Friday, March 27, 2009

The need to overhaul America’s criminal justice system

The U.S. criminal justice system has become overly reliant on incarceration while not necessarily seeing a corresponding drop in crime. Virginia Senator Jim Webb has introduced legislation to review of the nation's entire criminal justice system and offering concrete recommendations for reform.

From Senator Webb’s office:
"America's criminal justice system has deteriorated to the point that it is a national disgrace," said Senator Webb. "With five percent of the world's population, our country houses twenty-five percent of the world's prison population. Incarcerated drug offenders have soared 1200% since 1980. And four times as many mentally ill people are in prisons than in mental health hospitals. We should be devoting precious law enforcement capabilities toward making our communities safer. Our neighborhoods are at risk from gang violence, including transnational gang violence.


Senator Webb's interest in reforming the U.S. criminal justice system stems from his days as a Marine Corps officer, sitting on courts-martial, and "thinking about the interrelationship between discipline and fairness." Later, as an attorney, he spent six years in pro bono representation of a young African American Marine accused of war crimes in Vietnam, eventually clearing the man's name three years after he took his own life.

Twenty-five years ago, while working on special assignment for Parade Magazine, Webb was the first American journalist allowed inside the Japanese prison system, where he "became aware of the systemic dysfunctions of the U.S. system." Japan, with half of the United States' population at that time, had only 40,000 sentenced prisoners in jail compared to the U.S.'s 580,000; today, the U.S. has 2.38 million prisoners and another five million involved in the process, either due to probation or parole situations.

"We are not protecting our citizens from the increasing danger of criminals who perpetrate violence and intimidation as a way of life, and we are locking up too many people who do not belong in jail," concluded Webb. "I believe that American ingenuity can discover better ways to deal with the problems of drugs and nonviolent criminal behavior while still minimizing violent crime and large-scale gang activity.

"We all deserve to live in a country made better by such changes," said Webb.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The economy must take priority over worries about deficits

After ignoring the buildup of deficits during the Bush years, so-called budget hawks are now “shocked” about the federal government’s projected deficits over the next four to ten years. Of course, they overlook the fact that our economy is in very real trouble and spending cuts at a time the economy needs stimulation will only prolong the bigger problems. And they also overlook the fact the best way to address deficits is to have a healthy economy.

Dean Baker explains:
…budget hawk[s]… are upset that the deficits projected for 2013 or 2019 are too large. They want President Obama to commit to spending cuts and/or tax increases in order to bring these deficits to levels they consider acceptable.

The unreality of this picture is striking because the budget hawks seem not to notice that we are in the middle of an economic meltdown.

People are losing their homes through foreclosures at the rate of more than 100,000 a month. The default rates on credit cards, car loans and other debt is at record levels. Most of our major banks are effectively insolvent.

Home and stock prices have plummeted, destroying most of the wealth of the baby boom cohort as they stand on the edge of retirement. The economy is shedding almost 700,000 jobs a month, with the unemployment rate rapidly approaching the highest level since the Great Depression.
In this context we are supposed to be up in arms over the deficit projections for 2013 or 2019? This is a bit like someone complaining about the lawn not being mowed at a time when the house is on fire, it's just not the first priority. And the media all seem to go along with the charade - yes, they are very concerned about the projected deficit for 2013 …


The moral to this story is that the economy must take priority, not only because the state of the economy is what most directly determines people's well-being, but also because the state of the economy will be the most important determinant of the deficit.

The experience of the 1990s provides an example of exactly this sort of story. In January of 1994 the Congressional Budget Office projected that the deficit in 1999 would be $204 billion or 2.4 percent of GDP. This projection incorporated the impact of President Clinton's tax increase and spending cuts.

It turned out that there was a surplus of $125 billion in 1999, or 1.4 percent of GDP. This shift from deficit to surplus of 3.8 percentage points of GDP (equivalent to $540 billion in 2009) was not caused by further spending cuts or tax increases, it was caused by the strong economic growth of the period.

