Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Archive for the ‘Philanthropy’ Category

How radical gardeners took back New York City

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The video above appears in an interesting Open Culture column by Ayun Halliday.

Written by Leisureguy

25 June 2021 at 4:18 pm

Margaret Mead on the first archeological evidence of a civilization

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An interesting observation from Margaret Mead:

Years ago, anthropologist Margaret Mead was asked by a student what she considered to be the first sign of civilization in a culture. The student expected Mead to talk about fishhooks or clay pots or grinding stones.

But no. Mead said that the first sign of civilization in an ancient culture was a femur (thighbone) that had been broken and then healed. Mead explained that in the animal kingdom, if you break your leg, you die. You cannot run from danger, get to the river for a drink or hunt for food. You are meat for prowling beasts. No animal survives a broken leg long enough for the bone to heal.

A broken femur that has healed is evidence that someone has taken time to stay with the one who fell, has bound up the wound, has carried the person to safety and has tended the person through recovery. Helping someone else through difficulty is where civilization starts, Mead said.”

We are at our best when we serve others. Be civilized.

Ira Byock

Written by Leisureguy

10 June 2021 at 6:58 pm

Homeless Oaklanders were tired of the housing crisis. So they built a ‘miracle’ village.

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Gabrielle Canon has an interesting article (with more photos) in the Guardian. It begins:

Tucked under a highway overpass in West Oakland, just beyond a graveyard of charred cars and dumped debris, lies an unexpected refuge.

There’s a collection of beautiful, small structures built from foraged materials. There’s a hot shower, a fully stocked kitchen and health clinic. There’s a free “store” offering donated items including clothes and books, and a composting toilet. There are stone and gravel paths lined with flowers and vegetable gardens. There’s even an outdoor pizza oven.

The so-called “Cob on Wood” center has arisen in recent months to provide amenities for those living in a nearby homeless encampment, one of the largest in the city. But most importantly, it’s fostering a sense of community and dignity, according to the unhoused and housed residents who came together to build it. They hope their innovative approach will lead to big changes in how the city addresses its growing homeless population.

“It is about uniting everybody,” says Dmitri Schusterman, a nearby resident who also serves as the Director of Innovation for Artists Building Communities, one of the organizations that helped build the center at the end of last year. Cob on Wood was brought to life with help from local advocacy arts and food groups who teamed up with Miguel “Migz” Elliott, an expert in the ancient technique of making cob structures. Together with teams of volunteers and residents, they built each component by hand.

Now, roughly five months since they broke ground, a community has coalesced around the space that not only hosts events and workshops but also offers food, hygiene and skill-sharing to the estimated 300 people who live in nearby encampments.

“It is working,” Schusterman says, smiling broadly. “This is the vision we had and it is working like a miracle.”

Tackling a pair of crises

Cob on Wood was born of parallel crises – Oakland’s rising rate of homelessness and the Covid pandemic.

The city is home to more than 4,000 unhoused people, a figure that has jumped 86% over a four-year period, according to a 2019 report. Homelessness disproportionally affects Black Oaklanders, who make up 24% of the general population but 70% of the unhoused population.

Xochitl Bernadette Moreno and Ashel Seasunz Eldridge, co-founders of Essential Food and Medicine, one of the organizations behind Cob on Wood, distributed food and hygiene products to those who couldn’t “shelter in place” during California’s lockdowns. That’s when they learned about just how dire the situation had become.

“[Covid] exposed those pre-existing cracks in the infrastructure of how we take care of our people, our communities, our neighbors,” Eldridge says.

Moreno adds: “Knowing that the issues people in these communities face around hunger and access to water, access to places to cook – these issues existed before the pandemic and they will continue to exist after the pandemic.”

There are at least 140 homeless encampments in Oakland, according to a recent city audit, which found the city had mismanaged its response to the crisis. Building on findings from the United Nations general assembly, which, after visiting the Bay Area in 2018, reported that treatment of the unhoused was “cruel and inhumane”, Oakland’s audit reported that many unhealthy and unsafe conditions have persisted, including a lack of access to clean water, sanitation, and health services.

City officials have tried to address the growing issues with new programs, including the “tuff shed” project that provides clusters of small structures as temporary housing solutions and so-called “Safe RV Parking” sites that include access to electric hookups, portable toilets and security.

But critics – who include some of the unhoused participants – say the programs are plagued with safety issues and do little to address underlying causes of housing instability. Some have also expressed concerns that the programs have given the city more political leeway to crack down on encampments and increase sweeps, an often traumatic process for unhoused people who can end up losing their few belongings.

“People are not only being evicted from homes they once had, but then they are being evicted from the homes that they create – communities they’ve built for themselves when they had nowhere else to go,” Moreno says.

After growing frustrated with the city’s interventions, several other communities have attempted to create their own solutions, including a group of women who started a safe encampment in vacant lots, and an advocacy organization called the Village, which has built tiny homes on empty areas of public land across the city.

Cob on Wood organizers are also hoping to empower unhoused residents to solve the problems they think the city hasn’t adequately addressed – from fire prevention to sanitation access – while organizing to collectively engage with officials and limit the sense of “otherness” and disenfranchisement which residents say is an all-too-common side-effect of homelessness.

They broke ground in December. Clearing needles and trash from an area near Wood Street – a half-mile area lined with makeshift structures, RVs and tents – a crew of volunteers and camp residents under Elliott’s guidance used pallets to frame the structures. They were insulated with scavenged materials before being coated in “cob”, a mixture made from organic materials including sand, subsoil, water and straw.

Each structure is lined with a “living roof” – featuring a garden – that creates an attractive aesthetic while insulating the inside from the abrasive city sounds and the elements.

“There are cob structures that were built 700 years ago that are still being lived in,” Elliott says. He hopes to prove that “cobins”, as he calls them, could serve as a quick and affordable addition to other encampments, to offer shelter and house other services.

“I am trying to . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

More on cob construction.

Written by Leisureguy

14 May 2021 at 3:30 pm

A feel-good story about a Korean restaurant

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Yesterday I finally made it to a local Korean restaurant, Thunderbird, that specializes in (Korean) fried chicken, and was able to try it. I have wanted to try it since watching the Korean 16-part TV production Crash-Landing on You on Netflix, whose story included a number of product placements for bb.q Chicken, a chain that specializes in Korean fried chicken (though that style of fried chicken is available from many other Korean restaurants). (I’ve commented before that Korean TV seems to like the 16-episode format, and I’ve watched a number of those — in fact, right now I’m watching a good one: Vagabond, on Netflix.)

The chicken was very good — tender, juicy, and flavorful, with a wonderful crust (I think they use Panka for breading) — and I was glad to check that item off my list.

I texted The Eldest to suggest she try it in some Baltimore Korean place, and she responded to say that she was familiar with it and often takes to boys to eat at a Korean restaurant there. She sent a link to this report by Cathy Free in the Washington Post:

The request came in late on a Thursday afternoon to restaurant owner Steve Chu. One of his customers had terminal cancer, and her son-in-law wondered if it would be possible to get the recipe of her favorite broccoli tempura entree so he could make it for her at her home in Vermont.

Chu, 30, specializes in Asian fusion cuisine and is the co-owner of two Ekiben locations in Baltimore. He read the email on March 11 and instantly knew that he could do better, he said.

“Thanks for reaching out,” he wrote. “We’d like to meet you in Vermont and make it fresh for you.”

Brandon Jones, 37, was stunned.

“I emailed back, saying, ‘You do know that this is Vermont we’re talking about, right?’ ” he recalled. “It’s a six-hour drive. But Steve responded, ‘No problem. You tell us the date, time and location and we’ll be there.’”

Jones and his wife, Rina Jones, were preparing to leave from their home in the Canton neighborhood for Vermont that weekend to visit Rina’s mother, who is in the final stages of lung cancer and has stopped treatment since her December diagnosis.

For the past five or six years, every time his mother-in-law visited Baltimore, the first place she wanted to go was Ekiben in Fells Point so she could order the tempura broccoli topped with fresh herbs, diced onion and fermented cucumber vinegar, said Brandon Jones.

“She loves that broccoli, and I really wanted her to have it one more time,” Jones, an engineer, said about his mother-in-law, who asked that her name not be published in a request for privacy at the end of her life.

“She had always told us, ‘When I’m on my death bed, I want to have that broccoli,’ ” recalled Rina Jones, 38, who works in the health-care industry. “In fact, when I was packing on Friday to drive up to Vermont, I called my mom to see if she wanted us to bring anything special and she jokingly said, ‘tempura broccoli!’ ”

When Chu said he’d be happy to make the dish from scratch in Vermont on Saturday afternoon, Rina Jones said she was elated.

“It’s just so above and beyond,” Jones said. “It’s an incredible act of kindness.”

The next day, March 12, Chu loaded his truck after work with a hot plate and a cooler filled with the ingredients for broccoli tempura, then headed for Vermont with his business partner, Ephrem Abebe, and employee Joe Anonuevo. The trio stayed overnight in an Airbnb rental, he said, then stopped for some additional ingredients on their way to the condo where Rina Jones’ mother lives.

. . . As soon as he and his team pulled into the parking lot of the condo building, they texted Rina Jones that they’d arrived, then got to work. They pulled down the gate of the pickup, hooked the hot plate to the truck’s power port and started cooking and deep-frying.

In addition to Ekiben’s broccoli tempura, they made a tofu dish with peanut sauce and fresh herbs and some steamed rice, said Chu. Then after neatly boxing everything up, they knocked on their customer’s front door.

“Go ahead and answer,” Rina Jones said she told her mother.

“As soon as she opened the door, she recognized the aroma immediately,” Brandon Jones said. “It smelled amazing.”

Her mother also recognized Chu and his co-workers, said Rina Jones.

“My mom kept saying, ‘I don’t understand — you drove all the way up here to cook for me?’ ” she said. “She was so happy and touched to have that broccoli. She couldn’t believe it.”

Chu said he also immediately recognized the woman he was there to cook for.

“We see a lot of people in the restaurant, but she always stood out,” he said. “She loves the food and always made sure to tell us. She’s an amazing, sweet lady.”

The Joneses invited Chu and his team to join them for dinner, but they needed to get back to Baltimore after they cleaned up, said Rina Jones. Chu also wouldn’t accept any money from the family.

. . . “She’s a lovely lady, who has showered us with love at our restaurant for years,” he said. “It was a powerful experience, and I’m happy that we could make it happen.”

