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Archive for June, 2010

Re: Friday Links

Well, another blog “feature” goes in the dustbin today. I’ve decided I no longer have the energy to put together links every Friday, and I don’t know how much value the feature was adding. I honestly don’t know how Mark Thoma and others do it on a daily basis. I think I’ve been over-consuming information, so I’m trying to take a more measured approach to blogging, but that’s a topic for another day. Anyways, I have a post lined up for later that should be interesting and a little different. Happy Friday.

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Two years ago, I spent a semester studying in Uganda, two weeks of which were dedicated to studying grassroots development. We were exposed to several approaches- community-based advocacy, collective savings and loans arrangements, and grassroots skills and capacity building. With the exception of our visit to an AIDS advocacy group that had rendered a visit (and then funding) from Prince Charles at one point, most of these efforts revolved around internal resource pooling, rather than resource extraction through the political system.

While experiencing all of this, I was continuously trying to see how the Alinksy model of relational power building could apply in an LDC. For the unacquainted, Alinksy posited that there are two types of power- organized people and organized money. The only way for citizens to achieve results in the political space is to organize themselves around issues in their self-interest and demand accountability from their elected officials. At the time, my perception of this approach’s applicability in a less-developed context was blurred by the idea that in a poor country, there aren’t many resources to be extracted. If budgets are being supported by donors, then what crumbs are left over for collective action?

I hadn’t thought about this issue much since I left Uganda. However, this weekend, I was fortunate to encounter a pastor and community organizer from Rwanda at a social justice retreat at my church. John Rutsindintwarane, now secretary general of the Lutheran Church of Rwanda, spoke about his experiences applying the Alinksy model in his local parish. He learned the model after a chance encounter led him to a training led by PICO, an organization of faith-based community organizations on the West Coast. He took on the work of holding relational meetings with villagers in Mumeya, in Rwanda’s Eastern province. 22 villagers of all ages and genders were elected as an organizing committee, and within 4 months, had conducted 2,000 hours of one-on-one meetings.

They learned that the most pressing issue was the lack of a health center, and decided to build a health clinic. They began the construction themselves, but to complete the project they secured meetings with political figures, starting with the mayor, and slowly worked their way up the political food chain, eventually meeting with the Minister of Health. The relational nature of the organization provided the power to hold accountable politicians who might otherwise take advantage of diffuse interests and lack of information. The health clinic was built with the help of funding from the government, improving the lives of 17,000 local citizens, and now Fr. John is working with priests in a number of other parishes to train them in community organizing. Their organization is called Congregations Rebuilding Community in Rwanda.

My posts on this blog tend to operate at a much more abstract level, so forgive me for zooming out for a second- there is a broader economic lesson to be learned. While it’s unclear how scalable this approach is in an LDC, it is clear that there are resources to be had. For the last decade, the World Bank in particular has turned its focus to governance issues, which are most often relevant for a simple reason- weak institutions lead to wasted resources. A number of academic economists now pay lip service to the importance of strengthening civil society organizations to improve accountability. However, I’ve never seen this type of community organizing advocated. Maybe they don’t realize it, but when economists talk about institutions and civil society, it’s this type of community organizing that they’re ultimately calling for. Whether we’re talking about Rwanda, Washington DC, London, or even the US at large, there are resources to be had. There are also powerful forces and hidden incentives marshalling those resources to various interests. The best way for ordinary citizens to get their share is to create their own power by organizing. I now believe this is true in any context, and I’m grateful for having met Fr. John to learn from his experiences.

For more information about CRCR, visit their page on PICO’s website.

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Maxine Udall has a great post about Adam Smith and his belief in societal progress based on ethics. Here’s an excerpt:

Smith viewed society as progressing to greater “opulence” and more virtue. However, he recognized that moral sentiments are shaped by a society’s practices…[individuals] will over time shape norms and institutions, which in turn will cause moral sentiments to progress.

Or regress.

It is when I come to this part of Smith that the 18th century no longer brings comfort to me. I find myself asking…How does failure to hold investment bankers and rating agencies accountable affect the hard-wired sense of fairness and the moral sentiment of resentment that many of us feel? If BP is not held accountable, how will that trickle down and shape the moral sentiments of the citizenry? Will our inner impartial moral arbiter waiver as we confront decisions about how we should act toward our neighbor, our community, and our nation?

Adam Smith believed humanity (or at least England) was progressing in wealth and in ethics. To date, we have all tended to focus on the financial aspects of these crises in corporate judgment and management. I’m pretty sure Adam Smith would also have noticed that the potential for moral hazard extends far beyond the relatively unscathed main players. There will almost certainly be a moral trickle down that corrupts production and exchange at all levels of our society. An advanced, technologically complex nation that cannot or will not achieve the basics of accountability and restitution (aka justice) with financial and corporate entities that have harmed its citizenry deeply and lastingly is (I very much fear) evidence of the beginnings of a failed state. That the failure will be economic and moral, as well as political, is probably no coincidence.

