Poverty, lack, enough

I meant to post this two weeks ago, but my access to internet has been spotty the last few weeks. Looking around our new location (we have moved to SE Asia) has sparked thoughts about, among other things, what is poor and what is not. I am looking at the cover photo right now of Richard Peet and Elaine Hartwick’s Theories of Development. It is a rural African scene, with the small clay-brick houses and stick-wall-and-thatch-roof homes of smallholder farmers. There are tools on the roofs, fruit trees around the homes… this field-and-tree homesteader view rolling into the distance, where it creeps one third up a mountainside, with the top two thirds of the mountain still wild-forested. The scene appears to have sufficient water, and there are harvested crops stacked and stored.

In terms of ‘material civilization,’ this scene doesn’t have a ton. It is a relatively sparse setting, in terms of the number of objects the households own. But does that make it ‘poor’? If there is sufficient water, food, shelter and clothing, is that poverty because there is less than rural Pennsylvania? (My grand parents and their parents used to say to me “we didn’t know we were ‘poor,’ everybody was.”) Or is poverty more an issue of enough, and then access to sufficient education, healthcare and opportunity to exercise one’s freedom and develop one’s life (… aka Amartya Sen)?

I have a feeling we often think ‘poor’ when looking at a material civilization without as many accumulated household goods and gadgets as is typical in the West. But I don’t think that’s accurate. My family of six came here with 12 suitcases of clothing and small personal effects (no one in their right mind goes across the world without their favorite fishing reels!) We then bought some furniture, an iron, some cooking and eating implements, and mosquito nets. Our new home (palatial as it is!) seems more than adequately outfitted. I now am wondering, aside from my books, why we shipped 200 cubic feet of household items and fun stuff. The families around us have far fewer material possessions than people accumulate in America, yet they do not seem poor at all. Alongside Sen, I wonder if our impressions and measurements of ‘poverty’ and ‘lack’ are often skewed toward material possessions that are not actually the determining indicators.

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Poverty and Capitalism in SE Asia

I’ve been in our new location in SE Asia for the last week, driving around the city and nearby countryside. What I’ve been seeing has sparked thoughts about poverty, capitalism, free markets and international trade.

It’s clear that free market capitalism has benefitted industrious people here in absolutely huge numbers. There are beautiful – and not small by U.S. standards – homes everywhere; very very nice homes, inhabited by people whose parents lived in shacks a generation ago. The ability to start a business from the ground up (selling vegetables or plastic household goods, for instance, along the roadside to the burgeoning population), and then develop that business into a successful wealth-generating income, stands as a classic example of why people argue for free market capitalism. The evidence is all around me. As I stand on my balcony looking across the neighborhood in the morning, the homes are beautiful, incredible. And I do not live in a wealthy area… this is considered middle class. In a local setting, “the invisible hand” can provide a context for a lot of good.

At the same time, if you know about the Toronto debacle regarding the hire-local, produce-local solar panel scheme, it’s clear that in terms of international trade, “the free market” is a laughable myth, an insult to thinking people. The WTO successfully sued Toronto, declaring that a city cannot prefer local goods over foreign goods. Essentially this simply makes sure the Donald Trumps and other transnational corporate empires are free to dominate every single market, and a local community cannot make choices about its own labor and industry at all. There isn’t anything free or invisible about what happened in Toronto, it’s clear the market is stacked, channeled, constrained and controlled by mega-size forces who get laws written to protect their ability to accumulate more fortunes. I don’t begrudge Trump his wealth; I detest the idea that we act so ridiculous as to say that “free markets” and “an invisible hand” are enshrined values in international business. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The tax code and other tools have always channeled markets when governments got involved, and let’s not act like we are protecting freedom for the little guy, when we are actually protecting transnational giants who dominate the world in breathtaking ways rarely seen in human history.

So, two thoughts: 1) a free market can be a very valuable help to a local population. 2) What’s going on in international trade law is the furthest thing from a free market.

Next time I’d like to share some thoughts about what is poor and what is not.