Hamilton and Taxation

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with my review of The Federalist Papers, I’m going to move to a couple of short excerpts from #21 from Alexander Hamilton (did you know his political career was nearly capsized by a sex scandal?). I love this first line:

The wealth of nations depends upon an infinite variety of causes. Situation, soil, climate, the nature of the productions, the nature of the government, the genius of the citizens, the degree of information they possess, the state of commerce, of arts, of industry, these circumstances and many more, too complex, minute, or adventitious to admit of a particular specification, occasion differences hardly conceivable in the relative opulence and riches of different countries. The consequence clearly is that there can be no common measure of national wealth, and, of course, no general or stationary rule by which the ability of a state to pay taxes can be determined. . .

This is an interesting declaration that I will admit I don’t fully understand. His argument seems to be essentially that there are too many intangibles in determining the true wealth of a nation, which lesson he then turns and applies to the impracticability of imposing a just tax on states. This quick dismissal of any attempt to quantify national wealth seems suspect to me, which is why I think I don’t fully understand this. It may be possible that there are political obstacles to a state tax which Hamilton doesn’t want to address here. He then goes on to examine taxation more carefully:

Imposts, excises, and, in general, all duties upon articles of consumption, may be compared to a fluid, which will, in time, find its level with the means of paying them. The amount to be contributed by each citizen will in a degree be at his own option, and can be regulated by an attention to his resources. The rich may be extravagant, the poor can be frugal; and private oppression may always be avoided by a judicious selection of objects proper for such impositions. If inequalities should arise in some States from duties on particular objects, these will, in all probability, be counterbalanced by proportional inequalities in other States, from the duties on other objects. . .

I also found this interesting. This sounds like an awful lot like a description of the ideals of a free market–that imbalances will organically be corrected, without requiring the constricting oversight of regulation. I suppose this philosophical underpinning in capitalism is unsurprising–Hamilton did become the Secretary of the Treasury, after all. However, my understanding is that Hamilton’s running of said office resulted in more central planning than otherwise.

The Federalist Papers: The Role of Faction

James Madison, Hamilton's major collaborator, ...

The first quotation in The Federalist Papers that stood out to me was Madison’s explicit acknowledgment of the reality and role of faction in a more democratic society in paper #10:

There are two methods of curing the mischiefs of faction: the one, by removing its causes; the other, by controlling its effects.

There are again two methods of removing the causes of faction: the one, by destroying the liberty which is essential to its existence; the other, by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.

It could never be more truly said than of the first remedy, that it was worse than the disease. Liberty is to faction what air is to fire, an aliment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

The second expedient is as impracticable as the first would be unwise. As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves. The diversity in the faculties of men, from which the rights of property originate, is not less an insuperable obstacle to a uniformity of interests. The protection of these faculties is the first object of government. From the protection of different and unequal faculties of acquiring property, the possession of different degrees and kinds of property immediately results; and from the influence of these on the sentiments and views of the respective proprietors, ensues a division of the society into different interests and parties.

The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good. So strong is this propensity of mankind to fall into mutual animosities, that where no substantial occasion presents itself, the most frivolous and fanciful distinctions have been sufficient to kindle their unfriendly passions and excite their most violent conflicts. But the most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property. Those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society. Those who are creditors, and those who are debtors, fall under a like discrimination. A landed interest, a manufacturing interest, a mercantile interest, a moneyed interest, with many lesser interests, grow up of necessity in civilized nations, and divide them into different classes, actuated by different sentiments and views. The regulation of these various and interfering interests forms the principal task of modern legislation, and involves the spirit of party and faction in the necessary and ordinary operations of the government.

So we can see evidence here of Madison’s pragmatism, as well as his political acumen. He astutely observes that to seek to avoid or suppress a diversity of interests would compromise liberty. He is also explicit in acknowledging that class plays a major role in the creation of faction, particularly with respect to the ownership of property. He therefore outlines one of the major purposes of government: to ensure that a diversity of interests are able to coexist, with their respective rights protected by regulatory oversight.

From a modern lens, it’s perhaps unavoidable to critique Madison’s presentation of governmental protection of the “various and unequal distribution of property” as biased towards moneyed, landowning interests. For example, Madison states that “those who hold and those who are without property have ever formed distinct interests in society.” What are the protections for “those who are without property?” And how will those interests be effective participants in the larger economy? By stating that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man,” does this excuse the unequal distribution of wealth?

Hernando de Soto, in The Mystery of Capital, makes the compelling argument that the world’s poor should be provided with land ownership in order to gain access to global markets and thus be provided with greater opportunities. Without property, he notes, they are forced into extralegal markets, rather than contributing to the greater economy.

I would also like to note a critique of Madison’s point that one of the unacceptable methods of removing faction would be “by giving to every citizen the same opinions, the same passions, and the same interests.” While this point is well-taken, as we can see what effect Soviet rule and other dictatorships have had, however, I question whether this avoids one of the principle functions of the culture formed by a healthy civil society, which will be established either with federal or state direction or without it.

What I mean is that we generally avoid any sort of governmental intervention in respect to culture: the very existence of a national public radio station or a public library system in our society, for example, is somewhat remarkable. Our national character is largely dictated, instead, by Hollywood, with questionable effects. Not to put too fine a point on it, but observers of the United States may note that our overriding culture is one of violence, distrust, superficiality, antagonism, and greed.

One of the functions of public education, then, in this sense, should be the establishment of a shared sense of civic culture. I’m not talking about Naziism, propaganda, or dogmatism, but rather that we should come to some general agreement about what historical knowledge, literature, music and folklore, and other cultural artifacts and understandings we wish to pass onto our children that would impart some sense of civic engagement, with an eye towards the idea that we wish our democracy to be functional, as opposed to constantly stymied by extremism.

Therefore, I would inquire of Madison: what is the use of liberty when the populace is uneducated and unengaged in the exercise and application of that liberty, and when, in practice, their participation in the economy is restricted to unthinking individual consumption, rather than the distributed cultivation and accumulation of national wealth?

A New Vision: The Market as Subservient to Nature

Quote

What is needed is not ever more refined analysis of a faulty vision, but a new vision. This does not mean that everything built on the old vision will necessarily have to be scrapped, but fundamental changes are likely when the preanalytic vision is altered. The necessary change in vision is to picture the macroeconomy as an open subsystem of the finite natural ecosystem (environment), and not as an isolated circular flow of abstract exchange value, unconstrained by mass balance, entropy and finitude. . . . .

The major task of environmental macroeconomics is to design an economic institution analogous to the Plimsoll mark–to keep the weight, the absolute scale, of the economy from sinking our biospheric ark.

The market, of course, functions only within the economic subsystem, where it does only one thing: it solves the allocation problem by providing the necessary information and incentive. It does that one thing very well. What it does not do is solve the problems of optimal scale and of optimal distribution. The market’s inability to solve the problem of just distribution is widely recognized, but its similar inability to solve the problem of optimal or even sustainable scale is not as widely appreciated. . . .

Economists have recognized the independence of the goals of efficient allocation and just distribution and are in general agreement that it is better to let prices serve efficiency, and to serve equity with income redistribution policies. Proper scale is a third, independent policy goal and requires a third policy instrument. . . . . The point is that the market’s criterion for distribution income is to provide an incentive for efficient allocation, not to attain justice. These two values can conflict, and the market does not automatically resolve this conflict. The point to be added is that there are not just two, but three, values in conflict: allocation (efficiency), distribution (justice), and scale (sustainability).

–Herman Daly, Beyond Economics

Why Teachers Like Me Support Unions

I meant to post this yesterday, in order to show my EDUSolidarity, but WordPress was having some issues and I couldn’t log on to finish it. Well, better late then never.

As I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, when I first entered the field of education, I was skeptical of unions, but was coming to appreciate the protection from short-sighted policy and budgetary broadsides that a union affords. One of the benefits of the events in Wisconsin is that it has served as a clarifying point to many people like me who may have been on the fence or uncertain about their support for unions. It forced me to examine whether I really supported the collective bargaining rights of a union, as well as to consider more broadly whether I felt the field of education might even be better with the power of unions subverted. As I considered these issues, I realized that the tactic which Republicans and businessmen were calling for was not surprising, given the values of management and capitalists in general, but that it brought to the forefront a major issue with untrammeled access of private interests in public education. Education in our country is based on the ideals of a working democracy, and if we can’t handle the messy debates and political process that such democracy entails via a system of checks and balances, then we will be cutting out the legs from under the efforts of education reform, even as it might momentarily appear that we would be gaining greater efficiency.

