Archive for November, 2010

Gobble, gobble (and then some)

Thursday, November 25th, 2010

I’m on vacation the week of November 29. I’ll be back to posting on Tuesday, December 7. Happy Thanksgiving!


Social distance and the season of giving

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday, and developing some themes I’ve pursued along the way on this blog, the depersonalized nature of charity can, when done a certain way, make the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government even more fragile.

What might be ways philanthropy could do the opposite, make that equilibrium less fragile? Not by making people believe in government more, though I guess that might be a nice change of pace these days, but by helping people understand the experience of those in need in a different way.

As for example, not being “in need,” primarily, but having assets and needing some missing component – a connection, an idea, the inspiration, the space, the opportunity – to deploy those to their fullest effect. And to build more assets. To undermine the narrative of shirking – which erodes faith in government, when people believe (probably falsely, as it turns out) that shirkers get a free ride – philanthropy can replace it with a narrative of potential fulfilled. Look what these members of our community have to offer, how can we afford to miss it, etc.

So think about that when you’re judging fundraising appeals this holiday season. Are the appeals solely about need? Or do they talk about how your support helps those in need build assets to be more self-sufficient? Do they help you understand the situation of the people you’re meant to be helping? Or do they harp on your guilt, further reinforcing the social distance between you and those the nonprofit’s helping? The more we tell and see stories about those in need in ways that bring us closer to them and to understanding them as like us – that lessen rather than increase social distance – the less justification those who would tell us that government is the enemy have to peddle their narrative.

“Get Off My Lawn” vs. “I Gave at the Office”

Tuesday, November 23rd, 2010

Last week, I developed the idea of needlessly fragile equilibria, states of political balance that are thrown out of whack by false beliefs, which generate unreasonable expectations. Faith in government is one of these, and it’s way out of balance these days.

Jeff Weintraub has a recent post on related issues, “Can democracy work when people are idiots?” It talks about patently false beliefs American voters have about the nature and size of different government expenditures, and how these generate self-contradictory expectations about how to reduce the size of government.

This is related to the idea that people hold unreasonable expectations about their fellow citizens, assuming there are shirkers all about who are leaching off government largesse. You dislike them, and you think the government is either stupid for believing their sob stories or actively complicit in rewarding their shirking. In either case, the needlessly fragile equilibrium of faith in government is thrown out of balance.

How is one’s view of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector affected in such a scenario? Is the problem really the shirking or the public largesse? If it’s the shirking, then you wouldn’t be inclined to give to charity. Call this the “Get Off My Lawn” position: go away taxman, go away charity fundraiser. If the problem is public largesse, and you don’t object to those in need receiving help, but just to having public funds appropriated for that purpose, then you’d probably be generous to charity. Call this the “I Gave at the Office” position: go away taxman, c’mon over charity fundraiser.

For these types of (non)givers, the depersonalized nature of charity in the contemporary world reinforces their positions. If people’s experience of the need for which funds are being raised is arm’s-length, this does nothing to change the (false) beliefs they hold about those in need. Not that that’s any particular charity’s job, necessarily, to change those beliefs, but it points to the role philanthropy can sometimes play in a democratic society. Done a certain way, it reinforces the needless fragility of the equilibrium of faith in government.

What might be another way? Tomorrow, I’ll consider some alternatives, in the context of the “season of giving” that’s coming upon us.

Needlessly fragile equilibria (or, faith in government)

Thursday, November 18th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday about where the pathological hatred of government comes from: the thing that economics tries to teach you is that all organizations are fundamentally the same – the state, a gang, a corporation; they’re all more or less effective solutions to the collective-action problem, and their dynamics can all be understood in similar terms. From this perspective, it’s not surprising that governments are corrupt, because the urge to shirk is so hard to resist that any time there’s the slightest breakdown in the equilibrium that holds an institution together, there’ll be shirking, i.e., corruption. Life is hard because many equilibria are fragile; it takes a lot to create relatively stable ones.

“All organizations are fundamentally the same – the state, a gang, a corporation.” What political science teaches you is that can’t possibly be true, because of the beliefs people hold about each of those kinds of institutions, and the expectations that they hold about them. Expectations shape incentives, and expectations are fundamentally psychological, social, relational, and above all malleable. Talk to a politician or PR pro. From this perspective, it may not be surprising that governments are corrupt because the urge to shirk is so hard to resist, but it’s also not surprising that people get bent out of shape when a government is corrupt than when a gang is corrupt or a corporation is corrupt. Because our expectations about those three types of organization are fundamentally different, based on beliefs and experience.

And experience. The remarkable thing about American democracy is how often people actually experience getting a fair shake. This is a tremendous reinforcement of beliefs. But the equilibrium, going back to economics, is a very fragile one. If people think that others are shirking and getting away with it, it really gets their goat.

