What is my problem with poor people?

Homeless man and dog

Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.

While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.

After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told herĀ I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).

When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.

It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.

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Survey data confirms: It really stinks being poor

Pew Research recently came out with a fascinating study across a number of countries asking individuals about life satisfaction. The results are pretty interesting, and I’d recommend taking a look at the summary here.

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One of the most intriguing charts that Pew presents (see above) is a scatter plot of countries, with average rating of life satisfaction on one axis and per capita GDP on the other. Not surprisingly, there’s a positive correlation between income and satisfaction, meaning that people in wealthier countries tend to be more satisfied with their lives than people in poorer countries. But we also see that the very wealthy countries (like the United States) aren’t significantly more satisfied than the middle-of-the-pack countries, echoing previous research on this topic. In fact, the country that rates highest in terms of life satisfaction is Mexico, where per capita GDP is about $10,000 per year, roughly a fifth that of the US.

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The world’s poor: Stressed, jaded, and incessantly patronized

1375849_18372716I write a lot on this blog about economists’ assumptions about human behavior, and when these assumptions are useful to understand reality and when they are not. For instance, a while back I touched on the assumption of “rationality”, which for economists has a strict mathematical definition and is needed to make certain clean, elegant microeconomic models work. Unfortunately, some people take this and other theoretical assumptions beyond their original purpose, asserting, for instance that every human action in real life must be motivated by a rational thought process all the time.

Most of us are observant enough to know that at least sometimes, human beings do not, in fact, behave rationally. Addiction is an often used as example. I’m sure you can construct a model showing how a person could behave rationally and still drink himself into oblivion. But it’s much easier simply to admit to oneself that irrational behavior exists in the world, and basic models based based on an assumption of rationality are limited.

The question is, Just how widespread is our irrationality? That’s the question asked by many behavioral economists and psychologists who’ve attempted to document and codify all sorts of irrational things that human beings tend to do. (Dan Ariely’s best seller Predictably Irrational, though a few years old now, is a great book for a summary of this line of research.) I tend to believe irrational behavior can be found almost everywhere, and understanding this can help us improve ourselves and our society. A few months back, for instance, I made the argument that certain types or consumer loans preyed on individuals’ irrationality, specifically their impulsiveness and lack of understanding of finance. The poor are prime targets, in that they may be less likely to have had some basic financial education, and are naturally more susceptible to the “Interest Free Loans!” thing and other scams, perpetuating the imaginary dream of unlimited access to money without consequences.

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Should fast food workers make $15 per hour?

I think we can all at least agree that this looks delicious

I think we can all at least agree that this looks delicious

A couple weeks ago fast food workers across the US started staging walk-outs in protest of their low wages. These workers want a “living wage”, they argue, and have targeted $15 per hour across the industry.

This story is a pretty interesting one from the point of view or economic justice and the Baha’i teachings. That’s because the demand for a higher wage forces us to ask a critical question: If the market sets wages too low for a particular group of people from the point of view of our own moral judgments, then is it right simply to mandate a higher wage?

This is a common question, especially among Baha’is and other people who seek economic security and dignity for all people. Usually, it’s asked in the context of developing countries, where wages are much, much lower than even the minimum wages here in the US and the rest of the developed world. Let’s imagine that the market pays Malaysian factory workers $2/hour and their American counterparts $20/hour. Is it morally wrong for companies to hire Malaysians at this lower wage? Does it constitute “exploitation”? Does it violate basic moral principles of fairness and justice? Should it be law that Malaysians make the same wage as Americans?

Many fair-minded, well-intentioned people believe the answer is yes to the questions above. The logic is clear: To make just $2/hour is horribly poor by the standards of developed countries, and if it would only be fair to treat everyone equally, then why not pay everyone a higher, “living” wage?

The Baha’i Holy Writings make no specific judgment on this particular issue, even though they teach that all human beings are equal in the sight of God, stand for justice in all arenas of society, and call for an eradication of extreme poverty (as well as extreme wealth). ‘Abdul-Baha did in fact hope “that laws be established, giving… workmen the necessary means of existence and security for the future”. But he also warned that “difficulties will also arise when unjustified equality is imposed”.