Simply because our economy is suffering due to misguided policies that benefit the wealthy few does not mean that we should begin slicing away at the very foundations of our democracy. The Economist is heralding the demise of unions, and they sound so eminently reasonable, don’t they? Problem is, they’ve forgotten that they are discussing real human lives in their equations.

Unfortunately, our society likes to pay lip service to our soldiers, our teachers, our firemen, our policemen, etc. But if the issue is ever broached that we would have to raise taxes to pay for those essential services, everybody clams up. And they hide away in their protective ideologies and behind their pacifying Fox news blather and tantalizing talk show hate radio. I don’t care what the situation with the economy is. We should NEVER cut essential services such as education or social services in our budgets. Because those services are the cornerstone of a functioning democracy, and when we cut those services, we cut into the lives of those members of our society who need them the most. We can talk about accountability, sure! I’m all for it. I’ve seen too many of those federal and state dollars go to waste sitting in a closet. We need to invest that money smarter and track the effects of contracted programs in districts. Definitely! But should we be laying off teachers, subverting the roles of unions, and eliminating some of the few incentives and protections that teachers have in a highly challenging role that produces a product (competent students and citizens) that is of utmost value?

We need unions to protect the interests not only of teachers, but of the children who are raised in poverty. When we cut services or diminish rights in the interest of efficiency or economic duress, we cut directly into those children’s lives. Unions serve to balance the power of government and private interests. That doesn’t mean unions are saints or that I agree with all their policies or organizational structure. It means that I believe unions are a necessary counterbalance to bring the interests of various stakeholders to the bargaining table.

Methods of Saving Moolah

There’s always these articles in Yahoo! and other such trite sources of information that advise us on ways to save our money. Such as utilizing coupons, driving less aggressively, paying off credit cards with the highest interest first, and other such trivial methods of scraping some extra cash back into the coffers–or, at the very least, simply stemming the flow of money out just that much less.

While those methods, and others, are all important ways to save, I would like to forward some of my own methods of saving cash which I think are more effective. Excelsior!

1) Stop using Mach 3s and dropping $20 every month on razors. Transition into wetshaving (just one upfront initial investment) and you’ll save a lot of cash over the long term. Razors for safety or straight razors are significantly cheaper, and it’s furthermore a more fulfilling shaving experience.

2) Shave your own head. I used to go to SuperCuts or whatever cheap haircut store was around. I kind of liked how sometimes it was a pretty young lass that was cutting my hair. But I also noted that all they ever did was ask me what length of guard they should use on the clippers (as if I was supposed to know). So I realized, eventually, that I could just do it myself. That’s at least $20 in savings every two to four weeks, depending how often you cut your hair. And a pair of clippers is cheap, and they will last you for years. That’s a lot of money saved over the long term.

3) Forgo the gym and go hiking/running/walking. All you need is a pair of shoes. Or invest in a bike.

4) Brew your own damn coffee. I’ve bought a lot of Dunkin’ in my day, and I can attest that it really adds up over the course of a year. It’s the little steady, daily transactions that drain your income. It tastes better at home anyway. And all you need to make your own coffee is coffee and a French press. Forget drip brew; why pay for filters?

5) Hang out at home. You’ve heard of “staycations.” Well, how about “stay ins”? Instead of going out, you stay in. Invite your buddies over. Hang out at the local park. We all need to get out sometimes. But if you make it into only an occasional expenditure, then you will save big time. It’s quite easy to drop $60 in one outing on a few drinks. Drop that $60 on a fine whiskey instead and you could sip at it slowly over the course of a month.

6) Get over yourself and drink tap water.

7) Use the library. Libraries are fucking awesome. You can get nearly any book you want if you are willing to wait for it.

8) Don’t be an organic freak. Buy organic local produce or join a CSA. It’s important to support organic, local, and sustainable use of land. But forget the damn organic cookies and organic cereal. I mean, really. Just let it go.

9) Recognize the difference between luxury and necessity, and make your choices between the two consciously. A car? Sometimes its a luxury or a necessity, depending on where you live. In NYC, it’s a luxury, and an expensive one at that. Movies at the movie theater? Do you really need to see the movie right when it comes out? Is it really better in a movie theater? I find it obnoxiously loud, with way too many trailers and advertisements. In fact, I would rather just read a book. A lot cheaper, and more fulfilling. Sorry movies.

I think that last bullet point is actually the most important one. If you are making your choices consciously, then you are choosing to invest more in certain activities or things because you find them more fulfilling. And thus, it is worth it to you. But there are many things that we throw our money at that are not more fulfilling, and that even degrade our quality of life.

The moral of the story? Spend your money wisely.

Tax, Not Cut

Why is it that whenever a recession occurs (as it inevitably must), a state or municipality suddenly begins proposing to cut the programs that are most needed by those who have the least? These are always programs of health care to the poor or elderly, education to children, and other programs of welfare or of not immediately quantifiable benefit such as arts or music. Why is it that politicians are such cowards that they can’t propose the most logical form of meeting budgetary needs: increased taxes on those who have the most? Why is this so untenable to Americans? Is it simply because they know that the people least likely to complain or raise a fuss are those who don’t have anything to begin with?

Let me repeat: those politicians unable to raise the spectre of taxation are cowards. Funding to programs that are essential to people should not be subject to economic whim. Education should never have its funding cut. Never. Health care programs and preventative care programs and family planning programs should never have funding cut. Never. Welfare programs should never have funding cut. People rely on that welfare and need it for day-to-day existence.

Tax the rich and distribute that money equitably in order to continue funding for essential services and programs. Why is that such an unrealistic objective to achieve?

New Paradigm

You may have noted that I have been relatively quiet on the political/news front as of late, mostly because I don’t have any free time anymore, but furthermore because I think that most of the events, such as Obama’s inauguration, speak for themselves and we are all somewhat inspired and hopeful for the future, finally. But there are a few things that I want to say about the pressing economic and political events of our time.

First of all, former George W. Bush’s presidency was a complete and abject failure. Please, let’s not forget that. There have been a lot of interviews and articles before the switch-over that offered a somewhat benign retrospective of Bush’s reign, and it looks like reporters have been attempting to remain “objective” by entertaining the notion that Bush may have represented integrity because he never backed down from doing whatever the fuck he wanted, or something like that.

Bush was a terrible mistake, and a giant mar on the already besotted history of US politics. He stood as a representative not of personal integrity, but rather as the exact negative of what a leader should be. He didn’t listen to his opponents nor his own constituency. He didn’t utilize diplomacy in dealing with world bodies and foreign leaders. He took more vacations than any other president in history. His administration was peppered by yes-men, neo-cons, and nepotism. This is completely ignoring the myriad scandals that marred his administration. Basically, he didn’t do anything that he was supposed to do as a LEADER. The real “leadership” in the Bush presidency were the people who actually ran things, such as his vice-president and Karl Rove. Presidents in the past have oft been puppets on strings, such as Reagan, but at least Reagan had charisma and could instill some kind of false confidence, even when his actual policies resulted in terrible outcomes that we are still paying for today.

So yes, thank god we have closed that terrible chapter in our history. But we will be continuing to pay for those 8 years of bullshit for a long time hence, Obama or not. The Republican Party, as evidenced by their cold response to bipartisanship in the passing of the stimulus plan, are awaiting an eventual rebuttal to the centrism of the Obama presidency. They will do all they can do to ensure that his policies fail, so that they can renew their onslaught of the poor and middle class. Bear that in mind in the coming years: W. Bush was not an anomaly. He was the epitome of hard-line right-wing divisiveness. And again, let me be perfectly clear about the policies of such an administration: they failed. Period. They will never be effective. The myth of free market capitalism has been—with finality—debunked.

