Tuesday, August 12, 2014

German Lessons

Not so long ago Germany served as a cautionary example for the Anglo-American economies. After the success of the post-war economic miracle (the Wirtschaftswunder), by the 1980s Germany was best known for its generous welfare state, chronically high unemployment rates, and slow growth. Donald Rumsfeld's dismissive quip about "Old Europe" was meant to invoke all these ills and an accompanying political malaise.

But following the 2008 financial crisis, Germany emerged as a political-economic role model for the world. Policies to cushion workers from layoffs kept unemployment low and consumer demand steady, and the country's long-standing fiscal austerity allowed it to keep its southern neighbors afloat during the debt crisis.  The 12 July Schumpeter column in The Economist reports that businesspeople and government officials from around the world are making the pilgrimage to Germany to learn from its Mittelstand (midsized manufacturers) sector.

In my new book, The Good Life: Aspiration, Dignity, and the Anthropology of Wellbeing,  I look at how the Mittelstand system inspires loyalty and promotes a sense of dignity and security among workers.   

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Brazil's Middle Class and the Price of Coffee in New York

It looks like Brazil will surpass the U.S. this year as the world's biggest consumer of coffee. The Wall Street Journal reports that this is driving up global prices. Coffee futures (the "C price" as it is known in the trade) reached $1.95 a pound last Thursday, its highest since the price collapse in 2011. This is good news for the smallholding Maya farmers in Guatemala who produce high-altitude, high-quality coffees. (I have previously discussed high-end coffee and Maya farmers and the research carried out with Bart Victor.

It also reflects a change in global political and economic relations (as discussed here in more detail)--the rise of Brazil as a foreign aid donor, middle class consumer, and politically self-confident country.No longer just a supplier of the raw materials we need for our consumer goods, but a competitor driving up prices of consumer goods (coffee as well as Miami real estate), an emerging world power whose positions we need to engage and not assume we can dictate.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The Political Economy of Malnutrition

Almost half of Guatemalan children under five are malnourished, the vast majority rural Maya kids. This is a hidden human tragedy of epic proportions, each of these lives stunted - corporeally and figuratively - just as they are getting started. While we should not reduce this to just economic impact, it is nonetheless significant that the World Bank estimates that chronic malnutrition costs Guatemala hundred of millions of dollars a year in lost GDP. (See this recent PBS Newshour report that features Roger Thurow.)

Yet Guatemala is not a poor country. The GDP per capita of about $4000 may seem low, but worldwide it puts the country at the lower end of "middle income countries." Guatemala does have a very high gini index of inequality, and by any measure rural Maya peoples are the most disadvantaged. Such structural conditions directly affect health and nutrition, what Paul Farmer calls structural violence. Jonathan Metzl advocates for what he terms structural competency in clinical interventions, which calls on an ethnographic sensibility to understand root causes and larger contexts.       

In Guatemala, efforts led by Dr. Peter Rohloff through Wuqu' Kawoq have taken a holistic approach to understanding malnutrition. In a new paper in Maternal and Child Nutrition, Rohloff and colleagues find that mothers often lack autonomy in making food decisions and that stunting is not recognized as such when it is the norm for the community. Most surprisingly, they find that land ownership, even among upwardly mobile farmers growing broccoli and other crops for export, is not correlated with a drop in childhood chronic malnutrition. In the vein of Farmer and Metzl, understanding the full context here certainly includes the political economic structures but also, crucially, the dynamic trajectories of cultural change, including the appeal of junk food. 

In the Wall Street Journal, Matt Ridley argues that one of the smartest forms of foreign aid is in malnutrition prevention and treatment: for every $1 invested in malnutrition, $59 in societal benefits are produced.  One of the best investments in Guatemala, then, is Mani+: see what we are doing about malnutrition through the Mani+ project at www.maniplus.org .

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Moral Obligations of Corporate Tax Avoidance

Milton Friedman, the free-market economist whose perspective defined the Chicago School, famously held that managers' absolute ethical obligation is to maximize returns for stockholders. To do otherwise would be tantamount to stealing from them, he argued in an influential 1970 NY Times Magazine piece ("The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase Its Profits").

