Saturday, December 13, 2008

Poverty in the United States

There is a lot of poverty in the United States, and the regional patterns are striking. The map above represents 1998 data, and it tells a very sectional story about poverty in this country. (The map is presented by the Regional Development Institute of Northern Illinois University.) The largest concentration of poor counties is clearly in the deep south and in Appalachia. And it would appear that there is a high correspondence between poor counties and populations of minority Americans -- Mexican-Americans in southwest Texas, Native Americans in the Dakotas and Arizona, and African-Americans throughout the south (Arkansas, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Alabama). The industrial midwest had relatively less poverty in 1998 (it will be urgent to see how this map changes once the restructuring of the automotive industry is complete). Even after the deindustrialization of many midwestern cities in the 1970s and 1980s the incidence of poverty at the county level remained relatively low. And the Boston-New York-Washington corridor shows one of the lowest levels of poverty -- along with some of the highest population density in the country.

But what about the distribution of urban poverty in the United States? Here is a map of the metropolitan and micropolitan statistical areas of the United States (hosted by New Markets Tax Credit Resource Center).

Here is a map of poverty rates for Chicago in 2000 (host):
Here's Houston:

And Detroit (% children under poverty in 1990):

What each of these metropolitan maps indicate is the very high concentration of poverty that exists in most American cities. And these patterns illustrate at the city level the same point noted above at the national level: that there is a very close correspondence between poverty and race.

It is time for a well-planned "war on poverty" once more. And let's hope that the Obama administration will find the strategies and resources that are necessary to address these persistent patterns of poverty and inequality.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Defeating extremist violence

The threat of major violence against innocent people by extremist groups is one that we're nowhere close to solving. What are the solutions that might be considered? Here are the sorts of things that have been discussed for the past decade or so, when high-casualty terrorism became a part of the everyday landscape. These are listed in order of proximity to an eventual attack -- and probably in reverse order of likelihood to succeed.

  • Provide enhanced security at high-likelihood targets
  • Establish well-trained and well-armed rapid response forces
  • Improve intelligence gathering about potential adversary individuals and organizations
  • Apply diplomatic and military pressure on training bases and refuges
  • Suppress the flows of arms and dollars to extremists
  • Suppress the ability of extremist groups to use advanced communications to coordinate attacks
  • Develop new technologies and sensors that can detect weapons before they are used (e.g. radiation monitors, explosive chemical sensors, biohazard sensors)
  • Forge strong alliances with other states who can suppress extremist organizations within their jurisdictions
  • Make determined efforts to address and resolve major grievances
  • Support community-level work in regions where extremist mobilization is likely to be greatest.
These strategies move from the level of police and military response to attacks, to attempts to reduce the capacity of extremist groups to mount attacks, to efforts aimed at reducing the appeal of extremist groups to potential recruits in relevant populations.

It is hard to see how point security could ever do the job. The attacks in Mumbai demonstrate that there are too many targets, ranging from hotels to train stations to hospitals, to permit states to provide protection against attack everywhere. This is true in every major city; and there are thousands of cities globally that could be subject to attack.

Rapid response forces are certainly needed -- but this concedes the first several hours to the attacking group and works, at best, to limit casualties. (One of the complaints that Indian citizens are making about their government's responses to the attacks in Mumbai is the delays that ensued between the onset of attack and the deployment of effective counter-measures.)

Better intelligence is certainly an important part of the struggle against terrorism; once there are committed and dangerous extremist organizations at work, it is crucial for anti-terrorist agencies to know as much about them and their leaders as possible. More detailed knowledge of plans, objectives, and capabilities will permit anti-terrorist agencies to anticipate and prevent attacks; knowledge of the leadership and command networks within these organizations permits anti-terrorist agencies to interfere with the functioning of the organizations and their ability to carry out specific attacks.

But it seems intuitively clear that the most comprehensive response to terrorism is to attend to the "peace and justice" issues that have often created massive anti-western attitudes in the first place. These attitudes in turn create an environment in which extremist organizations are able to recruit many new foot soldiers. Kashmir, Palestine, and Northern Ireland have all, in their time, stimulated waves of terrorist attacks against civilians. Just and fair resolution of the conflicts in those regions would go a long way towards reducing the readiness of individuals to participate in extremist organizations.

So this suggests a multi-stranded strategy against terrorist violence for the United States and European states to pursue: to undertake determined and committed diplomacy aimed at improving the circumstances of peace and justice in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa; to commit significant resources towards economic development strategies that improve conditions for ordinary people throughout the world; to create well-trained and well-managed security agencies that can respond to threats and attacks effectively and with precision; and to design international policies that make it more difficult for extremist organizations to gather the resources and arms they need to pursue their violent goals.

There is a lot of overlap between this set of ideas and Kofi Annan's thinking on the subject. Here is the list of approaches to terrorism that Annan advocated as a principled, comprehensive strategy against terrorism at a global conference in 2005 (speech):
There are five elements, and I shall call them the “five D’s”. They are:
  • first, to dissuade disaffected groups from choosing terrorism as a tactic to achieve their goals;
  • second, to deny terrorists the means to carry out their attacks;
  • third, to deter states from supporting terrorists;
  • fourth, to develop state capacity to prevent terrorism;
  • and fifth, to defend human rights in the struggle against terrorism.
The United Nations has already, for many years, been playing a crucial role in all these areas, and has achieved important successes. But we need to do more, and we must do better.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Comparative life satisfaction

We tend to think of the past century as being a time of great progress when it comes to the quality of life -- for ordinary people as well as the privileged. Advances in science, technology, and medicine have made life more secure, predictable, productive, educated, and healthy. But in what specific ways is ordinary life happier or more satisfying for ordinary people in 2000 compared to their counterparts in 1900 or 1800 -- or 200, for that matter?

There are a couple of things that are pretty obvious. Nutrition is one place to start: the mass population of France, Canada, or the United States is not subject to periodic hunger, malnutrition, or famine. This is painfully not true for many poor parts of the world -- Sudan, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh, for example. But for the countries of the affluent world, the OECD countries, hunger has been largely conquered for most citizens.

Second, major advances in health preservation and the treatment of illness have taken place. We know how to prevent cholera, and we know how to treat staph infections with antibiotics. Terrible diseases such as polio have been eradicated, and we have effective treatments for some kinds of previously incurable cancers. So the basic health status of people in the affluent 21st-century world is substantially better than that of previous centuries -- with obvious consequences for our ability to find satisfaction in life activities.

These advances in food security and public health provision have resulted in a major enhancement to quality of life -- life expectancy in France, Germany, or Costa Rica has increased sharply. And many of the factors underlying much of this improvement is not high-tech, but rather takes the form of things like improvement of urban sanitation and relatively low-cost treatment (antibiotics for children's ear infections, for example).

So living longer and more healthily is certainly an advantage in our quality of life relative to conditions one or two centuries ago.

