Tuesday, October 06, 2009

An exercise in humility.

It’s not that I haven’t seen dire poverty before. The most vivid memories of visiting China for the first time aren’t of family or food or noise, but of how beggars slept outside, covered in flies and dirt, directly under the entrance of the city’s upscale shopping malls. The contrast seemed stark to me even then, at the age of twelve when at any other time I would have been more concerned with my gangly arms than with the social run-offs of a country’s booming economy.

In America, it’s easy to forget about the poor. They don’t send their grimy children to implore you to buy their wares. They don’t clean your house and wash your laundry for almost free. They don’t sleep on the sidewalks a dozen to a block, under torn, weathered tarps. The rich don’t touch them, and they don’t ever have to see them.

Here, it is impossible to ignore the hardship that is behind nearly everything I see and touch. Life is so hard. Why?

Once, I heard a friend state that “beauty is an accident”, and I mulled over the quote with interest. But increasingly I see that not only is beauty an accident, but so is success, wealth, social circumstance. People pride themselves on hard work, integrity, charm, and all sorts of voluntary factors to explain their successes. Out of this attitude comes a sense of entitlement, a sense that you deserve your place in life, that you earned it, that those who struggle beneath you are there for a reason and can struggle themselves out if they really wanted to.

But this is false.

Imagine the trajectory of one’s life as a tree diagram. With each stage of life, we have choices, and each choice leads to more, and more, and more, until we have experienced a complex labyrinth of decisions, interactions, and influences that together determine where exactly we are at present. The key observation, however, is that a huge number of these choices, and certainly most of the important ones, are made for us long before we can talk or think or take reasoned actions ourselves.

Hard work and integrity and all those things are not the deciding factor of where we are, but should be seen simply as details in a life path that is already largely predetermined. Suffice it to say that I doubt the existence of free will, but this has nothing to do with God.

Despite what it may seem, the emphasis in these thoughts is not to deplore the futility of human effort. I’d be stupid to deny the observation that humans do regularly break the mold and beat the odds, and I allow for some correlation between conscious individual decisions and resulting position in life (though, as I said, not to the extent that most people convince themselves).

Rather, I’m simply mulling over the relative efficiency of a bottom-up to top-down approach in alleviating human hardship. Let me explain.

Go back to the tree diagram. Among a million people, there are a million paths through the tree, leading to a million outcomes and a million stories. One way to solve the problems of these masses of people is by working backward, by starting at where they are now and working down, working individually. Aid workers and people on the ground are essential components of any effort to extend help to those who need it.

We need some element of this top-down approach, but there are shortcomings to using it singularly. For example, institutions like the World Bank and IMF throw vast chunks of money at African countries with rosy goals of alleviating hunger and poverty and disease, but the results are disproportionately low to the effort and costs.

The goal of a bottom-up approach is to intervene early, thereby preventing problems from happening at all, and precluding the necessity of solving them if/when they happen. Instead of leaving a cookie jar out and punishing a child for stealing, remove the cookie jar. Relating this to the tree analogy, this involves steering people or protecting people early on from going down certain paths that typically lead to suffering. If providing education to a child saves him from the streets, we have by a simple push set him on a trajectory far removed from the uglier alternative. This is just a small example. There are much bigger and much more compelling ways to change the flow of the system, but all involve altering the source, not the outcome.

I offer, of course, zero empirical evidence for these thoughts, just anecdotes and observations. Even so, it makes some sense to me, and perhaps the evidence will follow.


Anonymous said...

About the cookie analogy: Not that you should leave out a cookie jar to bait a child, but a child realizing he is stealing learns something about his own character. The reason why he is punished can be a good lesson as well.

Children should be given an education, and the starving should be given food. Even though we believe this, do we as individuals extend a helping hand (other than our words)? Most of the time, I think not. We let other individuals do the work for us.

Also, are the poor any happier than those in America surrounded by materialistic possessions? The poor may have greater insight to life than we might think. Sometimes I don't know if we should be sympathetic towards them, or if they should be sympathetic towards us. Just some questions floating around in my mind.

Faye said...

Anonymous: Put a name to your thoughts! The internet has allowed us to forego ownership of our opinions, which encourages irresponsible dialogue.

I really hope you are not implicitly extending the cookie analogy to imply that the poor learn good, useful lessons from their dismal lots in life.

So what are these greater insights to life that the poor have? To you, do these insights justify the hardship that has produced them?

cecil said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
cecil said...

faye i liked reading this post because you are becoming in stark contrast, a person i thought you were when we left off.

also, anonymous, faye is on to something. i dont beleive the poor have a greater insight on life because of being poor. think of rich philanthropists; people who learn from giving what they have to those who dont. they are learning humility and beauty, but coming around from a different side.

maybe the poor appreciate what they have more than people who have everything they want. but thats just a bunch of people appreciating something materialistic. same thing, different means. maybe.

i dont think there is anything pecuniary involved with appreciating life.

Jacob said...

One time, though I don't know if you understood it at all, I was saying you're stupid for saying humans are inherently evil and the world sucks and blah blah blah. But it's really hard to comment to you when I wonder if I really mean all that. I'm comforted by the thought that you don't know what I'm talking about a lot of the time.

I think the question is, How do we make this a world worth living in? How do we tell children there is a reason to do your best without lying to them? If you're old enough to read, you've got too much invested in being alive to make an honest judgment.

Give me the blood, Lord, and let me get away.