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

12 May 2021 at 11:07 am

Effective Altruism Is Not Effective

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Thomas R. Wells writes in The Philosopher’s Beard:

Effective altruism is based on a very simple idea: we should do the most good we can. Obeying the usual rules about not stealing, cheating, hurting, and killing is not enough, or at least not enough for those of us who have the good fortune to live in material comfort, who can feed, house, and clothe ourselves and our families and still have money or time to spare. Living a minimally acceptable ethical life involves using a substantial part of our spare resources to make the world a better place. Living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good we can. (Peter Singer)

It is almost universally agreed that the persistence of extreme poverty in many parts of the world is a bad thing. It is less well-agreed, even among philosophers, what should be done about it and by who. An influential movement founded by the philosopher Peter Singer argues that we should each try to do the best we can by donating our surplus income to charities that help those in greatest need. This ‘effective altruism’ movement has two components: i) encouraging individuals in the rich world to donate more; and ii) encouraging us to donate more rationally, to the organisations most efficient at translating those donations into gains in human well-being.

Unfortunately both components of effective altruism focus on what makes giving good rather than on achieving valuable goals. Effective altruism therefore does not actually aim at the elimination of global poverty as is often supposed. Indeed, its distinctive commitment to the logic of individualist consumerism makes it constitutionally incapable of achieving such a large scale project. Effective altruism is designed to fail.

I. The No-Sacrifice Principle of Giving

In his best-selling defense of effective altruism The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty (2009, p.15) Singer provides this outline of his argument.

First premise: Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care are bad.

Second premise: If it is in your power to prevent something bad from happening, without sacrificing anything nearly as important, it is wrong not to do so.

Third premise: By donating to aid agencies, you can prevent suffering and death from lack of food, shelter, and medical care, without sacrificing anything nearly as important.

Conclusion: Therefore, if you do not donate to aid agencies, you are doing something wrong.

Singer famously supports his second premise by reference to his ‘shallow pond’ thought experiment, in which nearly everyone agrees that we would have an obligation to rescue a drowning child even at some personal inconvenience. He argues that since we already seem to accept that principle, the moral challenge is to integrate it better into how we live by donating some of our ‘surplus’ income to charities. Effective altruism is thereby identified as a way of living better in accordance with reason and right, the correct answer to Socrates’ challenge ‘How ought we to live?’

What I want to bring out here is that Singer’s main concern is the question of how good to be in terms of how much we should be giving, i.e. the internal moral economy of the subject. The ‘bads’ of suffering and death identified in premise 1 are peripheral to this analysis. They may motivate our interest in altruism but their remediation is not the measure of our altruistic success.

On the face of it, premise 2 is a very demanding principle because it links our subjective moral economy to the prevention of significant objective harms. However, the way that Singer uses the principle severs that relation. Singer is concerned to help us calculate our personal budget for good works: how much we each can spare from our other interests and commitments. As Singer makes clear, altruism on this conception should not feel like a sacrifice because it is merely the harmonious integration of our moral with our other preferences. This generates a rather generic analysis of how much it is reasonable to expect people of different levels of affluence to contribute to good causes without having to make any real sacrifices, i.e. calculations of how much money we could easily do without. (Singer suggests a progressive rate of voluntary self-taxation starting at 5% of income for those earning more than $100,000.)

Such calculations are generic because they are fundamentally concerned with how to be an altruist, not with how to fix the world’s problems, and so they are unrelated to the significance of the specific problems our donations are supposed to address, nor with what would be needed to successfully solve them. For consider, even if global poverty were eliminated entirely, there will still always be causes you could contribute to that would be more valuable than pursuing your own interests (such as generating benefits to future generations). This is the paradoxical overdemandingness of utilitarianism identified by various philosophers (Bernard Williams; Susan Wolf; etc): that a world of utilitarians would be a world incapable of happiness. What I think Singer’s ‘no sacrifice’ principle actually offers is a (not especially convincing) way to reconcile our moral duty to doing good with our right to live a life of our own.  We are effectively asked to calculate our own voluntary moral tax-rate that delineates when we have done enough for others and can turn away, morally free to pursue our private projects and commitments. How much good this amount of giving will achieve in the world is irrelevant to what that tax rate should be.

II. Efficiency is Not the Same Thing as Effectiveness

Effective altruists ….. know that saving a life is better than making a wish come true and that saving three lives is better than saving one. So they don’t give to whatever cause tugs strongest at their heartstrings. They give to the cause that will do the most good, given the abilities, time, and money they have. (Peter Singer)

The problem with the first component of effective altruism was that it focuses on the internal moral economy of the giver rather than on the real world problems our giving is supposed to address. The second component of effective altruism might not seem to have that problem because it is explicitly concerned with maximising the amount of good that each unit of resources achieves. (This is also the component that has received more emphasis in the last 10 years as the movement gained traction among a younger generation of philosophers such as Toby Ord and William MacAskill.) However, this concern is better understood as efficiency than as effectiveness (the general idea of getting things done). This might seem an innocuous distinction since efficiency is about how we ought to get things done, i.e. a way of being effective. However, there are significant consequences for practical reasoning in the kind of cases effective altruism is concerned with.

If one takes the efficiency view promoted by the effective altruism movement then one assumes a fixed set of resources and the choice of which goal to aim for follows from a calculation of how to maximise the expected value those resources can generate; i.e. the means justifies the end. For example, in the context of global poverty, you would use evidence and careful reasoning to decide in which cause or organisation to invest your chosen amount on the basis of which generates  the most QALYS per dollar. This should ensure that your donation will achieve the most good, which is to say that you have done the best possible job of giving. However, despite doing so well at the task effective altruism has set you, if you step back you will notice that very little has actually been achieved. The total amount of good we can achieve with our donations is limited to the partial alleviation of some of the symptoms of extreme poverty, symptoms that will recur so long as poverty persists. But effective altruism supplies no plan for the elimination of poverty itself, and there is no way for a feasible plan for that goal to be developed and implemented by this method of reasoning at the margin.

The underlying problem is that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and in my view he annihilates Singer’s argument and position.

Written by Leisureguy

17 April 2021 at 9:43 am

California Sent $8 Billion to Counties to Improve Jails and Services But Failed to Track the Money, Says Auditor

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Stunning report by Jason Pohl for the Sacramento Bee and ProPublica. It begins

A decade after California embarked on a sweeping prison overhaul that diverted thousands of inmates to county jails, state and local governing bodies have failed to adequately track billions of dollars intended for improving county lockups and rehabilitating offenders, a state audit has found.

The lack of oversight has created enormous budget surpluses, opaque spending practices and progress reports to lawmakers that are “inconsistent and incomplete,” California Auditor Elaine M. Howle’s office said in a wide-ranging report issued Thursday.

The 2011 law signed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, which called the changes “realignment,” was designed to drastically reduce the population of California’s prisons, which were so overcrowded that the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in. The law sent billions of dollars to counties to bolster county jails and services throughout the state in exchange for housing more inmates.

But the audit, which was requested more than a year ago by a state senator following a surge of jail deaths reported on by The Sacramento Bee and ProPublica, found that county commissions that monitor the money and the California Board of State and Community Corrections have failed to adequately account for the spending.

“Without comprehensive planning and oversight, counties cannot ensure that their decisions regarding the use of public safety realignment funds are well informed,” the report says. “In addition, we found that counties do not adequately evaluate their realignment programs to determine their effectiveness or to ensure that they are spending public safety realignment funding in the most prudent manner.”

Howle’s report was focused on . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

26 March 2021 at 2:56 pm

Libraries Between the State and the Multitude

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A little free library near my apartment (photo by me)

As I’ve mentioned, little free libraries are plentiful in Victoria, which has at least 400 scattered about the city. Sam Popowich looks at the practice through a Marxist lens on his blog:

Controversy over “Little Free Libraries” has arisen once again, this time in the UK. I don’t want to go into the specifics of the problem with Little Free Libraries (officially branded or not). Jane Schmidt and Jordan Hale have written a foundational article about it, which everyone should read.

What I want to get at in this blog post is what I see as a fundamental contradiction (in the Marxist sense) that keeps cropping up in the discussion. What defines a contradiction for Marxism is that the opposition it describes and the problems that flow from it cannot be resolved or fixed within the existing structure. The two poles of the contradiction are irreconcilable within the current social, political, economic, and cultural context. In the discourse around community book boxes there is an opposition between community solidarity, self-reliance, local support, etc, and public or common goods which need to be supported and maintained at a higher level, regional or national.

Defenders of the book boxes argue that they are a form of community self-regulation. Harmless at worst, helpful at best, they provide a sense of community support which is perhaps more about the affective or symbolic significance of freely sharing objects whose use-value is traditionally considered positive (books) outside the dominant structures of exchange. Looked at this way, book boxes are a form of local resistance to commodity exchange more generally, an attempt to recapture the ability of community members to relate to each other outside what Marx and Engels called the “cash nexus” of exchange. Taken to its limit, these book boxes could be seen as one element in a comprehensive network of mutual aid.

However, in a context of massive defunding and closure of state-run libraries, book boxes, like volunteer staffing of library branches, can give the state the ammunition it needs to continue to withdraw financial and political support for public good provided at scale. If book boxes can be considered libraries, then why should the government continue to support libraries? If libraries can be run by volunteers, then why should the government continue to hire trained library workers? One aspect of the geographical issue around LFL’s which Schmidt and Hale point out is that they tend to be most prominent in areas where public libraries are least under threat, and so the problem posed by LFLs to public library support is muted, obscured, or made invisible.

So the debate on Twitter often came down to the question of localism vs. state support: the benefits of communities acting together for themselves vs. the economies of scale and resource redistribution provided by a tax-funded national network of libraries. Many of the arguments tried to point out the benefits of one side or the other, without making much headway. I think the reason this argument is actually irresolvable in the current context is that it actually expresses a fundamental contradiction within capitalism itself.

Essentially, it comes down to the well-established contradiction within the capitalist economy over the question of the common/commons. Capitalism is predicated on private property, but it requires common resources in order to keep going. Control over resources is maximized by being privatized (i.e. the private owner of a thing has full control over it), but some things only work properly when they are held in common (ideological reproduction through schools and libraries, for example). One of the ways capitalism has tried to work within the terms set by this contradiction is to draw a firm distinction between the individual and the state: the individual is the private owner, the commons is managed by the state.

In Marx’s critique of civil rights, he argues that . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Written by Leisureguy

16 February 2021 at 3:21 pm

Matt Yglesias has an interesting column in defense of writing on controversial topics

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I had read the NY Times article Yglesias references, but knew little more, so his column was quite enlightening to me. He writes:

Some time ago, Scott Alexander, the pseudonymous author of the Slate Star Codex blog, announced that he was abandoning his site. The reason was that a New York Times reporter had been in touch with him explaining that he was doing a profile of the blog, and in the course of writing it he was compelled by some NYT policy to disclose Alexander’s real name.