Improvements in labor productivity in agriculture and manufacturing have resulted in another kind of enhancement of modern quality of life. It is no longer necessary for a large percentage of humanity to perform endless and exhausting labor in order to feed the rest of us. And because of new technologies and high labor productivity, almost everyone has access to goods that extend the enjoyment of life and our creative talents. Personal computing and communications, access to the world's knowledge and culture through the Internet, and ability to travel widely all represent opportunities that even the most privileged could not match one or two centuries ago.

But the question of life satisfaction doesn't reduce to an inventory of the gadgets we can use. Beyond the minimum required for sustaining a healthy human body, the question of satisfaction comes down to the issue of what we do with the tools and resources available to us and the quality of our human relationships. How do we organize our lives in such a way as to succeed in achieving goals that really matter?

Amartya Sen's economic theory of "capabilities and realizations" supports a pretty good answer to these questions about life satisfaction (Development as Freedom). Each person has a bundle of talents and capabilities. These talents can be marshalled into a meaningful life plan. And the satisfying life is one where the person has singled out some important values and goals and has used his/her talents to achieve these goals. (This general idea underlies J. S. Mill's theory of happiness as well in Utilitarianism.)

By this standard, it's not so clear that life in the twenty-first century is inherently more satisfying than that in the eighteenth or the second centuries. When basic needs were satisfied -- nutrition, shelter, health -- the opportunities for realizing one's talents in meaningful effort were no less extensive than they are today. This is true for the creative classes -- obviously. The creative product of Mill's or Hugo's generation was no less substantial or satisfying than our own. But perhaps it is true across the board. The farmer-gardener who shapes his/her land over the course of a lifetime has created something of great personal value and satisfaction. The mason or smith may have taken more pride and satisfaction in his life's work than does the programmer or airline flight attendant. The parent who succeeded in nurturing a family in 1800 County Cork may have found the satisfactions as great or greater than parents in Boston or Seattle today.

So we might say that the only unmistakeable improvement in quality of life in the past century is in the basics -- secure nutrition, decent education, and improved health during the course of a human life. And the challenge of the present is to make something meaningful and sustaining of the resources we are given.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Anxiety and crisis

It is interesting to consider the effect on consciousness of people living through a series of world and national crises. I'm thinking particularly of the ongoing crisis of terrorist attacks against innocent civilians, with the perennial possibility of even more stunning tactics in the future, and of the ongoing financial and economic crisis in the United States and the world. What effect does the experience of living in the midst of such upheavals and threats over an extended period have on people's state of mind?

I imagine there are studies in clinical psychology and public health that address this question in terms of things like the incidence of depression, anxiety, alcohol abuse, and suicide during protracted periods of mass stress -- the Blitz in London, post-9/11 in New York, the Great Depression .... But here I'm more interested in thinking about the subjective side of the question. How do people feel during these extended periods of stress and threat? And this comes down to two different things: mood (how one feels in the moment) and emotional frame (how one is disposed to emotionally interpret the future). Sadness is a mood on this definition and pessimism is an emotional frame.

There seem to be a couple of possibilities in how people respond to a period of extreme stress -- detachment (it's not so bad, this will pass), immersion (watching CNN all day for more bad news), pervading anxiety, cheerful resilience, pessimism, ... All of these are perhaps best understood as coping mechanisms -- the ways that people construct their inner lives so as to make violence and fear endurable. And I suppose there are some deeply engrained differences across personalities and cultures in terms of which emotional frame a person comes to.

It seems intuitively clear that there should be some effect on mood and emotional frame that is created by a persistent environment of anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. But how is it actually working in today's time of crisis? So far the twenty-first century seems to be mostly about frightening uncertainties. How are the people of the twenty-first century absorbing this historical reality? How are Michigan auto workers reacting psychologically to the constant threat of plant closure and job loss? How are students reacting to an economic crisis that raises doubts about their career futures? How are people nearing retirement reacting to the sudden decline on value of their retirement accounts? And how are Mumbaiers experiencing the trauma and continuing threat of violent attack and mass murder?

I suppose the psychological mechanisms may be different depending on the timeframe of the crisis. An acute but time-limited trauma probably has different effects on the psyche than an extended and apparently endless period of risk and uncertainty. The punctuated crisis may affect the emotion but not the frame. Here I'm mostly interested in the second situation -- because almost everyone on the planet is currently in it.

One emotion that seems to be a common response to ongoing instability in the world around us is nostalgia. "Wasn't the world of the fifties a simpler and happier world?" Thoughts about a simpler past may be a refuge for some people from the anxieties of the present. Another response may be a blend of pessimism and resignation.

Perhaps the most common response is a kind of deliberate forgetting -- more of less deliberately averting one's gaze from the source of anxiety. People can focus on the immediate necessities of everyday life and simply tune out the ominous news.

But it seems that there are other emotional responses that are humanly possible as well. A degree of optimism and resilience seems to characterize some people's inner responses to anxiety and hardship in even the worst of circumstances. A recent NPR interview with some Iraqi widows, living in the most extreme and uncertain conditions, illustrates this register of response. These women showed remarkable courage and resilience in face of the terrible circumstances they face daily.

For some reason I think of Kierkegaard’s brief words about Abraham after the trauma of being forced to sacrifice his young son in Fear and Trembling. God relented and Isaac was spared. But Kierkegaard describes Abraham’s mind in words something like this — “But the old man returned home and his vision was darkened forever.” ["From that day on, Abraham became old, he could not forget that God had demanded this of him. Isaac throve as before, but Abraham's eye was darkened, he saw joy no more."]

I suppose part of the appeal of Barack Obama is his message of measured hope. He communicates clearly and strongly -- we can address the problems that confront us. We can make a better world. And to that what better refrain than -- yes we can.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008


A progressive Indian friend from Kolkata shared a particular sorrow about the tragedy of Mumbai last week. It was the death of Hemant Karkare, chief of the Maharashtra Anti-Terrorism Squad, who was shot to death by the terrorists near the Cama Hospital in Mumbai as he and several other policemen attempted to confront them (CNN story). (Here is an Indian blog posting on Karkare's career and death.)

My friend has been an unflagging activist for greater social justice in India throughout his life, and has worked against Hindu extremist violence against Muslims throughout. He regarded Karkare as a rigorously fair police official, and one who took the task of fighting extremist violence in India very seriously -- so seriously, in fact, that his life was at risk at the hands of Hindu extremist organizations whom he had pursued while investigating the Malegaon, Thane, Vashi, and Panvel bombings in the past several years (all attributed to Hindu extremist groups). (Here is a news item on the Malegaon bombing.) So it is deeply and tragically ironic, that he was murdered by Islamic extremists.

There is now serious concern that there may be a resurgence of ethnic violence in India. Largescale incidents of violence against innocent Muslim men and women have occurred all too frequently in the past thirty years, usually instigated by extremist Hindu nationalist groups and leaders. (Here is an interesting lecture by Princeton scholar Atul Kohli on the causes of Hindu-Muslim violence in India.) Recent mass killings occurred in Gujarat in 2002, when Hindu mobs attacked and killed between 1000 and 2000 Muslims. These attacks were in revenge for a horrific act of violence by an extremist Muslim group that attacked and burned a train in Godhra station, resulting in burning to death 50 Hindu travelers. Retaliatory violence against defenseless Muslim residents of Gujarat led to a large number of deaths and a much larger number of displaced persons. And government authorities did virtually nothing to prevent the violence.

