Archive for October, 2006

The Economics of Global Warming

October 30, 2006

The British government recently released a new report by Sir Nicholas Stern, former chief economist for the World Bank, which affirmed the urgent need to address global climate change. The report is of particular interest as “the first major contribution to the global warming debate by an economist, rather than an environmental scientist.”

In the press conference today, Tony Blair talked about global climate change as an economic disaster. I think this is a very appropriate perspective to take. Global climate change wouldn’t really be a planetary disaster. Earth has experienced global climate change innumerable times in the past. It has always adapted. No matter what we do, the planet will recover. Millennia will pass, species will adapt and evolve, and life will go on. Global Climate Change isn’t going to cause the extinction of humanity. The species is more resilient than that.

But our foolishness could cause economic and social catastrophe around the globe. Depressions that may surpass the global depressions of the 1930s, fuel and energy shortages to make the 1970s look like a cakewalk, even famines and mass displacement of populations would all be well within the realm of possibility. Such combustible conditions could conceivably wreak havoc with governments and even lead to widespread violence on an unprecedented level is certainly.

In discussing government environmental action (I believe he was talking specifically about the Kyoto Protocol and the administration’s refusal to accept the protocol’s terms), Dick Cheney has asserted that the American lifestyle is non-negotiable. In a sense he was right. When a lifestyle is quite simply unsupportable, no amount of negotiation can maintain that lifestyle. We have two choices: We can either deliberately choose now to adjust that lifestyle in an organized manner through careful planning, or we can blithely wait until the consequences of our recklessness cause our lifestyle to collapse around us in a catastrophe that could rival anything seen in hundreds of years.

Which shall we choose?

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Notes from the Campaign

October 28, 2006

It’s interesting to watch a political campaign from close range, as I’ve been able to do with Rob Miller’s campaign for Davis County Commission. Actually, I can’t honestly say I’ve been watching “close up.” I haven’t been able to be as involved as I would like, because of some personal issues, competing demands, and some communication mix-ups on my part. I feel bad about it, and hopefully over these next two weeks I can do more (I was just released from the Elders Quorum Presidency and made Gospel Doctrine teacher, which will reduce some of the other demands). I don’t think it would be honest to say I’ve been a “campaign manager” or coordinator. But I’ve helped where I can, spending a couple of hours a night several nights over the past week or so calling people, doing a little writing and design, giving feedback, etc. Hopefully its helped out.

In any case, I’ve been able to observe some things which I’ve never seen as a casual observer or outsider. When I think of political campaigns, I usually think of the prominent office races which are followed so closely in the news; president, senate, House of Representatives, Governor, state General Attorney, etc. They have their campaign staffs, TV and radio commercials, billboards, photo ops, soundbites, et al—most importantly, abundant war chests.

The local offices which can make such a difference in our day-to-day lives are very different from this glamorous picture. Rob is really determined to make a solid case to his prospective constituents. He is very personable, and articulate, and has a great deal of leadership experience. Unfortunately, as a Democratic candidate, he is waging a steeply uphill battle in staunchly conservative Davis County. Not only does he face the deeply ingrained distrust of Democrats in the county, but he is working with a local Democratic Party which lacks the organizational strength, funding, and sheer numbers of their Republican counterparts. He has been willing to most of his efforts himself. His opponent seems to have dozens of signs for each of Rob’s—let alone the billboards! Despite this, he has doggedly gone out to make waves, whether it be meeting with city and county leaders, attending any county functions to hand out flyers, or staying up all hours at night to get signs out.

That makes it all the more frustrating when I hear Rob lament the vandalism and theft of his signs. He has been dutiful in getting permission whenever he puts his signs on private property (I know—I’ve been helping get that permission).

I’m not suggesting this is a Republican tactic. While in this instance, Rob’s signs are the ones apparently being deliberately targeted, I’m certain this happens to hundreds of candidates of both parties across the nation. And I’m not talking about the petty and indiscriminant vandalism of ignorant youths. This sort of thing seems to be the malicious efforts of partisans—probably not coordinated or sanctioned by the leadership of either party at any level, but still motivated by partisan or ideological loyalty nonetheless.

I’m extremely disheartened to learn of political vandalism of any candidate. It is extremely disrespectful not only to the individual candidates and the time and money they spend, but to the freedom of expression which is such an integral part of our nation’s values. The efforts of partisan vandals are an insult to the political process in which we have the privilege to participate.