Alexander is a practicing psychiatrist and felt that for reasons of professional ethics, this would jeopardize his job — so he shut the blog down in a rather dramatic fashion. This, in turn, led to a lot of condemnatory rhetoric from his fans and admirers, many of whom work in the technology industry and had a set of preexisting grievances with what they call “the media” and what I would call “the technology coverage of a half dozen outlets, notably including The New York Times.” Much of the ensuing rhetoric from the pro-SSC camp (though not from Alexander, who if anything is even-tempered to a fault in his public persona) struck me as overheated, but I was sad it had driven Alexander from the internet.

The good news is that he has since resurfaced on Substack at Astral Codex Ten. He also has a new job as the founder of Lorien Psychiatry, an innovative effort to use telemedicine to make psychiatric treatment much more affordable.

Then, on Saturday, Cade Metz’s NYT article about SSC finally dropped. And it’s terrible. (Read Alexander’s post about it, though I think he has too much of a conspiratorial view of this.1)

I tend to think that too much time and mental energy is expended, including by me, on critiquing bad articles, and not enough time and energy is spent on praising good ones. So I feel kind of bad about writing a detailed criticism of a single bad article. But, given the larger context in which this story appeared, my sense is it’s going to become a flashpoint for a whole bunch of interesting struggles, so I think it’s useful and informative to say what I think.

A tortured premise

On its face, the idea of profiling an obscure blog written by a pseudonymous psychiatrist that has a surprisingly high-clout readership is perfectly good. Alexander’s readers include many Silicon Valley people, including — as Metz details — some very high-ranking executives. It’s an interesting story.

But I think Metz kind of misses what’s interesting about it from the get-go.

  • Ross Douthat reads SSC, and so does Ezra Klein.
  • David Brooks has quoted him in The New York Times.
  • Tyler Cowen praises SSC and the larger “rationalist community” that it was a flagship publication of, but also critiques them, saying “I would approve of them much more if they called themselves the irrationality community.”

As you’ll see in Metz’s story, the Vox writer Kelsey Piper is an SSC reader and a rationalist. But she works primarily for Vox’s Future Perfect vertical, which is a whole rationalist-inspired cornucopia of content.

In other words, this is an intellectual movement that’s somewhat influential in highbrow circles broadly, and that deserves to be situated as such. Well-known books like Toby Ord’s “The Precipice” and Philip Tetlock’s “Superforecasting: The Art and Science of Prediction” are important parts of the rationalist firmament. There’s also Julia Galef’s excellent podcast “Rationally Speaking” on which you can hear me yacking.

There’s a lot more going on than “some tech executives read this blog,” in other words.

But Metz does not seem interested in actually exploring rationalist ideas or understanding their content or the scope of their influence. Instead, the article is structured as a kind of syllogism:

  • Scott Alexander’s blog is popular with some influential Silicon Valley people.
  • Scott Alexander has done posts that espouse views on race or gender that progressives disapprove of.
  • Therefore, Silicon Valley is a hotbed of racism and sexism.

One time years ago, I went to Silicon Valley for a few days. As a white guy, I would not be well-situated to assess the extent to which it’s a hotbed of racism and sexism anyway, so I won’t comment on the conclusion. But the logic is specious, and the whole thing is an incredible missed opportunity to help people understand some valuable and interesting ideas.

Rationalism as I understand it

When I first heard about rationalists I was intensely confused, because in college I took a few different classes that involved reading “rationalist” philosophers from the Early Modern period, and contemporary rationalists’ ideas are totally unlike early modern philosophical rationalists’ ideas.2 I should also note that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by Leisureguy

15 February 2021 at 3:57 pm

This town of 170,000 replaced some cops with medics and mental health workers. It’s worked for over 30 years.

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The question that immediately came to mind: Given that it worked, why has the approach not been widely replicated over that 30-year period? What are the barriers to learning? It’s a good model and a successful model, but people did not learn from it. Resistance to learning strikes me as a serious problem, one for which solutions should be found — and quickly.

Update: Resistance to change is an old problem. An example: After it was discovered that patients did much better after surgery (that is, they did not sicken and die nearly so often) when the surgeon washed his hands before performing surgery, the practice did not become common until an entire generation of surgeons of non-hand-washing surgeons had been replaced by a new generation for whom washing hands before surgery was normal. /update

Scottie Andrew reports for CNN:

Around 30 years ago, a town in Oregon retrofitted an old van, staffed it with young medics and mental health counselors and sent them out to respond to the kinds of 911 calls that wouldn’t necessarily require police intervention.

In the town of 172,000, they were the first responders for mental health crises, homelessness, substance abuse, threats of suicide — the problems for which there are no easy fixes. The problems that, in the hands of police, have often turned violent.

Today, the program, called CAHOOTS, has three vans, more than double the number of staffers and the attention of a country in crisis.

CAHOOTS is already doing what police reform advocates say is necessary to fundamentally change the US criminal justice system — pass off some responsibilities to unarmed civilians.

Cities much larger and more diverse than Eugene have asked CAHOOTS staff to help them build their own version of the program. CAHOOTS wouldn’t work everywhere, at least not in the form it exists in in Eugene.

But it’s a template for what it’s like to live in a city with limited police.

It’s centered on a holistic approach

CAHOOTS comes from White Bird Clinic, a social services center that’s operated in Eugene since the late 1960s. It was the brainchild of some counterculture activists who’d felt the hole where a community health center should be. And in 1989, after 20 years of earning the community’s trust, CAHOOTS was created.

“CAHOOTS” stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets” and cheekily refers to the relationship between the community health center that started it and the Eugene Police Department.

Most of the clients White Bird assisted — unsheltered people or those with mental health issues — didn’t respond well to police. And for the many more people they hadn’t yet helped, they wanted to make their services mobile, said David Zeiss, the program’s co-founder.

“We knew that we were good at it,” he said. “And we knew it was something of value to a lot of people … we needed to be known and used by other agencies that commonly encounter crisis situation.”

It works this way: 911 dispatchers filter calls they receive — if they’re violent or criminal, they’re sent to police. If they’re within CAHOOTS’ purview, the van-bound staff will take the call. They prep what equipment they’ll need, drive to the scene and go from there.

The program started small, with a van Zeiss called a “junker,” some passionate paraprofessionals and just enough funding to staff CAHOOTS 40 hours a week.

It always paired one medic, usually a nurse or EMT, with a crisis responder trained in behavioral health. That holistic approach is core to its model.

Per self-reported data, CAHOOTS workers responded to 24,000 calls in 2019 — about 20% of total dispatches. About 150 of those required police backup.

CAHOOTS says the program saves the city about $8.5 million in public safety costs every year, plus another $14 million in ambulance trips and ER costs.

It had to overcome mutual mistrust with police

White Bird’s counterculture roots ran deep — the clinic used to fundraise at Grateful Dead concerts in the West, where volunteer medics would treat Deadheads — so the pairing between police and the clinic wasn’t an immediately fruitful one.

There was “mutual mistrust” between them, said Zeiss, who retired in 2014.

“It’s true there was a tendency to be mistrustful of the police in our agency and our culture,” he said. “It was an obstacle we had to overcome.”

And for the most part, both groups have: Eugene Police Chief Chris Skinner called theirs a “symbiotic relationship” that better serves some residents of Eugene.

“When they show up, they have better success than police officers do,” he said. “We’re wearing a uniform, a gun, a badge — it feels very demonstrative for someone in crisis.”

It seeks to overturn a disturbing statistic

And a great many people in Eugene are in crisis. . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Later in the article:

Most of CAHOOTS’ clients are homeless, and just under a third of them have severe mental illnesses. It’s a weight off the shoulders of police, Skinner said.

“I believe it’s time for law enforcement to quit being a catch-base for everything our community and society needs,” Skinner said. “We need to get law enforcement professionals back to doing the core mission of protecting communities and enforcing the law, and then match resources with other services like behavioral health — all those things we tend to lump on the plate of law enforcement.”

Written by Leisureguy

15 February 2021 at 1:17 pm

Dolly Parton knows effective educational intervention

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Erick Moore has a good Facebook post:

In 1990, the high school dropout rate for Dolly Parton’s hometown of Sevierville Tennessee was at 34% (Research shows that most kids make up their minds in fifth/sixth grade not to graduate). That year, all fifth and sixth graders from Sevierville were invited by Parton to attend an assembly at Dollywood. They were asked to pick a buddy, and if both students completed high school, Dolly Parton would personally hand them each a $500 check on their graduation day. As a result, the dropout rate for those classes fell to 6%, and has generally retained that average to this day.

Shortly after the success of The Buddy Program, Parton learned in dealing with teachers from the school district that problems in education often begin during first grade when kids are at different developmental levels. That year The Dollywood Foundation paid the salaries for additional teachers assistants in every first grade class for the next 2 years, under the agreement that if the program worked, the school system would effectively adopt and fund the program after the trial period.

During the same period, Parton founded the Imagination Library in 1995: The idea being that children from her rural hometown and low-income families often start school at a disadvantage and as a result, will be unfairly compared to their peers for the rest of their lives, effectively encouraging them not to pursue higher education. The objective of the Imagination library was that every child in Sevier County would receive one book, every month, mailed and addressed to the child, from the day they were born until the day they started kindergarten, 100% free of charge. What began as a hometown initiative now serves children in all 50 states, Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, mailing thousands of free books to children around the world monthly.

On March 1, 2018 Parton donated her 100 millionth book at the Library of Congress: a copy of “Coat of Many Colors” dedicated to her father, who never learned to read or write.

Happy 74th Birthday Dolly Parton!

Written by Leisureguy

2 December 2020 at 5:55 pm

Formerly homeless, this man is giving away 2,500 Thanksgiving meals this year

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A grocery box being filled for Thanksgiving’s Heroes in Utah last weekend.

It’s not all bad. And fWIW, I’d bet that this man is a Republican. So, for the holidays, a feel-good report by Cathy Free in the Washington Post:

Rob Adams is a successful real estate agent in Utah. But when he was 11, he and his family experienced homelessness and lived in the back of a pickup truck.

Adams’s parents had only enough money for him and his siblings to stay in a motel room one night a week, he said, so for the better part of 1982, they spent the other six nights in the covered bed of their pickup truck in Porter, Tex., just outside Houston.

“My big meal of the day was school lunch, and many nights, there was no dinner,” recalled Adams, now 49.

But just before Christmas that year, a local family from their church offered up their house for two weeks while they headed out of town for the holidays. They left presents under the tree for Adams’s family and filled the fridge with food, including a turkey and homemade pies.

“I cried when I opened that fridge,” said Adams, who now lives in Riverton, south of Salt Lake City, with a family of his own.

