Monday, May 28, 2012

The sweet spot

Jeff and I are traveling in Ecuador, and this weekend we visited the small town of Mindo. Saturday evening I watched these kids playing with some pieces of wood:

At first I was surprised to see them so apparently happy, because these kids are poor by my standards. I think this is part of what makes people throw up their hands at the idea of redistributing anything worldwide. How can every child in the world live like first-world children, with a Tickle Me Elmo, a bedroom in a big house, and a seat in an SUV?

They can't. There is not enough space, not enough fuel, not enough raw material in the world for every child to live like rich children. Nor for all adults to live like American adults.

But an American standard of living is not necessary for happiness. Despite having higher incomes and higher consumption of goods, Americans aren't as satisfied with their lives as Danes or Costa Ricans (source). That's probably because we're behind in some other things that help us be happy, like social connection. And if everybody consumed at the level of Americans, the planet would be trashed.

One model of global well-being I've seen is a "doughnut" - the sweet spot where people's needs are met but they're not burning through too many natural resources. And it occurs to me that these Ecuadoran kids are probably somewhere in that doughnut. Their house, like most in Mindo, was simply made from cement, wood, and corrugated metal. It has running water and a gas stove. Their town has a health center, a school, and a paved road going to the city. The kids looked healthy and cared-for, and they were clearly having a great time until it started raining and the grownups made them come inside.

I don't know much about these kids' lives, and I don't want to idealize them. I don't know how much education they'll get, or how safe their water is, or what opportunities there are for them in this small town. But I don't think people need to live like Americans to be happy.  Personally, I try not to live like a typical American.

I think it's possible to hit that sweet spot where our needs – health, safety, useful work, good relationships, a functioning society – are met.  Where we can enjoy our lives because we're not distracted by hunger or fear or sickness.  That's the kind of world I'm aiming for.

Saturday, May 12, 2012


(In which my dislike of blog posts consisting of pointed quotations is overcome by my love of Douglas Adams.)

"I think," said Ford in a tone of voice which Arthur by now recognized as one which presaged something utterly unintelligible, "that there's an SEP over there." . . . .

Arthur experienced that dull throbbing sensation just behind the temples which was a hallmark of so many of his conversations with Ford. His brain lurked like a frightened puppy in its kennel. Ford took him by the arm.

"An SEP," he said, "is something that we can't see, or don't see, or our brain doesn't let us see, because we think that it's somebody else's problem. That's what SEP means. Somebody Else's Problem. The brain just edits it out, it's like a blind spot. If you look at it directly you won't see it unless you know precisely what it is. Your only hope is to catch it by surprise out of the corner of your eye."

"Ah," said Arthur, "then that's why ..."

"Yes," said Ford, who knew what Arthur was going to say.

"... you've been jumping up and ..."


"... down, and blinking ..."

"Yes." . . . .

The ultra-famous sciento-magician Effrafax of Wug once bet his life that, given a year, he could render the great megamountain Magramal entirely invisible.

Having spent most of the year jiggling around with immense Lux-O-Valves and Refracto-Nullifiers and Spectrum-Bypass-O-Matics, he realized, with nine hours to go, that he wasn't going to make it.

So, he and his friends, and his friends' friends, and his friends' friends' friends, and his friends' friends' friends' friends, and some rather less good friends of theirs who happened to own a major stellar trucking company, put in what now is widely recognized as being the hardest night's work in history, and, sure enough, on the following day, Magramal was no longer visible. Effrafax lost his bet - and therefore his life - simply because some pedantic adjudicating official noticed (a) that when walking around the area that Magramal ought to be he didn't trip over or break his nose on anything, and (b) a suspicious-looking extra moon.

The Somebody Else's Problem field is much simpler and more effective, and what's more can be run for over a hundred years on a single torch battery. This is because it relies on people's natural disposition not to see anything they don't want to, weren't expecting, or can't explain. If Effrafax had painted the mountain pink and erected a cheap and simple Somebody Else's Problem field on it, then people would have walked past the mountain, round it, even over it, and simply never have noticed that the thing was there.

- Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe, and Everything

Thursday, May 3, 2012

This little light

Several times I've heard Matthew 6:2-4 used as an explanation for why talking about giving is bad:

Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. . . . But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret.

I prefer a different line from the same sermon, Matthew 5:15:

Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.

Of course, neither I nor most of the people I hear referring to these verses are exactly Bible-thumpers. But it goes to show: talking about money has been awkward for a very long time.

I try to talk about it, though, because I figure saving lives is worth looking foolish. I'm aware of bystander effect, a classic of psychology research. If you stage an emergency – say, a person choking – a test subject will usually rush to help. But if a test subject is standing in a crowd of people not helping, the subject hesitates. Often they don't help at all.

Recently in a class session on writing budgets, my professor asked the class what our personal relationship with money was like. People started tentatively calling out: “In denial.” “Scared.” “I'm gonna be in debt for a long time.” The woman in the front row who's always ranting about capitalism made some comment about how money twisting us all in its evil grasp.

I said, “But money can be a tool to do you things you care about. My husband and I give away about thirty percent of our income. It works well for us.”

For a second or two there was silence. Then capitalism-rant woman turned around and said, “Wait, you give away thirty percent of your money?”

“Yeah, about that much,” I said. She blinked and turned back to the front of the room. And that was it. The lesson continued.

I felt a bit like a jerk. I know Jeff and I have a higher household income than most of my classmates in social work school. But most of them also have expenses – cars, houses, fancy weddings – that we choose not to have. We live well below our means, and that means we have no debt. We don't worry about money. We keep our needs small, with the result that we have plenty left over for things we care about more than extra bedrooms.

Maybe I just established myself as a show-off or a nutcase, but maybe I planted a seed.