The Indian government, and the governments of Indian states with significant Muslim populations, need to be highly vigilant and proactive in ensuring that there is not a shameful recurrence of these pogroms during the coming weeks and months. News reports suggest that Indian public opinion is turning from anger against the government for its faulty response to the attack, to a high level of nationalist rhetoric. Emotions are high throughout India, and now is the time for skillful inter-group peacemaking and effective state maintenance of order.

It is a central obligation of any state to use its power to protect all groups against violence, through pro-active efforts to prevent mob violence and through intelligent police work to suppress extremist groups who plan violence. By all accounts, Hemant Karkare was an effective officer in both efforts, and India needs men and women like him in its continuing efforts to protect its democracy and its people.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Adults in college?

A couple of things seem to be true in states like Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. These states have each lost hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs in the past ten years — the jobs that provided middle-class livings to men and women with high school educations — and there are thousands more job losses to come in the next few months. And these states have unusually low rates of college-educated adults in their populations. Only about 33% of southeast Michigan adults have a four-year degree, compared to higher rates among adults in Connecticut and Oregon. Almost everyone agrees that the new businesses and jobs of the future will require highly educated workers, managers, and designers/engineers, from Tom Friedman to the editorial page of the Detroit Free Press. So what should the rustbelt states be doing to try to remedy their “talent gap”?

One part of the solution is pretty obvious. We need to ratchet up the “culture of education” in the public so families will encourage and support their children in school and in their pursuit of college attendance. There is a cascade of policies that are needed here, from promoting the value of education to parents, to improving attainment in K-12 schools (so that students are prepared for college work) to managing university tuition levels and financial aid and student loan programs to make sure that college is attainable for everyone.

But what about the generation of young people who have already passed the traditional age of attendance and have entered the work world without a college degree? There are over 160,000 people in the Detroit metropolitan region alone between the ages of 25 and 34 who have attended college but have not completed a degree. This is a large population — and their economic futures are dim without further education. If programs could be created that would allow a large percentage of these young people to complete their degrees, their futures would be enhanced, and Detroit would be a more attractive region for new businesses because of the larger talent pool. Surveys indicate that a large percentage of this population wants to complete a college degree. So the challenge to the colleges and universities is straightforward: what can you do to make your programs more accessible and attainable to these young adults? Is it more convenient scheduling? Is it a better mix of traditional and online programs? Is it more generous and more easily understood financial aid programs?

Before any of these changes will occur, universities need to be convinced that young adults are a part of their missions and that they can be successful. Fortunately, there are some good examples of universities that have succeeded in providing access to large numbers of these older students and displaced workers. And their evidence is positive. Faculty attest to the value brought to the classroom by students with a broader range of life experience. And they confirm as well that older students often bring a discipline and determination to their studies that permit them to excel.

What is currently less well understood is the degree of impact that college completion has on the careers of older students. Most studies on the economic impact of college focus on the earning differential of a baccalaureate degree for traditional-age students, and it would be useful to have similar study that provides information about non-traditional students. Likewise, it would be interesting to see a study of typical career trajectories for these non-traditional students.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The multicultural university

It is now pretty universally recognized that universities need to be "multicultural", in several separate senses. They need to be open and welcoming to students coming from many different cultures. They need to create an academic and social environment where students from many cultures can learn together in a harmonious way. And they need to find ways of incorporating the knowledge and perspectives of many cultures into their courses of study and academic programs.

Why are each of these components necessary? One could imagine a university that invited attendance by all students but then worked to extinguish the cultural differences that exist among admitted students. Or we could imagine a university with diverse groups of admitted students that also attempted to create a multicultural social environment -- but that insisted nonetheless on a curriculum based on a narrow, "non-cultural", "neutral" set of topics and pedagogies. So why is it important to incorporate multicultural diversity into all three aspects of the university environment -- recruitment, climate, and curriculum?

There are multiple overlapping reasons for deep multiculturalism in universities that ultimately derive from the changing nature of our society and the fundamental mission of facilitating students' learning.

First, our society. American society may be a relatively extreme case by international comparison, but it is a fact that American culture and society encompasses a remarkable degree of diversity -- in race, age, gender, nationality, and religion, to name several important dimensions of difference. And our commitment to the principles of fundamental human equality and the necessity of equality of treatment establish the moral necessity of making the opportunities of university attendance available to everyone across all of these lines of difference. This is one of the basic justifications that have been offered in support of affirmative action.

The importance of creating a multicultural university environment follows from two things: the necessity of treating cultural differences with respect, and the recognition that all students can learn important things when they are induced to interact with people with very different values and beliefs. Moreover, there is the practical point that virtually everyone in our society will be called upon to work with people from different religious and cultural backgrounds -- and to do this successfully requires the acquiring of a large set of intercultural skills and competencies. (This is one of the reasons that corporations like GM intervened on behalf of the University of Michigan's defense of affirmative action.)

Finally, the need for creating a multicultural curriculum derives from the learning mission of the university. More diverse learning is better learning; it gives students a broader set of perspectives through which to frame the problems we confront, it nurtures the concrete skills needed in order to have productive collaborations with a diverse group of potential partners, and it provides a crucial antidote to the parochialism that goes along with a curriculum designed entirely out of a single cultural tradition. Monoculturalism is as stultifying in problem-solving as monocropping is harmful to agriculture.

In fact, it seems that universities may represent the best opportunity we have as a society to work through the challenge of creating a genuinely multiple-racial, multi-religious, and multi-ethnic society. We can experiment with different approaches to the fundamental values of pluralism and respect that the twenty-first century will demand. From this point of view, the truly successful multicultural university will point the way to a more fully democratic society in the future.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Social justice?

A major complaint that many people have had concerning the past eight years of the Bush administration is that it has had no interest in addressing issues of social justice in the United States. What are these issues? And what steps would a genuinely responsible government take to address them?

Here are a few core social justice issues that have become increasingly visible in the past eight years. Can we hope they will do better under the Obama administration?

  • Income inequality that has risen steeply since 1980
  • Disregard of the most basic human needs of poor people -- e.g. the indifferent Katrina relief response
  • Serious race gaps in quality of life and economic opportunity that have held steady or worsened
  • A worsening healthcare crisis affecting 47 million uninsured people
  • A financial and economic meltdown that differentially hurts low and middle income people
  • Poor quality schools in high poverty areas
  • Deteriorating conditions in many American cities
  • Homelessness and hunger rising
  • Environmental harms that are disproportionately found in urban poor populations
  • Tax reforms that greatly privilege the most affluent
  • Mistreatment of immigrant communities
What these issues have in common is the fact of inequality across large social groups, and a profound lack of a fair level of priority offered by government to address the issue. The inequality part of the picture has to do with gross inequalities in resources, opportunities, dignity, and outcomes for different groups. And the priority issue has to do with "voice" -- the degree to which claims by disadvantaged groups are taken seriously by policy makers. The rich and powerful have not had difficulty in gaining the ear of the Bush administration. But poor and middle-class people have knocked in vain.