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The dairy farmer

rawvolution

Organic Pastures Dairy Farm founder Mark McAfee invented and built North America’s first and only “mobile milk barn,” which allows dairy cows to graze and roam in pastures  without having to return to the barn for milking. This circumvents many of the problems associated with factory farming, for example there is no need for manure “lagoons” that contaminate water tables. And it provides milk that is completely organic and from grass fed cows.

But the family owned and operated farm goes beyond organic: they sell their milk raw. That is, the milk is not pasteurized. I am not going to get too much into the debate over raw vs. pasteurized milk, but there do seem to be many people claiming benefits to the immune system because the bacteria promote biodiversity in the intestines. And studies show that 90% of lactose intolerant people can drink raw milk. (If this debate interests you, read more here or here or let me know what you think.)

Even if  you want to try raw milk, however, state laws make it very difficult as it is illegal to sell it in most states. In some, it can only be sold if labeled as pet food. Of course there are ways to circumvent those laws; since you can drink milk from your own cows, some people buy “cow shares” and purchase raw milk from local farmers. But perhaps in an attempt to protect the consumers, lawmakers have actually made or more difficult to stay healthy.

[This post is the fourth in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

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I certainly do not intend to provide the answer to this question in a blog post. But via NPR’s Planet Money blog, it does seem to be on many people’s minds. Type in “Why is” to google:

Google

The Planet Money team has had some very interesting stories on poverty in Haiti, and most recently they did a podcast on why India has such poverty:

In India, there are a handful of billionaires, and 400 million people without electricity

India’s GDP growth has been around a staggering 8% per year for the better part of the last decade, and yet so many people are still destitute, not having felt the effects of that growth. Growth has helped some a great deal and others not at all. A standard interpretation, given in the podcast by economist Kaushik Basu is that there is a natural propensity for increasing inequality to accompany growth. Market forces encourage growth, but have nothing to say about equality, and that is where the government has a role to play. The debate ensues over whether inequality is something we should live with or try to soften through market intervention.

The story left out some important aspects of the discussion that should not be forgotten. First are Amartya Sen’s warnings about obsession over the national income indicators. He writes in Development as Freedom that:

The most important thematic deficiency of traditional development economics is its concentration on national product, aggregate income, and total supply of particular goods rather than on “entitlements” of people and the “capabilities” these entitlements generate.

While the traditional indicators are not useless, Sen argues that development should focus on what people can or cannot do, such as “whether they can live long, escape avoidable morbidity, be well nourished, be able to read and write and communicate, take part in literary and scientific proofs, and so forth.” The promotion of these entitlements should be the goal of development economics in that it allows for an authentic human flourishing. This can lead to a very different type of discussion surrounding the policy recommendations for a developing country.

Another economist, Howard J Wiarda, wrote an article “Toward a Nonethnocentric Theory of Development: Alternative Conceptions from the Third World” which argued that development theories are socially and historically contingent. Having emerged in the West, these theories have a Western bias that can be harmful to the Third World, by undermining traditional institutions such as extended family/clan linkages, religious movements, and historical authority relations. It seems that we are largely forgetting these aspects of economic development that will make practitioners more sensitive to the possible tradeoffs of Western-oriented development and traditional institutions.

The last theorist I want to mention is Andre Gundre Frank, who reminds development practitioners that history is important in “The Development of Underdevelopment.”

We cannot hope to formulate adequate development theory and policy for the majority of the world’s population who suffer from underdevelopment without first learning how their past economic and social history gave rise to their present underdevelopment

He challenges the commonplace claim, advocated by people like Jeffrey Sachs, that development occurs as a succession of stages up a ladder of economic growth. The world looks vastly different today than it did when the U.S. and the Europe developed, and indeed the current situation of uneven development can only be understood in a historical context. The underdeveloped state is not solely a product of internal obstacles in each country. For India, this would mean recognizing the significance of post-colonial influences and especially religious influences in the economic life.

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FLASH: THOSE WHO ARE POLITICALLY CONSERVATIVE/LIBERTARIAN ALSO HAVE CONSERVATIVE/LIBERTARIAN ECONOMIC VIEWS (AND ARE GENIUSES ZOMG)

That’s not the headline for this inane WSJ article about an inane poll, but it should be. The headline is instead, “Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader? Self-identified liberals and Democrats do badly on questions of basic economics.”

Consider one of the economic propositions in the December 2008 poll: “Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable.” People were asked if they: 1) strongly agree; 2) somewhat agree; 3) somewhat disagree; 4) strongly disagree; 5) are not sure…

The other questions were: 1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (unenlightened answer: disagree). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (unenlightened answer: disagree). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (unenlightened answer: disagree). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (unenlightened answer: agree). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (unenlightened answer: agree). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (unenlightened answer: agree). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (unenlightened answer: disagree).

Here they are, best to worst, with an average number of incorrect responses from 0 to 8: Very conservative, 1.30; Libertarian, 1.38; Conservative, 1.67; Moderate, 3.67; Liberal, 4.69; Progressive/very liberal, 5.26.

It’s wholly unremarkable that respondents’ political beliefs, which are often determined, or at least mutually reinforced, by their economic beliefs, are correlated with these answers.