Fast forward to 2014. Professor Friedman's ideas have taken hold in boardrooms and policy circles to an extend most academics could never dream of, and they lead to a troubling argument for the current wave of "inversion deals," merging with a smaller foreign firm and moving headquarters abroad to shelter profits from U.S. corporate taxes (among the highest in the world, although with so many loopholes effective rates are often low). Indeed, I heard one analyst remark that it is boards' fiduciary obligation to move a company abroad if it increases shareholder value.

This is an issue not just of business or economics, but of identity, corporate and individual. If a company's future is linked (conceptually and materially) to the collective prosperity of a city, region, or country, then moving operations to avoid taxes would be unwise. But if a company's peer community are other large transnational corporations (and not the people who inhabit a particular place), then share values trump local loyalties.

The trend of inversion deals converges with recent, seemingly serious, debates over the value of public infrastructure in private gain. Here too, short term thinking comes at the expense of long term planning, to all our detriment.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

What We Do Not Always What We Want

Customers hate Spirit airlines. Passengers routinely swear they will never fly it again; it ranks dead last in airline consumer satisfaction. Everything costs extra--the seats don't even recline. Planet Money's Zoe Chase and Jacob Goldstein took a trip recently and discovered a new category of customer, what that call hate fliers: "the guy who knows what he's getting into, doesn't like it, but flies Spirit anyway because it's so cheap."  And business is booming.

What gives? People say they hate the airline, that they won't use it again, and then they do, over and over.  Of course, what we say is not always what we do. We have a whole range of aphorisms and admonitions privileging the later over the former, and economists distinguish between stated preferences (the things we say we want) and revealed preferences (what we actually do, taken to be our true preferences).

A conventional economic analysis would say that folks really do want what Spirit Airlines offers; their protestations to the contrary are cheap talk. This is true, but only to an extent.  I argue in my forthcoming book that in some contexts we need to value what people say they want as well as what they do. When our stated preferences are in conflict with our revealed preferences, the stated preferences often contribute more to a common good. But we we head to the checkout lane or click the mouse to buy an airline ticket, the lure of saving a few dollars is too much to resist--even if we think we would all be better off with the alternative in the long run.

Along these lines, the NY Times reports that while the French say they love their local shops and are leery of behemoths like Amazon, they flock to the large online retailers when the discounts are compelling ("Principles are no match for Europe's love of American web titans").  Indeed, France just passed what is called the "Anti-Amazon Law" that promotes small bookstores by limiting discounts, nudging (or forcing) folks to do what they say they prefer.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Intrinsic Motivations and a Secret of the Good Life

In the Sunday NY Times, Amy Wrzensniewski and Barry Schwartz argue that the secret of success is internal versus instrumental motivation.  They find that being driven by intrinsic values (say, studying in order to learn) rather than instrumental ones (studying to get a good grade to get a degree to get a good job) is highly correlated with success among entering West Point cadets. Intrinsic motivation would appear to best achieve the unrequited ends sought by instrumental values. Schwartz has a keen eye for such paradoxes--his earlier work on the Paradox of Choice shows why more is not necessarily better.

Aristotle intuited the importance of intrinsic motivation in his understanding of virtue, and philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre relates this to internal mastery of a practice. In The Craftsman, Richard Sennett shows the satisfaction that comes from doing a job well for its own sake.  Lynn Stout, in her book Cultivating Conscience, argues that focusing on instrumental values in compensation schemes (i.e., pay based on meeting predetermined performance metrics) undermines the moral basis of intrinsic motivation (and inhibits true excellence): teachers and doctors, for example, should be working to improve people's lives, not just to meet a metric to make more money.

In my forthcoming book The Good Life, I look at the lives and aspirations of German consumers and Guatemalan farmers, and find that in both (radically different) circumstances, dignity and commitment to larger purpose are both fundamental elements of wellbeing. As I argue, understanding the elements of what makes us better off can provide the basis of a positive anthropology as well as practical policy suggestions.  