There is no guarantee that President Obama's policies will be successful in restoring strong growth, but they are clearly a step in the right direction. If we have strong growth, then our deficits will be manageable. If the economy remains weak, the deficit will remain a serious burden no matter how much we raise taxes or cut spending.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The challenge of populism

Populism has always been a discourse that could easily swing from a healthy component of democracy to an unhealthy appeal to demagoguery. It has its left and rightwing variations that can inspire and frighten. During the past few weeks there has been references in the media to the populist reaction to the abuses of Wall Street. All too many political leaders are ready to ride this wave of anger as they should but they should also be weary of the paranoia that can feed off legitimate anger and become destructive to democratic institutions.

George Packer in the New Yorker:
The modern American right, which is congenitally vulnerable to paranoia, gives into its own tendencies most readily when Democrats are in power and its own sense of dispossession is greatest. The John Birch Society thrived under Kennedy; talk-radio demagogues and the militia movement came into their own during the Clinton years; the prospect of a big Democratic win last year had a lot of conservative pundits and some Republican candidates describing Obama as a radical, a socialist, or worse. In some quarters the language has gotten more intemperate since he took office and started governing like the center-left politician that he’s always been. It isn’t just language that’s symptomatic of the paranoid style. It’s the certainty of a conspiratorial hand behind every decision; the evangelical fervor that sees every political dispute as an ultimate contest of good against evil.

Lately, the media has seized upon the word “populist” with all the mindless fury of a mob of…populists. To restore some meaning to the word besides popular outrage, turn to Hofstadter again. He wrote about populism as well, in “The Age of Reform: From Bryan to F.D.R.,” where he emphasized—and maybe overstated—the irrational resentments of the political movement that started in the late nineteenth century as the anti-Wall Street People’s Party and, by the postwar period, had produced among its offspring the anti-communist reaction of McCarthyism. Populism could spring up on the right and the left, and at times—as in the case of Father Coughlin and his Depression-era Social Justice Movement—it was hard to tell them apart. “The phenomenon I am concerned with,” Hofstadter wrote, “involves not so much the progression from one political position to another as the continued coexistence of reformism and reaction; and when it takes the form of a progression in time, it is a progression very often unattended by any real change in personal temper.”

In our own era, populism has been a force for the right, and it’s been channeled toward what Hofstadter, citing Theodor Adorno, called “status politics,” which we now call cultural politics. Hofstadter believed that status politics replaced interest politics during periods of prosperity, like the nineteen-twenties (the return of the Klan, Prohibition, the Scopes trial, etc.), and the nineteen-fifties and sixties (McCarthyism and the rise of the new right). But one could also argue that cultural politics has been perpetuated by the economic erosion of the decades since the early nineteen-seventies: reformers were unable to arrest the slide of the working- and middle-class, so those Americans focused their passions on social issues.

In 2008, with a new depression looming, interest politics finally overtook status politics, which is why the name-calling and cultural appeals of the McCain-Palin campaign didn’t work. In general, this turn benefits Democrats (see F.D.R.), and it has given Obama the chance to set the terms of political discourse for years to come. But if interest politics turns into the kind of populism that rejects all forms of institutional authority—and we’re closer than we’ve been since at least the nineteen-seventies—the public mood will sweep aside Obama’s program of reforms and quite possibly turn into a new sort of reaction: anti-bank, anti-Washington, anti-immigrant, anti-global. The populist temper and the paranoid style are not the same thing, but they are related in obvious ways: when the former loses its bearings, it can degenerate into the latter. For example, the (populist) idea that Timothy Geithner is too close to Wall Street to protect the taxpayers could eventually turn into the (paranoid) idea that Timothy Geithner was appointed in order to protect the bankers at the expense of the taxpayers.

Obama is a liberal, and liberalism can’t afford to be deaf to populism, or it ends up in the graveyard where the campaigns of McGovern and Dukakis are buried. Nor can liberalism, which seeks to strengthen institutions of governance, afford to be driven by populism’s destructive side. Thus, Obama’s recent comment that he wants not to clamp down the public’s anger, but to “channel” it (he didn’t add: “so it doesn’t destroy my presidency”). It takes the political skill of a Roosevelt to uphold the liberal value of rational governance in the midst of a populist storm. Roosevelt felt that his biggest political challenge lay not with the Republicans, who were moribund between 1932 and 1937, but to the left, where the populist demagogue Huey Long kept threatening to take on the Democratic President. Today’s Republicans are at least comatose, but there’s no obvious political equivalent to Long. The popular passions that nearly made Long a dictator, though, are still with us, and they could whip left, right, or both simultaneously.