“Unless you’ve been hungry, you can’t imagine how I felt,” he said. “I told myself, ‘Someday, if I have money, I’m going to do this for somebody else.’ ”

Adams made good on that promise and started Thanksgiving’s Heroes, a nonprofit that this year gave away 2,500 boxes — each filled with a Thanksgiving feast weighing 53 pounds — to homes in the Salt Lake Valley.

Thanksgiving’s Heroes began in 2015 when Adams raised enough funds to give away turkeys and all the trimmings to 755 families in need. The initiative has grown each year since and, this year, even expanded outside Utah to Tampa, Dallas and Cleveland.

Adams’s wife and four daughters helped him deliver the food boxes in Utah last weekend, with assistance from about 800 volunteers.

“It’s important to make that personal connection,” he said. “There are some people who might feel embarrassed to stand in a line for a box, or maybe they don’t have transportation to get one. With covid this year, we knocked on the door and left everything on the porch, but we know that people are smiling when they unpack their boxes.”

The items in each Thanksgiving’s Heroes box this year. 

This year’s 53-pound box includes a 20-pound turkey, 10 pounds of potatoes, a package of butter, a gallon of milk, a veggie tray, cranberry sauce, stuffing mix, gravy, olives, a pumpkin pie, whipped cream and ingredients for Adams’s favorite side dish: green bean casserole. It costs the nonprofit about $80 to make each box.

Adams spent his early years in Las Vegas and said that his family’s troubles started with his dad’s job as an air conditioning repairman in Texas. When his parents moved the family to Porter and bought a plot of land with the intention of building a new home, Adams’s father learned that his new job entailed selling customers parts they didn’t need, he said.

“So he ended up without a job, and during the recession of the ‘80s, it was hard to find another one,” Adams said. “My mom cleaned hotels, but there wasn’t enough money for rent. That’s when we parked on our property and camped out in the truck.”

Adams said his parents tried not to let on that the situation was bleak.

“They tried to make it like an adventure and were always looking on the positive side,” he said. “Now that I’m a father, I know the weight my father must have felt on his shoulders each day.”

The lunch ladies at his elementary school knew that he was hungry and always loaded his tray with extra food, Adams recalled.

“I was a growing boy with a big appetite, and those sweet southern ladies always made sure to fix me up,” he said. “I was very grateful.”

The two weeks he spent in a local family’s home over the Christmas holidays was one of the most memorable and happy times of his life, Adams said.

“We pulled up in front of their house, and there was this big Christmas tree shining in the front window,” he said. “And nobody told us, ‘Don’t do this,’ or ‘don’t do that.’ Instead, they handed us the keys, told us to enjoy the holidays, and they’d see us in two weeks.”

When he became successful in real estate in Utah (his family moved to the state during his senior year in high school), Adams put his Thanksgiving’s Heroes idea into motion after a conversation with his mother in 2014, shortly before she died of brain cancer.

“I told her that I’d wanted to give back for many years, and she told me, ‘Please, you need to do it,’ ” he said. “So my first year, I set out to feed 10 families, and it quickly grew. Everyone wanted to donate to help, and we ended up feeding hundreds.”

Continue reading. There’s more, and more photos as well.

Written by Leisureguy

24 November 2020 at 12:12 pm

The Federal Reserve Bails Out Boeing, Gives a $3 Billion Subsidy to Carnival Cruise Lines

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Matt Stoller writes at BIG:

Today I’m going to discuss the why the small business lending program is undergoing intense scrutiny, and why the much larger Federal Reserve programs are not. To be put it differently, Boeing just got a $25 billion bailout from the Federal Reserve, but politicians are mad at Shake Shack.

First some housekeeping. I was on The Realignment podcast with Saagar Enjeti & Marshall Kosloff. I also joined Francesca Rheannon for her podcast titled a Writer’s Voice.

And now…

Complexity as Cover

There’s been a feeding frenzy among reporters about the small business lending program. Money is going to recognized brand names like Shake Shack and Ruth Chris who don’t seem to need it, with a fair amount of self-congratulatory rhetoric when these corporations return their loans. But I think this anger, while not exactly wrong, is misplaced. People know *something* is wrong with the Coronavirus rescue, and the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program gives them an easy set of targets they can relate to. So that’s what gets criticized.

But the right place to focus is not on the SBA, but on the Federal Reserve, which is where the action is. That’s where lending programs are in the trillions, not billions or millions. Yesterday, for instance, the Fed decided to bail out highly indebted drilling companies and their lenders at the behest of Texas politicians, without much notice. Boeing also announced with a splash that it will be turning down an official government bailout, while borrowing a whopping $25 billion from the Federal Reserve-supported corporate bond market.

One reason for the comparatively limited criticism of the central bank’s actions is that the Federal Reserve programs are weird and complicated, involving strange words like liquidity and high yield debt ETFs.

But I don’t think the asymmetry in criticism is purely a result of difficult-to-parse jargon or capital markets complexity. It’s just easier to see what the small business lending program is doing. There’s a legal process that connects the borrower to a bank and to the government. The Fed bailouts by contrast are indirect; technically the Fed hasn’t started allocating much, if any, money yet. It’s hard to point fingers at the Fed for doing something wrong when its programs haven’t even gotten off the ground.

And yet that’s a problematic way of seeing the Fed. Unlike with the small business lending program, the Fed announcement, not the initial program implementation, is what matters; just the prospect of the Fed intervening has huge impacts on borrowing costs for corporations, as well as on the prices of stocks and bonds. I’ve spoken to several people in the credit markets who tell me there is no real credit analysis anymore, traders buy what they think the Fed will backstop, meaning the Fed is giving massive implicit subsidies anywhere Jay Powell even day-dreams about intervening. In other words, many large financial actors – like Boeing – are getting billions of dollars from the Fed without any direct line to the Fed at all.

To cut through the noise, I want to try and quantify the subsidy the Fed is offering with a single case study. The ultimate numbers I’ll arrive at are a guess, but going through the exercise will help people understand that the Fed is just giving money to preserve the value of bonds and stocks. The best example is not Boeing, because there’s no easy way to calculate the implicit subsidy, even though we can assume it is very large. Carnival Cruise Lines serves the purpose better, because they were about to borrow on excruciatingly painful terms, but were saved in the nick of time by a Fed announcement. This situation gives us a nice natural experiment through we can see the implicit subsidy at work.

Carnival’s Subsidy

Four days ago, Matt Wirz at the Wall Street Journal reported a story on how the Federal Reserve saved Carnival Cruise lines. It’s told with drama, but essentially is about how Carnival was desperate to get any loan on any terms, until the Fed stepped in.

With financial markets frozen, executives were forced to consider a high-interest loan from a band of hedge funds who called themselves “the consortium.” The group included Apollo Management Group, Elliott Management Corp. and other distressed-debt investors that sometimes take over the companies they lend to, people familiar with the matter said.

Apollo Management Group and Elliott Management are cut-throat lenders. Here’s what happened next.

That all changed on March 23 when the Federal Reserve defibrillated bond markets with an unprecedented lending program. Within days, Carnival’s investment bankers at JPMorgan Chase & Co. were talking to conventional investors such as AllianceBernstein Holding and Vanguard Group about a deal. By April 1, the company had raised almost $6 billion in bond markets, paying rates far below those executives had discussed just days earlier.

There are a couple of other reporters who covered what happened, including Lawrence Strauss at Barron’s and Robert Smith at the Financial Times, and while the amounts are unknowable, it’s evident the Federal Reserve gave a large implicit subsidy to the corporation.

I’ll walk you through how we can tell. The original loan offer from . . .

Read the whole thing.

Written by Leisureguy

1 May 2020 at 8:10 pm

A slew of hotels are heeding cities’ pleas for help. Trump’s aren’t.

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Of course they aren’t. Anita Kumar reports in Politico:

New York City needs more space — additional field hospitals, rooms for medical workers, shelters for the homeless. But President Donald Trump’s flagship property remains open and isn’t among the 20-plus hotels that have offered up empty rooms.

It’s a situation playing out across the country. In the seven American cities with Trump luxury hotels, no local officials said the Trump properties were in discussions to house overflow patients or medical personnel.

In three cities — New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C. — the president’s properties are still open, even though they have few guests, according to hotel, union and city officials and industry representatives. In four other cities — Las Vegas, Miami, Honolulu and Charlottesville, Va. — Trump’s properties are closed.

The Trump hotels aren’t alone. Thousands of hotels in New York and elsewhere have not responded to the voluntary requests of local and state officials, though they could do so later as the outbreak grows. Hotels that are used for shelters or housing — as opposed to hospitals — might even be able to keep some employees on staff.

“The city is actively working to expand our hospital capacity and increase the number of beds as quickly as possible,” said Omar Bourne, press secretary at the New York City Emergency Management Department. “We are exploring all options, including using hotels as medical surge facilities.”

At the White House podium, Trump has repeatedly praised private businesses for their assistance in helping the federal government fight coronavirus — talking up projects to help people get tested, efforts to overhaul assembly lines to make much-needed medical supplies and projects to feed children who are home from school.

The White House’s official Twitter account has even praised hotels for housing medical workers during the pandemic. “Thank you to hotels around the country for providing healthcare workers and first responders a place to stay while they’re on the front lines of the pandemic,” the post read.

Yet the president’s own businesses have not yet stepped into the breach, a fact Trump’s critics were quick to pounce on but that most state and local officials didn’t want to directly address.

“It’s entirely unsurprising,” said Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), a House Oversight Committee member who has pushed for investigations into whether Trump’s businesses are illegally profiting from U.S. taxpayers and foreign governments. “It never occurred to me the business would engage in philanthropic activity.” . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

11 April 2020 at 1:24 pm

Help a person penalized for speaking up

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Written by Leisureguy

5 April 2020 at 9:51 pm

Bill Gates’s Charity Paradox

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Tim Schwab writes in the Nation:

Last fall, Netflix premiered a three-part documentary that promises viewers a rare look at the inner life of one of history’s most controversial businessmen. Over three hours, Inside Bill’s Brain shows us a rare emotional side to Bill Gates as he processes the loss of his mother and the death of his estranged best friend and Microsoft cofounder, Paul Allen.

Mostly, though, the film reinforces the image many of us already had of the ambitious technologist, insatiable brainiac, and heroic philanthropist. Inside Bill’s Brain falls into a common trap: attempting to understand the world’s second-richest human by interviewing people in his sphere of financial influence.

In the first episode, director Davis Guggenheim underlines Gates’s expansive intellect by interviewing Bernie Noe, described as a friend of Gates.

“That’s a gift, to read 150 pages an hour,” says Noe. “I’m going to say it’s 90 percent retention. Kind of extraordinary.”