Saturday, May 3, 2014

21st Century Capitalism, Inequality, and and the Policy Toolkit

Capitalism qua capitalism is a topic of serious discussion for the first time in the U.S. in a very long time, at least among the NY Times/Atlantic/New Yorker reading demographic. It has been spurred by post-2008 real world conditions and channeled through Thomas Piketty's new book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. A surprisingly weighty tome to top the Amazon non-fiction list, Piketty's book marshals a massive amount of data to show the recent rise in inequality to new gilded age heights. In itself that is not a revelation, but Piketty observes that it is not driven by high incomes (the executive salaries that routinely make headlines) but rather by returns on capital.  He illustrates the growth of the economy versus returns on capital (figure taken from Kruger review of Piketty):
krugman_3-050814

The first amazing fact captured in this diagram is the dramatic drop in the rate of return from capital during the 19th century--the shift away from feudalistic rent-taking to competitive capitalist production. And now the troublesome divergence that emerged in the 1990s and 2000s.

There is good evidence to suggest that a certain degree of inequality is correlated with economic growth.  Too much inequality, however, disarticulates the production and consumption sides of the economy, constricts the opportunities open to the majority of people, a poses serious ethical dilemmas over what is acceptable. Where to draw the line is a technical and moral question, one that we tend to avoid.

Still, there is hope and even some practical solutions. Piketty calls for a 15% tax on capital and an 80% tax on incomes over $500,000.

Piketty's work reminds me of Jon Shayne's interview of Andrew Smithers (previously blogged here) in which Smithers shows the divergence of earning shares going to labor and going to profit:
Andrew Smithers chart
Smithers argues that executive compensation has introduced a number of incentives that encourage managers to maximize short term profits at the expense of long-term investment in labor and productivity. This is troubling, and unhealthy for the economy in the long haul, as future collective prosperity is foregone for immediate rewards.

In terms of speculation that produces little social benefit, Jon points out that one alternative would be for the capital gains tax rate to become progressively lower over time (i.e. rewarding holding and long-term investment). Economist Bob Frank promotes a steeply progressive consumption tax that would discourage the arms race of conspicuous consumption of positional goods.

From nudges to smart regulation, there now exists a policy toolkit to fix our economic, political, and social woes. If only we would use it.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Minimum Income, Wellbeing, and Deirdre McCloskey on Parisian Beggars

Let us accept, if just for argument's sake, that the goal of politics and economic systems is the provisioning of the good life, as variously conceived, as broadly and fairly as possible. How then to achieve that aim? On the one hand, it would seem to require a commitment to individual freedom, old school Enlightenment style liberalism: people should be empowered to choose their own good life. At the same time, it also requires a commitment to common goods, the collective basis for individual flourishing and the source of much of our social wellbeing. In Sunday's NY Times, Tony Schwartz makes the case that our lasting successes and and life satisfaction are based on doing something that really matters, having the sense "that we're truly adding value in the world" (also the argument in my forthcoming book on The Good Life).

Economist Deirdre McCloskey has been wrestling with this contradiction throughout her career (which began as Donald McCloskey). In a chapter in Cash on the Table, she observes that economists overvalue self-interest and anthropologists overvalue social goods--and that both miss the complicated interplay.  As she explains to Paul Solman in a recent PBS NewsHour interview, this isn't just theoretical. She generally supports market approaches, but she also advocates a guaranteed minimum income on the grounds of moral values:
I was on a subway in Paris a long time ago, and this guy came into the car, and the first thing he said was: I’m 24 years old. Because he couldn’t beg if he was 27 years old — that’s when the minimum income came in. That is, if you were 27 in France, you got a minimum income. So he couldn’t persuasively beg. I’d like people who can’t make enough income to be helped out this way.

In the context of the developing world, guaranteed minimum incomes are a variant of conditional cash transfers (paying folks to keep their kids in school and healthy) and unconditional cash transfers. Give Directly gives $1000 to selected households in Kenya and Uganda; families do not apply, they are identified as needy and given the windfall. Overhead costs for such programs are minimal compared to traditional aid, and supporters argue that folks themselves know best what they need to get ahead.