In short, a lot is riding on the bailout.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Texas Board of Education will try to reverse evolution

The Texas Board of Education, commanding control over one of the largest textbook markets in the country, may change science curriculum for Texas public schools to reflect a non-scientific point of view that the natural world did not come about naturally but rather through the intervention of supernatural beings (i.e., the Christian god).

This from the Wall Street Journal:
The Texas Board of Education will vote this week on a new science curriculum designed to challenge the guiding principle of evolution, a step that could influence what is taught in biology classes across the nation.

The proposed curriculum change would prompt teachers to raise doubts that all life on Earth is descended from common ancestry. Texas is such a huge textbook market that many publishers write to the state's standards, then market those books nationwide.

"This is the most specific assault I've seen against evolution and modern science," said Steven Newton, a project director at the National Center for Science Education, which promotes teaching of evolution.

Texas school board chairman Don McLeroy also sees the curriculum as a landmark -- but a positive one.

Rev. Carl W. Rohlfs of the University United Methodist Church in Austin, left, talks with Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller, right, Thursday in Austin. The State Board of Education is voting on science-curriculum standards on the teaching of evolution.

Dr. McLeroy believes that God created the earth less than 10,000 years ago. If the new curriculum passes, he says he will insist that high-school biology textbooks point out specific aspects of the fossil record that, in his view, undermine the theory that all life on Earth is descended from primitive scraps of genetic material that first emerged in the primordial muck about 3.9 billion years ago.

He also wants the texts to make the case that individual cells are far too complex to have evolved by chance mutation and natural selection, an argument popular with those who believe an intelligent designer created the universe.

The textbooks will "have to say that there's a problem with evolution -- because there is," said Dr. McLeroy, a dentist. "We need to be honest with the kids."

The vast majority of scientists accept evolution as the best explanation for the diversity of life on earth.

Yes, they say, there are unanswered questions -- transitional fossils yet to be unearthed, biological processes still to be discovered. There is lively scientific debate about some aspects of evolution's winding, four-billion-year path. But when critics talk about exposing students to the "weaknesses" or "insufficiencies" in evolutionary theory, many mainstream scientists cringe.

The fossil record clearly supports evolution, they say, and students shouldn't be exposed to creationist critiques in the name of "critical thinking."

"We will be teaching nonsense in the science classroom," said David Hillis, a biology professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Polls show many Americans are skeptical of or confused by evolution; in a recent survey by Gallup, 39% said they believe the theory, 25% said they didn't, and 36% had no opinion.

The Discovery Institute, a Seattle think tank that challenges evolution, cites a recent Zogby poll that found a strong majority of Americans supports letting teachers explore both "strengths and weaknesses" of evolution. Otherwise, students see only "cherry-picked evidence that really amounts to propaganda," said John West, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute.

The Texas school board will vote after taking public testimony in a three-day meeting that starts Wednesday. Dr. McLeroy leads a group of seven social conservatives on the 15-member board. They are opposed by a bipartisan group of seven, often joined by an eighth board member considered a swing vote, that support teaching evolution without caveats.

Neither side is confident of victory. All members of the board have come under enormous pressure in recent months, especially three Republicans who support teaching evolution without references to "weaknesses." The state Republican Party passed a resolution urging the three to back Dr. McLeroy's preferred curriculum. A conservative activist group put out a news release suggesting all three were in the pocket of "militant Darwinists."
Of course, any pretense that this proposal is done for the purpose of promoting critical thinking is absurd. One can only imagine the reaction of the very same anti-evolution proponents to a religion course exposing students to the "weaknesses" or "insufficiencies" in Christianity.

But back to the more important point and that is the public is confused about what evolution really is. One of the fundamentals of any debate is to “define your terms” and that is essential. Edward Hume had these thoughts on that subject a couple of years ago:
… There are really two theories of evolution. There is the genuine scientific theory, and there is the talk-radio pretend version, designed not to enlighten but to deceive and enrage.

