Sunday, June 21, 2009

Living On $2 A Day: An Interview With Economist Jonathan Morduch

According to the World Bank, almost forty percent of humanity lives on a daily income of less than two dollars per day. Another 1.1 billion scrape by on less than one dollar per day.

How can anyone possibly survive or raise a family with such a meager income? In New York City, two dollars per day won’t even cover my daily Brooklyn/Manhattan round-trip subway commute. Yet billions of low skilled people put food on the table, educate their children, grapple with unexpected emergencies and even save money.

In Portfolios of the Poor: How the World’s Poor Live On $2 a Day, Darryl Collins, Jonathan Morduch, Stuart Rutherford and Orlanda Ruthven, compiled yearlong “financial diaries,” of villagers and slum dwellers in Bangladesh, India and South Africa. The diaries track penny by penny, how specific households manage their money with sophistication and resourcefulness. Recently published by Princeton University Press, Portfolios of the Poor, presents revealing data in an accessible seven chapters and 184 pages of text. The text is supported with an additional eighty plus pages of appendices, data tables and notes illustrating “the story behind the portfolios.”

In a tour de force of primary research, the authors report that the world’s poorest do not live hand to mouth and desperately spend what they earn just to keep from drowning. Instead, they utilize financial tools, rely on “informal” networks through relatives and neighbors and navigate perils such as medical calamities and political strife. Their stories are both inspiring as well as heartbreaking.

Although the world’s poorest are far more adept at financial management then previously understood, they’re confronted with what the authors describe as the “triple whammy”:
  • Low income
  • Irregularity of income.
  • Unpredictability about when they will earn income.
Hence, the authors assertively advocate for microfinancing as a means of empowering the world’s poorest with more secure and convenient instruments to access and manage money. Microfinancing is financial services for low income clients in the world’s poorest countries who are self-employed or operating their own businesses.

The authors argue in their book that microfinancing should also be extended to address the needs of exceptionally low-income wage earners as well. It is their contention that poor people in the countries they researched demonstrate on a daily basis that they are responsible money managers and would also be reliable clients of microfinancing services.

One of the authors, Jonathan Morduch, is a New York University ("NYU") professor of economics as well as a managing director of the Financial Access Initiative - a consortium of researchers at NYU, Harvard, Yale, and Innovations for Poverty Action. Morduch, agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about the book and our conversation was just under twenty-six minutes.

Among the topics covered was how his team earned the confidence of the people interviewed, the informal market tools utilized by the world’s poorest in Bangladesh, India and South Africa and why he’s a proponent of extending microfinancing to the world’s poorest wage earners.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

That Freedom Thing

Years. 1956. 1968. 1979. 1989. 1990. 1997. As events and protests unfold following the disputed Iranian presidential election I’m reminded of years and moments when the forces of totalitarianism and popular will stared each other down. Each moment contained its own unique historical tapestry and illustrated humanity’s common aspirations to live in dignity.

With each instance there is wonderment and hope that history will turn the page for the better. History teaches however that such hopes are typically elusive.

Hungary: October/November 1956 - America falsely suggests it would support an uprising against Soviet oppression and backs away. The Kremlin initially appeared ready to accept Hungary’s popular will and instead opted to crush it. And a generation of freedom is lost.

Czechoslovakia: January to August 1968 - In January, reformist Slovak Alexander Dubcek comes to power and unleashes the “Prague Spring.” Citizens are granted more freedom as the economy is partially decentralized and restrictions on speech and the media are loosened. In April, Dubcek refers to his political program as “socialism with a human face.” On August 21st, the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact invade Czechoslovakia and Dubcek’s reforms are terminated. It became known as the “Brezhnev Doctrine,” as Moscow claimed the right to intervene any time a socialist country appeared ready to lose its way and embrace capitalism.

China: April/May 1989 - Twenty years ago the death of a pro-market, pro-democracy, and anti-corruption official, Hu Yaobang, sparks an uprising. A million people gathered at Tiananmen Square to mourn Hu. The movement lasts seven weeks, from Hu's death in mid April until tanks cleared Tiananmen Square on June 4th. It’s a young people’s movement, as one unarmed man is shown in footage worldwide obstructing a tank with his defiance. Many are killed, wounded and “rehabilitated” following these events as Beijing cracks down.

The end result is an uneasy truce in which China’s economy is liberalized while the Communist Party maintains its hold onto power. Whenever corruption or popular discontentment is poised to rupture the truce, Beijing exploits the nationalist card with respect to Taiwan’s sovereignty or uses America and the West as a foil legitimizing their rule. Today, China finances America’s deficit with their expanding economy even as discontentment and the Internet threaten to undermine the regime’s authority.