Most generally, what might an Obama administration do to improve the situation of social justice in the United States? A first step -- and it is an important one -- is to give the signal to all parts of government that social justice is an important priority for this administration. This priority needs to affirm the centrality of equality, fairness, and a concern for improving the condition of the least-well-off in society. It is understood that every problem cannot be addressed at the same time, and that there are other important priorities as well. But social justice is generally compatible with other priorities, and it will be an important step forward to simply know that the government is concerned with these issues.

A related step that will further the cause of social justice will be to give voice to the disadvantaged within the process of policy formation. If poverty alleviation is to be back on the agenda, then make sure that the voices of poor people are heard as policies are formulated and discussed. And make sure that leaders are selected who have a genuine and innovative commitment to change. (A conference on poverty being sponsored in Michigan by the Department of Human Services (link) is a good example of a process that involves the voices of affected people in a meaningful way. One can hope that committed experts such as Rebecca Blank or Douglas Massey will be involved in the policy leadership group of the next administration.)

Beyond these general steps -- laying the groundwork for meaningful social justice reform -- one would hope the administration will take on a few key issues to be addressed first. And perhaps these should be --
  • Healthcare reform to assure that all Americans have access to adequate healthcare through insurance and government programs
  • a focused urban strategy for addressing the issues of poverty and limited opportunities in our nation's cities
  • implementation of a tax system that removes provisions favoring the most affluent individuals and corporations
This isn't the whole of a social justice agenda, but it would be a very good start. And progress on these issues would also result in progress on other issues as well, including the gaps in opportunity and quality of life experienced by disadvantaged groups today.

It seems almost self evident that a more just society is a stronger and more unified society. So a government that consistently works towards improving social justice will build a much stronger foundation for America's future in the coming half century.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Tom Joad

John Ford's powerful film Grapes of Wrath (1940) comes to mind in these days of financial crisis that many people want to compare to the Great Depression. Both the film and the Steinbeck novel have the virtue of "speaking truth to power" -- describing in a crystal-clear way how the decisions of the powerful have battered the suffering poor. The themes of foreclosure, loss of home and land, and protracted unemployment and dirth are very evocative of conditions in 1935 -- and they have a lot of resonance in many parts of the country today.

But in addition to the honesty of the portrayal of the human suffering associated with the Great Depression, the novel and film are also very clear in their reference to the potential power of poor people coming together in organizations to defend themselves against the forces that are crushing them. It's not a revolutionary film, but it is forthright in depicting the possibility of resistance. And resistance needs to take the form of collective action rather than individual action -- witness the powerful scene when the bulldozer shows up to level the Joad family's farmhouse and push them off the land. Resistance is threatened; it is recognized to be futile; and the bulldozer passes right through the wooden farmhouse, leaving only splintered boards and crushed pieces of furniture in its wake.

Some of the most powerful documents of the social reality of the Great Depression can be found in the black and white photography commissioned by the Farm Security Administration (FSA). The Library of Congress has a breathtaking archive of hundreds of thousands of photos taken by photographers such as Dorothea Lange, Ben Shahn, and Walker Evans. There are almost 4,000 images from Dorothea Lange herself -- including her iconic "Mother of Seven Children" that is probably the most recognizable image of the whole period. The collection is called "Documenting America," and it should be required reading for understanding America's twentieth-century history.

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b31759

credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA-OWI Collection, fsa 8b29516

With millions of people on the road looking for work during the 1930s, hobos and hobo encampments were familiar sights. Here are two versions of the Hobo's Lullaby, by Arlo Guthrie and Emmylou Harris. (Try viewing the images in the first video along with the soundtrack of the second video -- Emmylou's version of the song is stronger, and the images included in the first video are spectacular.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Playing for Change

Bill Moyers has a great interview with Mark Johnson, creator of the music project called "Playing for Change." Johnson has spent ten years gathering the voices of musicians around the world into a beautifully produced music video representing hope and the power of human community. These are ordinary people in very poor communities, creating music that captures the heart and the conscience. In the video you see people in some of the poorest parts of the world coming together with voices that express dignity and struggle. Johnson is very compelling in his explanation to Moyers about why this project is important to him -- it will be important to everyone who views it.

Bill Moyers has a remarkable ability to see the things that are easily overlooked in our world -- the struggles and courage of ordinary people in this country and around the world, and to draw us into their world of experience. This program on Playing for Change will be very powerful for everyone who views it. It's a particularly "Obama" moment -- a hopeful glimpse into the reality of human problems and the ability of people of concern to help to find solutions that improve people's lives.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Malaysia's ethnic authoritarianism

Malaysia's constitution and legal system give full preference to members of the Malay majority. Article 153 of the current Malaysian constitution reads:

  1. It shall be the responsibility of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and the legitimate interests of other communities in accordance with the provisions of this Article.
  2. Notwithstanding anything in this Constitution, but subject to the provisions of Article 40 and of this Article, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong shall exercise his functions under this Constitution and federal law in such manner as may be necessary to safeguard the special provision of the Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak and to ensure the reservation for Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of such proportion as he may deem reasonable of positions in the public service (other than the public service of a State) and of scholarships, exhibitions and other similar educational or training privileges or special facilities given or accorded by the Federal Government and, when any permit or licence for the operation of any trade or business is required by federal law, then, subject to the provisions of that law and this Article, of such permits and licences.
  3. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong may, in order to ensure in accordance with Clause (2) the reservation to Malays and natives of any of the States of Sabah and Sarawak of positions in the public service and of scholarships, exhibitions and other educational or training privileges or special facilities, give such general directions as may be required for that purpose to any Commission to which Part X applies or to any authority charged with responsibility for the grant of such scholarships, exhibitions or other educational or training privileges or special facilities; and the Commission or authority shall duly comply with the directions.
This means that the Malay majority (about 55% of the population) has distinctive legal status and preferential economic status -- to the disadvantage of the Chinese, Indian, Christian, and "other" populations. And the non-Malay sub-populations are characterized as "immigrant" groups with home countries elsewhere -- even though they may have been resident in Malaysian territory for three generations or more. The Federal legislature is strongly dominated by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the lead Malay party and dominant voice within the governing Barisan Nasional coalition.

There appears to be rising minority group discontent with the Malay-first nature of the constitution and the government. Street demonstrations by Indian Malaysians in 2007 brought this discontent into clear public view, and the demonstrations were suppressed with the use of force -- tear gas, truncheons, and water hoses.

What seems most disheartening about Malaysia's history since independence and its current political scene, is the fact that there is no public commitment to the principles of equal citizenship and equal rights for all Malaysians. The American Civil Rights movement had at least a broad moral consensus to which it could appeal -- the foundational idea of the inherent equality of rights for all citizens -- and then could consistently take effective political and collective actions aimed at broadening the effective scope of these rights for African-Americans. The Malay majority and its party, the UMNO, are determined to preserve the privileged status of the Malay population; so it is difficult to see how gradual processes of adjustment and rights-claiming within civil society can lead to a society based on civic equality.

Here is a link to an independent Malaysian news source that many Malaysians have confidence in.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Spreading the wealth around?