The history that Obama has made in his ascendance to the American presidency is not simply about a black man becoming a US President, nor reductively about simple “change”: it is about the forceful backing of an American public for a government that will utilize its policies for greater control and responsibility of economic tides. A government that does what it is supposed to do, rather than absolving itself of any and all responsibility beyond that of blatant militarism.

Now I want to discuss these “tough economic times,” as they like to say everyday on the news. This is indeed a time when the failed economic policies of the past are coming home to roost. This is also a time when “the American people” are beginning to pay for their years of living wantonly off of money that they never had and never will have. This is a time when issues of sustainability are no longer simply concerns of hippies, but of academic professors and Washington policy wonks. This is a time when America has to wake up to the fact that we have been sleeping, while the rest of the world has been quietly surpassing us in their investment in business and educational competitiveness.

Even though comparisons to the Great Depression can be fruitful simply for waking up people to the fact that this recession is real and its effects on people devastating, let’s also abstain from going too far. No one is jumping out of windows on Wall St. The lines for unemployment may be exceedingly long, but there’s no extensive lines for soup kitchens, at least, not yet. Retail chains that have stretched themselves too thin on the promise of endless sales have indeed been shutting their doors. Banks are decisively slimming their ranks with a butcher’s knife. And this impact cannot be understated on the economy nor on men and women now without salaries. But for many, it also doesn’t mean much of anything other than that they won’t waste their money like they might have before. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Because the fact is that transitioning into what they call a “green” economy can not be easy, nor even possible without the recognition that it is necessary. These “tough economic times” are not about a housing market bubble collapsing, nor about over-investment in bad securities and over-lending of easy credit: it is about the transition into a new economic and political and social paradigm. A paradigm in which we recognize our interdependence on each other and other nations, acknowledge the interconnectivity of mankind with that of the earth, and begin to take responsibility for the actions not only of ourselves, but of our governments and world bodies.

So as tough as these times are—and yes, these times are tough for me personally, thank you very much—they are also a necessary time for buckling down and gaining a clearer vision of what we need to achieve.

Public Policy and Global Cooperation

“Sustainable development may be achievable in theory but not reached in practice if public policies and market forces do not lead to the needed investments.

We can summarize in the following way: the world is facing enormous ecological and environmental problems, but running out of natural resources is not the right way to describe the threat. Earth has the energy, land, biodiversity, and water resources needed to feed humanity and support long-term economic prosperity for all. The problem is that markets might not lead to their wise and sustainable use. There is no economic imperative that will condemn us to deplete our vital resource base, but neither is there an invisible hand that will prevent us from doing so. The choice will be ours to make through public policy and global cooperation.”

Jeffrey D. Sachs, Common Wealth: Economics for a Crowded Planet

Death of laissez faire?

The Economist posted an interesting article defending free-market capitalism. What surprised me about this article is how unusually defensive, clear and one-sided its perspective is. While I agree in principle with the premise that what we need is “not bigger government, but better government”, I think the author mistakes the movement in general towards greater regulation and government oversight. No one wants a communist government nor to refute capitalism (other than for fringe idealists who don’t understand economics), nor, for that matter, to overly constrain the market economy. We simply want government to do what it is supposed to do—formulate responsible policies and regulations—rather than sit idly by and allow the market to run wanton (and destroy the environment in the process).

Part of this is making government policy and electoral processes more transparent and efficient, which entails utilizing internet and software technology. That means streamlining government, not adding to its bureaucracy. I don’t think that the way to the future lies in more overtly “Great Society” type of programs, but rather in simply attempting to bring the government back up into the present age, to keep up with businesses and civil society.

I would like to say much more on this timely and interesting topic, but I have to dash out the door to work right now. Talk amongst yourselves.

The Bigger Picture, Based on Our Current State of Affairs

Well, it’s ’bout time for me to post some thoughts about the current state of the world. I sometimes wish that I had a column in a major newspaper, so that I could generate national debate and establish talking points for The View. But, alas, my blog is just too random, too all-over-the-place, too largely mundane and only intermittently insightful, too much me, to ever hold such a place in the pantheon of established punditry. I wouldn’t have it any other way, of course. I will hold forth, in any case, as if the entire world listens attentively to my every last quest for meaning.

To the point: the major news item on our collective plate is the economy. We all know that the “bailout” plan, as it is called, is pretty much a bunch of hogwash, but we also all know that we need to do something, and not many of us are economically minded enough to know quite what that is. We just know that we want our retirement funds to stop being depleted, etc. First of all, I recommend checking in with Paul Krugman’s blog from time to time for some academic economic insight parsed down, relatively speaking, for the average Joe. He has written a short paper explaining what he thinks is going down right now, and to parse it even more simply into my own think-speak, it basically has to do with the global interdependence of financial markets. Which is why shortly after our economy started nose diving, the European economy has started feeling the effects of free-fall gravity as well.

If you follow my random output of thought consistently, then you’ve noted that I have a certain fascination with the concept of interdependence (go ahead and check out my posts filed under the topic of ‘interconnectivity‘ if you don’t believe me). I see interdependence, interconnectivity, the intwinement of multiple beings into one collective entity, as a source of greater strength. An individual vulnerability that establishes greater collective depth and power. This is the strength of the artist, the strength of the family, the strength of the nation. It makes us more open to superficial attack, but better resilient to sustained barrages.

Our economy—and hence, the global economy—is undeniably, at this point, in for some hard times. For how long, of course, no one can say. I have discussed elsewhere about how the economy is inevitably headed towards seeming disaster, but also about how what appears as tragic at the moment could potentially turn into a deeper manifestation of something necessary and redemptive i.e. the movement towards a more sustainable society. However, this transformation can only occur if we are willing to make some changes, such as move towards more Democratic—even *gasp* Socialist—notions of political governance as opposed to continuously giving in to Republican “small-government, big business” ideals. Obviously, putting Barack Obama into office is a great first step on this path. But beyond the presidential campaign, we need to push much harder for a move towards responsible government policy and regulation.

It’s sort of ridiculous that it takes a crisis or tragedy for people to awaken to the importance of individual sacrifice for collective betterment. It’s what we do in hard times, and it’s what people who live in poverty always do: help each other out. It’s about time that we start taxing the rich, taxing or putting caps on destructive and wasteful practices (such as lawns, SUVs, and plastic product packaging), and investing back into our society as a whole.

We all know that Communism and/or Fascism has failed. We all know that we believe in freedom and democracy for all. But it’s time that we grew up and recognized, as mature adults, that firm regulation, investments, and incentives must be established for people and businesses to do the right thing. And we must further recognize that we can’t go this alone. We need Government, with a capital ‘G’, and that means ‘G’ as in Global in addition to national. The US, for far too long, has been able to get away with insouciant and unconsidered behavior because we once were a superpower. We will henceforth be known as the last of the world’s superpowers. There will be no more superpowers, just as there will be no more Picassos. There will always be nations that have greater power, just as there will always be individuals who have greater influence. But no longer will there be a singular entity that can completely dominate and determine the direction of world commerce or culture.

What does this mean for us as a nation, and as individuals, then? It means that we have to become a team player. It means that we have to know our place in the world. It means that we have to not only compete, but cooperate. That’s what it means, at an extremely basic and fundamental level.

This ultimately ties back into deeper issues such as environmental stewardship, spirituality as opposed to religious fundamentalism, scientific advancement and technological development coupled with social progress, etc. But I’m not going to get into any of those wonderful issues at the moment because I’m beginning to get sleepy, and I’ve got another long week looming ahead of me. Due to my inability to post as frequently as I would like to, I’m going to begin utilizing WordPress’ nifty new function of sticking old posts up on my front page, so that you can see some selections of my old shit that I feel is worth perusing. Til next time, piiiiigs iiiin spaaaaaaace. . .

American Change (Outside of the Box of Media)

Inevitability: this is the crushing weapon that the Republican party so effectively wields, bludgeoning the American public with such a banality of lies, misinformation, and bluntness of political manipulation—all oriented around sidestepping deeper issues of actual policy—that people talk wearily of the inevitability of McCain being elected president. Here are the arguments for this position:

The American vote is skewed towards the middle American states, where most Americans are so brainwashed that they would vote for a melon if they thought it stood for fundamentalist Christian values and gun rights.

Americans are simply stupid in general.

