a strong element of the haphazard
May 14, 2016, 1:01 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , , ,

photo: Gregory Crewdson

Your fault if you’re poor – says Gates; how can it be your fault there’s just so much randomness – counters de Botton, below. Gates’s – also Trump’s – view adds misery to life unnecessarily.

If you are born poor it’s not your mistake, but if you die poor it is your mistake.

Bill Gates

I think it’s the randomness of the winning and losing process, that I want to stress.  Because the emphasis nowadays so much is on the justice of everything … Now I’m a firm believer in justice.  I just think that it’s impossible.  We should do everything we can to pursue it, but at the end of the day we should always remember that whoever is facing us, whatever has happened in their lives, there will be a strong element of the haphazard.  And it’s that that I’m trying to leave room for, because otherwise it can get quite claustrophobic.

Alain de Botton

being indecent
May 3, 2015, 12:46 pm
Filed under: brave new world, unseen world | Tags: ,

Beyond basic survival, you’re poor if you can’t maintain the sense of being decent in the eyes of the community you live in:

People are poverty stricken whenever their income, even if adequate for survival, falls markedly behind that of the community. Then they cannot have what the larger community regards as the minimum necessary for decency; and they cannot wholly escape, therefore, the judgment of the larger community that they are indecent.

John Kenneth Galbraith

photo: Dionisio González

worrying captures our brains

[Heavy Hand, Sunken Spirit: Mexico at War, David Rochkind]

From The Opinionator at the Times, a piece on new research on poverty: scarcity causes a person to ‘tunnel’ which effectively shuts down his capacity for complex thought and decision making. This reverses a very common view: many of us believe that bad character produces poverty; now we know – supported by research – the opposite is true: poverty (or scarcity) produces reduced capacity for reasoning and thought.

From the Opinionator:

Worrying about money when it is tight captures our brains. It reduces our cognitive capacity — especially our abstract intelligence, which we use for problem-solving. It also reduces our executive control, which governs planning, impulses and willpower. The bad decisions of the poor, say the authors, are not a product of bad character or low native intelligence. They are a product of poverty itself. Your natural capability doesn’t decrease when you experience scarcity. But less of that capacity is available for use. If you put a middle-class person into a situation of scarcity, she will behave like a poor person.

Escaping the Cycles of Scarcity, Tina Rosenberg, Opinionator, New York Times

dignity, trust, failure
August 15, 2013, 9:52 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized | Tags: ,

Acumen Fund’s observations about poverty alleviation at their 10 year anniversary.

What does not help: money and markets as the only measure, parachuting solutions remotely, depersonalized analytic approach.

What does work: dignity, local leadership, government, patience and longsuffering.

From Design Observer:

1.     Dignity is more important to the human spirit than wealth.
2.     Neither grants nor markets alone will solve the problems of poverty.
3.     Poverty is a description of someone’s economic situation; it does not describe who someone is.
4.     We won’t succeed in the long term without cultivating local leaders, local money, and strong local communities.
5.     Great people, every time, no exceptions.
6.     Great technology alone is not the answer.
7.     If failing is not an option, you’ve ruled out success as well.
8.     Governments rarely invent solutions, but they can scale what works.
9.     There is no currency like trust, and there are no shortcuts to earning it.
10.  Patient capital investing is built upon a system of values; it is not a series of steps to be followed.

10 Things Acumen Fund Has Learned About Tackling Global Poverty, the Editors, Design Observer

six stories

In autumn the surface water in lakes begins to cool and grow heavy.  Eventually the heavy top water sinks and displaces the lighter water at the bottom of the lake; and the lake turns.

History can be like a lake.  Take for example how we see class, particularly the members of the upper and lower ones.  Alain de Botton, in his book Status Anxiety, uses three stories to illustrate how we used to see the rich and poor, until about the middle of the 18th century, and three more stories to show how that perception of class has literally flipped.

We used to believe the labour of the poor drove wealth creation, that there was no shame in poverty, and that the riches of the upper echelons were generally ill gotten.  Now we believe the opposite.

Arguments can be made about the relative truthfulness of each of the two antipodal visions of society.  It’s much harder to argue that the radical shift in perspective has not had a profound effect on our lives.  To claim we’re not worse off, for instance.  Among many other things, it’s quite clear we have become uncompromisingly and unapologetically uncharitable.

From Status Anxiety:  the first three stories are the old vision, and the second three are what we believe today.  The old view of class:

Three useful old stories about failure:

From approximately 30 AD, when Jesus began his ministry, to the latter half of the twentieth century, the lowest in Western societies had to had three stories about their significance, which, while they could be believed, must have worked a profoundly consoling, anxiety-reducing effect on their listeners.

First Story:  The Poor Are Not Responsible for Their Condition and Are the Most Useful in Society

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rich inner lives

I was sitting with three camping friends at a fire, good buzz on, upstate New York, talking about the state of India now that 60 years has passed since her independence from the British.  They were saying it was good; I was saying it wasn’t.  They are Indian born and raised now over here, I’m an Indian born and raised North American.  It turns out we were quoting different indicators, they the GDP and the number of new millionaires, me the persistence of poverty.  They’re both good indicators, but should probably be put together to make a bigger and better picture.  They won’t be.  Anyway, good buzz quickly turned bad.

