

Additionally, broader forms of cultural communication can elevate aspirations (Appadurai, 2004).  If people respond positively to televised marketing messages, then these people watch various television programs.  Television shows reflect a broader cultural forum.  People in lower social classes may regularly watch programs about more elite persons against a range of cultural backdrops. Television provides a window unto the world beyond one’s personal experience and may lead viewers to consider alternative actions.  Furthermore, the availability of different networks allows users to select programs that better reflect their personal realities.  The images on television vary significantly that Priyadarshani and Afroz Rahim (2010) propose a hypothesis that watching television may serve as a previously undiscovered source of empowerment.

Various forms of media expand people’s accessibility to information. Increasingly, advances in communications technologies allow the previously disenfranchised to participate more in constructing information.  Indonesia represents one of the world’s largest users of Twitter (Doherty, 2010).  Twitter’s reliance on SMS technologies makes it an accessible form of social media, particularly in areas with a reasonable literacy rate.  Furthermore, as middle-income countries pursue programs to reduce the digital divide, more people in countries like the Philippines, Peru, and Senegal create Facebook accounts (Glennie, 2011).  Because Facebook requires a computer with internet access, people must surmount a larger technical barrier to gain access to the site’s social network.  Like Twitter and Facebook, other sharing sites create a forum for people in developing countries to interact with people in developed countries.  Recently, a grassroots Indian organization used YouTube to counter to a documentary produced by a UK filmmaker regarding Indian sex work (Mansoor, 2010).  While the upper classes in developing countries have significantly greater access to these communication networks, these communication networks nonetheless connect people across the world.


If anyone wants to know more concretely where these references come from, you can ask in the comments!

The Fallacy of the Modern Academic

Academics have a curious relationship with the ideal.  Many people think the ideal is obtainable, provided that we take our time to discover the relevant parameters.  People have expectation that policy can be shaped exclusively as good policy.  Generally, the solution to creating good policy involves taking space to find out enough information.  If we just take our time to collect appropriate information, then we will be able to implement better decisions.

I am sympathetic to this view.  I often think we rush around too much, leaving all sorts of people in our wakes.  Yet, I also contend the exaltation of information in decision making is the fallacy of the modern academic.  Simply, the idea that we could possibly have all of the information we require before acting is false.

A belief that we have all of the required information does not lend itself to the creation of processes to acquire information as processes unfold.  Unfolding processes often require acquiring information on the fly, asking people to punt from their own best professional judgment, and embracing mistakes inherent with the learning process.  People working in learning processes will mistakenly assume that some information is urgent, ask for the wrong forms of information, and underestimate the time required to gather information while hopefully creating space for other persons to participate in the learning process.

Certain challenges of being human lend themselves better to a “wait and see” process of decision making.  However, removing oneself from the day-to-day realities of decision making is a luxury uniquely afforded to academics [and for the sake of argument, other elites].  Being present within a situation on the ground, acting with your best possible judgment, and making decisions out of simple necessity all have their place.  Yet, I contend that the most difficult decision involves the choice to be present.

Many policymakers seem absolutely content to make decisions removed from the “contamination” of the ground.  We can wax eloquent about the appropriate nature of particular situations that change drastically when we encounter the lived experience of that situation.  Hot button issues like abortion, homosexuality, poverty, unemployment, educational reform, AIDS, what have you all contain various divisions that get reshaped entirely when one has to enter the situation.  A teacher working day in and day out in a low-income school has a distinct perspective, shaped significantly by the tension between the ideal and the pragmatic.  A physician working in an urban center has a distinct perspective.  In my opinion, callousness is the main threat that blocks people on the ground from affecting meaningful change.  Learning to hold the ideal and the pragmatic in tension is important.

“Let’s study this” generally is the academic approach.  The academics can take their time.  They generally do not have to live with seeing the daily humanity of the situation.  Humanity is full of joys and losses.  We can get into trouble when we assert that the pragmatic is only negative.  Yet, an idea that somehow a comprehensive national policy will emerge from on high strikes me as a complete and utter fallacy.  This fallacy exalts a particular view of things that remains detached from the situation.

In my mind, pragmatists engage.  Sometimes we have the option to engage.  We get to choose.  Considering carefully the net impact of our options before engaging is important.  Embracing the learning processes that occur alongside of our engagement is also critical.