Guggenheim doesn’t tell audiences that Noe is the principal of Lakeside School, a private institution to which the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has given $80 million. The filmmaker also doesn’t mention the extraordinary conflict of interest this presents: The Gateses used their charitable foundation to enrich the private school their children attend, which charges students $35,000 a year.

The documentary’s blind spots are all the more striking in light of the timing of its release, just as news was trickling out that Bill Gates met multiple times with convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein to discuss collaborating on charitable activities, from which Epstein stood to generate millions of dollars in management fees. Though the collaboration never materialized, it nonetheless illustrates the moral hazards surrounding the Gates Foundation’s $50 billion charitable enterprise, whose sprawling activities over the last two decades have been subject to remarkably little government oversight or public scrutiny.

While the efforts of fellow billionaire philanthropist Michael Bloomberg to use his wealth to win the presidency foundered amid intense media criticism, Gates has proved there is a far easier path to political power, one that allows unelected billionaires to shape public policy in ways that almost always generate favorable headlines: charity.

When Gates announced in 2008 that he would step away from Microsoft to focus his efforts on philanthropy, he described his intention to work with and through the private sector to deliver public-goods products and technologies, in the same way that Microsoft’s computer software expanded horizons and created economic opportunities. Describing his approach by turns as “creative capitalism” and “catalytic philanthropy,” Gates oversaw a shift at his foundation to leverage “all the tools of capitalism” to “connect the promise of philanthropy with the power of private enterprise.”

The result has been a new model of charity in which the most direct beneficiaries are sometimes not the world’s poor but the world’s wealthiest, in which the goal is not to help the needy but to help the rich help the needy.

Through an investigation of more than 19,000 charitable grants the Gates Foundation has made over the last two decades, The Nation has uncovered close to $2 billion in tax-deductible charitable donations to private companies—including some of the largest businesses in the world, such as GlaxoSmithKline, Unilever, IBM, and NBC Universal Media—which are tasked with developing new drugs, improving sanitation in the developing world, developing financial products for Muslim consumers, and spreading the good news about this work.

The Gates Foundation even gave $2 million to Participant Media to promote Davis Guggenheim’s previous documentary film Waiting for Superman, which pushes one of the foundation’s signature charity efforts, charter schools—privately managed public schools. This charitable donation is a small part of the $250 million the foundation has given to media companies and other groups to influence the news.

“It’s been a quite unprecedented development, the amount that the Gates Foundation is gifting to corporations…. I find that flabbergasting, frankly,” says Linsey McGoey, a professor of sociology at the University of Essex and author of the book No Such Thing as a Free Gift. “They’ve created one of the most problematic precedents in the history of foundation giving by essentially opening the door for corporations to see themselves as deserving charity claimants at a time when corporate profits are at an all-time high.”

McGoey’s research has anecdotally highlighted charitable grants the Gates Foundation has made to private companies, such as a $19 million donation to a Mastercard affiliate in 2014 to “increase usage of digital financial products by poor adults” in Kenya. The credit card giant had already articulated its keen business interest in cultivating new clients from the developing world’s 2.5 billion unbanked people, McGoey says, so why did it need a wealthy philanthropist to subsidize its work? And why are Bill and Melinda Gates getting a tax break for this donation?

These questions seem especially pertinent in light of the fact that the donation to Mastercard may have delivered financial benefits to the Gates Foundation; at the time of the donation, in November 2014, the foundation’s endowment had substantial financial investments in Mastercard through its holdings in Warren Buffett’s investment company, Berkshire Hathaway. (Buffett himself has pledged $30 billion to the Gates Foundation. )

The Nation found close to $250 million in charitable grants from the Gates Foundation to companies in which the foundation holds corporate stocks and bonds:  . . .

Continue reading.

Wealth seems to have quite a corrosive effect on ethics and morality — partly, I suppose, because wealth confers power, which is notoriously corrupting. Doubtless this effect is the motivation for Jesus’ warning against wealth.

Written by Leisureguy

22 March 2020 at 10:28 am

Inside the secret food bank that keeps farmworkers from going hungry

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This is a good article about one aspect of the US: how it grinds the poor into the dust. The dateline on this piece is Watsonville CA, which is just up the road from where I lived — between Monterey and Santa Cruz. Patricia Lee Brown writes in the Christian Science Monitor:

The early winter storms gathering in the Pacific bring welcome rains to California’s tinder-dry landscape. But for farmworkers picking strawberries for less than minimum wage, the rains signal the end of the harvest season and regular work, and deliver a downpour of hunger and worry.

That’s why about 170 indigenous Mexican women from Oaxaca line up for hours in an alley to obtain sacks of produce, diapers, and other essentials from a secret food bank once a month. For those who spend grueling days harvesting America’s bounty, this surreptitious pop-up – organized solely by word of mouth – provides a safe place for accessing free, nutritious food and supplies without fear of deportation by la migra, or U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE).

Once the self-proclaimed “Frozen Food Capital of the World,” this predominantly Latino agricultural city of 53,900 is located in Santa Cruz County, the least affordable county in the state for renters.

Though synonymous with beaches and surfer dudes, the county is home to some of the country’s most vulnerable – the thousands of indigenous farmworkers in California, an unknown number of unauthorized residents, who live in severely substandard conditions and speak a variety of pre-Columbian languages rather than English or Spanish.

The stealth food operation – not far from the canneries where striking workers rallied in the 1980s – is meant to take a bit of the edge off. It is organized by Ann López, in conjunction with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Cruz County. An emerita professor, “Dr. Ann” as she is known, started a nonprofit called the Center for Farmworker Families after interviewing numerous agricultural laborers for her Ph.D. dissertation. “There was a family with four little girls crying for food,” she recalls. “I opened the refrigerator and they had a head of lettuce, one third of a gallon of milk, and two Jell-O cups. That was it. What I found was a population inordinately poor and suffering.”

The “devil’s fruit”

Ernestina Solorio, who has legal status to work in the U.S., spends 10 hours a day, six days a week in the fields during the season. Strawberries are among the most labor-intensive crops, known as la fruta del diablo, or the devil’s fruit, for the hours it takes hunched over low-to-the-ground berries to pluck them without bruising.

Ms. Solorio earns $20,000 in a good year, well above average for a farmworker but also well under the federal poverty rate for Ms. Solorio’s family of four children. Sky-high rents eat up roughly 75% to 80% of a farmworker’s income, and a typical scenario is paying $600 a month for a family to sleep in a living room, says Gretchen Regenhardt, regional directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, which provides legal services for low-income communities.

The math is grim: about $200 a month after rent to pay for everything else. “The work won’t pick up again until mid-April, depending on the weather,” Ms. Solorio explains. “That’s why so many of us are stressed.”

From a makeshift staging area in a garage, her compatriots file past tables piled high with diapers, laundry detergent, and toilet tissue, all while juggling toddlers in pajamas and babies nestled in blankets or shawl rebozos (traditional baby carriers).

Some dig through piles of donated clothes before moving on to the main event – repurposed onion bags heavy with sweet potatoes, carrots, cabbage, kale, and other fresh vegetables and smaller white plastic bags filled with rice, lentils, and canned goods from the USDA. Strollers double as grocery carts. Those on foot weighed down by 30 pounds of goods teeter gingerly down the alleyway.

“You would never see this concentration of Oaxacans,” says Ms. López, dressed for the season in a bright red sweater and snowman earrings. “They are always hiding in the fields or their apartments.”

On edge, then a respite

Fears about ICE raids – such as the arrest of 680 people in agricultural processing plants in Mississippi this past August – ricochet through the community, as did the massacre at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, that was fueled by anti-Hispanic and anti-immigrant zealotry.

The Trump administration’s proposed changes to federal immigration rules mean that people could be denied status as lawful permanent residents if they receive food stamps, Medicaid, or housing vouchers. In August, Ken Cuccinelli, acting director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigrant Services said: “Give me your tired and your poor who can stand on their own two feet and will not become a public charge.” If the rules survive legal challenges, the linking of food stamps to immigration status would have a chilling effect, increasing poverty, hunger, and poor health in vulnerable communities, advocates say.

In contrast, the underground food bank is “creating circles and spaces of trust or confianza” for indigenous farmworkers, writes Dvera Saxton, an assistant professor of anthropology at California State University, Fresno, in an email.

A monthly phone tree alerts people to the food bank’s hidden locale. “I never dreamed it would expand to the whole community,” says Dominga, who is an unauthorized resident and fears for her family’s safety. She pulls a pink notebook out of her spangly backpack to show off a roster of names and numbers written in impeccably neat handwriting. Her family of six resides in a living room cordoned off from the kitchen by a blanket. There have been as many as 16 people living in the 1,000 square foot house: there are currently 10. Mornings begin with lines for the bathroom. The smell of spices from an unrelated family’s chili permeate the blanket. “It’s hard and sad to share with another family,” Dominga says. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

29 December 2019 at 2:52 pm

Researchers Find A Remarkable Ripple Effect When You Give Cash To Poor Families

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It’s the opposite of strip-mining the poor: it’s pump-priming economic activity. Nurith Aizenman reports for NPR:

Over the past decade there has been a surge of interest in a novel approach to helping the world’s poor: Instead of giving them goods like food or services like job training, just hand out cash — with no strings attached. Now a major new study suggests that people who get the aid aren’t the only ones who benefit.

Edward Miguel, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of the study, says that until now, research on cash aid has almost exclusively focused on the impact on those receiving the aid. And a wealth of research suggests that when families are given the power to decide how to spend it, they manage the money in ways that improve their overall well-being: Kids get more schooling; the family’s nutrition and health improves.

But Miguel says that “as nonprofits and governments are ramping up cash aid, it becomes more and more important to understand the broader economy-wide consequences.”

In particular, there has been rising concern about the potential impact on the wider community — the people who are not getting the aid. A lot of them may be barely out of poverty themselves.

“There’s a fear that you just have more dollars chasing around the same number of goods, and you could have price inflation,” says Miguel. “And that could hurt people who didn’t get the cash infusion.”

So Miguel and his collaborators teamed up to conduct an experiment with one of the biggest advocates of cash aid. It’s a charity called GiveDirectly that, since 2009, has given out more than $140 million to impoverished families in various African countries.

The researchers identified about 65,000 households across an impoverished, rural area of Kenya and then randomly assigned them to various groups: those who got no help from GiveDirectly and a “treatment group” of about 10,500 families who got a one-time cash grant of about $1,000.

“That’s a really big income transfer,” notes Miguel. “About three-quarters of the income of the [recipient] households for a year on average.” It also represented a flood of cash into the wider communities where they lived. “The cash transfers were something like 17% of total local income — local GDP,” says Miguel.