So Joe the Plumber thinks Obama may be a socialist, and that he wants to spread the wealth around. And this all seems to come from Obama's proposed tax policies -- higher taxes for individuals and businesses with income more than $250,000 and lower taxes for everyone else. So why does that count as "spreading the wealth around", and why exactly should the 95% think it's a bad idea?

To the first point, this sounds like a different kind of redistribution than Joe is calling it -- not a redistribution of income or wealth, but a redistribution of tax burdens towards the wealthiest citizens. And what is the moral justification for such a shift? Surely it's based on the principle of placing the tax burdens our society creates disproportionally on those individuals with the greatest ability to pay and who derive the greatest benefits from our society. And there's a moral justification for this principle: higher income individuals are gaining more from the extended system of social cooperation our economy consists of, and it's only fair that they should pay more of the total costs created by that social cooperation. Someone has to pay these costs -- so the fundamental issue is simply how they should be divided. And the principle of "higher rates for higher gains" has a lot going for it.

But is it socialism? Certainly not, except in the over-the-top sense in which downstate Illinois Republicans denounced FDR for being a socialist in the 1930s. There's no collective ownership (except of banks, thanks to a $700 billion bailout). There's not even much of a social safety net -- especially when it comes to healthcare or extended unemployment benefits. And workers and other citizens have only the most limited role imaginable in making decisions about the management of the private companies they work for. So it's not socialism in any meaningful sense.

But the bigger question is this: why would any middle- or low-income American object to the principle that the most affluent should assume slightly more of the burden? Is it that they imagine (fictionally) that this is where they will wind up eventually, and they won't want the bigger tax burden when they get there? Do they give credence to the trickle-down theory that got this whole slide towards greater income inequality going in the first place in 1980? Plainly most people are deeply offended by the excesses of executive compensation that are now so visible; is that an impulse towards socialism? Or is it simply that they're alienated by the label that is being thrown at this fairly ordinary tax proposal -- which certainly gives a lot of credence to the irrational power of negative image marketing?

But there is another possibility that maybe the current spin meisters haven't thought through well enough: that the obfuscations aren't going to work any longer; that the majority of Americans will recognize that they have a basic interest in a society that assures a decent social minimum; that paying taxes is an important act of citizenship -- and therefore "patriotic"; and that the costs of sustaining social cooperation ought to be tilted moderately in favor of the non-wealthy in our society. Maybe they will begin to demand more of their government, in the form of a meaningful social safety net and assured healthcare. And maybe the old saws about having to fear "socialism" are nothing but a tired marketing campaign that just won't work anymore.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Improving urban high schools

Almost everyone interested in improving social justice and opportunity in America's cities agrees that schooling is crucial. Urban high schools have high dropout rates and low levels of academic achievement, and the likelihood of an urban student's continuing to college is much lower than his or her suburban counterpart. Is it possible for cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Los Angeles to take steps that successfully change these outcomes on a measurable scale? Or are these results determined by the larger context of urban poverty and culture within which these schools exist? Can local institutional change in the schools and their administrative settings sucessfully improve outcomes, or are the social factors of poverty and race overwhelming?

One thing we know to be true is this: there are high-performing high-poverty schools in virtually every urban community. Consider for example the University Preparatory Academy in Detroit. The school opened only a few years ago as a result of major gifts by a Michigan donor. It draws from a cross section of Detroit children. And it has achieved graduation rates and college attendance rates that exceed 90%. This shows that it can be done.

Further, there appear to be some characteristics that these schools often have in common: they tend to be smaller than traditional high schools (around 500 students); they manage to achieve a fair amount of adult presence for each student; they have high academic expectations; they often involve a system of teacher assignment that involves mutual choice; they often have counselors who stay with the student at every grade; and they involve a fair amount of autonomy for the principal.

So what are the obstacles? Why isn't every urban school system working as hard and as fast as it can manage to create these new school environments and institutions?

The plain truth is that there is a great deal of unavoidable inertia in a large urban school system. Take the buildings and physical plant themselves: school buildings are often in a bad state of repair; but more importantly, they've been build according to a very different model of high school education. They are substantially larger than the size now recommended, and there is a very substantial capital cost associated with retrofitting or replacing them. Second is the existing core of teachers and principals. There is a "culture" associated with a school system -- a set of attitudes about what is involved in teaching, what the expectations are for students, teachers, and administrators, and what the level of trust is between the various parties. Changing culture is difficult for any institution, and this has proven to be true for school systems no less than other major organizations. Third is the set of bureaucratic and management practices that are built into most large urban school systems. Innovation is difficult to introduce at the school level because of the need for approval extending all the way up to the superintendant's office. Fourth, in many communities the work rules and personnel processes that are embodied in union contracts have proven to be an obstacle to fundamental reform of the public schools. For example, the model of mutual choice in which teachers and principals must agree about the placement of a teacher in a classroom runs into the seniority procedures that most contracts stipulate. And, finally, there is the question of money. Many city school systems have suffered enrollment decline, leading to a continually shrinking financial base when public funds are tied to headcount. So public school systems in large cities are often in a perpetual financial crisis, without the ability to undertake the costs that a substantial reorganization of high schools would require.

So the obstacles to innovative reform of high schools are high, even when there is a relatively promising suite of changes that could make a difference. How can an urban community break through this quagmire? Several strategies have been used: experimental or pilot schools within the existing structure; the creation of new publicly financed charter schools that are independent from the strictures of the existing school bureaucracy; and charter schools that are created through private-public partnerships between foundations and philanthropists, on the one hand, and public educational authorities, on the other.

A particularly important philanthropic player in this arena is the Gates Foundation, which has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort to improve schooling in poor neighborhoods. Similarly, foundations such as the Skillman Foundation and the Spencer Foundation have placed high priority on finding ways of having measurable impact on improving public schools, often with a tight neighborhood focus. And, finally, there is the mechanism of community "brokers" such as the United Way, that have come forward to help to bring schools, donors, and other interested parties together to help to create the schools that will really work for the students that they serve.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Low income, strong community

We seem to work on the basis of a couple of basic assumptions about income, lifestyle, and community in this country that need to be questioned. One group of these clusters around the idea that a high quality of life requires high and rising income. High income is needed for high consumption, and high consumption produces happiness and life satisfaction. Neighborhoods of families with high income are better able to sustain community and civic values. And symmetrically, we assume that it is more or less inevitable that poor communities have low levels of community values and low levels of the experience of life satisfaction.

All these assumptions need to be questioned. As any social service agency can document, there are ample signs of social pathology in the affluent suburbs of American cities. These suburban places aren't paragons of successful, happy human communities in any of the ways Robert Bellah talks about (Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, Good Society). And there is little reason to believe that the consumption-based lifestyles that define an American ideal of affluence really contribute consistently to life satisfaction and successful community.

But here I want to focus on the other end of this set of assumptions: the idea that non-affluent people and communities are necessarily less happy, less satisfied, and less integrated around a set of civic and spiritual values. So here is the central point: people can build lives within the context of low income that are deeply satisfying and rewarding. And communities of low-income people can be highly successful in achieving a substantial degree of civic and spiritual interconnection and mutual support. It doesn't require "affluence" to have a deeply satisfying human life and a thriving community.

