Sunday, November 23, 2008

Framework for Human Flourishing

There is a wide array of terms that attempt to get at what I want to call “flourishing.” These include concepts of flow, fullness, being fully alive, self-actualization, and many others. It seems to me that all of these conversations are attempting to answer the more foundational question: what does it mean and look like for human beings to flourish? As I posted before, this question is on my mind more than any other.

Over Turkish coffee and hookah in Hyde Park the other night, two friends and I came up with a vision of what it might look like for us to flourish in community together. While the discussion was mostly geared toward our travel plans together, I think the framework we established might be more widely relevant. It’s essentially a five-point vision:

1) Exposure
We want to be continually exposed to other peoples’ realities. This could mean sleeping with the homeless, understanding a place’s politics, dining with the marginalized, and being seriously embedded in real relationships with people whose lives have the ability to fracture our perspective.

2) Intellectual growth
We must be exercising and stretching our intellect, forcing ourselves to think in greater nuance about more things. I want to be able to see the world sociologically, anthropologically, poetically, musically, economically, politically, and scientifically.

3) Celebration
This may sound cheesy, but we have good reason to celebrate all of the good things we have been given and entrusted with. From dancing all night to being engaged in the beauty of music and artistic expression, we need to continually counter the gray and sleepy humdrum of modernity with an engaged and hearty spirit of playfulness and foolishness.

4) Creating
My boss once told me that leaders need to ask themselves two questions: 1) What am I creating? and 2) Do people believe me? While this is bent toward entrepreneurial leadership, it speaks strongly to my desire to not only critique, but create. However informal or subtle, we need to hone our ability to translate ideas into reality, as Adam has with this blog.

5) Discipleship
Regardless of one’s faith or moral tradition, we are becoming a certain sort of person as. How are we surrounding ourselves with sources and creating habits that enable us to move toward ideality. My personal ideal is the person of Christ, but yours could be King, Nietzsche, Gandhi, or Dylan. The question remains, how are we becoming the disciples of our heroes?

I realize that this is an unscientific, somewhat vague, and idealistic vision of human flourishing. What are your thoughts on this? Is flourishing an entirely personal venture or, as the field of positive psychology asserts, can we come up with frameworks for understanding fullness? In your experience, where does this framework miss the mark?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Pop in '08

In a recent interview with Pitchfork, mashup artist Gregg Gillis (a.k.a. Girl Talk) was asked to defend the quality of the music he samples.  Here's the Q&A with interviewer Mark Richardson:

Pitchfork: What about the role of irony in your music, if there is any? What is your actual relationship to the tracks you draw from? Which of them you think, "Oh, this is amazing; this is genius," which of them you think, "This is silly," and which of them you think, "This is a cheesy guilty pleasure."

GG: At this point I feel like I've graduated beyond guilty pleasures. I sample everything on this because I like it. Going back to my high school band experience, the bitter teenage years, back then I would sample the music almost to mess it up. Even on the first Girl Talk album, I don't want to say I was approaching it ironically, but I was taking songs that I maybe didn't listen to as much, like [Joan Osborne's] "One of Us", and completely mangling it. But [now], that's not really interesting to me.

Kind of taking a step back, I appreciate almost every form of music. If I'm not really getting it, oftentimes [it's because] I don't like something on the surface. There's probably a fan base for it, but I just don't understand why they're into it. There's a crowd out there who hates everything Pitchfork reviews, and there's a crowd who hates every jam band release out there. No one's really right or wrong in my mind, it's just a matter of your influences and your experiences growing up. All that factors into my never wanting to sample anything ironically-- I'm totally behind everything. Especially pop; it's so sincere and up-front, making a song everyone's going to enjoy. It's impossible for me to hate on that.

This quote immediately brought to mind two occurrences: 1. After Girl Talk's breakout album Night Ripper was released, my brother Joel said to me, "It makes listening to really bad rap fun"; 2. Dave once asked me if my inclusion of R. Kelly's "I'm a Flirt (Remix)" on a mixtape was "a joke."

Defending an entire genre of music is a difficult prospect because stereotypes are so prevalent, more often than not, for good reason.  I'll refer you to an article I wrote on the merits of country (see pages 12-14), because most of the same arguments can be slightly altered and applied to pop.  But I think ultimately, Gillis hits the nail on the head with that last line.  Trace the history back through Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Elvis, and pop has always been about simplicity and fun, and not a whole lot more.