More on Social Entrepreneurship

October 28, 2006

It seems that the success and acclaim of Grameen Bank continues to attract attention for the social entrepreneurship. The NPR show A World of Possibilities did a great job of exploring the issue through the stories of other ventures similarly focused on improving communities and saving lives rather than merely profit—including the man who coined the term, Bill Drayton. Give it a listen.

As the show concluded, host Mark Sommer invited listeners to call in with examples of social entrepreneurship they had seen or experienced in their lives. I’m considering sharing the story of Signs of Hope International. SOHI is an organization dedicated to improving deaf education in Africa, a condition all too common in Africa due to a number of illnesses, and one with which many of the impoverished nations in Africa struggle to handle. Founded by a cousin, I have been privileged to help out SOHI with a few projects. I really enjoy the experience, and I hope that I can find more opportunities to use my skills to help such worthy causes.

The Bright Hope of Microcredit

October 17, 2006

Can a man make a difference in the world with just twenty-seven dollars?

Muhammad Yunus did.

In 1974, Professor Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi economist from Chittagong University, led his students on a field trip to a poor village. They interviewed a woman who made bamboo stools, and learnt that she had to borrow the equivalent of 15p to buy raw bamboo for each stool made. After repaying the middleman, sometimes at rates as high as 10% a week, she was left with a penny profit margin. Had she been able to borrow at more advantageous rates, she would have been able to amass an economic cushion and raise herself above subsistence level.

Realizing that there must be something terribly wrong with the economics he was teaching, Yunus took matters into his own hands, and from his own pocket lent the equivalent of £17 [$27] to 42 basket-weavers. He found that it was possible with this tiny amount not only to help them survive, but also to create the spark of personal initiative and enterprise necessary to pull themselves out of poverty (“The Autobiography of Muhammad Yunus”, Grameen Bank).

From that small beginning grew the power of microcredit.

Microcredit is the extension of very small loans to the unemployed, to poor entrepreneurs and to others living in poverty who are not bankable. These individuals lack collateral, steady employment and a verifiable credit history and therefore cannot meet even the most minimum qualifications to gain access to traditional credit. Microcredit is a part of microfinance, which is the provision of financial services to the very poor; apart from loans, it includes savings, microinsurance and other financial innovations (“microcredit,” Wikipedia).

Following that small success in loaning approximately twenty-seven dollars in loans to a group of impoverished women in Bangladesh, Yunus went on to found Grameen Bank, a bank which has loaned approximately 5.72 billion dollars in loans of an average of $100, of which 5.07 billion has been repaid. The loan recovery rate is over 98%—an astoundingly high rate for a bank. More importantly, millions of families have become economically self-sufficient through the efforts of the bank. Because of their success, numerous microcredit operations have risen up in other struggling areas of the globe.

For his efforts, Muhammad Yunus along with Grameen, has been awarded the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize.

With the award, Yunus has received a barrage of media attention. Among the most insightful news reports (some of which are older but have been reissued in the wake of the Nobel Peace Price) on Yunus and the microcredit phenomenon are:

I was fascinated by the story of Yunus and Grameen Bank when I first learned of their work through The New Heroes, a PBS miniseries documenting the work and successes of various social entrepreneurs. I was even more thrilled to learn of the Nobel Peace Prize a few days ago. Economic stability is crucial to social stability and true peace, and I’m glad that the Nobel Peace Prize committee recognized this and broadened its criteria in awarding its prize.

The story of Yunus and his pioneering use of microcredit fascinates me for a number of reasons. Some pundits have suggested that the performance of Grameen Bank indicates that we should take a second look at the value of traditional charity. Perhaps. But I believe it shows even more clearly the need to reexamine our belief in conventional economic models.

Grameen is not a charity. Like all banks, they are a business enterprise. However, they do not operate in the typical manner of a business enterprise. In conventional economic wisdom, self-interest is the reigning principle. Individuals and organizations are encouraged to pursue maximum profit; “Greed is good.” Traditional financial institutions therefore do not loan to those with no collateral. Seeking out the highest potential return,They loan to wealthy financial interests (ironically, the international banks focusing on that traditional market experience a much higher default rate than Grameen with its much “riskier” investments). In conventional economic theory, this is perfectly acceptable—even virtuous. As each entity seeks to maximize profit, all parties benefit. Everyone wins.

