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 .

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.