Most of my days are spent in the library and not tuned into the car radio, and as a result, I haven't a clue what today's number 1 hit is.  That said, I have been lucky enough to catch a handful of gloriously unabashed pop singles this year.  Here are a couple I've particularly enjoyed and a couple more that have me salivating for a future release:

First: Sugababes - "No Can Do"

I have no explanation for why some groups simply don't make it across the pond (example: probably the decade's best pop album, Robyn's 2005 self-titled, finally saw an American release in April of 2008--what the hell?).  Sugababes have six albums to their name--their most recent, Catfights and Spotlights, is their "lowest charting in eight years," despite hitting #8 on the UK Albums Chart--and yet I'd never heard their name before moving to England.  Their album, like most pop records nowadays, is simply not all that good: it's not at all cohesive, it's front-loaded to death, and much of it is downright boring.  But there are a couple of singles that just scream perfect pop.  Case in point, "No Can Do," which borrows a Sweet Charles Sherrell sample originally produced by James Brown, glimmers with a modern Motown feel.  This is the kind of track that would put Christina and Britney to shame if it ever made it onto American airwaves.

Second: Taylor Swift - Fearless

I promise to give this album a proper review sometime soon--it deserves it.  But for now, I'll just post my current-favorite-tune, "Hey Stephen," from what's hands down the best pop album I've heard in 2008.

Third: Kid Sister  - "Family Reunion"
Dusted Magazine posted what I believe is the first proper review of Kid Sister's upcoming Dream Date today.  One of the first singles out is this Diplo-produced number with a killer bass line and a funky guitar lick.  In the middle of November, Kid Sister treats us to the perfect summer single, complete with a chipper chorus: "Quit your boohooin'/ Sun be shining, barbecuing/ It's about to be a family reunion."

Fourth: Rox - "My Baby Left Me"
I'll let Pitchfork's Eric Harvey handle this gem:
Ah, ooooooooo-uu-oohh yeah!
The soul beneath Rox's sweet shout sounds like the product of peak-era Motown labor division--each piece molded with micro-level human care and macro-level cold precision. The excerpted vocal above is no exception: it only distantly exhibits characteristics that one would instantly recognize as "human." Like the studio-constructed self-choir Stevie Wonder made of his own impossibly keening falsetto on the middle eight of "We Can Work It Out" (2:08 to 2:15), this background holler is chrome. Most crucially is the break in the middle of the "Ah, oooooooo" part. It's the quick-hiccup sort of modification that most would identify with record-scratching, but there's no "scratch" sound present. Just a frozen microsecond of space, like gleaming side-panel detail work temporarily interrupted by the gap where the door opens.
Listen to "My Baby Left Me" here, or visit Rox's MySpace page.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Helping voters change their world

In one of my first posts back in October, entitled "A Different Electoral Conversation," I outlined how I understand the basic mechanism of democracy. I argued that in democracy, politicians are supposed to respond to voters’ needs because they are held accountable through the electoral process; accountability causes responsiveness. However, in many nascent democracies, accountability breaks down because voters vote ideologically or do not have the information they need to accurately judge the performance of their government. Instead of pursuing systematic reform, governments often initiate highly visible public works projects and offer handouts just before elections to create a positive impression among poor (and uninformed) voters. This is commonly called "budget as theater."

Democracy is one of the most powerful forces at work in the 21st Century, but it is not being fully harnessed for social good. In countries where a large majority of people face deprivation in terms of basic education and public health, we would expect the government to respond to that deprivation in order to satisfy voters and maintain power. However, all but one of the studies performed since 2001 have not found a significant relationship between democracy and levels of social service provision. I would like to discuss how we can change this fact in emerging democracies through the power of information.

Without accessible, digestible, and relevant information about how politicians perform along very basic social criteria, such as basic education and public health, democracies cannot function as they were designed. This information asymmetry is exacerbated in poor countries because of low transparency, high illiteracy, and many other large scale social problems. The question then, is how can we empower voters with the information they need to accurately sanction and reward the politcians in power? It is only when voters have this information will governments have the incentive to respond to their basic social needs; if they don't perform, they will be thrown out of office.