The reality is less attractive. Certainly the corporate interests reap the rewards of such a system. But we’ve seen little indication that “developing” nations are actually developing. Most find themselves further impoverished, with spiraling national debts and the gap between the rich and the poor increasing at breakneck speeds.

Yunus and other social entrepreneurs offer a better model. They endeavor to return the word “enlightened” to the phrase “enlightened self-interest.” Where traditional businesses seek profit, Yunus sought a means by which to aid his community. In doing so, he was able to establish a profitable business. How much better would our society be if most entrepreneurs followed that example? How much would we accomplish if all our businesses set about first and foremost to provide a service or product of genuine moral or ethical value to society, with profit being merely the a byproduct of their efforts?

Many mainstream economic apologists like to rightfully point out that the U.S. and international financial institutions like the World Bank pour a great deal of money, both loans and other, into developing nations. What they neglect to mention are the conditions typically attached, and where that capital is targeted. Much of the aid is very consciously intended to bind those nations to global markets and “free-trade” principles as established by the reigning corporate interests. The balance of power in such relationships is weighed heavily in favor of the global corporations. Traditional cultures are eviscerated by the ubiquitous commercial culture of globalization. Far from helping the populations of those nations become more independent, they create an institutionalized dependency. The livelihood of the communities becomes dependent on the interests of corporate decisionmakers with no stake in the success of the community, and the people are subject to the caprice of global markets. Labor in all nations find themselves in a race to the bottom as global capital runs around the globe like quicksilver to whomever can offer the most enticing market (bearing only a pretense of Adam Smith’s “natural advantage”) at any given moment.

While this globalization model is failing miserably to lift the masses out of poverty and into self-sufficiency, Grameen is finding remarkable success through helping the poor find a place in local markets. The money they borrow goes to purchasing a cow in order to sell milk in their neighborhood; or to purchase a barn of chickens, so that the family can harvest the eggs to sell at the local market; or to purchase a wireless telephone for the use of which the individual can charge their community a small fee. These people both serve their local community and patronize it. Their money is largely kept within that community. They are more truly independent.

Can we learn from their example? Obviously, purchasing a cow or some chickens is not a practical form of business in most Utah communities. But the principle of local entrepreneurship is still a valid one here in Utah. Creating an attractive economic environment for out-of-state businesses was a major part of Governor Huntsman’s economic policy agenda in his campaign, with such conventional suggestions as tax holidays and public funding of employee training. Why not instead foster local entrepreneurs, partnering with such organizations as Salt Lake City’s Vest Pocket Coalition?

In serving the poor in Bangladesh, Yunus focused on the segment of the population that has been the least empowered and the most economically vulnerable in virtually every culture throughout history. Women have always faced greater restrictions to their property and civic rights. Not only did Yunus’ concentration on women help to empower and protect this historically vulnerable segment of the population, but Yunus found that directing his efforts towards women produced far better results in terms of alleviating poverty in general.

Women are very cautious with the use of the money, but the men were impatient; they wanted to enjoy right away. They will entertain friends, they will go to the movies, they will do whatever they could to enjoy for themselves personally. But women didn’t look at it personally. Women looked at it for the children, for the family and the so on, and for future (Muhammad Yunus, “Banking on People,” The Newshour with Jim Lehrer).

I am a firm believer that government involvement is crucial to helping alleviate poverty. But despite the insistence of the conservative noise machine, neither I nor the vast majority of liberals believe that government action is sufficient. We understand that there must be concerted efforts from the private sector as well; that we must find ways to personally contribute to the effort. Yunus has provided a great model for action. The success of Grameen Bank provides proof that we do not need to accept global epidemics of poverty as unavoidable facts of life, and that corporatization and globalization are neither as effective nor as inexorable as their proponents would have us believe. If we use our human ingenuity and capacity for compassion, we can make a long-term difference in the world. There are better ways out there which can provide for a broad-based prosperity, in which all partners share in the responsibility and the blessings that come from such cooperation. I believe that such a vision is possible not only in foreign nations, but here in the U.S, and in Utah. And because terror and war thrive on social instability and despair, that is the best shot at winning the “war on terror” we will ever get.

Listening to Chomsky

October 9, 2006

“Hi, Honey!” I boomed out as I walked through the door last Tuesday after my Elders Quorum Presidency meeting.