Supporters of a minimum income argue that it both prevents extreme poverty and can encourage entrepreneurial behavior (by reducing the costs of failure). And more than just entrepreneurial ventures it can allow a greater range of life projects and wellbeing. 

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Cash on the Table: Markets, Values, and Moral Economies

http://sarweb.org/index.php?sar_press_cash_on_the_table
Moral values inform our economic behaviors. On its face, this is an unassailable proposition. Think of the often spiritual appeal of consumer goods or the value-laden stakes of upward or downward mobility. Consider the central role that moral questions regarding poverty, access to health care, the tax code, property and land rights, and corruption play in the shaping of modern governments, societies, and social movements. Ponder the meaning of fair trade coffee and organic produce as well as Walmart’s everyday low prices. The moral aspects of the marketplace have never been so contentious or consequential; however, the realm of economics is often treated as a world unto itself, a domain where human behavior is guided not by emotions, beliefs, moralities, or the passions that fascinate anthropologists but by the hard fact of rational choices.

A great deal is at stake in understanding the moral dimensions of economic behavior and markets. In this volume, we bring together anthropologists, economists, and management scholars to look at the moral implications of markets.  Anthropologists tend to focus on the corrosive effects of markets on traditional lifeways and the ways in which global markets disadvantage marginalized peoples. Economists often have difficulty recognizing that markets are embedded in particular social and political power structures and that “free” market transactions are often less free than we might think. If anthropologists could view markets a bit more ecumenically and if economists could view them a bit more politically, then great value—cash on the table—can be found in bringing these perspectives together.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

German Works Councils, the UAW, and VW's Stakeholding Culture

Workers at VW's Chattanooga, Tennessee, plant rejected UAW unionization by a vote of 712 to 626, the NY Times reports. This was a blow not only to the union, but to VW management as well. In a stance U.S. auto executives found as foreign as month-long holidays, VW leaders not only did not oppose the organization move, they seemed to welcome it as a way to introduce works councils.

By law and corporate culture, VW takes seriously the German model of "co-determination," with labor treated as stakeholders alongside stockholders. And they have exported this system of labor relations from their home in Wolfsburg to factories around the world.

The practice of co-determination is built around "works councils," tiered organizations of employee representatives (blue and white collar) elected by their peers. At the grassroots level, shop-floor works councils help organize employee schedules and make tweaks in the production line. Two years ago, middle management works councils successfully lobbied VW to have its corporate Blackberry server to stop sending message to employee's devices 30 minutes after their work day ends (and begin again 30 minutes before the next shift).

At the upper level, works council representatives hold half of the seats on the company's supervisory board, which introduces new voices and incentives in boardroom deliberations. VW obviously thinks this approach brings value, as they have implemented the system abroad.

So, with VW supporting the union, how did it lose this crucial vote? Union supporters have pointed out that the vote was much closer than other southern auto plant votes in recent years. And Republican politicians and pro-business groups took an aggressive, to the point of hysterical, public stance against the union (even threatening future expansion of the plant if the UAW won).

In fact, in the quotes I have read, workers are very open to works councils, and see VW as a good employer. The vote, then, should be seen as a commentary by basically satisfied workers on the UAW's confrontational model of labor relations, a perceived affinity for striking over stakeholding.

Paradoxically, U.S. labor laws meant to protect worker rights appear to prohibit the works council model in the absence of a union, thwarting the sort of organization that both labor and management prefer.  

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Romance, Wellbeing, and the Work of Love

For a long time, historians thought that romantic love (as we understand it, in a Hallmark Valentine's kind of way) was a Western invention, constructed by the romantic troubadours in French courts of the thirteenth century (see this piece by Catherine Winter).

Recent years, and the rise of brain scanning technologies and evolutionary psychology, have seen the conventional wisdom shift. Most explanations of romantic love these days focus on serotonin and dopamine levels, blood flow and MRIs; and these biological mechanisms are postulated to have emerged early in human history to promote pair bonding and care of our especially helpless young.