My vision is a world in which people’s basic social needs are recognized, met, and protected by freely elected governments. What if we were to strengthen democracies in less-developed countries by empowering voters with the information by which they could hold governments more accountable for their basic social needs? How would this happen? I think three things would need to take place:

1) Make sure the electoral mechanism "works"
People need to have faith that elections will be free and fair in order for them to invest in changing their system. Thus, we would have to use innovative techniques, like text messaging to report electoral fraud, and existing institutions to ensure that the electoral mechanism works. Trust and hope in the democratic system must be (re)built for real public action to take place.

2) Equip people with basic information about how their government has performed
Information is all to often deeply buried in reports, long meetings, and government files. An independent civil society organization ought to synthesize policy outcomes into easily accessible and digestible materials that are widely distributed among voters. It would need to secure both local and international legitimacy through rigorous analysis, partnerships, and quality products.

3) Mobilize people around an alternative social vision
Socially and politically marginalized people would need to show up en masse in order to seriously alter poltical incentives for those seeking elected office. People would need to not only have faith in the electoral process and the information necessary to accurately asses the performance of their government, but they would need to vote on the basis of that information.

Essentially, I want rebuild the electoral process, equip voters with information, and change voting norms in order to incentivize social performance among politicians. Of course local institutions and networks would be depended upon and utilized, but a new civic organization would be required to orchestrate such a massive shift.

Generally speaking, this is my strategy for strengthening democracies in less developed countries around the world. I want to use existing institutions (elections/ government) to ensure that peoples most basic social needs are met.

Would this work? I have no time for cynicism, but would love some serious feedback on this idea.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Security through energy independence: A bipartisan critique

One thing that both Obama and McCain expressly agree upon is the need for America to be independent of foreign (read Arab) oil. This seems to me one of the great unchallenged assumptions of the American political scene. I would like to explore the notion that we must be energy independent.

We live in an increasingly complex and interdependent world. Everything we need to sustain a Western way of life is in some way dependent upon the global economy. Think of food, computers, medicine, raw materials, mechanical parts, labor, and the list goes on. This raises the question, why should we categorically reject this increasing global economic interdependence when it comes to oil and gas?

First, I am not talking about the general move toward sustainable energy. I am all for wind farms, solar, hydroelectric, biofuels, and most other clean and green technologies for both environmental and economic reasons. However, this does not seem to be at the crux of the argument made by both the Democrats and Republicans. The primary rationale behind the energy independence agenda, as expressed during the presidential debates, is the idea that depending on foreign (Middle Eastern) oil and gas is a basic security threat to America. This is where I disagree.

Dependence on other countries for natural resources does not necessarily make a country less secure.
Countries like Japan and Germany are almost entirely dependent on foreign oil and or natural gas and have not experienced security problems because of it. We seem to fear the idea that the Saudis (or other Middle Eastern countries) could hold us hostage because we are dependent on them for oil, but this misses the point. Sure we depend on them for oil, but they depend on the rest of the world to buy that oil; we are interdependent and interlocked economies. If the regime was using the money to spread a movement of destruction, economic turmoil, or global terror, they would lose their buyers and thus their funding.

Further, energy independence would not necessarily make us more secure. As we learned on September 11th, our largest security threat comes from terrorists, not state actors. We could be entirely energy independent and face no less of a threat from terrorists and extremists around the world. Even if we can suppose that radical terrorists get funding from oil sales, the increasing global appetite for oil on behalf of China, Russia, India, and Brazil would maintain a high enough demand for oil that prices wouldn’t crash.

The idea that our security depends on our ability to wean ourselves from foreign energy is wrongheaded. In fact, isn’t it feasible that a decrease in the global demand for oil could even increase regional instability in the Middle East because it would cause their undiversified economies (and population) severe distress? We live in an interdependent world and should not fear global trade as a point of American weakness. Furthermore, it seems that people believe that we are captive to the Middle East for their oil, but we have, on average, imported about the same amount of oil from Africa as we did from the Middle East during this past year. We also get vast amounts of oil from Canada and South America. The fear that Middle Eastern oil producers could sabotage the West by jacking up the price of oil doesn't hold given our diversified energy portfolio. They too must compete for our consumption.