George W. Bush was elected for 2 terms. Enough said. Americans are hopeless.

These are perhaps convincing arguments if you tend towards fatalism. However, it disregards and slanders the majority of the American people. Yes, many Americans are extremely misinformed and formulate their political ideas based on petty and irrelevant issues. Yes, the vote is heavily skewed towards Americans who think red meat, rifles, and religion are the defining issues of our day. However, these Americans, known colloquially as rednecks, are the ones most affected by bad policy in Washington. They will be the ones losing the most jobs, they will be the ones most affected by environmental degradation, they will be the ones continuing to have their working wages taxed by a government they distrust and loathe.

Were they fooled by W. Bush? To a certain extent. But they understood, more fundamentally, that he stood for status quo. He would give us exactly what they thought America stood for: individualism, small government, and big business. Now McCain is playing the status quo card once again, while pretending to give just enough of a hip “maverick”-ness to the situation to win over those on the fence.

Many Americans, while the economy was still apparently riding high, didn’t want change. They called for status quo. They called for continuing to do just what America had been doing. It seemed to work, sort of.

Now it’s not working. It’s failing terribly. And the prospect before us is harrowing. Even while official analysts shrug and dismiss the current economic downfall and refuse to call it a recession, Americans who are most affected by the downturn know exactly what it is: hard times. Unemployment is high, the divide between rich and poor is untenable, health care consists of ER visits, basic food item costs are increasing, and SUVs no longer make much sense to working folk who can’t pay off their mortgages or credit card bills.

This has not much to do with failed foreign policy that has led to neverending warfare, or a regressive position against contemporary science. It doesn’t even have to do with the impending and disastrous consequences of climate change, nor with the depletion of topsoils and overall degradation of our earth.

It has to do with a fundamental flaw in the American conception of what has been working in the past, and what will work in the future.

We fought ferociously against the concepts and institutions of communism and socialism, and we relished the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union. It was the triumph of capitalism. It was the triumph of individual choice, freedom of markets, competition between all for the benefit of the common good.

We’ve been so knee-jerk allergic to ideas of government involvement in economics that we’ve failed (officially) to recognize that the times have changed. A little dose of government intervention is necessary in times of crisis. And therefore, the Democratic vision of politics is no longer quite as unsavory as it once was. The idea of “change” (in the sense of a non-Republican dominated government) has begun to make sense. The status quo is driving America to its knees before the world. The dollar is falling, our imperialist foreign policies are antiquated, and our fierce individualism is costing the entire world the possibility of dealing effectively with united stances against climate change.

I don’t think Americans are as stupid as the media and the Republican party assumes it is. I think that the majority of Americans simply allow themselves to be led when they see no reason to change the way things are, when it seems to benefit them. It is becoming quite apparent that change—real change—must occur for America to remain a viable force in our world. Our businesses will fail if they cannot innovate. They cannot innovate if the government does not provide incentives for them to innovate. The government cannot provide incentives if the people do not call for policy change.

The time has come for Americans to unite, truly unite, not in the sense of warfare, not in the sense of blind following of political deceit and big money, not in the sense of willful ignorance and bigoted small-mindedness. Americans will unite because the only path to a hopeful future is clear. And it is not the status quo.

Collaborative Interdependence

I’ve been undergoing a mild case of “writer’s block” lately, wherein everything that I attempt to write just comes out flat or completely uninspired. Frustrating, because then it drives me to playing mahjongg instead of articulating deeper sentiment (mahjongg here being the virtual “bottle” in which to drown my woes).

One of the things I’ve been constantly trying to write about but having trouble clearly spelling out is my perspective on enacting progressive change. I’ve discussed elsewhere my evolving views on politics and economics, and I’ve been trying to find a way to more fully explicate my new views while still embracing, intellectually speaking, the perspectives which I’ve developed out of, such radicalism, anarchism, anti-globalization, postcolonialism, etc.

Rather than present a cohesive thesis, therefore, let me just discuss what my thought process is at the moment vis-a-vis these general topics and maybe I can work my way over the obstacles I’m currently facing just by talking it through.

I think what I’m finding is that I can still relate very well to viewpoints such as socialism and anarchism because such perspectives are ultimately humanist, in that there is an idealistic attempt to extricate humanity from what are perceived as inhuman and oppressive structures. There is still a lot of misunderstanding out there about what “anarchism” really means, and you can see this quite powerfully in The Dark Knight as depicted by the Joker, as one current example. People think of chaos, terror, pimply youth in black apparel heaving Molotov cocktails as an expression of aimless hormonal angst. But anarchism is not about chaos and terrorism: it is simply a philosophical rejection of the need for institutionalized systems of governance. Extending out of this are many disparate branches of anarchist philosophy, but that is its central tenet. Contrary to being a negative and nihilistic perspective, this is in actuality an extremely positivist take on human nature, in that anarchists believe that human society will run much more efficiently and naturally when not subsumed to overarching systems.

I was drawn to anarchist philosophy because of this deep humanism, and some anarchist writing is the most well-articulated writing out there on politics. You don’t feel like you are being talked down to. Go here and browse through the library to see for yourself. It isn’t much at all about violence or chaos. It’s about believing in a world that can be better than what we are taught to accept.

However, one of the problems with this perspective is in answering the question: well, how do we get from here to there? There are many different answers to that, some of which I will agree with, but ultimately, what one comes to understand is that holding the highest of ideals makes it extremely difficult to come to terms with the existing state of the world, generating anger, bitterness, and violence and/or apathy.

I will devolve into an oblique comparison here: in a long-term relationship with another human being, you come fairly quickly to realize that compromises must be made between you and your partner’s ideals in order to live together. If your ideals are too high, it may be that instead of coming to terms with the human reality of your partner and accepting them as they are, you are rejecting parts of them in order to try to fit or mold them to your ideals. These high expectations can blind you to the beauty of the person that already exists right before you, if you could allow them to be themselves rather than what you want them to be. You both can work together on developing towards the ideals that you share and cherish.

This does not mean that you should accept a drab reality. What I am getting at is that there is a process in working towards ideals. There must be development and evolution in order for ideals to become reality. Perfect harmony does not just fall into your lap without extensive effort. So one could feasibly hold anarchist philosophy as the ideal state of human society, but still work within and around existing government and market structures in seeking to achieve that ideal.

That is fairly self-evident, I suppose, but as I talked about in my other post, it seems to me that there are a lot of idealists out there who are constricted, rather than motivated, by their ideals.

In any case, even though I sympathize with the philosophy of anarchism and of radical thought in general, I ultimately feel that it is misguided. Anarchists and other philosophies of dissent rightly perceive that there are problems with institutional and market systems, but they wrongly perceive the correct redress as being a complete rejection of these systems. To use another obtuse analogy, it is like looking at a fan which doesn’t blow air very efficiently or equitably about a room, and deciding that the solution is to throw out the fan. While such a solution might appeal to instinct, it would make much more sense to attempt to analyze the failure of the fan and seek to alter, jerryrig, or otherwise upgrade to a whole new model.

To say this, however, doesn’t mean that one couldn’t choose to live ones life according to anarchist or other radical ideals. One has that right and capability. But what I am talking about is being involved in the greater community, and subsuming some of those ideals to accepted law and policy in order to extend greater influence.

Another issue I think I see with philosophies that reject existing market and government systems is that they are often mired in a mentality of a bygone era. We have come into a time, due to the unforeseen confluence of technology and rapid information dissemination and sharing, in which civil society and individuals as a whole have a power and command that they did not once have. Civil society thus is becoming evolutionarily enabled to play the critical part in balancing and restraining and guiding the efforts of institutions and markets in providing a fairer and more sustainable society. Demonstrators and protesters, even when not covered explicitly by the big media outlets, have a strength that corporations and governments have had to pay close attention to. Anti-globalization protesters, though misguided in their conclusions (multi-national corporations and interconnected markets = evil), have had a tremendous and positive impact on drawing attention to economic inequity and iniquitous barriers to trade. Similarly, the increased influence and power of “bloggers” has given big media a run for its money. Due to this increased power of civil society and of individual citizens, people are not simply oppressed workers underneath the inhumane strictures of the one-dimensional demand of capitalism. In collaboration—not opposition—with public policy, the legal system, and economic investments and incentives, civil society, government, and the economy can work in tandem to address the problems that exist in society.