Eastern Europe: 1989-1990 - The proudest feeling I ever had about my country took place in March 1990. While studying abroad in England I visited Berlin and Poland. “Velvet Revolutions” had swept Eastern Europe in 1989 and Poland was the first domino to fall that summer as our bipolar world disintegrated. Even so, I was initially more enthusiastic about visiting Berlin. By March 1990 Poland wasn’t really in the news anymore following more dramatic events in Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Romania. Nonetheless, the exhilarating feel of history was intoxicating.

It seemed everyone I met in Poland, from the host family I stayed with, to the courageous Solidarity activists, referred to America as their model and inspiration. Shipyard workers and university students my age peppered me with questions about our model of government laws, society and material wealth. I had to convince several Poles that the Miami Vice television program was not representative of America as a whole. How strange to watch Miami Vice on Polish television with my host family as a single male voice overdubbed all the characters!

One crusty fifty something activist told me that, “Your Constitution was stronger than Moscow’s tanks.” Lump in your throat stuff from someone who had confronted totalitarianism since I was in elementary school when the Gdansk shipyard workers rose up in 1981. Even so, the challenges ahead for Poland and Eastern Europe seemed nearly impossible to overcome.

The legacy of Soviet style industrialization was making the mucus come out of my nose black while I toured the country. There were more consumer goods available than before but insufficient resources to meet the demand. I left Poland feeling inspired by their courage but skeptical that the transition could be pulled off. I also worried that the forces of nationalism would reemerge in Eastern Europe following the collapse of communism.

The transition to market oriented democracies has been rough at times for Eastern Europe. Alas, the breakup of Yugoslavia resulted in genocide and bloodshed. Czechoslovakia is no longer a single country and the specter of the Russian Bear is worrisome once again. There was the tumultuous Ukrainian presidential election and Orange Revolution in 2004-05 in opposition to Russia’s imperious manipulations. Nonetheless, democracy appears to have largely taken hold but with the same challenges of transparency, corruption and economic fairness confronting all nations

South Africa: 1990 to 1994 - In 1990 South Africa's President, F.W. de Klerk initiated the systematic dismantling of the racist Apartheid regime. Nelson Mandela, formerly imprisoned by the Apartheid government prevailed in South Africa's first democratic election in 1994. With respect to facilitating reconciliation between the newly empowered black majority and the deposed white minority, Mandela's leadership is a model of statesmanship. Unfortunately, after fifteen years of corruption and incompetence, millions of black South Africans live in poverty as the AIDS pandemic plagues their country.

Iran: 1979, 1997 and 2009 - And that brings us back to Iran. Most readers here should be familiar with the history. A brief snapshot however. In 1953 an American and British orchestrated a coup that replaced Iran’s parliamentary democracy with a monarchy led by Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. America’s CIA trained his secret police known as SAVAK to preserve the Shah’s power. Hence, for over twenty-five years the West had a staunch ally in the oil rich Persian Gulf during the Cold War. Popular discontent however facilitated the demise of the Shah’s regime and he is forced to leave the country in January 1979.

Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, formerly exiled by the Shah returns in February and ultimately becomes Iran’s Supreme Leader. The brutality of the Shah’s regime is replaced with an even more oppressive Islamic theocracy. Khomeni’s consolidation of power is especially brutal. In November 1979, Iranian students seize the American Embassy and take hostages resulting in thirty years of estrangement between the former allies. A catastrophic eight year war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the 1980s leaves Iran with a disproportionately youthful demographic.

President Mohammad Khatami's 1997 landslide victory generates hope among Iran's young for a new era. Many are hoping Khatami will be Iran’s Gorbachev resulting in a rapprochement with the West. Khatami and his supporters are unable to overcome the conservative forces arrayed against them. President George W. Bush further undercuts Iranian reformers with his reactionary policies following 9/11. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prevails in 2005 under the banner of economic populism and social conservatism. He becomes an object of ridicule within his own country and an international embarrassment as he denies the Holocaust and openly threatens Israel’s destruction.

Nobody with any horse sense believes Ahmadinejad legitimately defeated his reformist rival, Mir Husein Moussavi in a landslide. Today, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei gave his support to the outcome of the country's presidential election. Clashes are currently taking place however between the police and Moussavi’s supporters.

Obama’s diplomatic initiatives with Iran appear stalled until events shake out. Iran’s sham of a democracy has been exposed as illegitimate. We always knew that Iran’s elections were severely flawed as presidential candidates had to pass an ideological purity test to be permitted to compete. Initially, Moussavi appeared to be a clever tactic for dissenting impulses to have a means of acting out without threatening the regime’s hold on power.