In short, I believe that home-grown, green, and sustainable energy solutions are great opportunities to create American jobs and protect our environment. However, telling Americans that our “addiction to foreign oil” is a grave security threat is based on an outdated worldview. We are not an island; global economic interdependence strengthens, not threatens, our collective security.

What do you think? Do we need to rid ourselves of foreign oil to become more secure?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Newsweek's Home Run

My obsession with the 2008 Presidential campaign must unfortunately end sometime.  After watching countless YouTube videos, reading op-eds galore, and mentally mapping the candidates' array of endorsements, I still haven't tired of the drama and spectacle of it all.  It was an enormously entertaining campaign, complete with deeply moving passages, a fair dose of humor, nail-biting cliffhangers, and a tear-jerking conclusion.

I've never been a huge fan of Newsweek, which can probably be attributed to the simple fact that my parents subscribe to Time.  But this week's edition (dated Nov. 17) includes what is inarguably the finest journalism I have come across in more than six months of following this campaign.

Pooling the resources of a special team of reporters given year-long access to both the McCain and Obama campaigns, "on the condition that none of their findings appear until after Election Day," writer Evan Thomas crafts a narrative so remarkably entertaining, you may forget it's about politics at all.  Thomas' strong suit is his frankness; with the utmost clarity and truth, he is adept in his portrayal of the candidates' strengths and weaknesses.

There are seven "chapters" in all, and they are all page-turners--honest to God.  There are incredibly candid moments where one feels as though they have stumbled into a private meeting they were never meant to be a part of.   Take for instance, this excerpt regarding Obama's debate-prep:

Obama was something unusual in a politician: genuinely self-aware. In late May 2007, he had stumbled through a couple of early debates and was feeling uncertain about what he called his "uneven" performance. "Part of it is psychological," he told his aides. "I'm still wrapping my head around doing this in a way that I think the other candidates just aren't. There's a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself. It's part of what makes me a good writer, you know? It's not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign."

These candid remarks were taped at a debate-prep session at a law firm in Washington. The tape of Obama's back-and-forth with his advisers, provided to NEWSWEEK by an attendee, is a remarkably frank and revealing record of what the candidate was really thinking when he took the stage with his opponents.

On the tape, after Obama's rueful remark about the mixed blessings of his detached nature, there is cross talk and laughter, and then Axelrod cracks, "You can save that for your next memoir."

Obama continues: "When you have to be cheerful all the time and try to perform and act like [the tape is unclear; Obama appears to be poking fun at his opponents], I'm sure that some of it has to do with nerves or anxiety and not having done this before, I'm sure. And in my own head, you know, there's—I don't consider this to be a good format for me, which makes me more cautious. When you're going into something thinking, 'This is not my best …' I often find myself trapped by the questions and thinking to myself, 'You know, this is a stupid question, but let me … answer it.' Instead of being appropriately [the tape is garbled]. So when Brian Williams is asking me about what's a personal thing that you've done [that's green], and I say, you know, 'Well, I planted a bunch of trees.' And he says, 'I'm talking aboutpersonal.' What I'm thinking in my head is, 'Well, the truth is, Brian, we can't solve global warming because I f–––ing changed light bulbs in my house. It's because of something collective'."

If you were at all interested in this campaign, I urge you to take the time to read these.  The entire thing can be found online; read it here.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

It's Been a Long Time Comin'...

There was a subtle yet beautiful moment last night in President Obama's (goddamn does it feel good to write that) victory speech that may have been lost on some spectators.  The man said:

It's been a long time comin', but tonight, because of what we did on this date in this election at this defining moment, change has come to America.

It was perhaps the most loaded statement--the culmination--of his entire campaign.

You see, after speaking with sit-in demonstrators in 1963, Sam Cooke wrote the first draft of what is now the definitive song of the Civil Rights Movement, "A Change is Gonna Come."  After Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, Rosa Parks found solace in the song's painful yet optimistic verses:

It's been too hard living but I'm afraid to die,
Cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky, 
It's been a long, a long time comin',
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

I go to the movie, and I go downtown,
But somebody keep telling me don't hang around, 
It's been a long, a long time comin', 
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will.

The brilliance of that line in President Obama's speech then, was his choice to introduce the black-colored elephant in the room as subtly as possible.  He didn't ignore it; I would guess many viewers (blacks and whites alike) picked up on the reference.  But he knew that to claim a victory for his race would be to crumble the mantra upon which his campaign was founded: "Yes we can."

