Monday, May 13, 2013

Wealth Inequality in America

Developed or Waiting to Be

An article in the Utne Reader today made me pause and think about the expression "developing nation."  It is an expression we (by "we" I mean those of us in the "developed" world also known, to us, as the countries that don't really need a label because we're the example of how things ought to be.) adopted as a more positive way of referring to what we once called "third world nations."  I don't think I have ever taken the time to pause and think about the underlying cultural assumptions behind the expression.  In short, I don't think I have stopped to ask "developing into what?" and "is that necessarily better?" (See some of my other posts here on "growth." As well as this one about called What Are We Growing For? on my sister literary/fiction blog.)

My wife grew up in what Western experts, not without condescension, call a “developing” country. The social life of her village revolved largely around a tree...
In the United States we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on everything from community centers to kiddie videos to try to achieve those results, with great inefficiency and often much less positive effect. Yet most Western economists would regard the tree as a pathetic state of underdevelopment. They would urge “modernization,” by which they would mean cutting down the tree and making people pay money for what it provided. In their preferred vision, corporate-produced entertainment would displace local culture. Something free and available to all would become commodities sold for a price. The result would be “growth” as economists understand that term.

Read the full article, "Common Property: Our Hidden Wealth" at the Utne Reader.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Recommended Reading: Why Aren't We Talking About "Public Goods?"

The Real World Economics Review today asks how we can develop a vocabulary to discuss "public goods." Follow the link to read the entire article.  Here are some excerpts:

In the real world, public goods include clean air, clean water, street lights, emergency call service, disaster relief, food and drug safety, public parks and beaches, education, and dozens more, all of which citizens make use of every day and enjoy unthinkingly. Over 90 percent of U S citizens who deny ever receiving benefits from a  government program actually participated in one or more government programs (Social Security, college loans, the child care tax credit and the like), as admirably documented by Suzanne Mettler of Cornell in her research on “the submerged state”.
Awareness of public goods, and their utility and value, is sorely lacking in public discourse.  Instead, we hear about “free markets”, “free enterprise” and “free trade” and  are told that “government is the problem, not the solution,” or that “government should be run like a business”.  Such neoliberal vocabulary, derived from neoclassical economics, dominates public dialog and policy-making, suppresses the recognition of the ubiquity and value of public goods, undermines effective governance and ultimately reduces the supply of public goods.
Public goods are produced in a non-market environment, an environment inadequately addressed by mainstream economics. In the neoclassical model there is essentially no vocabulary for talking about the production of public goods, no theory of effective or efficient non-market production.
We need to revive and reframe the concept of public goods.  This issue is not merely rhetorical. A concept of public goods is immensely important.  
  • The absence of a widely-held, constructive idea of public goods in public discourse denies citizens the ability to have an informed conversation, or to make informed decisions, about things that matter mightily to the quality of their lives and their communities.
  • Its absence robs public policy makers, leaders and managers of the concept that is most central to their reason for being.