Instead, a genie has been unleashed and the only way to put it back in its bottle is with brute force. Use of such force as China did in 1989 will only further alienate the population from the regime and isolate Iran even more from the world.

Obama is playing it cool at present and watching events unfold. In fairness to President Obama, America’s track record in intervening in Iranian affairs is not good. Our coup in 1953 was both immoral and strategically disastrous. Also, Obama’s foreign policy, for all the pretty rhetoric is reminiscent of George Herbert Walker Bush’s. It’s predicated on “stability” rather than encouraging grass roots movements against oppression.

And it’s hard to conduct business with a country when an uprising is taking place. So, it is understandable that the president is risk adverse. America erred in 1956 with Hungary and many died when we were not willing to intervene on their behalf. America at present is fighting two wars and doesn’t possess the assets to intervene in a meaningful way. Suggesting otherwise would be irresponsible and might even undermine opponents of the regime. If he acts rashly the end results could be disastrous. Yet, if Obama remains a passive actor, an opportunity could be missed.

Obama’s recent speech in Cairo is partially a catalyst to events on Iranian streets today. With an American president professing respect and conciliation towards the Islamic world, the rationale for Ahmadinejad as well as maintaining a bellicose posture against the West no longer seemed necessary. The recent election in Lebanon also suggested a response to Obama’s speech. Meanwhile, a viable constituency for ending Iran’s isolation certainly exits as illustrated by the 2009 campaign. Hence, Iran’s governing elite is obviously spooked by Obama’s speech, the Lebanese election and the increasing street activity of Moussavi’s supporters.

How will history turn? Is this a revolution in the making or will Iran’s mullahs successfully crack down as the Chinese communists did in 1989? China’s economy was large enough to survive the world’s condemnation but could Iran absorb the repercussions of a brutal crackdown? Or will Iran’s ruling elite come up with face saving pragmatic compromises to ensure their power for another generation? Sadly, a "Velvet Revolution" like we saw in Eastern Europe in 1989 with limited bloodshed seems unlikely.

Perhaps, Iran’s ruling establishment will manufacture a crisis with the United States to rally nationalist support on its behalf. Does Israel’s Netanyahu benefit from Ahmadinejad’s victory or will a popular uprising in Iran end Israel’s ability to distract from their oppression of the Palestinian people?

The possibilities, opportunities and dangers are endless. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. One thing is for sure: far better to have Barack Obama and Joe Biden in the White House instead of the irrational John McCain and insipid Sarah Palin. I don't always agree with Obama's centrist like approach but at least he has a cool head.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Billy Graham & the Rise of the Republican South: An Interview With Historian Steven P. Miller

In the age of Barack Obama, both the Republican Party as well as the South appear marginalized and out of step with the rest of America. Yet it wasn’t so long ago that the South represented the foundation of America’s conservative hegemony. Starting with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, the Republican Party prevailed in nine out of the next fourteen presidential elections with a reliable Southern base.

Specifically, the Republican Party exploited white Southern resentment against the cause of civil rights and integration. The "Southern strategy" as it was later called, enabled Republicans to end the Democratic Party's previous domination of the South following the Civil War. A key figure in that realignment was the renowned evangelist Billy Graham.

Historian, Steven P. Miller, first explored Billy Graham’s role in this realignment with his doctorate thesis entitled, “The Politics of Decency: Billy Graham, Evangelicalism, and the End of the Solid South, 1950-1980.” Miller later converted that thesis into his current book, Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South, recently published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Miller’s book delineates how Graham allowed his iconic celebrity to be used by national politicians so they could make inroads into the South. His book also details how Graham capitalized on his leverage as a regional heavyweight to influence presidents and policy.

With President Dwight Eisenhower, Graham had an ideological soul mate as both valued “moderation” between segregationists and those who championed integration. Graham believed that racism could not be overcome through legislation and the heavy hand of federal power. Instead, he advocated changing the hearts and minds of people “one soul at a time” through his integrated “crusades” where he preached his love thy neighbor gospel.

Under the presidencies of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, Graham straddled the fence between promoting racial tolerance and preserving local southern autonomy or “states rights.” In that regard, Graham was an intimate part of Richard Nixon's inner circle after he became president in 1968. Graham’s defenders argue that he helped the South transition from its shameful past while preserving stability. His critics claim that Graham was a cowardly apologist for white privilege who didn’t do nearly enough to advance the cause of civil rights. Personally, like many liberals, I'm partial to the latter argument.