There are many reasons for thinking these observations are likely to be true. One is the example of other societies. Consider village life in Spain or Italy, for example, where many families still live on incomes that are a fraction of American affluence, who incorporate gardens into their regular lifestyle and household economy, and who enjoy admirable levels of personal and social satisfaction. Or think of stable farming communities in India or Africa that have successfully achieved a balance of farm productivity, a degree of social equality, and a strong sense of community. Or consider examples of communities in the United States that have deliberately put together lives and communities that reject "affluence" as a social and personal ideal.

Of course it's true that extreme poverty is pretty much incompatible with satisfaction and community. Malnutrition, illiteracy, and untreated disease are counterparts of extrme poverty and destroy happiness and community. But "non-affluence" isn't the same as extreme poverty.

What everyone needs, at every level of income, is decent access to the components of a happy life: healthcare, nutrition, shelter, education, dignity, and security. These are what an earlier generation of development thinkers called basic needs. And it is self-evident how these fit into the possibility of a decent and satisfying life. But access to these goods isn't equivalent to the American dream of affluence.

So here is a fairly profound question: what steps can be taken to promote the features of personal wellbeing and robust community relations that can make "non-affluence" a sustainable social ideal? And how can we help poor communities to strengthen their ability to nurture these positive values according to their own best instincts?

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Demogoguery and the politics of cultural despair

The language that the McCain-Palin pair are using in their attempts to whip up end-game support for their party is genuinely abhorrent and even down-right scary. It's based on vilification of their rival, character assassination, and endless repetition of false or misleading allegations. But even worse, it's pretty clearly founded on an attempt to whip up the potent emotions of hatred and anger in their followers -- portraying Obama as "other", disloyal, and unworthy. (See this story in the Washington Post on the politics of anger that the campaign is relying on, and here's a report from the New York Times on one of Palin's rallies in Forida.) And it's not too hard to see an appeal to an underlying racism in these efforts -- for example, in the reactions of crowds in Clearwater and Fort Myers, Florida, to inflamed remarks by Sarah Palin.

This is genuinely disreputable and fundamentally anti-democratic. In my opinion, anyway, a democracy depends upon a genuine commitment to the bounds of civility in political rhetoric; and this campaign by Palin and McCain has broken those bounds fundamentally. Where is the McCain who has so often claimed to be "above" these sorts of scurrilous attacks on an opponent? Why does McCain tolerate this dangerous and anti-democratic language? Presumably, because winning an election at whatever cost is more important than any sense of moral outrage or limit.

So why is this turn in the campaign -- this self-avowed plan to "take the gloves off" -- why is this desperate attempt to whip up "core" support through appeal to the basest of political emotions "scary"? Because it sounds an awful lot like the prelude to some pretty terrible and violent episodes in world history. We've heard this kind of language and strategy before -- in Germany, in Italy, in Serbia, and in Kenya. Playing to the base emotions of hatred and racial mistrust has been the strategy of opportunistic politicians in many countries, including Rwanda. It often works to some degree -- it is possible to mobilize an intense following using this kind of appeal. And it is truly despicable within a democracy.

Enough, Mr. McCain! None of us in America wants this kind of hatred and divisiveness in our politics. Let's debate the issues -- and not base your campaign on demeaning, disrespectful, and hateful slurs against your opponent.

(The caption here refers to a classic book by Fritz Stern on the rise of German fascism, The Politics of Cultural Despair: A Study in the Rise of the Germanic Ideology.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Web resources on famine

One difference between today and 1943 (the Great Bengal famine) or 1973 (the Ethiopian famine) is the availability of real-time information about conditions in famine areas. Citizens throughout the world have an unprecedented ability to be informed about the depth of crisis and human suffering that are associated with hunger.

Here are a few data sources that provide fairly detailed current information about malnutrition and starvation in the world.

ReliefWeb (maintained by United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs)

UNEP GRIDA (maintained by the United Nations Environment Programme)

Food Security Cambodia (Cambodia Food Security and Nutrition website)

(Famine in Niger)

Surely, of all the problems the world faces, widespread hunger and famine are among the worst. We need to put an end to hunger.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Corruption in interior

What is the institutional culture that permits the senior management of a federal agency to engage in an extended practice of conflict of interest, exchange of gifts, drugs, and sex, and corrupt collusion with energy companies leading to the loss of millions of dollars of revenue for the Federal budget? These allegations are contained in a series of reports issued today by the inspector general of the Department of Interior, concerning the practices of the Minerals Management Service, the division of the Department of Interior responsible for collecting billions of dollars in royalties from energy companies (New York Times article, Washington Post article).

What these investigative findings look like from the outside is fairly simple: officials who are in positions to convey favorable treatment to major businesses, who profit from this position in the most venal way imaginable. It looks quite a bit like a very ordinary kind of big-city corruption -- except that it is occurring within a major Federal agency, under the supervision of the President of the United States.

So it's a tough question: what explains this behavior? Is it greed? Is it contempt for the fiduciary obligations that officials in these roles have to the public? Is it a deep blindness to the meaning of the conduct?

And what explains the blindness of higher-level supervisors to these apparently widespread practices? Where is the accountability that our system of civil administration must depend upon? Where was the Secretary of the Interior during this period of abuse? Where were the effective management structures that could give managers at each level the confidence he/she needed that behavior within his/her scope was honest and mission-driven?

And while we're asking tough questions, let's ask another: why is it that the Department of Justice has decided not to pursue charges against the most senior officials engaged in these practices? Are these officials above the law? Are the standards governing official misconduct more exacting in Detroit than in Washington? Does the Department of Justice intend to give the impression that the improper exercise of the powers of office is excusable, if the party affiliation of the officials in question is aligned with the executive branch?

How much self-dealing and hoodwinking of the public will American voters tolerate before they insist on a change of party and executive behavior?

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Sustainability and biofuel farming

James Gustave Speth has written a really important book on sustainability within a modern society. The book is called The Bridge at the Edge of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing from Crisis to Sustainability, and it's an important contribution. One of the most fundamental conclusions that Speth arrives at is the idea that sustainability will require a truly profound transformation of how we think about a "good life," and a rethinking of the kinds of material circumstances we might aspire to in order to create a world system that is genuinely sustainable.

One way we might try to pursue this line of thought is to consider whether gardens and local biofuel production might provide a basis for more sustainable human activity. Could we use more of our own time and labor to create some of the material necessities of our lives, and do so in a way that imposes a smaller footprint on the world's energy and resource system?

David Blume was a guest on NPR's Science Friday on August 15. Blume is the author of Alcohol Can Be a Gas!: Fueling an Ethanol Revolution for the 21st Century. Blume is an advocate for the idea that alcohol can be a large and ecologically positive component of our modern energy economy (website). And he believes that it is possible to imagine a more decentralized energy economy for the United States in which local producers and distillers satisfy a large percentage of the energy needs of a region.

