Tuesday, August 10, 2010

German Leisure and Missing Dimensions of Poverty (and Affluence)

Thomas Geoghegan, writing in the New York Times blog, writes of the German system that values leisure time (in relation to work) more highly than we find in the U.S.  Here, and in a recent Harper's article and presumably in his new book (which I have only just ordered), Geoghegan makes a case similar to the one I outline in the posts below-rethinking the values of the European system.  (Indeed, reading his work, I have that sinking feeling that comes when one thinks he has a clever, original idea only to find that it has already been done, and more eloquently.)

In the NY Times exchange, Peter Baldwin takes issue with the figures Geoghegan uses.  But, the fact remains that Germans work significantly less than Americans, and they work differently.  There is a clearer division among the professional classes, for example, between work and leisure, and one that is not lightly violated.  And, as the commentator Panicalep noted on the NY Times blog, Germans tend to work the hours that they do more efficiently and productively.

Baldwin is certainly correct when he writes about women in the German workforce: for the most part, Germany is not a women-friendly work environment.  This is not so much because of sexual harassment and old boys networks (if both are surely present, as they are here), but because of structural constraints.  Indeed, Germany companies are working hard to correct executive gender imbalances from a demand side.  But supply still lags due largely to lack of childcare, short school hours, and a cultural notion of proper motherhood.

All in all, I find the German system better promotes overall wellbeing even given all its problems.  This is to some degree subjective, my preference for a certain leisure/work balance.  But we find it in more objective measures as well.  Take life expectancy: the Germans born today are expected to live about 1.5 years more than Americans.  They smoke and drink more, and still live longer.

Speaking of "wellbeing" calls to mind recent innovative approaches in measuring poverty (and affluence) that go beyond GPD per head or absolute income. Inspired by the work of Amartya Sen, Sabina Alkire, James Foster, and the folks at the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) are promoting holistic, integrated measures that take into account what they call the "missing dimensions of poverty."  These include agency, employment, physical safety, the ability of go about without shame, and psychological and subjective wellbeing.  Now, the danger is such holistic approaches is that they can minimize the importance of material conditions ("sure, they are poor, but they are happy, rich in so many other ways).  But the Alkire/Foster OPHI approach recognizes the role of absolute poverty while also accounting for these other elements (which, in fact, often directly impact material conditions).

A recent article in The Economist illustrates some of the OPHI's surprising results (which will form a key part of the UNDP's 2010 Human Development Report).

See also the debate between Sabina Alkire and Martin Ravallion (of the World Bank) at the OXFAM "From Poverty To Power" blog.  And James Foster's intervention at this World Bank blog.

It seems clear that we need to account for multiple dimensions of poverty to fully understand it--and to create policies and programs that can create the greatest good in terms of overall wellbeing.

It also occurs that another missing dimension of poverty has to do with the desires and aspirations of the folks we seek to help.  Pete Benson and I, in our book Broccoli and Desire, argue that we must take Maya farmers' desires (as well as needs) into account.  Maya subsistence farmers have clear aspirations for themselves and their children.  And, for the most part, they don't want their kids to be subsistence farmers--they would like for them have have a better life, algo más, however "better" may be defined.  It is precisely such aspirations for something more or something better that drive the capabilities Sen and Alkire and Foster rightly see as being central to leading a fulfilled life.

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