The talk-radio version had a packed town hall up in arms at the "Why Evolution Is Stupid" lecture. In this version of the theory, scientists supposedly believe that all life is accidental, a random crash of molecules that magically produced flowers, horses and humans — a scenario as unlikely as a tornado in a junkyard assembling a 747. Humans come from monkeys in this theory, just popping into existence one day. The evidence against Darwin is overwhelming, the purveyors of talk-radio evolution rail, yet scientists embrace his ideas because they want to promote atheism.

These are just a few highlights of the awful and pervasive straw-man image of evolution that pundits harp about in books and editorials and, yes, on talk radio, and this cartoon version really is stupid. No wonder most Americans reject evolution in poll after poll.

But then there is the real theory of evolution, … for which there is overwhelming evidence in labs, fossils, computer simulations and DNA studies. Most Americans have not heard of it. Teachers give it short shrift in schools because the subject upsets too many parents who only know the talk-radio version. But real evolution isn't random; it doesn't say man came from monkeys. Those claims are made up by critics to get people riled up — paving the way for pleasing alternatives like intelligent design.

Real evolutionary theory explains how life forms change across generations by passing on helpful traits to their offspring; a process that, after millions of years, gradually transforms one species into another. This does not happen randomly but through nature's tendency to reward the most successful organisms and to kill the rest. This is why germs grow resistant to antibiotics and why some turtles are sea animals and others survive quite nicely in the desert, and why dinosaurs — and more than 99% of all other species that have ever lived on Earth — are extinct.

The environment changes. The recipe for survival changes with it. And life changes to keep up — or it dies. Darwin's signature insight is both brilliant and elegantly, brutally simple.

The real theory of evolution does not try to explain how life originated — that remains a mystery…

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The mirror image across the Atlantic

Hendrik Hertzberg on what American liberals and conservatives see in European states and the European Union:
Paul Krugman has worried all along that Obama’s response to the credit crisis is inadequate. But he writes today that “America’s actions dwarf anything the Europeans are doing.” With his usual lucidity, he explains what’s behind the difference:

Europe’s economic and monetary integration has run too far ahead of its political institutions. The economies of Europe’s many nations are almost as tightly linked as the economies of America’s many states—and most of Europe shares a common currency. But unlike America, Europe doesn’t have the kind of continentwide institutions needed to deal with a continentwide crisis.

This is a major reason for the lack of fiscal action: there’s no government in a position to take responsibility for the European economy as a whole. What Europe has, instead, are national governments, each of which is reluctant to run up large debts to finance a stimulus that will convey many if not most of its benefits to voters in other countries.

Most of Europe’s individual “states” have governments that are not just democratic but also energetic and powerful. Hence the “European socialism”—i.e., universal health care, greater economic equality, low crime rates, fast trains, good road signage, excellent broadband—that American conservatives are so scared of. But Europe’s federal government—the European Union—is like the post-independence U.S. government under the Articles of Confederation: it’s weak, it’s atomized, it has feeble powers of taxation, and it can’t act without unanimity or something close to it among its several states. It’s as if South Carolina were a sovereign country within a loose confederation, and Barack Obama and Congress needed Mark Sanford’s permission to design and shape a stimulus package.

This, by the way, is also why “Europe’s” foreign policy is so often limp and pathetic. If Berlin, Paris, and London are rough models for American liberals, the rough model for American conservatives is—Brussels. There’s “states rights” and “small government” for you, if that’s what you want.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Are the Republicans completely clueless about the economy?

If the Obama administration is being too timid, are the Republicans in Congress completely clueless? Paul Krugman:

So I read this:
Boehner said Americans want government to practice the same financial restraint they have been forced to exercise: “It’s time for government to tighten their belts and show the American people that we ‘get’ it.”
and I wonder if this country can handle the crisis we’re in. Remember, John Boehner is, in effect, the second-most influential member of the GOP (after Rush Limbaugh). And while Democrats hold a majority, it’s not enough of a majority to make the minority party irrelevant.

So the fact that Boehner’s idea of economics is completely insane matters.