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The moral case for good public services

I’ve been working in New York City for the past several months (taking the train in from Connecticut), and I must say I’ve been thoroughly unimpressed. It’s not that I dislike New York in general. I used to love coming for fun when I was younger, and there are still aspects of the city that I find truly unique. The food, for one, is superb. Never mind New York’s restaurant culture; what you can often get out of the side of a truck can be equally impressive.

But the day-to-day of commuting in and out of New York has been disenchanting. The air in the city sometimes smells awful. The people hustling to and from work are often rude. My walk from the train to my office is incredibly noisy, even at 7:15 in the morning (I usually listen to a podcast or the radio, and often can’t hear what’s going on with the volume cranked up all the way). And in the summer it can be oppressively hot and humid, especially in the train station, meaning that these days I’m damp with sweat by the time I walk in the office. I can already hear myself sounding like Mister Complainy Pants here, which I’m not proud of. I realize that lots of people have uncomfortable commutes, and I often remind myself of the need to be grateful simply to be employed. But I’d be lying if I told you that New York wasn’t starting to get on my nerves.

The thing that’s become a symbol of my commute into the City, which is the whole point of this post, is the escalator at the 47th and Madison exit from Grand Central that I take every day. It’s broken, and by that I mean that it is out of commission while it undergoes renovation… a renovation that is scheduled to take up to three months.

Maintenance on the 47th and Madison escalator (left) and the private escalator that's replaced it (right)

Maintenance on the 47th and Madison escalator (left) and the private escalator that’s replaced it (right)… Unexpected symbols of public services’ slow demise

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this escalator (pretty lame, I know). Specifically, I wonder how many people must pass through that exit from Grand Central every day into Midtown Manhattan, and whose commutes are impacted in some small way by its unavailable status. How is it possible for this thing to be out of order for this long?

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Some thoughts on Martin Luther King and economic justice

Recently I was driving home late at night from a long road trip, flipping around the radio dial. Randomly, I stumbled upon a radio station playing a speech from Dr Martin Luther King. It turned out to be his famous speech, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop“, delivered in April of 1968.

This speech is famous in part because it was Dr King’s last public address. He was shot dead the following day in a Memphis, TN motel. Almost prophetically, King wrapped up his speech on the eve of his death with these words:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the promised land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.

I had never heard the famous “Mountaintop” speech and I found it powerful and haunting for the obvious reasons. But a couple of other themes struck me, themes which I think resonated with me in particular as a Baha’i.

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Pondering the slow march to oneness… from the beach

What does it take to pull this off? Lots and lots of labor.

What does it take to pull this off? Lots and lots of labor.

My wife and I recently took a trip to one of those “all-inclusive” resorts, this one in Mexico’s Riviera Maya near Cancun. Ordinarily I’m not the type of person who goes for this sort of thing. A good vacation in my mind usually involves some adventure and spontaneity, especially when it comes to eating, so the notion of spending the better part of a week on some fenced off beach resort filled with Americans and Europeans and eating all my meals in the same place would normally not do it for me. But having a baby is severely limiting when it comes to vacation, unless you’re one of those alpha-types who straps your one-year-old to your back while climbing Macchu Pichu. For the rest of us, sitting on the beach with nothing to worry about is a lot more appealing when you’ve got an infant stumbling around. Really, our biggest worry on this trip was that our son was ingesting too much sand.

If you are a gringo like me, you can glean a lot of economic wisdom from traveling to a developing country and just observing. Prior to this trip I would have thought this to be impossible on a secluded resort walled off from the rest of the country. But that proved to be wrong.

Ironically, the concept of the all-inclusive resort housed in the developing world and servicing tourists from the richer countries can tell you a lot about where we are as a human race and where we’re gradually going collectively. It provides a snapshot of this moment in economic history, a moment which is destined over time to vanish forever.

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