Shhh!” My wife admonished from the couch where she sat, wrapped in a blanket, a textbook on her lap. But she wasn’t reading. She was listening to the radio.

A few moments later, I heard a rather calm, quiet voice, and I realized why she was listening so intently. Noam Chomsky, noted linguist and social critic was being interviewed by Tom Ashbrook of NPR’s On Point program.

I can’t tell you how exciting that is to me. Not that I like to be “shhh”-ed, particularly before I get a hug. But I find it very thrilling that my wife is not generally interested in the latest sitcom or celebrity news. She’s as interested as I in keeping up with current events and voices on the topics of our day. She likes to her and evaluate voices in the news like Chomsky (whom we’ve both come to respect a great deal) for herself. We’ve developed our liberalism in tandem, but still independent of one another. We are eager to talk to one another about the news and share ideas and opinions.

When I hear about friends whose spouse’s just don’t care about politics or social issues, or who have viewpoints opposing one another, it makes me appreciate our situation that much more.

My wife is incredibly cool!

Clinton, Bush, and 9/11

October 6, 2006

Ever since 9/11 occurred, many on the Right have been trying to pin the tragedy on Bill Clinton. He didn’t take Al Qaeda and global terrorism seriously, he was lax on security, he let the intelligence network languish and atrophy, he passed on a deal with Sudan to have Bin Laden delivered, et al. With the recent anniversary of 9/11, many of those criticisms have resurfaced.

It sounds like a lot of drivel to me. I’m no fan of Clinton, but I’m not interested in watching conservatives pile on their favorite whipping boy either. Frankly, I’m not too quick to blame either Clinton or Bush for 9/11. Shit happens. It is worthwhile to reflect upon what one could do to improve future preparedness or response, but I’m not interested in bickering about who we can scapegoat for 9/11. I’m much more concerned about our actions in the wake of 9/11.

But I’m intrigued to have seen this report done by Keith Olbermann last month, investigating Clinton’s treatment of terror, comparing it to Bush’s.

Is it all true? I don’t know. But it does raise some interesting questions about the Republican story about the ongoing issue of terror.

(Thanks to Cliff of OneUtah.org for bringing this video to my attention.)

Supporting the Troops

October 5, 2006

The Bush administration and the Republican party to which it belongs likes to claim that it is the party which supports the military and the troops.

Then why is it that the military doesn’t support the administration?

Okay, that is a gross oversimplification and a wild generalization.

But it is fascinating to see that there are eleven candidates running for congress this year who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan— and ten of them are running as Democrats.

That’s ten of the eleven recent vet candidates who are running against this administration’s handling of Iraq, Afghanistan, and terrorism. Ten of the eleven military veterans who want to end the rule of the pseudo-patriotic, flag-waving, chest-pounding, party of hawks.

All I can say is: Go troops!

Bluff and Bluster on Darfur

October 2, 2006

A few days ago, Secretary Rice had some stern words for Sudan regarding the Darfur crisis. Demanding an immediate cease-fire in the region, Rice warned that if Sudan did not begin the process of ending the violence, they (the Sudanese government) “and they alone” would be held responsible. She also gave an ultimatum: accept a U.N. mission intent upon acting as peacekeepers, or risk confrontation with the international community.

I’m glad the administration is beginning to take steps to help end the slaughter in Darfur. A pity that this pressure is coming three years into the butchery. Better late than never, I suppose.

I can’t help but wonder how effective this tough talk is going to be. The Sudanese government is surely aware of current events in the world. What is it that they see? Do they have any real cause for concern? The U.S. is embroiled in the the occupation of two nations, both of which continue to harbor a healthy insurgency. There are no apparent prospects for withdrawal. Military forces are stretched thin. Alarmed by the seemingly interminable nature of the occupations and their ever escalating costs, domestic support for the war is waning. The international community has been alienated. Not content with the fiasco already on its hands, the administration had already turned its bluster on North Korea and Iran.

Why then should Sudan worry? What reason do they have to be troubled about the posturing of a nation with so much already on their plate?

If there is an international event in which intervention is morally imperative, this is it. In Darfur, genocide is occurring now—not years ago while the Reagan administration looked away. There are no spurious WMDs, yellow-cake shipments, centrifuges, enriched uranium, or defective rockets. Instead, real men, women, and children are being murdered by the tens of thousands.

Thanks to their ill-conceived “War on Terror,” this administration seems to have made it virtually impossible to do anything about it.