What’s insane about Boehner’s remark? He’s talking about the current economic crisis as if it were a harvest failure — as if we faced a shortage of goods, so that the more you consume the less is left for me. In reality — even most conservatives understand this, when they think about it — we’re in a world desperately short of demand. If you consume more, that’s GOOD for me, because it helps create jobs and raise incomes. It’s in my personal disinterest to have you tighten your belt — and that’s just as true if you’re “the government” as if you’re my neighbor.

Plus, who is “the government”? It’s basically us, you know — the government spends money providing services to the public. Demanding that the government tighten its belt means demanding that we, the taxpayers, get less of those services. Why is this a good thing, even aside from the state of the economy?

Again, this is what the leaders of a powerful, if minority, party think. Can this country be saved?

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Is the Obama administration being too timid?

Is the Obama administration being too timid? Michael Lind in Salon:
… Once upon a time in the United States, public goods -- from retirement security and energy research to public roads -- were provided by the government and paid for by taxes. As late as the Nixon administration, the provision of public goods by government was considered perfectly compatible with a robust market economy by so-called Modern Republicans like Eisenhower and Nixon as well as New Deal Democrats like Roosevelt, Truman, Kennedy and Johnson. In the intervening 40 years, however, free-market fundamentalists of the Chicago School have managed to change the debate, redefining "socialism" to mean not only public ownership of the means of production, but also public provision of public goods.

Rather than fight back, most Democrats in the last generation adapted to this hostile conservative political climate by jettisoning New Deal "big government" liberalism for "market-friendly" neoliberalism. Neoliberals shared the right's enthusiasm for deregulating industries that New Deal Democrats had regulated in the public interest. Jimmy Carter and Ted Kennedy supported the deregulation of trucking and airlines, while Bill Clinton presided over the dismantling of the New Deal era's banking regulations and declared: "The era of big government is over." Neoliberals and conservatives agreed that public goods should be provided by private, for-profit or nonprofit entities, rather than government agencies. If private corporations or universities had no motivation to provide public goods, well, then, they would be bribed with tax credits or other government subsidies.

Neoliberals are liberals in one sense -- they fret about unequal outcomes. But rather than help middle- and low-income Americans by regulating the prices of privately provided public goods, as the crude and direct New Dealers would have done, neoliberal Democrats have argued for allowing the "market" (translation: the publicly subsidized entities) to set prices and then promised to provide tax subsidies or grants to help middle- and low-income Americans pay for the expensive, privately provided public goods.

You might have thought that the Crash of 2008 would have led Democrats to reconsider this neoliberal approach to providing public goods by private means. But to judge from President Obama's budget, the White House is still living back in the neoliberal era, when the diminutive Milton Friedman cast a giant shadow.

Consider Obama's education proposals. The problem with higher education is that it costs way too much. Tuition costs at private universities and some state universities have been growing far more rapidly than inflation. A crude, old-fashioned, old-thinking New Deal liberal would see the problem as one of excessive prices demanded by universities, not insufficient funds on the part of the students whom the universities gouge. The hypothetical New Deal liberal would threaten to deny universities their privileged tax-exempt status unless they spend more of their endowments on tuition and keep their prices affordable.

The neoliberal alternative is to avoid impolite and divisive inquiries into the reasons for skyrocketing tuition costs. That would entail the government concluding that prices in a particular industry (in this case, a nonprofit industry) are too high, something that government should not do. Instead, the taxpayer will be forced to cough up money to help students meet the exorbitant fees. Thus Obama's first budget calls for maintaining the $2,500 New American Opportunity Tax Credit for middle-class students, while converting Pell Grants up to $5,550 into a permanent government entitlement. If I were a university, I'd raise my tuition by ... oh ... let's say $5,550 a year. Government subsidies without government price controls would encourage cost inflation, one might think, but this possibility appears not to bother the brilliant economists on Obama's team.

Then there's energy. The problem with alternative energy sources like solar power and wind power is that they are still too expensive, compared to coal, natural gas and nuclear energy. The answer, according to a minority of enviromentalists like Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, should be massive, Manhattan-style public sector R&D to discover ways to bring alternative energy prices down -- in absolute, not just relative, terms, to maintain cheap electricity for American industry and American households. That would be the Roosevelt approach. But the Obama approach is to use a cap-and-trade system to artificially raise the prices of conventional energy, in the hope that private capital (with modest help from public capital) will pay for efforts to invent a cheaper solar cell or wind turbine. The fact that most of the left embraces cap-and-trade should not blind us to the fact that cap-and-trade is a classic example of an indirect, overly complicated, "market-friendly" neoliberal approach, touted originally by conservatives and neoliberals as an alternative to the allegedly discredited "top-down, command-and-control" approach that gave us, among other things, the TVA, the Manhattan Project and the Internet.