Eighteen months on, the researchers found that, as expected, the families who got the money used it to buy lots more food and other essentials.

But that was just the beginning.

“That money goes to local businesses,” says Miguel. “They sell more. They generate more revenue. And then eventually that gets passed on into labor earnings for their workers.”

The net effect: Every dollar in cash aid increased total economic activity in the area by $2.60.

But were those income gains simply washed out by a corresponding rise in inflation?

“We actually find there’s a little bit of price inflation, but it’s really small,” says Miguel. “It’s much less than 1%.”

The study — recently released through the website of the National Bureau of Economic Research — also uncovered some evidence for why prices didn’t go up: A lot of local businesses reported that before the cash infusion they weren’t that busy.

“They may be a shopkeeper that doesn’t really have that many customers [because] it’s a poor area. They may be someone working at a grain mill that only has one or two customers an hour.”

So when they suddenly get more customers, they don’t have to take extra steps like hiring more workers that would drive up their costs — and their prices. In economic parlance, there was enough “slack” in the local economy to absorb the injection of cash.

Eeshani Kandpal is an economist with the World Bank who has done research of her own on cash transfers — including a study that found that a cash aid program in the Philippines did drive up the cost of certain perishable food items.

But Kandpal says the lens she and her collaborators applied was narrow — focusing on a limited set of food items in an area where local businesses were particularly isolated. This meant they were likely to face extra difficulties shipping in additional supplies to meet stepped-up demand.

By contrast, the new study has a far broader scope, says Kandpal — encompassing not just a much larger number of participants but a vast range of goods and businesses whose pricing practices the researchers meticulously monitored.

“It’s a super credible, interesting study,” says Kandpal. “And very carefully done.”

Her main caveat about the results concerns the timing.

“I’d be curious to see if they persist in the longer run,” she says. “Eighteen months is certainly not short. But it’s not terribly long either.”

Indeed, some studies of one-time cash grants have suggested that over time those who did not get the aid ultimately catch up to those who did — reaching similar levels of income and other measures of well-being.

But Michael Faye, co-founder and president of GiveDirectly, says even if it turns out that a one-time cash infusion provides only a temporary boost, “I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing.” After all, he points out, during the period people are getting the boost, their lives are substantially better. And that has become all the more significant “when we now know that the people not receiving cash may also be benefiting indirectly.”

The finding also adds a new twist to an argument that GiveDirectly has been making about how donors should judge their noncash aid programs. The charity has long maintained that donors should ensure that any noncash program provides more benefits than simply giving recipients an equivalent amount of cash. . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

3 December 2019 at 3:11 pm

Prologue to “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World”

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Anand Giridharadas has written an important book for the present moment, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World. To get a better understanding of why I write that, here is the prologue to the book. Read and see what you think.

PROLOGUE

All around us in America is the clank-clank-clank of the new—in our companies and economy, our neighborhoods and schools, our technologies and social fabric. But these novelties have failed to translate into broadly shared progress and the betterment of our overall civilization. American scientists make the most important discoveries in medicine and genetics and publish more biomedical research than those of any other country—but the average American’s health remains worse and slower-improving than that of peers in other rich countries, and in certain years life expectancy actually declines. American inventors create astonishing new ways to learn thanks to the power of video and the Internet, many of them free of charge—but the average twelfth grader tests more poorly in reading today than in 1992. The country has had a “culinary renaissance,” as one publication puts it, one farmers’ market and Whole Foods at a time—but it has failed to improve the nutrition of most people, with the incidence of obesity and related conditions rising over time. The tools for becoming an entrepreneur appear to be more accessible than ever, for the student who learns coding online or the Uber driver—but the share of young people who own a business has fallen by two-thirds since the 1980s. America has birthed a wildly successful online book superstore called Amazon, and another company, Google, has scanned more than twenty-five million books for public use—but illiteracy has remained stubbornly in place and the fraction of Americans who read at least one work of literature a year has dropped by almost a quarter in recent decades. The government has more data at its disposal and more ways of talking and listening to citizens—but only one-quarter as many people find it trustworthy as did in the tempestuous 1960s.

A successful society is a progress machine. It takes in the raw material of innovations and produces broad human advancement. America’s machine is broken. When the fruits of change have fallen on the United States in recent decades, the very fortunate have basketed almost all of them. For instance, the average pretax income of the top tenth of Americans has doubled since 1980, that of the top 1 percent has more than tripled, and that of the top 0.001 percent has risen more than sevenfold—even as the average pretax income of the bottom half of Americans has stayed almost precisely the same. These familiar figures amount to three and a half decades’ worth of wondrous, head-spinning change with zero impact on the average pay of 117 million Americans. Meanwhile, the opportunity to get ahead has been transformed from a shared reality to a perquisite of already being ahead. Among Americans born in 1940, those raised at the top of the upper middle class and the bottom of the lower middle class shared a roughly 90 percent chance of realizing the so-called American dream of ending up better off than their parents. Among Americans born in 1984 and maturing into adulthood today, the new reality is split-screen. Those raised near the top of the income ladder now have a 70 percent chance of realizing the dream. Meanwhile, those close to the bottom, more in need of elevation, have a 35 percent chance of climbing above their parents’ station. And it is not only progress and money that the fortunate monopolize: Rich American men, who tend to live longer than the average citizens of any other country, now live fifteen years longer than poor American men, who endure only as long as men in Sudan and Pakistan.

Thus many millions of Americans, on the left and right, feel one thing in common: that the game is rigged against people like them. Perhaps this is why we hear constant condemnation of “the system,” for it is the system that people expect to turn fortuitous developments into societal progress. Instead, the system—in America and around the world—has been organized to siphon the gains from innovation upward, such that the fortunes of the world’s billionaires now grow at more than double the pace of everyone else’s, and the top 10 percent of humanity have come to hold 90 percent of the planet’s wealth. It is no wonder that the American voting public—like other publics around the world—has turned more resentful and suspicious in recent years, embracing populist movements on the left and right, bringing socialism and nationalism into the center of political life in a way that once seemed unthinkable, and succumbing to all manner of conspiracy theory and fake news. There is a spreading recognition, on both sides of the ideological divide, that the system is broken and has to change.

Some elites faced with this kind of gathering anger have hidden behind walls and gates and on landed estates, emerging only to try to seize even greater political power to protect themselves against the mob. But in recent years a great many fortunate people have also tried something else, something both laudable and self-serving: They have tried to help by taking ownership of the problem.

All around us, the winners in our highly inequitable status quo declare themselves partisans of change. They know the problem, and they want to be part of the solution. Actually, they want to lead the search for solutions. They believe that their solutions deserve to be at the forefront of social change. They may join or support movements initiated by ordinary people looking to fix aspects of their society. More often, though, these elites start initiatives of their own, taking on social change as though it were just another stock in their portfolio or corporation to restructure. Because they are in charge of these attempts at social change, the attempts naturally reflect their biases.

The initiatives mostly aren’t democratic, nor do they reflect collective problem-solving or universal solutions. Rather, they favor the use of the private sector and its charitable spoils, the market way of looking at things, and the bypassing of government. They reflect a highly influential view that the winners of an unjust status quo—and the tools and mentalities and values that helped them win—are the secret to redressing the injustices. Those at greatest risk of being resented in an age of inequality are thereby recast as our saviors from an age of inequality. Socially minded financiers at Goldman Sachs seek to change the world through “win-win” initiatives like “green bonds” and “impact investing.” Tech companies like Uber and Airbnb cast themselves as empowering the poor by allowing them to chauffeur people around or rent out spare rooms. Management consultants and Wall Street brains seek to convince the social sector that they should guide its pursuit of greater equality by assuming board seats and leadership positions. Conferences and idea festivals sponsored by plutocrats and big business host panels on injustice and promote “thought leaders” who are willing to confine their thinking to improving lives within the faulty system rather than tackling the faults. Profitable companies built in questionable ways and employing reckless means engage in corporate social responsibility, and some rich people make a splash by “giving back”—regardless of the fact that they may have caused serious societal problems as they built their fortunes. Elite networking forums like the Aspen Institute and the Clinton Global Initiative groom the rich to be self-appointed leaders of social change, taking on the problems people like them have been instrumental in creating or sustaining. A new breed of community-minded so-called B Corporations has been born, reflecting a faith that more enlightened corporate self-interest—rather than, say, public regulation—is the surest guarantor of the public welfare. A pair of Silicon Valley billionaires fund an initiative to rethink the Democratic Party, and one of them can claim, without a hint of irony, that their goals are to amplify the voices of the powerless and reduce the political influence of rich people like them.

The elites behind efforts like these often speak in a language of “changing the world” and “making the world a better place” more typically associated with barricades than ski resorts. Yet we are left with the inescapable fact that in the very era in which these elites have done so much to help, they have continued to hoard the overwhelming share of progress, the average American’s life has scarcely improved, and virtually all of the nation’s institutions, with the exception of the military, have lost the public’s trust.

Are we ready to hand over our future to the elite, one supposedly world-changing initiative at a time? Are we ready to call participatory democracy a failure, and to declare these other, private forms of change-making the new way forward? Is the decrepit state of American self-government an excuse to work around it and let it further atrophy? Or is meaningful democracy, in which we all potentially have a voice, worth fighting for?

There is no denying that today’s elite may be among the more socially concerned elites in history. But it is also, by the cold logic of numbers, among the more predatory in history. By refusing to risk its way of life, by rejecting the idea that the powerful might have to sacrifice for the common good, it clings to a set of social arrangements that allow it to monopolize progress and then give symbolic scraps to the forsaken—many of whom wouldn’t need the scraps if the society were working right. This book is an attempt to understand the connection between these elites’ social concern and predation, between the extraordinary helping and the extraordinary hoarding, between the milking—and perhaps abetting—of an unjust status quo and the attempts by the milkers to repair a small part of it. It is also an attempt to offer a view of how the elite see the world, so that we might better assess the merits and limitations of their world-changing campaigns.

There are many ways to make sense of all this elite concern and predation. One is that the elites are doing the best they can. The world is what it is; the system is what it is; the forces of the age are bigger than anyone can resist; the most fortunate are helping. This view may allow that this helpfulness is just a drop in the bucket, but it is something. The slightly more critical view is that this elite-led change is well-meaning but inadequate. It treats symptoms, not root causes; it does not change the fundamentals of what ails us. According to this view, elites are shirking the duty of more meaningful reform.