This is not an argument against dissent or protest. What I’m attempting to get at is that the process of speaking up and getting involved and asking critical and probing questions is in fact a necessary and positive aspect of well-organized and functioning social systems. It is not a movement against the “system” or against the “machine” or whatever one chooses to call government and business structures: rather, it is a movement that enhances, collaborates, and guides these systems into greater harmony.

I have argued elsewhere for the need to view these systems in the sense of design, with a holistic, whole-systems approach. This is especially apparent when it comes to entrenched issues such as the current failure of many of our public schools to adequately and equally educate all our nation’s children, irregardless of race, class, or gender. Educational policy, on both a federal and state level, often nobly, but wrongly, attempts to tackle their problems solely within the confines of the classroom by initiating misguided programs that work to increase performance on standardized tests. Obviously, there are circumstances outside of the classroom that are critical to a child’s success, such as family, friends, and wider local community support, in addition to institutional programs. It will take a multifaceted approach, addressing not only education, but furthermore socio-economic conditions, access to information and technology, not to mention access to healthy, positive, inclusive environments and public spaces for children to study and play in.

Our schools have become effectively segregated due to the seemingly innocuous effort by well-to-do parents to place their children in “successful” schools. The successful schools being the ones with money and community support. It is thus apparent that investments must be made simultaneously not only in education and the public school system in general, but furthermore broader investments must be made in low income neighborhoods, to provide access to healthy public spaces, to provide access to technology and information, to provide smart planning for a sustainable future in employment, etc. The more that the middle class divides itself from the poor, the greater problems will become.

What is evident in an issue such as this is the approach that I am talking about: a whole systems, collaborative approach. Civil society must do its part to draw attention to the problems. Government must do its part to respond with effective and unbiased policy changes. The market must do its part with directed investments and innovative micro-businesses. What is apparent, to me at least, is that we can’t rely on any one of these systems to do the job for us. The market is not going to solve any of our problems unless we direct it and harness it with policy and incentives. Government will not update its policy or open up funding unless it has its attention drawn to the problem. Civil society, NGOs, citizen organizations must agitate, petition, utilize the media, and organize to focus on the problems.

Furthermore, policy making and business governance and legal affairs cannot be over-specialized. They can’t be compartmentalized and vivisected such that they can’t work effectively across the fields of public health, education, fiscal tuning, management philosophy, environmental departments, etc. They need to be able to unite and work within these fields all at once.

This kind of approach demonstrates that no matter what ones particular ideals may be, what is the most important is a pragmatic and responsive attention to the current climate and issues in our society. Putting our heads in the sand, whether due to reactionary or radical or centrist thought, is simply unacceptable. Good management, governance, and policy practices are forged by looking ahead to the future, constantly and consistently. Our future lies in our children. Whatever our beliefs may be, we all want our children to be healthy, to be successful, to have access to the resources that will empower and enable them. We want them to be educated, to be well fed, to be well read, to be sound of body and of mind. We want them to be positioned to respond effectively to reality, to be positioned for a market that looks ahead to sustainability.

The process, therefore, in achieving an equitable and sustainable future is determined by the collaborative interdependence of differing aspects of human identity, mind, infrastructures, and society. Only when these multiple points converge and work together are effective and positive changes made. It is misguided to focus ones efforts solely in rejection and opposition to existing systems. The more positive approach is to focus on working across boundaries to enact changes beneficial to all.

Phew. You can see why I’ve had trouble laying this out. It’s kind of a big mess in my mind. I’m working on getting this out in a more concise manner.

Movement Towards Inclusion

“The bell jar [as described by Braudel, signifying the exclusivity of the capitalist sector of society] makes capitalism a private club, open only to a privileged few, and enrages the billions standing outside looking in. This capitalist apartheid will inevitably continue until we all come to terms with the critical flaw in many countries’ legal and political systems that prevents the majority from entering the formal property system. . .

Few seem to realize that what we have here is one huge, worldwide industrial revolution: a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale to life organized on a large one. For better or for worse, people outside the West are fleeing self-sufficient and isolated societies in an effort to raise their standards of living by becoming interdependent in much larger markets. . .

Like computer networks, which had existed for years before anyone thought to link them, property systems become tremendously powerful when they are interconnected in a larger network. . . .

Political blindness, therefore, consists of being unaware that the growth of the extralegal sector and the breakdown of the existing legal order are ultimately due to a gigantic movement away from life organized on a small scale toward one organized in a larger context. . .

The primary problem is the delay in recognizing that most of the disorder occurring outside the West is the result of a revolutionary movement that is more full of promise than of problems.”

Hernando de Soto, The Mystery of Capital

De Soto’s insights are tantalizing: his essential message is that the poor are seeking to become a part of the larger market system, but are denied access through exclusive laws and fiscal policies. Faced with the inability to become a part of the global market, the poor then must operate within small-scale, community “extralegal” markets and negotiations. I have referred to this market activity, so visibly abundant and active within South America, as a “micro-economy,” not recognizing that this teeming market life was not necessarily included within the larger economy in a formal sense.

What I also like about De Soto’s vision is his recognition that the poor have always historically recognized the opportunities inherent in a larger market. The movement to urban centers during the Industrial Revolution is well documented, and the same movement is now occurring in developing countries daily. The poor innately recognize opportunity when they see it, and recognize that fundamentally, global markets can provide access to a wider network of capability and progress.

Of course, simply giving the poor land titles and opening up their economies to globalization does not necessitate a better life, due to the great imbalance of power and wealth in favor of developed nations and small populations within developing nations. De Soto’s simplistic diagnosis has thus been rightfully critiqued. But with corrected fiscal policy and global law, these imbalances can be addressed to become more inclusive. De Soto’s insights can very neatly be coupled with the insights provided by social entrepreneurs like Muhammad Yunus. With the tool of microcredit, the poor can be given the ability to become included within the wider market and use their properties as capital assets.

The wider the embrace of networks can become, the more powerful and effective they will be. A market that can include and embrace all of the teeming activity of the micro-economies of the poor (and thus raise them out of poverty) is a healthy and balanced market.

What I also appreciate about De Soto’s vision is his emphasis on the global movement towards interdependence. Accepting membership into a greater community is to shed a degree of self-sufficiency and isolation. There is a strong undercurrent within environmental activism as well as nationalist reactionaries towards self-sufficiency and isolationism. It is certainly important to have integrity and inner strength. But at a certain point, interdependence within greater networks provides a greater strength and resiliancy.

I can best phrase this within the context of death: when someone you are close to passes away, you can feel a humongous hole cut out from inside of you. It makes you realize just how interconnected you are with everyone else in your life, and of how illusory is the concept that you are alone and detached.

When acts of violence and terrorism are committed, they are best viewed as perverted and desperate attempts to become included into the networks that they have been excluded from. The answer, therefore, in fighting terrorism is not in utilizing weapons and occupations, but rather in fighting poverty, by seeking to include, in an effective and positive manner, the developing nations and those in extreme poverty into the global market and body politic.

It is no secret that those nations mired in extreme poverty harbor terrorists. So what should we do? Bomb them? Or seek to include them into the greater networks of which they so desperately want to become a part of and which they have been routinely denied. Isn’t the answer obvious?

Thoughts on Money & Poverty: The Root

In my series of posts focused on confronting the existence of poverty and thinking through the issues behind it [Thoughts on Poverty parts I, II, and III], I came to a series of realizations which I will sum up as follows: 1) development, profit-generation, and gentrification is not necessarily a bad thing; 2) poverty is not spawned by the idleness and laziness of the poor but rather through structures of commerce and policy; 3) charity is only a symptomatic response, and does not in any way address the root causes of poverty; and 4) poverty is sustained by the lack of will and indifference on the part of those with influence and money. These are all poignant observations, but my thought process was stopped short continually when I hit the wall of what do we do to change this? This can be seen especially in my second post, in which I end it by stating that micro-credit doesn’t work in the US, and that I have a lot more to learn on the subject of poverty.