And healthcare? The Obama administration deserves credit for trying to reduce prescription drug costs and to promote electronic medical records. Obama's budget director Peter Orszag in particular deserves praise for pointing out that escalating economy-wide healthcare costs, not the Social Security and Medicare costs associated with the aging of the boomer generation as such, represent the real long-term threat to the U.S. economy. Even so, it seems likely that whatever ultimately emerges as the consensus Democratic healthcare plan will be yet another Rube Goldberg scheme for massively subsidizing employers, private health insurers, or both.

I'm sympathetic to the argument that the public, after nearly half a century of conservative anti-government propaganda, will oppose the direct provision of public goods paid for out of straightforward taxation -- the "socialistic" old Eisenhower-Roosevelt approach. It was the conviction that a single-payer healthcare system was politically impossible that led me to endorse the individual mandate system as the next best alternative, in "The Radical Center," a book I co-authored with Ted Halstead in 2001.

But a lot has changed since Wall Street imploded last fall. The great investment banks are gone, the U.S. has nationalized much of the financial system, and appears to be on the way to effectively nationalizing the automobile and housing sectors as well. In this environment, we need to consider some heresies, like the idea that the best way to provide a public good is not necessarily to pour subsidies on middlemen, and then bail them out with more subsidies when they fail at their public function.

The fundamental barrier today is the way that the issues are framed, by Democrats and Republicans alike. Thus the problem is defined not as making credit available for individuals and businesses, but as saving the banks and the shadow banking system. The goal is not to provide healthcare to all citizens, but to enable all citizens to purchase private health insurance. The objective is not to ensure universal access to higher education; it is to insure universal access to colleges and universities. In these and other cases, the means is confused with the end. The ultimate goal -- providing credit, healthcare or education -- is identified with the interests of non-governmental for-profit or nonprofit providers of that service. If these private institutions fail to provide the public service in a low-cost, effective and equitable way, then they must be subsidized even more. The idea of achieving the same public goals through simpler, more direct and efficient means that would cut out the middleman appears to be heresy to the Obama administration.

It's not necessary to nudge the Obama administration leftward until it arrives at socialism. When it comes to the public provision of public goods, Eisenhower Republicanism would be just fine.
You can read the entire piece here.

Monday, March 09, 2009

March 10th marks 50th anniversary of Tibetan uprising against Chinese

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) invaded and seized control of Tibet in late 1949. Approximately half of Tibet was incorporated into surrounding Chinese provinces in 1950 and the remaining country was formally annexed by the PRC in 1951. An uprising by Tibetans against the Chinese occupation began in 1956 and spread until it was finally crushed in 1959. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed and the Dalai Lama fled to exile in India along with an estimated 80,000 refugees. During the Cultural Revolution in the 1960’s, the Chinese Red Guard conducted a campaign to destroy Tibetan cultural sites. During this period an estimated 6,500 Buddhist Monasteries were destroyed and only a few of those left standing were not vandalized. Opposition to Chinese rule flares up from time to time and is always brutally suppressed.

March 10th 2009 will mark the fiftieth anniversary since Tibetans rose up to protest China's invasion of their homeland and the Dalai Lama's flight into exile in India in 1959. It will also be one year since unprecedented protests broke out across Tibet showing China and the world that after 50 years of occupation the Tibetan people still yearn for their independence.

Despite the brave protests, the cultural annihilation of Tibet continues. The Chinese have exported into Tibet not only their goods and materials but people. The majority of those living in Lhasa are not longer Tibetan but Chinese. Chinese has become the official language replacing the Tibetan dialects. Only in the rural areas of Tibet do the natives maintain a majority but, as Ian Buruma pointed out, Tibetan culture and language in rural areas is no more likely to survive Chinese modernization than that of the Apaches in the U.S.