But it does not have to be either social construction or evolutionary mandate. Social and psychological triggers can flip the switch on chemical processes in our brains. This is the argument I make on a new PRI show titled The Really Big Questions, hosted by Dean Olsher.  My bit starts at 38:00 into the episode.

In previous posts I have argued that wellbeing requires a lot of not always pleasurable work. Fulfillment is distinct from giddy happiness; and it derives from the hard work of becoming the sort of person you want to be. Likewise, as I claim in the Love episode of The Really Big Question, more than biochemical, and it requires a lot of hard work.


Monday, February 3, 2014

Economic Lessons from Abroad: Workers, Wages, and Inequality

There are many varieties of capitalism, and, given our current travails, we in the U.S. are starting to realize that we may have a lot to learn from other ways of organizing the economy. 

By law, half of the board of directors at German companies are elected by the workers through a system of "works councils." This is a remarkable fact, and introduces all sorts of different incentives into corporate strategy (as compared to a narrow focus on shareholder value).

Adam Davidson, writing in the NY Times Magazine this week, notes the "beneficial constraints" the German system of worker/capital "co-determination" has on manufacturing there.  Similarly, Davidson shows how Harley Davidson has worked with his highly paid and skilled workers to turn around their failing production. He wonders if this would have been possible without experienced union workers.   

(I write about co-determination in my new book, and have blogged about VW's work's councils and their efforts to institute one at their new Chattanooga facility.)    

And it is not just our other OECD countries that have lessons--and cautionary tales--to offer. Levels of income inequality in the U.S. have over the last decades approached the level of developing countries. The Times today reports that middle class consumption is steadily eroding--from hotels to appliances to restaurants, the high-end and the low-end are growing at the expense of the middle. The Harley workers appear to be the exception. This may result in what Alain de Janvry, writing about developing countries, calls a "disarticulated economy," put simply, one in which workers cannot buy what they make, the opposite of the Fordist promise (to pay workers enough to afford the cars they make).       

Brazil in recent years has made great strides in re-articulating its economy, pulling millions into the middle class and stimulating domestic consumption. Perhaps, then, we should look to Brazil as well as to Germany for economic policy ideas.

Distribution of Value in Anglo-American and German Firms (based on Vitols 2004:371)

Anglo-American (early 1990s)
Germany (early 1990s)
Germany (late 1990s)
labor
62.2%
85.3%
78.4%
credit
23.5%
5.4%
4.3%
government
14.3%
5.2%
6.8%
retained earnings
3.2%
5.2%
7.8%
dividends
15.0%
2.0%
2.8%

Monday, January 20, 2014

Positive Anthropology and Public Planning

Social scientists, and anthropologists in particular, bring what should be a privileged perspective to public policy debates. Taking as our starting point not idealized theory (say, of rational actors) nor (hopefully) partisan moralization, anthropologists look at, and take seriously, what folks actually say and do.  This deceptively simple methodology-cum-epistemology can produce policy insights that respond to actual conditions and the hopes and aspirations that fill our lives.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/images/2014/01/14/multimedia/bryantpark/bryantpark-articleInline.jpgMark Oppenheimer, in a recent NY Times Magazine piece, discusses the ethnography of public spaces conducted by sociologist William H. Whyte in the 1960s and 1970s and more recently picked up again in recent years by Keith Hampton. By actually watching people in places like NYC's Bryant Park and talking to them about what they valued, Oppenheirmer writes that Whyte and others realized that is we knew how "the placement of benches, or a plaza's orientation to the sun, affected people's enjoyment of a public space, then we could go beyond mere observation into the realm of smarter policy. We could make people happier."

Interestingly, Hampton's follow-up studies show that use of the public spaces in his sample has gone up over the last decades; that there are many more women in those public spaces; and that there is more, not less, social interaction going on despite the ubiquity of cell phones and other technology.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Wellbeing and Wages

Inequality has a huge impact on wellbeing, more so than even absolute income levels. A lot of what we feel about how we are doing, depends on how those around us are doing and our relative standing.
President Obama has been turning attention to inequality lately, and development measures have long taken it into account in terms of general economic wellbeing. And a number of recent studies from psychology, behavioral economics, and management not only help explain this, but point the way toward more optimal solutions:

Mat Richtel reports on recent research that suggests "a deeply rooted instinct to earn more than can possibly be consumed, even when this imbalance makes us unhappy" and that higher income levels may promote "mindless accumulation." In an experimental setting (and uses pieces of Dove chocolate as pay), researchers found that higher earners would work harder to accumulate more chocolate than they would be able to eat (during a limited period after the round of play), while low earners were content to work at a more relaxed pace. The pull of endless accumulation, it seems, can be so powerful as to overwhelm choices that might result in greater overall wellbeing.