I do indeed have a lot more to learn, but the wall that I was hitting turns out to be a quite common perception within the US in regards to the problem of entrepreneurship/employment and the poor. That wall is welfare. I was getting at this idea in a general way when I discovered that charity is a manifestation of shallow perceptions of the problem and not the solution.

The fact is that welfare has created a powerful disincentive to those stuck in poverty from ever obtaining the motivation to succeed. It’s throwing money at the problem, and increasing the division between the poor and the rich. It’s a type of exclusion, a method of control. Any of us who has ever been bribed by our parents knows this.

I arrived at this understanding while reading Banker to the Poor, by Muhammad Yunus. I have talked about Yunus before, and posted plenty of quotes of his, but I had not yet actually read a book written by him. I would highly advise reading some of his speeches and his books, in addition to books written about Grameen Bank such as David Bornstein’s The Price of a Dream. In Banker to the Poor, he discusses the reactions of Americans to the concept of micro-credit, and the problems he encountered with welfare states in the US and in Europe.

“I was not prepared for the amount of skepticism I encountered. What struck me was not so much people’s doubt as to whether micro-credit would succeed in the United States but their pessimism about whether anything would actually raise people out of poverty rather than merely alleviating its symptoms. Many Americans argue that their welfare state has created a lazy underclass of dysfunctional individuals who would never be interested in or capable of starting their own businesses or supporting themselves.

. . . Almost everyone I spoke with dismissed what I said, arguing that the Bengali experience could not be relevant to poverty eradication in the United States. They claimed that [poor people] needed jobs, training, health care, and protection from drugs and violence, not micro-loans, and that self-employment was a primitive concept lingering only in the Third World. Low-income people . . . needed money for rent and food, not for investment. They had no skills anyway.  . . .”

That is essentially the argument that I had been making in my second post on poverty. I was talking about how the cottage industries in Bangladesh of weaving, making furniture, rickshaw pulling, etc, were all something ingrained in their traditions and way of life. In the United States, I thought, what could we do to start our own businesses? Isn’t it a lot of hassle and paperwork, and don’t you have to get some kind of training and a degree? However, the more that you think about it, the more that you realize that the problem isn’t that people don’t have skills or ability, it is that they lack will and motivation.

I wrote a post while in Colombia on the teeming activity of its micro-economies, and of how this was inspiring to see, something that we need in the United States. And that is exactly what we do need! We need more street vendors, more individuals starting their own taxi businesses, more food carts, more clothing makers, more strange and exotic retail shops, more corner stores, etc. This local, community based commerce is what makes for a stronger overall economy. We need small-time entrepreneurs.

As I was reading Yunus’ chapter on the United States while on the subway, I excitedly gripped the book and finally realized the biggest major obstacle both in my mind and in my nation in regards to poverty: the concept and institution of welfare.

“. . . I witnessed directly how welfare laws in the United States create disincentives for welfare recipients to work. Those who receive welfare become virtual prisoners not only of poverty but of those who would help them; if they earn a dollar, it must be immediately reported to the welfare authority and deducted from their next welfare check. Welfare recipients are also not allowed to borrow money from any institutional source.

. . . In the developed world, my greatest nemesis is the tenacity of the social welfare system. . . Recipients of a monthly handout feel as afraid to start a business as the purdah-covered women in Bengali villages.

. . . I believe . . . that providing unemployment benefits is not the best way to address poverty. The able-bodied poor don’t want or need charity. The dole only increases their misery, robs them of incentive and, more important, of self-respect.

Poverty is not created by the poor. It is created by the structures of society and the policies pursued by society.”

One of the problems with welfare is that it is staunchly defended by anyone who thinks that they are liberal and/or compassionate. It is thus defended because it is seen as a necessary means of address to the problems of poverty. But welfare is only a symptomatic address; it does not change the structures that create the conditions for poverty.

We obviously cannot just lop off welfare and expect the problem to be solved. Welfare must be reduced in tandem with the extension of financial services to the poor in the form of micro-loans. Welfare must also be altered to allow for the poor to have incentive to take out loans and start their own businesses.

Welfare as a concept and institution should not be done away with. Welfare is necessary for those people who are not able-bodied enough to help themselves. However, it needs some drastic changes in its structuring. Otherwise, all other actions we take to eradicate poverty in the United States will end up falling far short in the face of the lack of will, self-esteem, and motivation on the part of the poor themselves. Only they can raise themselves out of poverty.

Thoughts On Money & Poverty: Part III

I’ve had some more thoughts to add to my developing perspective on poverty that stems and evolves from my last post; there I had begun the line of thought that poverty is not an issue of charity and indifference, but rather of a systemic need to provide recourse for the poor to make their own money in a legitimate manner (duh!). Continuing this direction in thought, I would like to now confront a fundamental obstacle in the path to the poor helping themselves: those with the money and the power.

It is the onus and privilege of those with money and power to pretend that they have nothing to do with poverty. I am now going to begin speaking of these folk as “we”, in the assumption that if you are reading this post, you are probably not living in poverty. And I include these poor, destitute 20 somethings in NYC who are forced to flirt for free drinks and eat junk food while living in their loft apartments in midtown Manhattan (follow that link up there to read yet another article that demonstrates just whom the NY Times caters their news towards). At this point, you are probably throwing up your hands and backing out the door, saying, “I’m not responsible for poverty. I can barely afford my credit card bills, fill up at the pump, or pay back my student loans.” But you are. We are all responsible, because of the very reason of such a denial. We are responsible because we are complicit.

Don’t worry, this is not going to turn into one of those liberal assays of guilt and blame. I simply wanted to make my point very clear: the major obstacle in the way of the poor raising themselves out of poverty is not themselves—it is those who hold onto money and power and deny it from the poor. We are all complicit in this act because of reasons such as I had detailed in my last post on this issue: we believe that the poor are poor because they are lazy, stupid, or simply because we need poor people in order for there to be rich people. And so we either extend charity or pity, or we remain indifferent. And thus complicit.

Beyond complicity, there are those who work directly to keep the poor poor, and these are the people with the major money and power. The Bush Administration, along with groups like Enron and Halliburton, have clearly demonstrated what kind of stripes these people wear. They are greedy sons of bitches who will not hesitate to lie, cheat, and betray all of the world in order to get what they feel is their entitlement. And because we are complicit, we slap their hands, but we do nothing to stop them. Because we all want to be this powerful and have that much money. We all want to become the real life embodiment of the American Dream.

But to assume that simply because we live in a capitalistic society and that our market thrives on competition that we require for there to be have and have-nots is ridiculous, and in fact completely anti-capitalistic. The more people that we can allow onto the playing field of the economy, the more that there will be enhanced competition as well as collaborative growth, and the more the market will develop. Poor people need to be extended credit and resources to start their own businesses, fund their own developments, build their own communities, and invest back into the bigger pool. The more that micro-economies thrive and teem and interact with smaller fry, the more that the macro will be stabilized and efficient and healthy.

The fact is, there is no credible reason to keep poor people poor. The only thing that keeps poor people poor is the greed, complacency, bigotry, short sightedness, and all other forms of small mindedness from those with money and power. It is therefore only extreme indifference and cruelty that allows us to see, when taxes are cut and budgets are slashed and essential programs and social services are jettisoned, not the devastating effect on human lives, rather solely the hypothetical increase in our own coffers. We put up blinders to our own humanity to think in such a manner. The fact is that there is no excuse. There is no acceptable reason for accepting poverty.

And there is no acceptable reason, for that matter, of accepting any kind of tainted and bitter revolt against our own humanity. Compassion is much stronger than pity. Understanding is much more powerful than fear. Everyone on this earth has the potential to be beautiful. Everyone deserves to be beautiful, to shine, to be seen as the treasure and gift that they are.

We need to fight back against the ugly despair, disgust, and terror that is our nightly news. We need to fight back against the complacency and indifference that is so easy to succumb to, the avoidant eyes on the subway, the challenging aggression on the streets, the burning short fuses on the freeway.

No one said it would be easy. But there is a fundamental step within our own minds that must take place for anything good to happen: we must determine whether we will fight for joy, fight for beauty, fight for wonder, and fight for humanity, or whether we will simply step back into the shallows of our temporary alliances and turn against what we know is true. We know that the existence of poverty—ever, anywhere, but most especially now—is simply

unacceptable.