Still the struggle continues with groups like Students for a Free Tibet, the International Campaign for Tibet, the Tibetan Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, and others.

Americans overestimate their generosity in fighting world poverty

Peter Singer argues that ignorance is paralyzing. If Americans believe that their country is doing vastly more to fight world poverty than it really is, they will see no need to add to the effort be it foreign aid or charitable giving to nongovernment organizations. Yet, American giving is dismal compared to other developed nations and in the meantime 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes in impoverished countries around the world.

He writes:

Reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty throughout the world is clearly one of the great moral challenges of our time. Although the issue is by no means absent from what we study and teach, as educators in the United States we appear to be falling short in the task of ensuring that our students are adequately informed about world poverty, its consequences, and the ways in which it can be reduced. Is it possible that some of the reluctance to deal with the topic stems from the fact that it may have uncomfortable conclusions for our own lives?

If we take seriously the idea that the value of a human life does not diminish when we cross national boundaries, then we ought to be giving a much higher priority to reducing world poverty. I have in mind a broad re-envisioning of what we teach.

We should not limit so important a topic to specialized courses on international development (valuable as they are). The issue should be prominent in anthropology, cultural studies, economics, ethics and sociology. In political-science courses, we should ask why we pay so little attention to people living in poverty outside our borders. Psychology courses could take up the factors that limit our willingness to give to distant strangers. Engineers might increase the amount of class time they devote to how their skills can be applied to assist the world's poorest people. Medical schools could focus more on the global burden of disease and how it might be reduced, and law students should be prompted to think about an international legal regime that allows American oil companies to buy oil from dictators who pocket most of the proceeds. Programs could also be produced to help to educate the broader public.

Nor should we shy away from reconsidering our emphasis on teaching in fields that have timeless artistic and cultural value. It is legitimate to ask: In a situation in which more people die each year from poverty-related causes than died in any one year during World War II, how much should we be spending on the refinement of our artistic sensitivities and those of our students?


The World Bank defines extreme poverty as not having enough income to meet the most basic human needs for adequate food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, health care, or education. One widely quoted statistic is that a billion people are living on less than one U.S. dollar per day. That was the World Bank's poverty line until 2008, when better data led to a new poverty line of $1.25 per day. As a result, the number of people whose income puts them under the new poverty line is 1.4 billion.

On hearing the "$1.25 a day" figure, the thought may cross your mind that in many developing countries it is possible to live much more cheaply than in industrialized nations. But the World Bank has already made that adjustment in purchasing power, so those it classifies as living in extreme poverty are existing on a daily total consumption of goods and services — whether earned or homegrown — comparable to the amount of goods and services that can be bought in the United States for $1.25.

The 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty are likely to be hungry for at least a part of every year. Even if they can get enough food to fill their stomachs, they will probably be malnourished because their diet lacks essential nutrients. In children, malnutrition stunts growth and can cause permanent brain damage. The poor may not be able to afford to send their children to school. Even the most basic health-care services are usually beyond their means.

That kind of poverty kills. While life expectancy in rich nations averages 78 years, in the poorest nations — those classified by the United Nations as "least developed" — it is below 50. In rich countries, fewer than one child in 100 dies before the age of 5; in the poorest countries, one in five does. Unicef, the United Nations Children's Fund, estimates that nearly 10 million children under 5 die each year from causes related to poverty. That's 27,000 a day — a football stadium full of young children, dying every day (along with thousands of older children and adults who die from poverty every day as well). Some children die because they don't have enough to eat or clean water to drink. More die from measles, malaria, diarrhea, and pneumonia — diseases that don't exist in developed nations, or if they do, are easily cured and rarely fatal.


Despite the recent economic downturn, we are nevertheless living in a time that is particularly opportune for reducing extreme poverty worldwide. The first decade of the 21st century has seen the proportion of people unable to meet their basic physical needs shrink to less than it has been at any time in history, and perhaps at any time since human beings came into existence. At the same time, the proportion of people with far more than they need is also unprecedented. Those in affluent societies work an average of only six hours a week to earn enough to buy an adequate amount of food.