Adam Davidson, in his excellent column in the NY Times Magazine argues that "paying [workers] and treating them better, will often yield happier customers, more engaged workers and--surprisingly--larger corporate profits." Citing research by Marshall Fisher (Wharton School) and Zeynep Ton (M.I.T.), he shows that good paying jobs are not only better for workers but also in many ways for the bottom line, to less turnover to more engagement.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Purpose and Wellbeing

As Tony Schwartz (in the NY Times) argues in a recent column: a sense of purpose--contributing to something meaningful and larger than yourself--is a core element of life satisfaction, wellbeing, and the good life. He quotes Nietzsche's observation: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

We often hear purpose and passion as extolled virtues these days: find your passion, live life with a purpose. This is the sort of self-help that resonates with the demographic represented by readers of the Times.

Indeed, yesterday's paper ran an article about Martha Beck ("the merchant of happiness") who has built a small empire around life coaching: she says “Everything I’ve ever taught in terms of self-help boils down to this — I cannot believe people keep paying me to say this — if something feels really good for you, you might want to do it. And if it feels really horrible, you might want to consider not doing it." 

But, as readers of this blog will know, having a larger purpose in life is not the exclusive purview of the affluent and middle classes. The poor as well as the rich give purpose to their lives; it is in many ways what makes us human. And such larger purposes must not be as lofty or laudable as the passions featured in the paper: political extremism, racist ideologies, and other such projects may increase individual wellbeing among their adherents while harming collective goods.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Culture as Strategy, and the Relevance of Anthropology

The demand for anthropological knowledge is great. This might surprise many of my fellow anthropologists--there is growing lament about our irrelevance in big debates--and certainly all those graduate students looking at a bleak job market. But I almost daily I hear from colleagues in medicine, political science, business, and other fields how they try to incorporate notions of "culture" (our discipline's signature concept) into their work and business practice.

Most often, the ideas of culture thus borrowed would seem antiquated to a contemporary anthropologist. Treated as a static thing with clear boundaries, the notions of culture used in other fields most resemble early trait-list approaches. In current parlance, such views do representational violence to the folks they hope to describe. Today, we see culture as dynamic, creative, imbued with power, fluid: Arjun Appadurai argues that it should be used as an adjective (cultural) rather than a noun (culure).

In translating this into other fields, we might look at culture as strategy, intentional orientations toward the future that guide decisions but also depend on serendipity, adapting to changing circumstances, and shifting hopes and dreams. For development programs, public policy, and business, this means that being culturally "appropriate" isn't about handing your business card in just the right way or knowing dinner table etiquette, but taking seriously the aspirations of those with whom we collaborate, seeking common futures.

The Financial Times reports that the Swedish appliance maker Electrolux has started to take some strategic direction from emerging markets, essentially breaking down the walls for a division for poor places and another for rich ones, and that this has invigorated their growth in both markets.     
 We may also seek to orchestrate serendipity and cultural creativity through institutional and architectural arrangements.  Michael Soto reports on Institutionalizing Serendipity in a company environment, a model with much broader implications.  (And a conversation with Michael yesterday inspired this post.)     


Saturday, November 30, 2013

Higher Pleasures, the Work of Wellbeing, and Public Policy

Perhaps the good life is not a state to be obtained, but, as Aristotle suggests, it is the the pursuit and the journey that give meaning and fulfillment. Striving for the good life involves the arduous work of becoming: creating meaning, aspiring for something better, the act of becoming the sort of person and living the sort of life one deems worthy and desirable. 