But there is still another, darker way of judging what goes on when elites put themselves in the vanguard of social change: that it not only fails to make things better, but also serves to keep things as they are. After all, it takes the edge off of some of the public’s anger at being excluded from progress. It improves the image of the winners. With its private and voluntary half-measures, it crowds out public solutions that would solve problems for everyone, and do so with or without the elite’s blessing. There is no question that the outpouring of elite-led social change in our era does great good and soothes pain and saves lives. But we should also recall Oscar Wilde’s words about such elite helpfulness being “not a solution” but “an aggravation of the difficulty.” More than a century ago, in an age of churn like our own, he wrote, “Just as the worst slave-owners were those who were kind to their slaves, and so prevented the horror of the system being realised by those who suffered from it, and understood by those who contemplated it, so, in the present state of things in England, the people who do most harm are the people who try to do most good.”

Wilde’s formulation may sound extreme to modern ears. How can there be anything wrong with trying to do good? The answer may be: when the good is an accomplice to even greater, if more invisible, harm. In our era that harm is the concentration of money and power among a small few, who reap from that concentration a near monopoly on the benefits of change. And do-gooding pursued by elites tends not only to leave this concentration untouched, but actually to shore it up. For when elites assume leadership of social change, they are able to reshape what social change is—above all, to present it as something that should never threaten winners. In an age defined by a chasm between those who have power and those who don’t, elites have spread the idea that people must be helped, but only in market-friendly ways that do not upset fundamental power equations. The society should be changed in ways that do not change the underlying economic system that has allowed the winners to win and fostered many of the problems they seek to solve. The broad fidelity to this law helps make sense of what we observe all around: the powerful fighting to “change the world” in ways that essentially keep it the same, and “giving back” in ways that sustain an indefensible distribution of influence, resources, and tools. Is there a better way?

The secretary-general of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a research and policy organization that works on behalf of the world’s richest countries, recently compared the prevailing elite posture to that of the fictional Italian aristocrat Tancredi Falconeri, who declared, “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” If this view is correct, then much of the charity and social innovation and give-one-get-one marketing around us may not be reform measures so much as forms of conservative self-defense—measures that protect elites from more menacing change. Among the kinds of issues being sidelined, the OECD leader, Ángel Gurría, wrote, are “rising inequalities of income, wealth and opportunities; the growing disconnect between finance and the real economy; mounting divergence in productivity levels between workers, firms and regions; winner-take-most dynamics in many markets; limited progressivity of our tax systems; corruption and capture of politics and institutions by vested interests; lack of transparency and participation by ordinary citizens in decision-making; the soundness of the education and of the values we transmit to future generations.” Elites, Gurría writes, have found myriad ways to “change things on the surface so that in practice nothing changes at all.” The people with the most to lose from genuine social change have placed themselves in charge of social change, often with the passive assent of those most in need of it.

It is fitting that an era marked by these tendencies should culminate in the election of Donald Trump. Trump is at once an exposer, an exploiter, and an embodiment of the cult of elite-led social change. He tapped, as few before him successfully had, into a widespread intuition that elites were phonily claiming to be doing what was best for most Americans. He exploited that intuition by whipping it into frenzied anger and then directing most of that anger not at elites but at the most marginalized and vulnerable Americans. And he came to incarnate the very fraud that had fueled his rise and that he had exploited. He became, like the elites he assailed, the establishment figure who falsely casts himself as a renegade. He became the rich, educated man who styles himself as the ablest protector of the poor and uneducated—and who insists, against all evidence, that his interests have nothing to do with the change he seeks. He became the chief salesman for the theory, rife among plutocratic change agents, that what is best for powerful him is best for the powerless, too. Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of a culture that tasks elites with reforming the very systems that have made them and left others in the dust.

One thing that unites those who voted for Trump and those who despaired at his being elected is a sense that the country requires transformational reform. The question we confront is whether moneyed elites, who already rule the roost in the economy and exert enormous influence in the corridors of political power, should be allowed to continue their conquest of social change and of the pursuit of greater equality. The only thing better than controlling money and power is to control the efforts to question the distribution of money and power. The only thing better than being a fox is being a fox asked to watch over hens.

What is at stake is whether the reform of our common life is led by governments elected by and accountable to the people, or rather by wealthy elites claiming to know our best interests. We must decide whether, in the name of ascendant values such as efficiency and scale, we are willing to allow democratic purpose to be usurped by private actors who often genuinely aspire to improve things but, first things first, seek to protect themselves. Yes, government is dysfunctional at present. But that is all the more reason to treat its repair as our foremost national priority. Pursuing workarounds of our troubled democracy makes democracy even more troubled. We must ask ourselves why we have so easily lost faith in the engines of progress that got us where we are today—in the democratic efforts to outlaw slavery, end child labor, limit the workday, keep drugs safe, protect collective bargaining, create public schools, battle the Great Depression, electrify rural America, weave a nation together by road, pursue a Great Society free of poverty, extend civil and political rights to women and African Americans and other minorities, and give our fellow citizens health, security, and dignity in old age.

This book offers a series of portraits of this elite-led, market-friendly, winner-safe social change. In these pages, you will meet people who ardently believe in this form of change and people who are beginning to question it. You will meet a start-up employee who believes her for-profit company has the solution to the woes of the working poor, and a billionaire investor in her company who believes that only vigorous public action can stem the rising tide of public rage. You will meet a thinker who grapples with how much she can challenge the rich and powerful if she wants to keep getting their invitations and patronage. You will meet a campaigner for economic equality whose previous employers include Goldman Sachs and McKinsey, and who wonders about his complicity in what he calls “the Trying-to-Solve-the-Problem-with-the-Tools-That-Caused-It issue.” You will meet one of the most powerful figures in the philanthropy world, who stuns his rich admirers by refusing to honor the taboo against speaking of how they make their money. You will meet a former American president who launched his career with a belief in changing the world through political action, and then, as he began to spend time with plutocrats in his post-presidential life, gravitated toward private methods of change that benefit rather than scare them. You will meet a widely lionized “social innovator” who quietly nurses doubts about whether his commercial approach to world-changing is what it is cracked up to be. You will meet an Italian philosopher who reminds us what gets sidelined when the moneyed take over change.

What these various figures have in common is that they are grappling with certain powerful myths—the myths that have fostered an age of extraordinary power concentration; that have allowed the elite’s private, partial, and self-preservational deeds to pass for real change; that have let many decent winners convince themselves, and much of the world, that their plan to “do well by doing good” is an adequate answer to an age of exclusion; that put a gloss of selflessness on the protection of one’s privileges; and that cast more meaningful change as wide-eyed, radical, and vague.

It is my hope in writing what follows to reveal these myths to be exactly that. Much of what appears to be reform in our time is in fact the defense of stasis. When we see through the myths that foster this misperception, the path to genuine change will come into view. It will once again be possible to improve the world without permission slips from the powerful.

 

Written by Leisureguy

7 May 2019 at 11:18 am

How the poor became blessed

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One intriguing thing about Christianity is how Jesus totally focused on the common people: not those in power (judges, priests, representatives of Rome) and not the wealthy (merchants, bankers), but on the common people. And this came from his Judaism, which had always been conscious of the poor and one’s obligation to them (perhaps as a result of the years in Egypt).

At any rate, how did care for the common person evolve as a Christian meme?

Pieter van der Horst, a scholar specialising in New Testament studies, Early Christian literature, and the Jewish and Hellenistic context of Early Christianity, professor emeritus in the faculty of theology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands and author of many books, including Studies in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity, writes in Aeon:

In Greco-Roman culture, the well-to-do weren’t expected to support and help the poor. The Greek and Latin verbs for ‘doing good, being beneficent’ never have ‘the poor’ as their object, nor do they mean ‘almsgiving’. The Greek word philanthrôpia doesn’t have the sense of our modern philanthropy. One is philanthrôpos towards one’s own people, family, and guests – not towards the poor. And eleêmosynê (from which ‘alms’ is derived), in the sense of showing pity or mercy for someone else, never has the poor as its primary object. Ancient Greek moralists didn’t admonish people to concern themselves about the fate of the poor. And while generosity was praised as a virtue, the poor were never singled out as its object; it was always directed to humans in general, provided that they deserved it.

When Greeks did speak about the joy of giving to others, it has nothing to do with altruism, but only with the desired effects of giving: namely honour, prestige, fame, status. Honour is the driving motive behind Greek beneficence, and for that reason the Greek word philotimia (literally, ‘the love of honour’) could develop the meaning of ‘generosity, beneficence’, not directed towards the poor but to fellow humans in general, especially those from whom one could reasonably expect a gift in return. These were the ‘worthy ones’ because they acknowledged and respected the principle of reciprocity (quid pro quo), one of the pillars of ancient social life, which was simply stated by the poet Hesiod around 700 BCE: ‘Give to him who gives, but do not give to him who does not give (in return).’ Even though some ancient moralists occasionally said that in the best form of beneficence one does not expect anything in return from the beneficiary, the pervasive view was that a donor should be reimbursed one way or another, preferably with a gift greater than the donor himself had given.

Religion was not much help to the poor: they simply weren’t the favourites of the gods. There was a Zeus Xenios (for strangers) and a Zeus Hiketêsios (for supplicants), but there was no Zeus Ptôchios (for the poor), nor any other god with an epithet indicating concern for the needy. It was rather the rich who were seen as the favourites of the divine world, their wealth being the visible proof of that favour. The poor could not pray for help from the gods because they were poor, for their poverty was a disadvantage in their contact with the gods. This was the implication of the common belief that the poor were morally inferior to the rich. They were often regarded as more readily inclined to do evil; for that reason, their poverty was commonly seen as their own fault. No wonder that they were not seen as people deserving help, and that no organised charity developed in Ancient Greece or Rome. In such societies, giving alms to the poor could not be seen as a virtue, as care for them was often regarded as a mere waste of resources.

The distributions of corn to the population by city states or emperors in times of need cannot pass for organised charity because the corn was given to all citizens in equal measure (not only to the poor). The poor didn’t get more than the rich, and even the poorest class of society was never singled out for especially favourable treatment. All this applies to the Ancient Romans no less than to the Greeks. When a Roman is generous towards others, it is not because they are poor but because he expects to get something in return, and because it confers honour and status upon him. Beneficia are for fellow citizens, not for the poor.

Since the beneficiary was usually expected to give something in return, the benefaction could become a burden. ‘There are some who even hate their benefactors,’ said Menander the playwright. But the idea of reciprocity was deeply ingrained in ancient society, and giving remained one of the chief ways of acquiring status within the social or political group. Neither Ancient Greek nor Roman shrank from admitting that striving after honour was the decisive motive for generosity. The Roman philosopher and orator Cicero wrote that ‘most people are generous in their gifts not so much by natural inclination as by the lure of honour’. And Pliny the Younger pithily agreed: ‘Honour must be the consequence’ of generosity.