Tuesday, November 4, 2008


I apologize for this horribly impressionistic vignette...

I have been reservedly optimistic about the promises of Barack Obama, but tonight, I was truly inspired. I was at the Obama rally in Grant Park, where roughly 500,000 people converged to celebrate a new era of American leadership. It was an incredible expression of hope, common humanity, and inspiration. People were climbing trees, crying, dancing, and chanting; for the first time in my life I saw civil society in action. Regardless of how I think the next four years may shake out, I am incredibly grateful for the way Obama has captured the imagination and soul of the American people; we have something to believe in again. I am incredibly excited to see what Obama can do as President and for now, I am once again proud to call myself an American at home and abroad.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Out of Poverty by Paul Polak

I just recently read Paul Polak’s book entitled Out of Poverty. First, upon reading Polak’s book and thinking about my last post “Toward what end?” I realized that I have been vastly over thinking poverty alleviation. The basic realization that Polak and others have helped me come to is that humans have radically material needs and an income of less than $1/ day is staggering and must not be treated like yet another neocolonial or materialistic paradigm.

Polak is a successful entrepreneur and change maker who comes from a strawberry farming background. His perspective on international development is wonderfully refreshing and simple. Through his organization, International Development Enterprises (IDE), he has effectively lifted 17 million people out of dollar-a-day poverty. IDE was founded and operates on the basis of four very simple observations:

1) The biggest reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.

2) The vast majority of people living on $1 per day earn their living from one-acre farms.

3) They can earn much more money by increasing productivity and finding ways to grow and sell high-value labor-intensive crops such as off-season fruits and vegetables.

4) To do that, they need access to very cheap small-farm irrigation, good seeds, fertilizer, and markets where they can sell their crops at a profit.

So Polak has invented and marketed affordable, efficient, and effective tools like treadle pumps and drip irrigation systems that can be afforded by the world’s poorest farmers. He doesn’t depend on donations or subsidies and is able to make a small profit by marketing low-profit tools to millions of small-acreage farmers around the world.

In Out of Poverty, Polak also identifies three great poverty eradication myths:

1) We can donate people out of poverty
This is a direct critique of Jeff Sachs, head of the UN Millennium Development Goals, who argues that poor people are too poor to invest their own money to move out of poverty. Sachs calls for rich countries to make gifts to poor countries to essentially continue the enormously ineffective trend that has gone on for over 50 years. William Easterly, in The Elusive Quest for Growth is right in that we have spent billions of dollars in foreign aid and have very little to show for it. Both myself and Polak see the Sachs plan as merely a continuation of this; big infrastructure, irrigation, and agriculture projects with big budgets that will be controlled by the governments of developing countries, the benefits of which will very rarely reach the poor rural farmers who really need it.

2) National economic growth will end poverty
India and China have both experienced incredibly impressive GDP growth over the years. However, 360 million people in India and over 200 million people in China continue to live on less than a dollar a day. Any scholar of India can notice a development of “two Indias,” one for those who reap the benefits of growth and those who continue to be entrenched in poverty. Yes, we need growth, but all too often that growth is aimed at urban industrial growth instead of empowering small-scale, dollar a day farmers to increase their production and profits.

3) Big business will end poverty
Polak sees very little reason to think that multinational corporations will seriously invest in lifting people out of poverty. Not because they are evil or selfish, but they are just not competent in designing affordable solutions for the poorest people in the world. Roughly 90% of innovation and design efforts are focused on catering to the richest 10% of the world’s populations. They don’t have the competence in understanding, reaching, and selling to customers who live on less than a dollar a day. Until the target market that they are designing and innovating for changes, we will not see a major breakthrough from corporations in solving poverty.

In sum, Polak bypasses donors, governments, and big business to directly empower the millions of people who need the most help. He sells them unsubsidized and high-quality tools and resources by which they can generate enough income to send their kids to school, see a doctor, be properly nourished, and partake in community activities. He is a grassroots visionary in a world where the IMF, World Bank, and UN Millennium Development Goal initiatives continue to dominate. I highly recommend this book for anyone thinking seriously about addressing poverty in our lifetime.