Thus, the good life is not made up of simple "happiness." It requires trade-offs, often forgoing hedonistic pleasure for long term goals. I have previously written on the distinction between hedonic happiness (are you happy right now?) and eudaimonic wellbeing (with its longer horizon of life satisfaction), showing that the two can well be at odds with one another.

Steven Mazie, on BigThink.com, argues that the current fashion for happiness studies distracts us from what is really important: "Not every costly, challenging endeavor we take up is a recipe for happiness, but our world and our individual lives would be sapped of all meaning if we made life plans based on the results of happiness studies like these [measures of hedonic happiness]. Who would learn Chinese or advanced calculus? Who would spend all night volunteering in hurricane relief emergency shelters? Who would ever have a child?"

Mazie calls on John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures in his attempt to calculate utilities: "If, on reflection, we would refuse to give up Pleasure A in exchange for a bottomless trough of Pleasure B, that’s a good sign Pleasure A is a higher pleasure for us. If we wouldn’t forfeit our religion or our children for the promise of a keg of cold beer that never runs dry, we should consider the former to be more valuable than the latter. Lower pleasures are fantastic — and reading the results of laughable happiness studies may well be one of them — but they are not the pulp of life."

Indeed, when we look to provisioning the good life as broadly as possible, as we should in markets and government, we must take care not to privilege hedonic happiness over long-term wellbeing.

(On a separate but related note: The WSJ reported this week that its CEO Council identified five top priorities for the country: immigration reform, education reform, tax reform, business-government cooperation, and health-care quality. It is remarkable not only that these could all have been pulled from an Obama speech, but also that they are all broadly consistent with a wellbeing approach to policy, even if the devil is in the detail of means to these ends.)

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

An Ethics of Possibility and a Positive Anthropology


Arjun Appadurai argues that our society struggles with a tension between “the ethics of possibility” (of hope, aspiration, desire) and the “ethics of probability” (of systematized rationalities, risk management, and cost/benefits). And the ethics of probability is currently crowding out the realm of possibility. In his timely new book (The Future as Cultural Fact), Appadurai calls for a renewed commitment to an ethics of possibility "grounded in the view that a genuinely democratic politics cannot be based on the avalanche of numbers—about population, poverty, profit, and predation—that threaten to kill all street-level optimism about life and the world. Rather it must build on an ethics of possibility, which can offer a more inclusive platform for improving the planetary quality of life and can accommodate a plurality of visions of the good life.” (299-300)

Indeed. Reading this book, I was both exhilarated and a bit crestfallen that Appadurai so eloquently makes a number of arguments that I thought were my own, and that feature in my forthcoming book The Good Life (Stanford U Press)Appardurai calls for greater attention to the "capacity to aspire" and the politics of hope in understanding development, wellbeing, and the economy. As I also argue, wellbeing requires a sense of aspiration, hope for the future informed by ideas of the good life, and a commiserate degree of agency, a sense of control over one's own destiny.  Living up to the expectations of particular values is in many ways the stock and trade of human existence; and it is this forward-looking, aspirational quality that drives agency. The will is important, but there also has to be a way, and the effectiveness of aspiration and agency is often limited by available opportunities, the legal, social, and market structures.

Such a perspective opens the door onto a “positive anthropology.” Anthropology is more comfortable offering critiques than positive alternatives, but the possibility exists to combine our critical proclivities with non-prescriptive, ethnographically informed positive alternatives that engage public policy debates. If a society’s goal is to have folks live meaningful and fulfilled lives—and not just increase income and consumption at all costs—then we should look to ways to help folks realize their longer term goals, the moral projects of their lives, affluence (and its converse, poverty) as seen in all of its multiple dimensions. This is to advocate studies of economic behavior that work between the “is” and the “ought” of David Hume’s distinction, between how the world can be empirically shown to work (the “is”) and how the competing and diverse value systems that anthropological research documents can be linked to moral reflection about things might be different (the “ought”).  

In Appadurai's words: “we need to commit ourselves to a partisan position, at least in one regard and that is to be mediators, facilitators, and promoters of the ethics of possibility against the ethics of probability.”