Here we come to a reason why people dislike the government so much. They think it rewards shirkers, that people are getting away with it. But if beliefs shape expectations shape incentives, then someone please tell me where ordinary folk in this country got the idea that poor folks who need help from the safety net are getting away from something. Why is the default assumption that having a hard time means you’re shirking? It seems like the equilibrium supporting faith in government has been made more fragile than it needs to be by what are almost surely completely false ideas about our fellow citizens. To understand why people hate the government so much, we’d have to understand where those beliefs come from.

Next week, I’ll get into what implications this has for philanthropy, the depersonalized nature of charity in the contemporary world, and the season of giving that’s about to come upon us.

Just two entries next week, Tuesday and Wednesday, before Thanksgiving, then I’m on vacation for a week.

Homer Simpson and the rule of law

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday on where the pathological hatred of government comes from: there’s a kind of credulousness in American life (he says with love) that’s both hopelessly naive and profoundly inspirational. We expect institutions not to seek to actively screw us over. We expect the rules to function relatively impartially. When what institutions say and what they do are in conflict, we get so upset.

Usually, this is reflected in our role as consumers – you should hear how exasperated I get about customer service on the phone sometimes. (I’m always civil to the individual rep and recognize it’s not their fault and focus on the company’s policies, but I get plenty peeved: petulant, even.) “Entitlement” is usually talked about in terms of social welfare programs, but I feel like we Americans, so many of us, feel profoundly entitled to have things work out according to the rules. And the kicker is, they do, a significant proportion of the time.

This is a remarkable state of affairs! With so little precedent in all of human history! With so little analog in the rest of the world today! You should get down on your knees and give thanks when that happens, when the rules work as they should, when you get a fair shake from institutions no matter your background or family or where you’re from. It is a remarkable, wonderful, beautiful state of affairs. It doesn’t always happen, but that it does as much as it does is incredible.

I’m reminded of Homer Simpson’s famous discourse on the pig: “Oh yeah, right, like bacon, and ham, and pork chops all come from the same animal – the same magical, wonderful animal.” And yet, Homer, such an animal does exist – it’s called the rule of law and the democratic system in the U.S. It’s fat like a pig, it’s unhealthy like a pig, you might not get the cut you really like (there’s only so much bacon), but mmm-mmm, it sure does taste good.

Yes, but *why* do people hate the government so?

Tuesday, November 16th, 2010

I went to the post office this morning and had a perfectly pleasant experience: the staff were friendly and helpful, the products seemed reasonably priced. It got me thinking: Where does the pathological dislike and distrust of government that characterizes today’s political climate come from?

  • Tax time: Yes, it’s a hit, but it’s once a year – do people really look at every single paycheck and resent the bite anew, when it’s the same each pay period?
  • The DMV: frustrating, but at most, once every year.
  • The post office: can be up and down, but these days, do most people use it all that much, and besides, aren’t the automated postal centers relatively convenient?
  • Regulation/permits: I can imagine getting a zoning permit, or a building permit, or an event permit, could easily get frustrating. But again, how often does that happen?

I just don’t get it. How much contact does your average Tea Partier have with the government? It seems like people have been whipped up into a frenzy over something that’s not necessarily all that present in their lives – having been convinced that government is bad on principle. This is very dangerous.

I remain unconvinced about where this anti-government strain of thinking comes from. Something else is going on here….

The comfort of strangers (freedom isn’t free, part 3)

Thursday, November 11th, 2010

Continuing from yesterday on my ambivalence about the marketization of everyday life: how this relates to philanthropy is the professionalization of charity. This has two dimensions: people helping strangers through direct service, and people giving to strangers.

I’m coming from the assumption, probably false, that the default position for most human communities throughout most of history was that you help people that you know, directly. Charity, to the extent that it functioned, functioned in this way. Potlatch, mutual aid, etc.¬†For that to evolve into the kind of philanthropy we know, two things had to happen: groups had to be set up for the express and sole purpose of helping others, and people had to become willing to give to those groups even when they wouldn’t know the beneficiaries.

Religious institutions long had charitable components, but as part of a larger mission. I’m talking about equivalents of our modern nonprofits – groups set up with only the charitable component, the direct service element, in mind. But that’s not sufficient: people had to be willing to give those, separate from their giving (tithing, service, etc.) to religious institutions.

What I’m after here is that philanthropy is emblematic of a depersonalization of charity, of turning something that was originally a very human, face-to-face, community-based relationship into something that, at the extreme, is automatic, arm’s-length, and principle-based. Like a monthly donation via checking-account withdrawal to an NGO that supports international development.

Again, I’m not saying this is a bad thing, necessarily, just observing that it is part of a broader trend of marketizing the relationships of daily life, and that there is reason to be profoundly ambivalent about that trend.

