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.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Vaccine for Poverty Part 2

The Vaccine for Poverty, continued... (part 2)

Many priests and nuns take a "Vow of Poverty" which means they do not amass personal wealth or put a lot of energy into collecting luxuries. But even the poorest priest is actually on the right side of the Poverty Line, because they are "taken care of". They don't generally starve, and the Church takes in more wealth than it needs to keep its priests healthy & comfortable, so their future is secure.

The ones that concern us have no safety net. On average, they consume all the wealth they create each day (or more), and there is no wealthy organisation committed to taking care of them.

We have defined poverty in terms of wealth, but we have not yet defined "wealth", so let us take a moment to do that now. For the purposes of this discussion, wealth refers to everything which contributes to a high quality of life.

Money is the first thing that comes to mind, because we use it to surround ourselves with security, beauty, comfort, and creative outlets. Money and everything it buys is one of three aspects of wealth -- the part that relates primarily to our immediate environment.

Most of us have experienced an acute lack of correlation between money and quality of life at some point or other. Once we have plenty of money, our quality of life still depends on intangibles like loyal friends, harmonious relationships, integrity, courage, and feeling challenged in our careers. This second aspect of wealth includes relationship and character traits required for high quality of life.

Relationship and character traits are attainable in some degree through openness, persistence, and determination, and are therefore available to anyone who chooses to pursue them. However, we can all remember times when it was the advice or encouragement of a friend, parent, teacher, or other role model that motivated us to strive for and achieve these virtues. It is difficult to say by exactly how much, but it is clear that our quality of life would have suffered if we had lacked that support in those moments.

The third aspect of wealth consists of factors requiring the cooperation of others; items ranging from the simple politeness of neighbors to things like common language and currency, institutions of education and health care, rule of law and protections of a national constitution, world peace, environmental preservation, and biodiversity. The wealthiest person on the planet is impoverished if victimised by war or environmental destruction.

Recall my formulation of the Poverty Line, being the distinction between people whose situation we felt called for humanitarian intervention and those who we felt were going to be OK regardless. Under this three part definition of wealth it is possible to imagine people to the left of the line on any one aspect, or two, or all three.

That is, a person can lack money, possessions, supplies, and commodities, and independently of that, a person can lack courage, integrity, wisdom, and role models to inspire and bring out the best in them. And finally, the person's family, neighborhood, city, or society can lack cooperative values and institutions such as freedom of speech or safe drinking water.

Recognising this complexity sheds light on the often puzzling failure of so many well funded anti-poverty programs. To take an obvious example, giving money to people who lack discipline or integrity is not going to accomplish anything meaningful. Giving education, training, and equipment to people whose communities do not support rule of law may have even led to the attacks of 9/11. What a dismal return on investment!

We begin to get a clearer picture of what the people just to the left of that line look like. They probably do not live in a country currently engulfed in civil war, for instance. Their families and communities and cities and nations probably have all the cooperative values and institutions one could wish for, and they are probably reliable, trustworthy, intelligent, thoughtful, and considerate people, who, given all those virtues, most likely also already have enough money.

Perhaps the only thing lacking is some good advice and encouragement to inspire them to take a few simple actions and step over the line, rather than remain in a situation that will tend to get more difficult the longer they stay there.

I am clearly not saying these are the people most in need of our help -- they are not. I am merely describing the situation that is the precursor to the end of poverty, similar to the strategy of injecting dead or weak smallpox virus in order to stimulate the immune system to develop an effective defense against a live, full strength smallpox virus that might be encountered at a later date.

More on this later.


Let's return to individuals for a moment, and consider the case of an unemployed U.S. citizen living in Long Beach, California. Every day I bicycle to work past a group of poor looking people waiting on the sidewalk outside a church where I assume they receive food or clothing or some other assistance. Which side of the line are they on?

It depends on why they are there. Some of them may actually be doing fine, and using some charity just to supplement an already decent standard of living. Some may be there primarily to socialise. However (if my own experience is any guide), it seems likely that many of them are to the left of the Poverty Line.

They are being taken care of to some extent. Many of them receive other assistance as well. If they are freely choosing to seek out those services, because they prefer it to other also-good options, then that would put them on the right side of the line, in my opinion. But if they feel like they NEED that assistance, because all other options available to them involve serious health risks (like not bathing, or not eating a balanced diet), then I'd say their quality of life is unacceptable. I would not want my brother waiting there feeling that he NEEDED that assistance to prevent personal disaster. (And I feel I am related to everyone, so I don't want your brother there either, in that condition.)

To be continued...


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