Blume made an observation that I found intriguing: that the common wetland plant, the cattail, can be a fuel source for producing ethanol. (Here's a news story on Blume's comments about cattails on an earlier occasion.) Corn produces about 250-300 gallons of ethanol per acre, and it is estimated that cattails would produce something less than this. (Blume himself estimates that the yield of cattail ethanol production would be "many, many times" that of corn, and says that 7,000 gallons per acre is feasible. This seems unsupportable, given the potential yield of other biofuel crops.) But cattails also have ecological advantages: they soak up excess nutrients (e.g. agricultural fertilizer runoff or sewage waste plant effluent), and they require little cultivation. Here are a few news stories (story, story) with some interesting background.

So here's the question: what would be involved in creating a community that is energy self-sufficient based on ethanol production? Could households grow their own fuels? What would the economics of a cooperative community-based distillery look like? How much land, labor, and money would be required for the household?

It should be noted that there is serious disagreement about the most basic features of the commercial ethanol economy: does ethanol production lead to a net gain in energy, or do the inputs into the cultivation and distilling processes exceed the energy content of the resulting volume of alcohol? Here's a discussion at FuturePundit and a summary of the findings of a national expert, David Pimental from Cornell University. Here are the central conclusions of a recent study by Pimentel and Tad Patzek at UC-Berkeley:

Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California- Berkeley study. "There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "These strategies are not sustainable."
But still, let's think it through a bit. The scenario I'm imagining is labor-intensive and local, so the costs of energy associated with mechanization and transportation are reduced or eliminated. Could we imagine a local energy economy based on crops and distillation that could be fitted into an otherwise acceptable lifestyle? (The analysis will begin to sound like Piero Sraffa's exercise, Production of Commodities By Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory.)

A family's energy budget might look something like this, estimated in gallons of ethanol:
  • transportation 800 gallons (10,000 miles)
  • cooking 300 gallons (365 days)
  • heating 1000 gallons (180 heating days)
  • illumination 100 gallons (365 days)
  • refrigeration 200 gallons
This adds up to 2,400 gallons of ethanol required for a year's energy use. But we aren't finished yet, because cultivation and distillation also have an energy cost, and this cost is a function of the volume of alcohol required. Let's take a more optimistic estimate than that provided by Pimental above, and assume that the energy cost of distillation is 30%. (We're working with a coop, after all!) To produce a gallon of ethanol we have to expend .3 gallons in the distillation process. And let's assume that cultivation is done by hand without mechanization, but that the crop needs to be transported to the distillation facility at a 10% cost. (That is, I assume that the net transportation cost of transporting the thousands of pounds of feed crop to the processor is 10% of the net alcohol product of the crop.) These estimates imply that the household requires 4,000 gallons of alcohol.

Now assume that the alcohol yield of an acre of cattails is 250 gallons; this implies a fuel farm size of 16 acres. (It would be nice to extend the exercise to include a food garden as well; this is left for the reader! Here's an interesting United Nations article from the 1980s on the economics of family gardening that can help get the analysis started.)

Now how many hours of labor time need to be devoted to cultivating and harvesting this crop? Evidently cattails don't require much by way of fertilizers, irrigation, and pest control. But I'm sure there is some level of maintenance needed, and 16 acres is a large area. In fact, it represents a rectangular plot that is 200 feet by 3,500 feet -- more than half a mile long. So let's assume that basic maintenance of the cattail crop requires 2 hours a day of adult labor. The large investment of labor, however, occurs at the harvest. About 14,000 pounds of cattails will be harvested per acre, or 224,000 pounds for the farm over the course of the harvest. If we assume that an adult can harvest 200 pounds per hour, this represents 1,120 hours of harvest work. Let's assume that harvesting can be spread out over a couple of four-week periods or 56 days; this implies 20 hours of adult labor per day during the harvest season. So it would take 10 hours a day, 7 days a week during the eight weeks of harvest season for two adults to harvest this volume of cattails. Two months of very hard work devoted to harvesting will eventually produce enough ethanol to support the household's chief energy needs.

Now what about the economics of the cooperative's distillery? If we assume a cooperative involving 100 households of the scale just discussed, the distillery needs to process 22,400,000 pounds of material in order to produce 400,000 gallons of ethanol. The households will be farming an area of 1,600 acres of cattails -- about three square miles. And the system will be supporting the energy needs of about 500 people. If we keep our assumption of a 30% ratio of input-to-output, this process will consume 120,000 gallons of ethanol. The coop members will need to fund the purchase and maintenance of the still and the labor costs associated with operation of the still. Perhaps it's a labor coop too? In this case, each household will need to devote several hours a week to work in the distillery. And we might imagine that the coop would require a "tax" of some small percentage of the alcohol produced to cover maintenance and operating expenses. Here's a research article from AGRIS that examines the costs of a small distillery of roughly this size. The conclusion is somewhat discouraging: "The analysis indicates that the distillery would not be profitable at current prices for corn and ethanol." In other words, the cost of inputs and operation of the distillery exceed the value of the alcohol produced, according to this analysis. But this conclusion isn't quite relevant to our scenario, because the raw materials are not purchased through the market and the product is not sold on the market. Nonetheless, the finding implies that there's a shortfall somewhere; and it may well be that it is the unpaid labor of the fuel farmers that is where the shortfall occurs.

So here's the upshot of this back-of-the-envelope calculation: it would be a major commitment of land and labor for a household or a village community to achieve energy self-sufficiency through cooperative-based ethanol distillation. And I've made an assumption I can't justify: that the energy input to the distillation process is 30% of the energy content of the resulting quantity of ethanol. If that ratio is 60% instead of 30%, then the land and labor requirements for each household are greatly increased; and if the ratio approaches or exceeds 100%, then the whole idea falls apart. But even on these assumptions, the life style associated with this model sounds a lot closer to that of a peasant village in medieval France or traditional China than to that of a modern US citizen. It involves hard physical labor during several months of the year and a moderate level of labor effort during the remainder of the year. And if we imagine that the scenario is extended by incorporating a substantial amount of food gardening for family consumption, then the balance of necessary labor to free labor tips even further in the direction of the peasant economy.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Causes of the food crisis

Today's New York Times has a good story on some of the background of the current food crisis (story). The basic point is fundamental: donor nations and international development institutions have substantially disinvested in the great agricultural research institutes that were founded in the sixties and seventies to provide a scientific basis for increasing food security. The story highlights the significant decline of institutions like the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines -- with disastrous consequences for the continual challenge of increasing agricultural productivity and -- usually -- rural incomes. (Click on the graphic to see a great set of graphs documenting investment, productivity, and rice stockpiles.)

There is a direct relationship between investment, scientific activity, and improvement in agricultural techniques, seed varieties, and new forms of pest control. If the world makes those investments, we have a good reason for confidence in the ability of the planet to keep food supply ahead of food demand. But if funding agencies and international institutions falter in their attention to the continuing struggle for agricultural progress -- as they most certainly seem to have done -- then food security will indeed be a center-stage issue for the coming decades.

