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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.


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

Trump’s Crooked Foundation Dissolves, But Investigation Continues

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Jonathan Chait again, in New York. Read it. The conclusion:

. . . It is worth noting that the Clinton Foundation’s comparatively puny conflicts of interest attracted vastly more campaign coverage than the Trump Foundation did. In a normal presidency — i.e., one not beset by numerous other investigations — the Trump Foundation probe would be five-alarm fire news. Indeed, it does pose a very serious ongoing threat to Trump and his family members. The details that have emerged already in public, even before the investigation has concluded, reveal the foundation as a vehicle for what is basically straight-up theft. And since the investigation is occurring at the state level, Trump’s pardon power, which only applies to federal crimes, is useless.

We are definitely in the endgame.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 December 2018 at 3:30 pm

Scam report: How the More Than Me Charity Gamed the Internet and Hollywood to Win a Million Dollars

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Fascinating (if disgusting) report in ProPublica (and TIME magazine) by Finlay Young. The blurb:

Katie Meyler’s gambit involved a Silicon Valley darling, payments to a social media marketer in Pakistan and a broken promise to a philanthropist with some very famous friends.

Written by LeisureGuy

10 December 2018 at 12:38 pm

Exercise, Eat Well, Help Others: Altruism’s Surprisingly Strong Health Impact

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That Jesus! He certainly knew what He was talking about! Frank Martela writes in Scientific American:

Most people still seem to be ignorant about the impact such other-oriented behavior can have on their own well-being. Fortunately, several researchers have already stepped in to investigate this important question. A research team from the University of British Columbia gave a group of older participants with high blood pressure money to spend. On three consecutive weeks they were each given $40. Half the participants were instructed to spend the money on themselves; the rest were asked to spend it on someone else—buy a gift for a friend, donate to a charity or otherwise benefit others with the money.

A few weeks afterward the researchers measured the blood pressure of both groups. It turned out the blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) of those participants who had spent money on others had significantly decreased as compared with the subjects who spent the money on themselves. Moreover, the decrease in blood pressure was similar in size to the effect of starting high-frequency exercise or a healthier diet.

Aiding others can even help you live longer. A study of older adults compared receiving social support and giving it as predictors of mortality over a period of five years. Whereas it would be intuitive to think receiving such support would be good for oneself, theresults showed it was giving social support that predicted longevity: Those who provided instrumental support to friends, relatives and neighbors as well as those who provided emotional support to their spouses were more likely to be alive at the end of the study period compared with less pro-social participants. These results held true even when the researchers controlled for various demographic factors such as health, mental health, personality and marital status.

More than 10 studies have also demonstrated regular voluntary work predicts longevity. Helping behavior can even buffer against the negative effect that stress typically has on mortality: Among 846 participants around Detroit, stressful events predicted subsequent mortality among people who did not provide help to others in the past year but not among those who did.

Also, being the caregiver of an ailing loved one is often assumed to be a burden for the former. Although the stress and sorrow associated with seeing your spouse fade away is clearly a heavy burden, the active help provided to the spouse might still have a positive effect on caregiver longevity. A national study of over 3,000 elderly marriedindividuals showed those who spent at least 14 hours a week providing active care to their spouses actually lived longer, when controlled for demographic and health variables.

And as if longevity and better health would not be enough, providing support for others also tends to make the helper happier. In one of my own studies I invited a group of students to play a simple game on a computer where they had to match words with their synonyms. Half of the participants just played the game whereas the others were told that for every answer they get right, a small donation is made to the United Nations World Food Programme to help end hunger. After playing, this latter group experienced more positive emotions and reported finding the game more meaningful.

Similarly, Lara Aknin from Simon Fraser University has shown that when half the people are given $5 to spend on themselves and the rest $5 to spend on others, the latter group is happier afterward. And this is not only true in her home country Canada but across the world from Uganda and South Africa to India (pdf). She even went to a small-scale, isolated rural village on the island of Vanuatu in the Pacific. Eventhere purchasing goods for others led to more positive emotions than purchasing them for oneself. There thus seems to be something rooted in our very human nature that makes helping feel good across cultures. This is corroborated by neurological studies that haveconfirmed charitable donations indeed activate the reward centers of the brain.

A dose of good deeds toward others, then, can thus be a good medicine for improving one’s physical and mental health.

Of course, even here . . .

Continue reading. There’s more.

Later in the article:

Adam Grant, an expert on pro-social giving at The Wharton School, has emphasized: “There’s a big difference between pleasing people and helping them.” One should choose when and how to help, instead of being pushed to assist whomever happens to ask.

Written by LeisureGuy

12 September 2018 at 4:30 pm

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