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.