Many commentators have also emphasized another crucial point: that hunger and poverty are directly connected. We've seen the impact that rising rice prices have on poor people in dozens of countries in the developing world -- essentially pushing poor people into ultra-poor crisis. But there is also a virtuous circle that economic development policy makers need to be striving for: increasing the incomes of the poor, leading to greater purchasing power, leading to rising demand for locally and nationally produced food, leading to increased incomes for rural poor people. Seen from this perspective, agricultural development has to be a top priority within economic development policy thinking.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

The struggle for racial justice

The struggle for racial justice in America was in its sharpest form in the 1960s, from the Freedom Marches in the South in the early sixties to the militant and determined struggles in the North in the later sixties. Organizers, militants, activists, leaders, and volunteers gave their best energies, brains, and courage to this extended effort to change American society. And when you think about it, this decentralized movement was remarkably successful in terms of its reach, the ability of various civil rights and activist organizations to motivate followers, and some of the concrete structural changes that were achieved. (It goes without saying that we have a very long way to go in pursuit of racial justice today, in 2008.)

One way of getting a better understanding of the Civil Rights movement is to read some of the very good historical and sociological scholarship that has been done on the period -- for example, Taylor Branch's Parting the Waters : America in the King Years 1954-63 or Doug McAdam's Freedom Summer. But another way is to talk with people who lived through the struggle -- people who went "went South", people who worked as organizers and activists in Chicago or Detroit, people who got involved in some of the militant organizations such as the Black Panthers. And often what you gain from conversations like this is somewhat different from what comes across in the organized historical scholarship. It's more intense, for one thing -- just as it must have been in the 1960s to talk with veterans of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade about their experiences in the Spanish Civil War. But it also gives you the participant's perspective on things rather than the historian's view. And it focuses often on the process of mobilization and consciousness-raising, rather than the eventual outcome.

I've done two recent interviews with scholars whose own experiences of the Civil Rights movement are genuinely absorbing. One is Ahmad Rahman, a history professor at the University of Michigan-Dearborn and the author of The Regime Change of Kwame Nkrumah: Epic Heroism in Africa and the Diaspora. Rahman is an accomplished historian and a rising authority in African and African-American history. He was also an activist and member of the Black Panther Party in Detroit in the 1960s. The second interview is with Dr. Gloria House, a professor of humanities and African and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. House is a well-respected poet and author, and has played an important role in the continuing prominence of Broadside Press. She edited a great volume celebrating the press; A Different Image: The Legacy of Broadside Press: An Anthology. Her own experience of the Civil Rights movement began at UC-Berkeley, followed by time in Alabama and Detroit. Her experiences with SNCC and the struggles in the South are very intense, and she finds the voice to express what she experienced powerfully. She has spent decades as a scholar-activist in Detroit.

Both interviews are absorbing and eye-opening. One point that comes out of both Rahman's and House's recollections is the importance of the struggles for African national liberation in the development of consciousness within the African-American movements -- and the "echo" of American developments in African liberation thinking. There is a very clear demonstration of the political-intellectual work that went into framing an understanding of American society and liberation that was suited to the African-American experience. But there are dozens of other important insights -- the ways in which the struggle for Black Consciousness developed, the importance of youth engagement in the struggle, and the power of poetry during those decades. Rahman brings some of the issues forward to the present day, by comparing the struggles of French immigrant people against police brutality with the struggles of the African-American community in the earlier decades. And House shares some of her thinking about where the quest for racial justice may be going today -- emphasizing community-based activism. She also shares several of her poems about the early days of the struggle at the end of the interview.

It is a constant struggle for all of us to go beyond clich├ęs and cartoons in our understanding of our society and our history. And a very powerful way of doing that is to listen to the voices of people whose experiences are so directly connected to the major fault lines and turning points in our history.

The video interviews with Rahman and House are posted on YouTube, and audio versions are posted as well; Rahman, House part 1, House part 2. The audio interviews are also included in the UnderstandingSociety podcast, available through iTunes.

Visit also this relevant posting on Jim Johnson's blog, with information about the recent publication of Breach of Peace: Portraits of the 1961 Mississippi Freedom Riders.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Higher education and social mobility

There is an appalling level of inequality in American society; and even more troubling, the multiple dimensions of inequality seem to reinforce each other, with the result that disadvantaged groups remain disadvantaged across multiple generations. We can ask two different kinds of sociological questions about these facts: What factors cause the reproduction of disadvantage over multiple generations? And what policy interventions have some effect on enhancing upward social mobility within disadvantaged groups? How can we change this cycle of disadvantage?

Several earlier postings have addressed some aspects of the causal question (post, post). Here I'd like to consider the policy question -- and the question of how we can use empirical evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of large policy initiatives on social outcomes such as mobility.

One social policy in particular seems to have a lot of antecedent plausibility: a policy aimed at increasing the accessibility of higher education to the disadvantaged group. The theory is that individuals within the group will benefit from higher education by enhancing their skills and knowledge; this will give them new economic opportunities and access to higher-wage jobs; the individuals will do better economically, and their children will begin life with more economic support and a set of values that encourage education. So access to higher education ought to prove to be a virtuous circle or a positive feedback loop, leading to substantial social mobility in currently disadvantaged groups.

It is a plausible theory; but are there empirical methods through which we can evaluate whether it actually works this way?

Paul Attewell and David Lavin undertake to do exactly that in Passing the Torch: Does Higher Education for the Disadvantaged Pay Off Across the Generations?, published in 2007. Their research consists of a survey study of a cohort of poor women who were admitted to the City University of New York between 1970 and 1972 under an open-admissions policy. Thirty years later Attewell and Lavin surveyed a sample of the women in this group (about 2,000 women), gathering data about their eventual educational attainment, their income, and the educational successes of their children. Analysis of their data permitted them to demonstrate that attenders were likely to enjoy higher income than non-attenders and to have children who valued education at levels that were higher than the children of non-attenders.

The benefits of higher education in increasing personal income were significant; they find that in the population surveyed in 2000, the high school graduate earned $30,000, women with some college earned $35,000, women with the associate's degree earned $40,783, women with the bachelor's degree earned $42,063, and women with a postgraduate degree earned $54,545. In other words, there was a fairly regular progression in income associated with each further step in the higher education credential achieved. And they found -- contrary to conservative critics of open-access programs in higher education -- that these women demonstrated eventual completion rates that were substantially higher than 4-6 year graduation rates would indicate -- over 70% earned some kind of degree (table 2.2). "Our long-range perspective shows that disadvantaged women ultimately complete college degrees in far greater numbers than scholars realize" (4).

So access to higher education works, according to the evidence uncovered in this study: increasing access to post-secondary education is the causal factor, and improved economic and educational outcomes are the effect.

This is an important empirical study that sets out some of the facts that pertain to poverty and higher education. The study provides empirical confirmation for the idea that affordable and accessible mass education works: when programs are available that permit poor people to gain access to higher education, their future earnings and the future educational success of their children are both enhanced. It's a logical conclusion -- but one that has been challenged by conservative critics such as Bill Bennett. And given the increasing financial stress that public universities are currently experiencing due to declining state support for higher education, it is very important for policy makers to have a clear understanding of the return that is likely on the investment in affordable access to higher education.