Sometime during the melee – it got quite fierce – my status was called into question:  how would you know, you’re a white guy.  I said I’m third culture, which was probably too eggheaded, and one friend snarled, how pretentious.  Yup, too eggheaded.  But it’s just a definition that helps people to understand themselves and their lives.

Third culture simply means someone grew up between worlds – like say India and Canada – and takes on a lot of identifiable character qualities based on this increasingly common, rich and complicated way of living.  For instance, you feel like you belong to both worlds; and you feel alien from both worlds.  You feel judgmental of  people who grew up ‘rooted’ and without a cross cultural experience of living; and you crave rootedness. There are lots of other qualities common to the Third Culture.

I still haven’t forgiven my elementary school friend with whom I camp every summer for calling me pretentious.  I think she’s wrong.  Apparently, this experience has identifiable results which are increasingly common in the globalizing world as more and more people grow up between places.  Dismissing the nature of their upbringings seems wrong headed to me.  They may have something of use to say as the rest of the world gets increasingly nationalistic and tribal.

The following day – after the fight, and everyone sheepishly beginning their morning ablutions and routines and breakfastings – I was drawn away on a walk by a European spouse, perhaps to make the camp site more friendly and bearable.  He’d been filled in by his wife, my classmate.  His bottom line was that poor people like it that way, which he shared with me at the start of our walk, and we were both happy to drop the topic.

Here is a good article on what it means to be third culture, by Chris Lenton in Janera.  The observations are piercing if you have lived third culture but have had trouble understanding the implication for your life.

From the article:

“They are the most interesting people because their rich inner lives belie their often bland… and sometimes wary, presentation of themselves to others.” TCKs are also, studies now show, bright, and courted by employers.


On the flipside, argues Professor Useem, these same qualities may lead to what psychologists call a “prolonged adolescence.” Over 90% of the people surveyed report being out of step with people of their age group. TCKs change jobs frequently and marry and have children far later than the average North American. They continue to move around a lot. They have trouble identifying what they want to do with their lives and most attest to having changed their course of study numerous times.

Third Culture Club, By Chris Lenton in Janera

one-seventieth the cash

You can have high literacy, life expectancy, and a low birth rate for 1/70th what we pay.  How do I know?  Because it’s been done, in Kerala, South India.  So there is no correlation between money and a good life, at least not a life as defined by these indicators.  And 70 times more money means 70 times more consumption, which makes us gluttons in extremis, and, according to McKibben, a vastly less successful society.

Kerala (pronounced ker’uh luh) , a state of 29 million people in southern India, is poor–even for India–with a per capita income estimated by various surveys to be between $298 and $350 a year, about one-seventieth the American average. When the American anthropologist Richard Franke surveyed the typical Keralite village of Nadur in the late 1980s, he found that nearly half the 170 families had only cooking utensils, a wooden bench, and a few stools in their homes. No beds–that was the sum of their possessions. Thirty-six percent also had some chairs and cots, and 19 percent owned a table. In five households he discovered cushioned seats. But here is the odd part.

The life expectancy for a North American male, with all his chairs and cushions, is 72 years, while the life expectancy for a Keralite male is 70.

After the latest in a long series of literacy campaigns, the United Nations in 1991 certified Kerala as 100 percent literate. Your chances of having an informed conversation are at least as high in Kerala as in Kansas.

Kerala’s birth rate hovers near 18 per thousand, compared with 16 per thousand in the United States –and is falling faster.

Demographically, in other words, Kerala mirrors the United States on about one-seventieth the cash. It has problems, of course: There is chronic unemployment, a stagnant economy that may have trouble coping with world markets, and a budget deficit that is often described as out of control. But these are the kinds of problems you find in France. Kerala utterly lacks the squalid drama of the Third World –the beggars reaching through the car window, the children with distended bellies, the baby girls left to die.


It is, in other words, weird–like one of those places where the starship Enterprise might land that superficially resembles Earth but is slightly off. It undercuts maxims about the world we consider almost intuitive: Rich people are healthier, rich people live longer, rich people have more opportunity for education, rich people have fewer children. We know all these things to be true–and yet here is a countercase, a demographic suddenly rising on our mental atlas. It’s as if someone demonstrated in a lab that flame didn’t necessarily need oxygen, or that water could freeze at 60 degrees. It demands a new chemistry to explain it, a whole new science.


Gross national product is often used as a synonym for achievement, but it is also an eloquent shorthand for gallons of gasoline burned, stacks of garbage tossed out, quantities of timber sawn into boards. One recent calculation showed that for every American dollar or its equivalent spent anywhere on earth, half a liter of oil was consumed in producing, packaging, and shipping the goods. One-seventieth the income means one-seventieth the damage to the planet. So, on balance, if Kerala and the United States manage to achieve the same physical quality of life, Kerala is the vastly more successful society. Which is not to say that we could ever live on as little as they do–or, indeed, that they should. The right point is clearly somewhere in between.

~What is True Development? The Kerala Model by Bill McKibben