Ross Douthat writes in his April 19th review of Miller's book in the New York Times that,
“Neither story is the whole truth, but both are true. And it’s a credit to Steven P. Miller that his ‘Billy Graham and the Rise of the Republican South,’ a study of the evangelist’s relationship to the cause of civil rights on the one hand and the cause of conservatism on the other, does justice to the tensions and complexities involved — for Graham, for the South and for the country. In Miller’s account, one of 20th-century America’s most important religious leaders emerges as a representative political actor as well, whose example is worth pondering less because he was courageous than because he often wasn’t.

The story of the civil rights era is usually told as a collision between heroes and villains: the marchers on one side and the K.K.K. on the other; the Martin Luther Kings and Lyndon Johnsons making the way straight for justice, and the George Wallaces and Bull Connors standing sneering in their way. But the movement’s successes and failures were ultimately determined by the choices of more unheroic men — men like Billy Graham.”
Miller, who earned a PH.D degree in history from Vanderbilt University and has taught at numerous institutions, including Washington University, Webster University and Goshen College, agreed to a telephone podcast interview with me about his book and our conversation was just under thirty-six minutes.

Among the topics covered is the difference between hard core fundamentalism and evangelicalism, Graham’s role in facilitating Republican inroads into the previously reliable Democratic South, whether his middle ground on civil rights was courageous or cowardly, Graham's alliance with Eisenhower, his friendship with Lyndon Johnson, the intimate collaboration with Richard Nixon and the legacy he left behind.

Please refer to the flash media player below.

This interview can also be at accessed at no cost via the Itunes Store by searching for either the “Intrepid Liberal Journal” or “Robert Ellman.”

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Obama & the Mideast

President Obama is beginning his much-anticipated Mideast trip today in Saudi Arabia that includes a heavily promoted address to the Muslim world in Cairo, Egypt tomorrow. This trip coincides with President Obama and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, making news criticizing Israel's settlment policy in the occuppied territories. With respect to the criticism, Israel's settlement policy is both illegal and immoral.

Obama's willingness to criticize Israel for it is certainly a change in rhetoric from standard American practice in recent years. The real test however will come as the Netenyahu government continues to defy the world and build within existing settlements. Will there be any consequences? I doubt it.

At this point there is no organized counterweight to the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee ("APAC"). As a Jewish American who cares about Israel, I once again express my regret that an effective counterweight to APAC does not exist. Without one, Israel will continue down a dark and perilious path and eventually reap a catastrophic whirlwind. In the meantime, blood is being shed.

I suspect Obama's Israeli criticism is partly calculated to enhance his credibility prior to engaging the leadership of the Muslim world. Translation: "I'm being honest with Israel and not coddling them. So I'm going to be honest with you too and say, Israel has legitimate security concerns that need to be addressed." That won't be enough.

In fairness to Obama, I don't see how any president can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. Netanyahu, even if he wanted too, can't deliver diplomatic breakthroughs without fracturing his fragile coalition or provoking civil war with Israeli settlers. The Palestinian leadership under Abbas is even less capable of coming through with what is known in the world of diplomacy as "deliverables." With Hamas shut out, the Palestinian Authority has no credibility with its own people as it struggles to survive.

Both Israeli and Palestinian societies are dysfunctional. After forty years of a brutal occupation, the Palestinians don't have the institutions or an established civil culture to govern itself as a peaceful neighbor. That won't change unless Palestinian society can have a transition period without the heavy yoke of occupation. The Palestinian young have known nothing but struggle, hardship and violence. They are jaded and easy prey to do the terrorist bidding of demagogues.

Meanwhile, Israeli society has been morally corrupted as an occupier and the extremist settler movement further ties their government’s hands. Even worse, there is no effective political left in Israel serving as an opposition. The onetime proud Labor Party is serving in Netanyahu's coalition and the opposition Kadima Party is not much better than Netanyahu's Likud government. Curiously, the Israeli press is far more critical of the occupation than the American press. Nonetheless, no viable center-left opposition party capable of challenging Israel’s posture towards the Palestinians exists.

It's heartbreaking but the cycle of violence appears unbreakable.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Dr. Tiller's Assasination Is An Act of Terrorism

All I have to say about Dr. George Tiller's assassination yesterday is that it is an act of terrorism. This man put himself at risk on behalf of women and was murdered because of it. The ultimate objective is to intimidate other doctors from helping women at a time of crisis in their lives. Anyone who has ever known a woman who aborted a baby learned it is not a frivolous decision on their part. Late term abortions are especially traumatic for women and typically done to save their lives.

I've always respected people of conscious who genuinely believe abortion is wrong and have worked within the political system to oppose it. Regrettably, too many anti-abortion activists believe their moral imperative extends to murder. American conservatives have enabled the sort of terrorists that murdered Dr. Tiller and his family is living with the consequences.