Enlightened Capitalism

Essays about how to harness people's natural desire to create wealth and improve their quality of life to solve global problems such as war and poverty.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

The order of operations

There's a saying "Timing is everything". In chess, cooking, computer programming, dating, education, music, indeed in every human activity, the order in which we do things has a decisive impact on the outcome. It's the same way with raising people's standard of living. To succeed we need to pay close attention to the order of operations.

The first step is to see and acknowledge the incredible wealth that the people have, and their desire and willingness to better their situation. You don't start with what the people lack, you start with what they have. Build from strength.

One thing that people in every big city have is a lot of neighbors. This is important, and is the key to raising the quality of life there. The big difference between cities and rural areas is that when you do something out of doors in the city, lots of people see it. Everything you do outside is like instant advertising.

This isn't always obvious. When I started picking up the trash on my street in Oakland, I never saw that anyone noticed. But after a few weeks it was common knowledge that I was doing this. I was approached by strangers in the supermarket and at the bus station, "Aren't you the guy who picks up the trash on the street?" I was amazed. I was even more amazed when other people started doing it too. I only witnessed a couple people actually in the act of picking up litter, but I noticed that my street and the park at the end of the block mysteriously got much cleaner. Another effect of a cleaner street is that it makes people less likely to litter. For every person who picked up litter, there might have been half a dozen litterbugs who cleaned up their act, which has an even bigger impact.

It was the same way with landscaping and fixing up the front of the house. Other people started doing the same. Creating wealth and improving one's standard of living are highly contagious activities. And each time an eyesore is removed it makes all the other eyesores stick out more, and the motivation to deal with them becomes greater at the same time as the community's self awareness and power is increasing. People start to spontaneously complain (and take action) about things that were previously accepted as just innevitable facts of life. It's a wonderful process to participate in.

In my next post I will discuss why, if raising the standard of living in distressed neighborhoods is so easy and fun, everyone isn't already doing it. And how we can sustainably grow this activity.


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