Most important, rich and poor are now linked in ways they never were before. Real-time moving images of people on the edge of survival are beamed into our living rooms. Not only do we know a lot about the desperately poor, but we also have much more than before to offer them in terms of better health care, improved seeds and agricultural techniques, and new technologies for generating electricity. More amazing, through instant communications and open access to a wealth of information that surpasses the greatest libraries of the pre-Internet age, we can enable them to join the worldwide community — if only we can help them to get far enough out of poverty to seize the opportunity.


To do better, however, we need to dispel some prevalent myths — myths that our students too often embrace. When I speak about world poverty at Princeton University, where I teach, or at campuses around the country, students often suggest that America is a generous country: It's already doing its part.

When my students cite American generosity, I show them figures from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development on the amounts given by all the group's donor members. The students are astonished to find that the United States has, for many years, been at or near the bottom of the list of industrialized countries in terms of the proportion of national income given as foreign aid. After several years of vying with Portugal and Greece, we fell to the absolute bottom in 2007. Norway led the way, giving 95 cents per $100, followed by Sweden, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Denmark, Ireland, and Austria. Other rich countries give less than 50 cents, with the average that year 45 cents; the United States gave only 16 cents of every $100 earned.

The ignorance of Americans about their nation's role in aiding the world's poorest people is widespread, and it has been shown in many surveys. Asked by the Gallup International Association in 2005 whether the United States gives more, less, or about the same amount of aid as other wealthy countries do in terms of percentage of national income, only 9 percent of Americans gave the correct answer; 42 percent of the respondents said the nation gave more than four times as much as was true at the time. At the extreme, 8 percent of Americans thought that the United States gave more than a quarter of its national income as aid, a portion that is more than 100 times as great as the actual amount.

Americans also suffer from gross misconceptions about how significant the country's aid is as a percentage of all federal spending. In four surveys that asked Americans what portion of government spending goes to foreign aid, the median answers ranged from 15 percent to 20 percent. The correct answer is less than 1 percent.

A majority of people in those surveys further said that America gives too much aid — but when asked how much America should give, the median answers ranged from 5 percent to 10 percent of government spending. In other words, people wanted foreign aid cut — to an amount that is five to 10 times as much as their country actually gives.

Some observers contend that such figures are misleading because the United States gives more than other countries in private aid. But although we give more private aid than most rich nations do, we still trail Canada, Ireland, and Switzerland in private aid as a percentage of national income. Adding nongovernment aid, of 8 cents per $100 earned, to government aid leaves the nation's total contribution at no more than 24 cents of every $100 earned, still near the bottom of the international aid league.

Moreover, the majority of U.S. aid is not directed to helping the extremely poor. The leading recipients of official U.S. development aid are, in descending order, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Colombia, and Egypt. Iraq alone received about one-fifth of the U.S. foreign-aid budget in 2007. Iraq and Afghanistan are the top recipients because of their central role in the war on terror; Egypt has ranked near the top for decades because it is an important partner in U.S. efforts to stabilize the Middle East. Colombia is not an especially poor country — its aid is associated with the attempt to suppress cocaine cartels. Only about a quarter of U.S. aid goes to countries classified by the OECD as "least developed."


My argument about our moral obligations to the poor has led me to suggest that our educational institutions give more emphasis to teaching and research that focus on world poverty and what can be done about it. The converse is that we should give a lower priority to areas of study that have no obvious connection with world poverty or with, say, climate change or avoiding war or, indeed, with any similarly large and pressing problem. That will no doubt incense some of my colleagues who think that we should study art, languages, history, mathematics, or philosophy for its own sake. I agree that, in an ideal world, studying epistemology, classical music, and Italian Renaissance art would be part of every cultivated person's education. But we live in a world in which 27,000 children die every day from preventable causes.

In such a world, it is difficult to deny that some areas of study are an indulgence. It's not wrong to pursue them. Arguably we need some indulgences, some pursuits that broaden our gaze and refresh our spirits before we turn back to more-urgent problems. But indulgences need to be placed in a setting in which it is clear that they are not the most important thing in our lives, or in the education we offer.

You can read the entire piece here. Peter Singer in his new book, The Life You Can Save and it related website, argues that Americans should be giving more to help alleviate world poverty and suggests a standard for how much they should give, proportionate to their income.