So what do we do? Do we start throwing our pennies in the cups of homeless on the street? No, of course not. We need to start affecting change in the structures and environments of the most destitute and impoverished areas of our cities. We need healthy, beautiful, clean, and affordable living spaces. We need access to public transportation. We need the extension of credit and access to money. We need access to well-funded educational and youth development programs. We need nutritious food. We need potable water. Is any of this complicated?

Essentially, all that the problem of poverty and its related issues requires is ATTENTION. The solutions then flow from creativity, community, and collaborative dedication. And turning our attention to these matters should not be seen as charity, selflessness, and other forms of saintliness. Rather, we turn our attention to these matters because we recognize that we are enhancing our greater community—because we are removing the root source of fear, bigotry, and despair from all of our lives. Like what I was saying in another post about the need, in our personal lives, of cleaning and organizing every hidden and unattended spot in our living spaces and mind, so too in our civic spaces and minds we must focus on those areas that are ignored, have been left to fester and decay, have turned into dumping grounds. Because these are areas that are parts of ourselves.

We cannot detach ourselves from each other, except to the detriment of everyone’s humanity.

Thoughts on Money and Poverty: Part II

Thorn Corridor

On my last post on the issue of gentrification, I’d left off with the question of “How can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?” The more I’ve pondered on this, the more I’ve realized that the question is quite a bit more complicated than it sounds. Essentially, what we are really looking at are the root causes of poverty, and considering methods of assisting communities in raising themselves out of it.

The problem with poverty is that there are a lot of differing [mis]perceptions of the issue: the most common one being that of the better off, which assumes that those who are poor are lazy, stupid, or otherwise—that is, if the well-to-do are aware of the issue and consider it at all (it sounds amazing, but having grown up in a well-to-do area, and having worked in the hospitality industry with the extremely well-to-do and their offspring, I know first-hand there are indeed people out there who live in an oblivious bubble, both self-imposed and otherwise). Stemming from this initial prejudice, there are two common perceptions on poverty and the poor: 1) they are an unfortunate and inevitable scourge of humanity, to be ignored, endured, and shut away into their own enclaves; and/or 2) they are to be pitied and supported through the works of charity.

I think what becomes apparent as one examines this issue is that while welfare and charity are quite obviously direly needed by those stranded in extreme poverty, what must be recognized is that charity is ultimately only a temporal bandaid that avoids the root causes that create and sustain the conditions for poverty. What becomes further apparent from this realization is that the poor must be given the structural means to help themselves. In other words, the only ones who can directly and actively work to address the root causes of poverty are the poor themselves. Thus, they require not charity, but a pragmatic and systematic support that hands the money and the tools over to them.

This may at first sound perhaps out of touch with reality or idealistic and overly vague. But this is a concept that has been applied effectively by Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh starting in the 70′s, when he introduced the concept of micro-credit and banking for those in poverty with his Grameen Bank. Since then, micro-credit has been further applied successively, most notably, in Southeast Asia and Latin America. Yunus founded a bank which extends credit directly to the poor, so that they could gain the means of raising themselves out of poverty through their own hard work and entrepreneurship. This is an approach to poverty that is staunchly capitalistic in its approach, yet underlied by a basic concern for human welfare. Most approaches to poverty are rooted in that initial notion of charity which we just have outlined above, and exist as non-profit donation-based organizations. These organizations generally do little or nothing in regards to helping the poor help themselves. Rather, it is always a matter of the rich helping or giving to the poor. This position, of course, is already rooted in a problematic perception of poverty that does nothing to empower the poor themselves, and rather perpetuates the symptoms.

The problem with micro-credit is that there haven’t been found ways to translate it into a workable and comparable vision in the United States. The reason for this is that micro-credit works quite well in village-based economies, where the poor have recourse to starting their own business in say, weaving kerchiefs, or vending food, and other such small, individual, street-cart type sales. There exists in such cultures many small, micro-economies in which small entrepreneurs are able to thrive. But in the United States, the economy, lifestyle, and culture is different, and small-time entrepreneurs face a number of hurdles before they can break into the world of commerce.

And this is where my thought begins to shoot out randomly in a haze like a flashlight in the fog. This is where I realize just how much more I need to learn. I have already gone from the issue of gentrification to that of poverty in general, thus expanding and deepening the questions on money and poverty. So at this point, I’m going to step back from these questions and look again at the bigger picture. I think what has been changing in my own thought and perception is that I am no longer fundamentally opposed to capitalism—the concept of making money. I believe that we can consciously make money, while at the same time benefitting the environment and combating poverty. And as these changing ideas sink in, my worldview begins to shift on an everyday level, such that as during this trip to Colombia, I have been noting the influence of wealth, and welcoming it.

Thoughts on Money and Poverty

Building

Some thoughts that have been fomenting somewhere in the back of my dome have been coming to the fore as my trip winds down to a close here in Bogotá, and I’ve had some more time to contemplate the bigger picture. One item that I’ve been considering is the changing perceptions I have of the concept of ‘gentrification’. I’ve always been critical of the influence of big money on people’s lives and communities. I’m especially critical of the bland and complacent lifestyles of the well-to-do, the ‘yuppies’, the SUVS, the suburban sprawl, the homogenous franchises, and so on. But my experience here in Colombia has driven me to question some of the aspects of gentrification that before I immediately and completely rejected. This has been due to the fact that when you’re traveling on a budget here, you’re inevitably staying in some neighborhoods that aren’t exactly high-end. And as a traveler coming from somewhere else, it makes you all the more conscious of the presence of poverty, wealth, and the types of commerce going on around you. And when you are looking simply for a bite to eat, or a place to get a good juice or coffee at, you are looking for some kind of welcome, however tentative that may be. At the very least, simply the product you desire, preferably sanitary and with a smile. But in some places, these basic expectations have been hard to come by, for the very simple reason that many businesses here are run by families or individuals that cater solely to a small local market, and have little interest in growing or developing their operation. They will close for weeks on end for the holiday season, they will not provide customer service aside from plopping down your plate and taking your money, and there’s often a sense that they could really care less for your business.

In such circumstances, I have discovered a sudden appreciation for the Juan Valdez Café chain. Yes, it is a franchise, but there are a few things that you can count on when you enter into one of these ‘yuppie’ establishments: 1) friendly, efficient service; 2) clean facilities, with a bathoom; 3) an atmosphere conducive to sitting, relaxing, chatting, and reading. These are aspects, as Americans, that I think we often take for granted in our businesses. We expect—and demand—adequate customer service, clean facilities, and proper delivery of the product. We live in the land of franchise.

Now let me be clear about something: I despise franchises, both as a concept and in their usual effect on local communities. However, when else has failed, and all I’ve wanted is somewhere to sit and read and drink coffee, Juan Valdez has been there. This isn’t to say that I haven’t discovered some great local cafés and what not. I will happily circumvent Juan Valdez whenever and wherever I can. But there have been times when there just haven’t been any other places open, or air-conditioned, or quiet or spacious enough to read in.

Here in Colombia, they don’t have the knee-jerk allergic reaction to franchises that many of us idealistic Americans have developed. They love their Coca-Cola and Postobon, they love their Juan Valdez, and while there are certainly Colombians who question capitalism and its accompanying imposition of materialistic values, as well as the influence of foreign investment, overall, Colombians seem quite happy with name-brands and familiar franchises. And that may have had a subtle influence on my experience here as well. When everyone drinks Coca-Cola all the time, it makes you more apt to grab one and sip it along with your fried chicken, patacones, and french fries.

But I’m getting off on a tangent. What I was getting at in bringing up the subject of Juan Valdez cafés is that there can be a positive effect from the influx of outside money and businesses. As a traveler and tourist, for example, I am bringing in money from outside into the country, and this is good for their economy. I understand when people speak disparagingly of gringos, and I have never been one to welcome tourists into my own community with open arms. Tourists are, in general, annoying, demanding, and most of their money goes to big business. That said, however, in the big picture, I believe tourism is a good thing for a country as a whole, especially if the tourism is encouraged to developed concurrently with local environmental and social concerns.