Oh no, Not responsibility!

Today was a good blogging day in that I received a comment on a post I wrote months ago about educational realities.  I am encouraged when other people post their thoughts on my posts.

We live in a world that has a rather perverse concept of rights.  My dictionary defines perverse as “showing a deliberate and obstinate desire to behave in a way that is unreasonable or unacceptable, often in spite of the consequences.”  We actively question who can define the terms of reasonable and acceptable.  My commentor suggested that the key place of authority relies on parents disciplining their children.  I would contend that people waffle when trying to frame concepts of obligation.

Looking at good parenting provides an interesting springboard.  I have gotten to know some families with fantastic children.  Even just thinking about how awesome these kids are induces homesickness.  It’s a rather impressive feat as I do not generally like children.  But I have noticed that these children flourish under sound parenting.  The more I watch people who can parent small children well, the more I conclude that obedience is a gift that has to be freely given.  It is generally hard to demand obedience.

We have an instinctive, child-like reaction to commands we do not respect: “Oh yeah, make me!”  We fight and claw and whine to avoid responsibility.  Whether we learn obedience from our parents, from our churches, from our employers, from the legal system, or from [insert authority of choice], we always have the option to disregard authority when authority asks us to do something unpleasant.

We call this reaction our “rights.”

How does obedience function in adult life?  We live in a world seemingly constructed to render this concept meaningless.  Generally, people with the most money can manipulate the system such that the system serves the interest of the rich.  We view intervening agents with suspicion, particularly if we assert that agent negates an individual’s rights.

Can we speak of obligation and responsibility in our societies?

Taking Care of Business

For the last several months, I have been organizing my blog around culture, education, engineering and theology.  The themes give me a wide space to play in, but I have been learning so much about culture.  I think it is time to expand my official category list to include development.  Development as I will be using it depends on leveraging various resources to create positive change in communities.  In many ways, development focuses on poverty reduction and alleviation.

When thinking about poverty, we have some common ideas about where poverty comes from and what we can do to reduce its effects.  Arguably, poverty looks different when you have rampant unemployment.  When people want to work but cannot find work, we have a huge problem.  This problem can manifest itself culturally, but more often we recognize unemployment as an economic issue.  Additionally, unemployment leads to rises in poverty.

The question then becomes “What is the ideal state for a nation’s economy?”  Certainly, we would find ourselves in a bit of a bind if absolutely everyone was employed at all times because industries could not expand very easily.  Yet, equally we find ourselves in a straight-jacket when people who want to work cannot find work.  Roughly speaking, we can divide the economy into two sectors that employ people: the private sector and the public sector.  When a country faces high unemployment because the private sector shrinks for any myriad of reasons, the unemployed have two options.

One option involves becoming a job creator.  Essentially, people can leverage their creative talents to try to create opportunities for themselves.  A small group of people can get together to pool resources, finding a small business.  These ventures require a substantial portion of risk.  In some economies, particularly in countries where the average age of the population is very young and the private sector is comparatively small, becoming a job creator is a fairly reasonable path.  A young entrepreneur can fill a void in her or his community.

Another option involves expanding the public sector.  The government coordinates this expansion with the fairly expressed goal of leveraging the human capital of its population towards national development goals.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt enacted policies to do just that when he enacted the New Deal, putting millions of people back to work.  Our state parks generally came from these efforts.  While many assign World War II the agent of economic turn-around, the observation about working towards national development goals still holds firm.  In the case of WWII, our national development goals concerned national security.  Personally, I would not say that the government-led expansion of the public sector has to involve choice jobs that appeal to everyone.  Yet, I do think focusing on jobs that put the unemployed into work at a reasonable wage makes a fair deal of sense.  Expanding in some public sectors, like education and the military, could create shifting national development goals.

Work plays a pivotal role in a person’s ability to function.  Without work, many of us find ourselves without any means of supporting ourselves.  Even the simple human act of eating becomes a question.  Depending on where we live, we do not generally have the option of putting ourselves to work through farming to solve the dilemma of putting food on our table.

I am struck by the connection between work and human flourishing.  One could say that we have been designed to work.  We have a deposit of gifts that allows us to participate meaningfully in the world around us while eating the fruits of our labor.  Our work adds value overall to our society, and not simply in the economic sense.  We become co-creators with our fellow human beings.  Who knows what we are capable of?