Freedom isn’t free (part 2)

Wednesday, November 10th, 2010

Well, that was certainly an election. One of the things about the current political climate that’s most frustrating to me and I think ultimately most dangerous for the health of our democracy is the meme of free-market fundamentalism. I generally think of “meme” as kind of a lame term, and I’m leery of metaphors that equate ideas with viruses or diseases, but I think it’s fair to say that there’s a strain of free-market fundamentalism circulating in the body politics that certain groups, politicians, and parties are more or less susceptible to at different times and in different circumstances.

Only the latest example is kind of a silly one, but symptomatic. A group of Tea Party supporters in Fountain Hills, Arizona are upset about a proposed new method of municipal trash collection because it goes against free-market principles. Not because it costs too much, not because it’s inefficient, not because users weren’t consulted before the change was made (if any of those is even the case) – but on principle, because it consolidates from several carriers to one, and that smacks of “collectivism” or “socialism.” Again, kind of a silly example, but one that’s symptomatic of a broader tendency to view government vs. markets in simple, dichotomous, asymmetric terms, as essentially good vs. evil.

Now there are two things that always get my goat about this. One won’t surprise you given the content of this blog, the other may. The one is, governments and markets are not a dichotomy, they’re symbiotic. Markets need governments to establish and enforce the ground rules, including property rights, terms of trade, and a legal system. What’s more, governments often help markets get going by limiting the initial terms of competition and establishing a playing field in which market actors emerge. A view of the world in which “the market” is a timeless, placeless, yet omnipresent and naturally occurring phenomenon obscures the fact – the fact – that markets are made.

OK, that’s not too surprising given what I’ve been writing on this blog. But the other thought that these topics recurrently provoke for me is the way a form of market thinking can actually be liberating in its depersonalizing of conflict. The arm’s-length, transactional approach to human relations enacted in markets can sometimes be a corrective to the tribalist, hyper-personalized approach embodied in many traditional cultures and ways of life. This is the flip side of one of the undertheorized elements of market relations – how they corrode traditional customs and ways of life.

I say “undertheorized” because we have plenty of examples, so it’s not an understudied phenomenon – locavorism emerges as a reaction to the corporatization of agriculture, for instance. But we don’t often make the connection that it’s a way of viewing the world – in which markets are everywhere, and everyone is acting as a market actor, in every sphere of their lives, even personal life – that undermines many of the things we love most – loyalty, community, family, etc.

But what I’m getting at is one step beyond that: an ambivalence about that undermining, a gut feeling that in many contexts, it can actually be a good thing, because it liberates you from orthodoxy, from doing things a certain way because that’s the way we’ve always done them. And in particular, that depersonalizing conflict by putting it in market-actor terms – rather than nationalistic or tribalistic terms – may actually be a step toward resolution.

I’ll need to unpack these ideas further, but this is a start at laying out some thoughts that are ultimately closely connected to my two questions: what is the role of philanthropy in a democratic society, and what would it mean to democratize philanthropy?

Update on Indonesia relief effort

Tuesday, November 9th, 2010

Before my hiatus last week, I posted about the incipient relief efforts to people affected by the earthquake and tsumani in the Mentawai region of Indonesia late last month, as part of my ongoing series about the six emerging economies captured by the label “CIVETS.” Since then, the following US organizations have set up relief efforts. You can donate in US dollars online to the Save the Children one, and also donate more generally to Mercy Corps, which does this kind of work across the world.

There may be others I’m missing.

Part of the challenge getting relief aid to these communities is that they’re very remote. Indonesia is an archipelago nation, and when the weather doesn’t cooperate, it can apparently be very difficult to move from one island to the other, such as with relief supplies.

And don’t forget the principles of smart disaster giving that finally began filtering into the public consciousness around Haiti:

  • Give cash, not goods.
  • Support organizations that have existing relationships on the ground, it makes the process more efficient and means that more relief gets their sooner. (Note that Save the Children highlights how they’ve had a presence in Indonesia since 1976.)
  • Give to the long-term recovery effort, not just immediate relief.
  • Be OK with the fact that because of what it costs to have an effective on-the-ground response, your dollar now may get into the field weeks or even months later, or on another disaster. Relief orgs need revolving sources of funding, and it’s not like you’re going to say, “no, don’t help those other people in the next disaster.” It’s like providing general operating support, give the organization that’s proven its ability to get help to those who need it the latitude to use the funds in the most effective way. (A donation to Mercy Corps in this case would be akin to that. Also, Save the Children’s giving opportunity is the their “Indonesia Children in Emergency Fund,” which likely has more flexible applications. Be aware of and OK with that.)

One-week hiatus

Wednesday, November 3rd, 2010

I’ll be on hiatus this week of November 2.

I’ll be back on November 9.