And so I’ve been extending that thought into the more general concept of the influx of outside money into any local community. I think that gentrification is easy to criticize and despise, but I think that what also needs to be considered is that inevitably, a community needs outside input in order grow. Before gentrification, a community is generally mired in poverty, and there is little potential for growth and expansion. Gentrification, in fact, could be seen as an inevitable aspect of growth and development.

I’m going to ignore for the moment the myriad negative effects that gentrification can incur on the local community (such as simply driving out all the prior, poor inhabitants), which I am fully aware of, and rather move onto the parable of hip-hop. The growth and development of this music mirrors quite well the growth and development of any community when it encounters a sudden influx of outside wealth. Hip-hop started, of course, in the restrictive hard-knock life of the streets. It was a revolution in articulation. Suddenly, disenfranchised youth found a creative and positive outlet for their passion, desire, anger, and thought. Much like graffiti, it empowered them in a way that, at first, seemed unprofitable to the outside world. It began simply as a method for those who had been unseen and unheard to express themselves. And as hip-hop developed and expanded into other communities, and eventually across the globe, it inevitably became commercialized and diverged into the mainstream, and glitz and glitter and glamour now are the name of the industry game. It seems to be dominated by a rich and famous elite, who proclaim at every chance they can their extravagant wealth. While this aspect of hip-hop can and will be lamented by those who love it for its roots in self-expression and rebellion, at the same time, it can also be seen as an inevitable outgrowth of the expansion and development of the music as a whole. This is analogous to the development of any artist who is “discovered” and inducted into the mainstream. Sometimes, and oftentimes, this sudden influx of outside money and influence results in pathologies and the destruction of an artist’s original intent and purpose. But other times, it simply extends the power, creativity, and influence of the individual to a broader audience, which is a good thing, if they are doing anything original and inspiring. And they develop their style in accordance with this extension (sometimes, of course, losing some of their original fans in the process).

But such is the process of evolution and growth. Communities, like individuals, are not steady-state bubbles. They are influenced necessarily by external factors, and they must utilize and embrace these factors if they are to grow. They can, of course, choose to withdraw inward and fight off all externalities, but inevitably, they either must collapse or expand.

So to get back to my original idea: I am beginning to think that external inputs of wealth are not completely undesirable. The problem, of course, is that most of the time, none of this wealth ends up in the pockets of the original inhabitants of a community, and they are either driven out, or they are left to fester in small controlled pockets within the newer developing community. So the problem I think that must be addressed, therefore, is not that of “gentrification” per se: the problem that must be addressed is: how can a community expand and develop its wealth locally, while at the same time accepting, encouraging, and embracing external inputs of wealth?

I’m going to get into some ideas and approaches to that question in another post, as this one is getting rather long. I wanted to first lay down the foundation for it, however, as for me these ideas are a new direction in thought. I’m beginning, basically, to look more at such issues in an integral fashion, rather than simply separating the negative from the positive and looking only at one side. I’m recognizing that the idea of money and wealth is not so simple as rejecting the entire concept of monetary gain. Rather, the idea is to unite the principle of natural wealth with that of manufactured wealth.

Learning from Micro-Economies

What’s interesting to me about Southern American economies is how local- and entrepreneurial-based they are. They are prime examples of the kind of economy in which micro-credit can effectively work to combat poverty, as with a little bit of credit in hand, those in poverty can establish successful commerce. In the United States— except in those neighborhoods still rooted in different lifestyles—people do not have little stores on every corner, nor sell bottles of water and cigarettes and candy on the street. It is rare that you see people walking through traffic at a stoplight vending fruits or soft drinks. The United States is based firmly upon larger businesses, and while this has driven the whole economy upwards, it has also widened the divide between rich and poor.

While I do not think that we can nor should be attempting to regress to village-based economies, I think that there is something we can learn and remember from such economies. They are micro-based, decentralized, tightly interwoven, reflecting the communities and culture. While not as capable of large thrusts of capital and profit-gain, they are also perhaps more stable in other ways, not as subject to housing trends or corporate trading. Most important to recognize, however, is that these micro-economies offer a means of living to those in poverty. They have a chance to start their own little business. People here are selling minutes on their cellulars. “¡Llama llama más!” they call from street sides, a sign detailing the amount of pesos per minute around their necks. Others sell popsicles from bicycle coolers, or hot dogs (perros), or fried goodness, or avocados, or fresh squeezed juice. Competition is fierce, taxis and buses swing through traffic to pick up the stray extra person for a few more pesos.

It seems to me that what we can learn from such styles of commerce is that we need to try to realize and flesh out in reality the so-called American Dream, the Horatio Algers fiction of rags-to-riches, that with solely the sweat off your back you can make a quick buck. Maybe not rag-to-riches, but at least rags-to-adequate food and quality of life. Right now there is little ability for the poor to start their own businesses and compete on the current market, except within small cloisters of alternative communities. Our current market sways and leaps in the winds of giant corporate franchises, subject to complete and utter failure at a moment’s notice, completely and utterly dependent on the balance and poise of giants crafted from sweat and blood that pierce the heavens, top-heavy with money and greed, overly distant from the root and source of their sap and sustenance.

Trim off the tops of these trecherous mounts and feed them to the bottom, that we all may grow a little fatter!

Sick of Partisanship

As the whole presidential race idiocy begins winding itself up in the media, I grow increasingly agitated at the state of politics in this country (the ol US of A for those of you who stumbled acrost this page randomly). The whole nature of all interactions here, whether political, economic, or legal, all seem to have to be made on adversarial terms. It’s always A vs B. It’s never A working with B to produce C. It’s Democrats vs Republicans. It’s capitalism vs socialism. It’s environmentalist groups vs corporations. It’s good vs evil. Etc, ad nauseam.

The problem with this state of affairs is that when it comes to issues where all parties involved need to work together to create any kind of real solutions to major problems, such as in the arenas of public health, or reducing carbon emissions, then there is never any progress made until things attain such a state of degradation that it is undeniable to everyone that drastic measures must be made. And by that point, of course, it’s just a little too late. It’s “damage control,” instead of “preventing catastrophe.” It’s “rebuilding from the ground up,” instead of “retrofitting existing structures.” Aside from those of us who subscribe to neither liberal nor conservative, nor Democrat nor Republican, most Americans are quite happy to delimit their perceptions to one side or the other. Once you’ve picked a side, most issues resolve themselves rather conveniently into black or white. And you will never understand the perception of the “other side.”

If you’ve read any of my political rants in the past, then you know that I obviously don’t hold much patience with Republicans and conservatives of most any stripe. I really don’t have any interest in seeing their point of view, because it dominates enough of the political and cultural scene as it is, even as “liberal” as Americans pretend their major cities might be. But I also despise Democrats and people who blindly adhere to notions of liberalism as simply ideological opposition to Republicans, while mostly, in action, still just big-business economic ass-kissing just like conservatism. But ultimately, I really don’t give a hang about Republican or Democrat. I care about issues that truly affect the world and the nation, and that truly need to be addressed, one way or another. Issues such as revitalization of the economy, global warming, and public health. And the only way that such issues will ever get addressed is if people in positions of leadership put their fat heads together and work out the nitty-gritty details as a team, instead of squabbling over ideological issues that they will never resolve simply so that they can maintain political supremacy.

And this is the exact point where the pseudo-Democracy of the United States begins to look a bit out-dated and inefficient. Because it seems to be in the very nature of our economic, legal, and political systems to be adversarial, partisan, and privatized and individualized. Any kind of notions of “teamwork” seem to invoke knee-jerk allergic reactions to the ideologies of socialism and communism. But addressing and resolving trenchant issues such as those embedded in public health and global warming require a social cohesiveness that will not be achieved through mere partisanship. We must somehow go beyond ideologies, whether political, economic, or otherwise, and attempt to look at issues through a cumulative scattered cohesion of lenses, the liberals and conservatives and goods and evils all sewn together into a temporary visage of futurity. A rainbow quilt of different perceptions, meshed into a higher vision, beyond that which could have ever been achieved through the simple antagonism of isolated fragments. Such a networked collectivity of expression can still be competitive, aggressive, and progress oriented. But it must necessarily demolish the currently seemingly intractable obstacles of factions squabbling over (largely irrelevant) ideological issues.