While care for the poor, let alone organised charity, was a non-item in Greco-Roman antiquity, it is a central concern in the Jewish Bible. Caring for the poor is seen as a major duty and virtue not only in the Torah of Moses, but also in the Prophets and other biblical writings. Most significantly, God is seen as the protector of the poor and the rescuer of the needy. They are his favourites and the objects of his mercy, regarded as humble before God and therefore often as pious and righteous.

That is not to say that we will find a positive evaluation of poverty here – the poor are ‘righteous’ only insofar as they are the innocent victims of injustice, and poverty does not automatically translate into piety, but it does seem to make one closer to God. In a courtroom, an Ancient Greek could invoke his opponent’s poverty in order to cast a dubious light on his character – this strategy was not available to a biblical Israelite.

The Torah urges Israel to be generous towards the poor in their midst. The prophets warn repeatedly against oppressing the poor and the needy. A ‘day acceptable to the Lord’ is the day on which the people share their bread with the hungry, bring the poor into their house, and clothe the naked. In the book of Job, the protagonist’s efforts to help the poor are emphasised as laudable. The poor were to be allowed to harvest the borders or corners of the fields and vineyards, and the sabbatical year was instituted in order that the poor might eat. The biblical adage ‘Open your hand to the poor’ encapsulates the Jewish Bible’s approach to charity.

In spite of the fact that there is much concern for the poor in the Bible, there still is no organised charity. Of course, some of the Torah’s commandments are in a sense collective measures, but it is still left to the individual whether or not to carry them out, since there is no central organisation to oversee its implementation.

The post-biblical Sentences of Pseudo-Phocylides, a Jewish wisdom poem of 230 hexameters written in Greek, exemplify this private (as opposed to communal or organised) concern for the poor. In the opening section, the author wrote: ‘Do not oppress a poor man unjustly, do not judge him by his appearance,’ a sentiment repeated further on: ‘Give a labourer his pay, do not oppress a poor man.’ Then it says: ‘Give to a beggar at once and do not tell him to come tomorrow. Fill your hand and give alms to the needy.’ And again some lines further on: ‘When you have wealth, stretch out your hand to the poor. From what God has given you provide for those in need.’

When in the first 30 lines of his poem the author turns five times to the importance of taking care of the poor, it is evident how much value he attaches to this part of his message. The utterly un-Greek motif of love for the poor is one of his main concerns. But again, as in the biblical texts, it is all about private charity.

It is only in the early rabbinic period, especially the 2nd century CE, that we have concrete indications for institutional charity organised by the local synagogues. There were two such institutions: the quppah and the tamhuy. The quppah was the money chest to support the local poor, who received a weekly allotment; the tamhuy was the soup kitchen that was open on a daily basis to any poor person in need of a meal, including non-Jews.

The administrators of the synagogues appointed charity wardens who collected money every Friday, and others for the daily food collection and distribution. These officers were even allowed to exert some pressure on the members of the community in order to make sure that there would be enough to meet all needs. In order to prevent voluntary impoverishment, however, nobody was allowed to donate more than one-fifth of his property. It is significant that in the saying of Simon the Just, doing deeds of loving kindness is one of the three pillars upon which the world is standing, a remarkably un-Greek idea. Elsewhere, deeds of loving kindness are said to be equal to all the commandments of the Torah. Often, the motive for doing such deeds was the expectation of being rewarded by God, especially in the hereafter.

In rabbinic literature, it is stated repeatedly that the best way of giving to the poor is by doing it in such a way that nobody sees it happen or sees how much is being given. A gift to the poor must be made privately, with no one else present. A person who gives alms in secret is greater than Moses, says Rabbi Eleazar in the Talmud (he added that the gentiles give alms only for reasons of self-aggrandisement).

Whether every Jew lived up to this ideal is questionable in light of what the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount:

So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their award. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

Whatever one thinks about the authenticity of this saying, its critical note must reflect some form of reality; there must have been concrete practices that made these remarks relevant. And, in a sense, one could say that the many honorary donor inscriptions found in ancient synagogues prove that the Jews were not immune from the honorific ‘epigraphic habit’, although they are of a later date and do not concern alms but gifts to the community at large. But the sentiment expressed by Jesus above reflects the same mood as the one we find in rabbinic literature. . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 7:04 pm

Anand Giridharadas on elite do-gooding: ‘Many of my friends are drunk on dangerous BS’

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Lucia Graves writes in the Guardian:

Anand Giridharadas was surprised this September when Google invited him to their offices, given his outspoken criticism of tech giants. “I applaud whoever it was who invited me or did not read my book,” Giridharadas said to a few tepid laughs.

Afflicting the comfortable is a talent honed by Giridharadas, and his talk about breaking up monopolistic companies like Google and checking the power of its elite executives – while speaking at Google – is only one recent example.

A former McKinsey consultant-turned New York Times columnist, Giridharadas is now a bestselling author. His recent book, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, torches the privileged circles he has moved in much of his adult life, and is rooted in insider knowledge.

The book stems from a speech he was asked to give several years ago to the Aspen Institute, a thinktank that organizes exclusive ideas conferences for the wealthy and powerful, as part of a program designed to raise up a “new breed of leaders” and solve “the world’s most intractable problems”. Instead he delivered an electrifying critique, arguing the “change makers” and “thought leaders” in America’s winners-take-all economy – once again, the very people he was speaking to – are less helping the world through their various philanthropic efforts than propping up the broken system that made them.

Giridharadas first gained access to the high-flying group he censures in 2011 when he was selected as part of a group of distinguished fellows for the Aspen Institute. Giridharadas was a strange pick, as not only the youngest member at 29, but also the sole journalist in a group composed largely of rising stars in the business world (the 2018 fellows group is composed almost entirely of CEOs).

Still, he made fast friends with his Aspen compatriots, and even officiated one of their weddings. Soon he found himself flying around in their private jets and mingling with them in ostentatious mansions.

The unstated thesis behind their being chosen by Aspen was clear: that the people best-equipped to protect the interests of the poor are the rich and rich adjacent.

Giridharadas was bothered by it, and particularly by how the program seemed to encourage elite participants from tech giants and hedge funds to start philanthropic side-hustles doubling as vanity projects, rather than find ways to do less harm in their day jobs. (At a Goldman Sachs-sponsored lunch put on at a fellowship reunion, for instance, the corporate giant’s role in the 2008 financial crisis went unmentioned as its do-gooding was praised.)

And so, given an opportunity to speak at an Aspen gathering in 2015, Giridharadas behaved like the journalist he is. Instead of presenting what was expected, he called things as he saw them. “I love this community, and I fear for all of us – myself very much included – that we may not be as virtuous as we think we are, that history may not be as kind to us as we hope it will, that in the final analysis our role in the inequities of our age may not be remembered well,” he said, to an aghast audience that included Madeleine Albright, the former US secretary of state, and prominent writerslike himself.

The book that grew out of that moment is unsparing in its criticism and sometimes even strident. Giridharadas mercilessly mocks the wealthy who would change everything but the rules that enabled and protect their status, and ridicules their coinage of notions like “win-win”, the idea that there’s no tension between doing well for yourself and doing good for others.

Perhaps no one better emulates the failure of the “win-win” ethos than the Sackler family, Giridharadas writes. Their pharmaceutical empire helped make them one of America’s wealthiest and most philanthropic families, with wings of universities and concert halls named after them – including an entire Smithsonian museum. But they’ve also profited off America’s opioid crisis, which the US Department of Justice and others have accused them of fueling through their aggressive and misleading marketing of the widely used drug OxyContin. Their company agreed to pay $635m in fines in 2007, a pittance compared with how lucrative the drug had been. Now, in precisely the kind of the “win-win” model that Giridharadas reviles, the family’s patriarch, Richard Sackler, is working to fight the opioid epidemic – and make money doing it – by patenting a new drug to help wean people off opioids.

Giridharadas also calls special attention to the Clinton Global Initiative, Bill Clinton’s recently defunct annual gathering that extracted charitable commitments from corporations and plutocrats in exchange for some good PR and image laundering. “They fly here because they see investment opportunities; they see branding opportunities,” Giridharadas quotes Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundation, saying of the conference: “It’s this idea that you can support a health initiative in Nigeria or the Niger Delta to reduce disease or diarrhea or whatever, and you can also make an investment in a company that is a polluter in the Niger Delta.”

And yet Giridharadas wants to do more than just shame people – he wants to have a conversation, and with people whom he considers his peers. “Many of my friends are drunk on dangerous bullshit. However, they’re still my friends,” he says.

It’s been called a traitor-to-its-class kind of book, and though it wasn’t written per se for the elites it excoriates, it does appear to have their attention. The 2015 speech was first written up by David Brooks, a New York Times columnist who was in attendance and is no stranger to the ideas circuit Giridharadas excoriates. And when the book first came out, renowned economist Joseph Stiglitz took to the pages of the Times to urge philanthropic plutocrats to “read a copy of this book while in the Hamptons this summer”.

It has also found deeper resonance in a country still searching for explanations of the last presidential election. “It’s hard for me to think of anything better designed to burn down this age of business fundamentalism, this age of market worship than the flamboyant failure of the faux billionaire, faux savior Donald Trump,” Giridharadas says.

Trump’s campaign was boosted by the same logic by which America’s wealthy “saviors” deem themselves fit to lead, he argues: that their familiarity with and even greedy exploitation of America’s financial and political systems somehow makes them uniquely qualified to fix them.

Giridharadas admits he’s long been repelled by the notion that, for instance, the best course of action for young would-be world savers is to get an MBA. And his book rails against what he sees as a central myth that’s taken hold in American culture: that training at Goldman Sachs or a stint at McKinsey is somehow essential, or even particularly relevant, to making good policy or a meaningful understanding of the world.

He chafes at the quick, self-aggrandizing solutions hawked by the people who speak at ideas conferences. And so, perhaps, it follows that when pressed for solutions, he bristles. “This is a book about tearing down dogma,” he says. “It’s trying to convince you that other people’s unfounded dogma have hijacked the discourse,” he adds. “I don’t have a substitute dogma to replace this dogma with.”

In a way his resistance makes sense. He doesn’t want to be the anti-thought leader leading the charge against thought leading, after all. And he’s all for reform, but only once the problem has been fully considered, which, by the way, he thinks it almost never is.

“It’s the winners who want these solutions,” he says, to mask their desire for premature absolution. “I think the desire for solutions and takeaways itself has an agenda,” he adds. “I think takeaway culture is a big part of why we’re here: because we’re not willing to think any more and understand the complexity of these problems, and sit with them.”

He sounds some hopeful notes, provocatively quoting the billionaire Vinod Khosla as saying . . .

Continue reading.

Written by Leisureguy

14 March 2019 at 9:44 am

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