The only question/answer I can’t quibble with is 4, which is a matter of semantics. The rest are contentious questions, some even within the mainstream. Question 5, in particular, would receive an automatic “strongly agree” from anyone working even loosely within the Marxian framework (which, by implication, is unenlightened). Some readers of this blog will be disappointed that there wasn’t a question reading, “Deficits are bad (unenlightened answer: disagree)”. Apparently that question is too settled to make the cut in this poll.

In any event, I don’t really have much else to say about this, just that it made my eyes bleed. I’m just going to hit “publish” so I don’t have to think about this anymore. Mind. Numbing.

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The chef

Image: Braise Culinary School

David Swanson, a chef who has worked in Chicago and Milwaukee for the past 20 years, is working to “reconnect people to their food.” He does this in two ways. Swanson teaches cooking courses, often on farms or in woods, that focus on preparing meals using locally available ingredients. Many of those who attend these classes are part of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) group, and want to learn how to prepare the food they receive each week.

You can also eat out at Swanson’s locally sourced restaurant in Milwaukee, Braise. Swanson started Wisconsin’s first Restaurant Supported Agriculture network, modeled off of the CSA’s programs that many people participate in. The locally sourced restaurant model is promoted as a savory way to support family farms and stewardship for the environment.

By offering classes and a locally sourced restaurant option, Swanson is encouraging a transformation of our agricultural system from one that is unhealthy and unsustainable to one that serves the interests of the producers, the consumers, and the land that we depend on.

[This post is the third in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

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According to today’s newscast from DemocracyNow.org, the number of financial sector lobbyists has grown greatly over the past year.  Amy Goodman reports,

A new study says Wall Street lobbying firms continue to draw large numbers from former lawmakers and government officials.  The groups Public Citizen and The Center for Responsive Politics say over 1400 former members of Congress, Capitol Hill staffers, and federal employees have registered as financial sector lobbyists since 2009.  The number includes at least 73 former lawmakers and 148 ex-staffers connected to the House or Senate banking committees.  More than 40 lobbyists formerly worked for the Treasury department.

The full report is available here.  The list of former lawmakers includes two former Senate majority leaders, two former House majority leaders, and a former speaker of the house.  There are former staffers of Congresspersons on financial committees past and present.  One of my own Senators, Herb Kohl (D-WI), who sits on the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, has no fewer than five former staffers who have registered as financial sector lobbyists in the past year.

As for who’s hiring these lobbyists, the usual suspects top the list.  Citigroup, Inc. takes the number one position with using 60 “revolving door” lobbyists in 2009-2010.  Prudential and Goldman Sachs have 47 each and JP Morgan Chase has 33.

Other than the former lawmakers, the names of the lobbyists are not household names.  The lobbyist most in demand is Michael B Levy, former Senior Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury, who the report says now has 25 financial sector clients.  And Levy is by no means alone in this number.  Including him, there are 52 lobbyists who have at least 13 financial sector clients, all of whom have similarly frightening resumes.

These lobbyists are returning to their friends and former bosses in office, offering the same advice they offered the last time around.  Is there any hope for meaningful financial reform?

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This week we talked about Israel; another oil spill; the UN and veganism; compulsory voting; and an agriculture revolution (part one and two).

Here are some other interesting links:

Serious Links

Matt Yglesias discusses the blockade, which this Economist chart  and Yousef Munayyer show is on much more than weaponry

Spencer Ackerman lays down some pragmitism on Israel

Paul Street says that oil production needs to be democratically expropriated– MRZine

Otaviano Canuto on cultural heritage and poverty reduction- World Bank

Larry Summers’ memo on pollution speaks to the current oil spills

Are environmental groups in the pocket of BP?

This animation shows where all that oil will go

Is Obama expanding secret wars?- WaPo

Is Wal-Mart U a good thing? You decide- WaPo

Jeff Madrick reviews Michael Lewis’ The Big Short– NYRB

Diversions

Remember Larry Craig? Somehow the Daily Show got him to sit down for an interview.

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the green horns

[This post is the second in a series that looks at six very different efforts to build a more sustainable food system in the United States. These efforts challenge us to think about food as not just a commodity, but more as a relationship with the Earth.]

The number of farmers in the United States has been plummeting since the 1950s, and the ones that still actively farm are getting closer to retirement. Here is a group that is trying to change that be recruiting young farmers. A ‘greenhorn’ is a new entrant into agriculture, and The Greenhorns is an organization run for and by young farmers that seeks to promote, recruit, and support young farmers in the US.

The organizations views small-scale, organic agriculture as a way to spread health to the farmers, the soil, and the social fabric of our society. They view farming as not just work, but as a service and a privilege, and a patriotic livelihood.   Their work is part of a wider campaign for agricultural reform to a food system that does not hurt some people so that others can make money, but instead one where everyone can benefit from.

Now boasting a network of over 3,000 young farmers between the coasts, The Greenhorns plans many events, provides information to farmers, and lobbies for a Farm Bill from Washington that is more friendly to family-farming agriculture. Find out more at their website: www.thegreenhorns.net

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