More than charity is needed to fix hunger

During our second year of marriage in 1997, my wife and I were often hungry. We lived in a one-room apartment in the back of a garage in the middle of nowhere. We had no money. Our car was reposessed in the winter. Just before that, I lost a job doing in-home teaching because we didn’t have gas money. I was working about 25 hours a week at the local Dunkin’ Donuts, and we were relying on our local food shelf to provide us with the bulk of our meals. Any money we did have went towards what bills we could pay, but more often towards some quick-fix happiness like fast food or books or music: anything to distract us from our seemingly interminable reality. We didn’t know any drug dealers, or we might have spent money on that.

We survived that 18 months or so without ever becoming truly homeless, though I think we still owe some rent. We were lost and confused. Cold even in the summer. Abandoned by the world. Angry, depressed, and scared. We did live clean, and we did work hard, but all of that would have been for nought if we hadn’t been lucky enough to live in Vermont, and have family close by who could provide shelter and food when we needed it.

We did not have a Thanksgiving meal that year. I think we ate bearclaws or something from Dunkin’. But the thing is, we were also unable to have supper the night before or the night after. We ate what was available at the food shelf or the day-old pastries I brought home from work. The only reason we remember our absense of food on that particular Thursday in that particular November was because it was a holiday. In truth, it was no different for us than any other day that week. Had we been the recipients of a food basket or something on that day, it would have made us happy, but it would not have solved our problem. Charity is not enough to solve the problem of hunger.

During the holidays, we all become especially sensitive to the needs of others. We focus more deeply — if for an infintesimally brief amount of time — on the homeless, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor. We give money at our local grocery stores or buy the gift bags in $10 increments. Celebrities drive truckloads of food to their old stomping grounds. Some of us might volunteer at homeless shelters, food shelves, or work with the local Kiwanis putting together food baskets. Whatever the activity, we do it because it feels good, because it provides a moment of happiness in somebody’s life, and we do it because it’s the right thing to do. We do it because it becomes more clear during our own moments of abundance that there are far too many people who go without.

According to Feeding America, in 2014 48.1 million people in the United States lived in food insecure households. That number includes 15.3 million children. If you’re keeping track of the math, that means that 14% of Americans can’t guarantee that they or their family can eat today, and a third of those affected are children. Shockingly, this number is higher than it was a decade ago, according to the USDA.

Also according to the USDA, 31% of post-harvest food went uneaten in 2010. And just two years ago, the United States ranked second worst regarding child poverty in a survey of 35 of developed nations. Meanwhile, the international statistics for hunger and poverty are increasing. Food development and nutrition are improving on a global scale. In spite of this good news, however, there are many countries where hunger is getting worse, and the United States seems to be one of them.

Clearly, there is a problem with hunger in the United States. Even if you don’t want to look at the numbers, logic should make it clear: charity continues to be needed in spite of it having been tackling hunger for decades. The truth is that charity continues to be needed because hunger is not something we can solve by giving people food. Hunger is a systemic, symptomatic issue of a more deeply entrenched problem. People don’t need to be given food. People need to be given the means to access food. The same methods that are used in developing nations that allow people to conquer hunger should also be used here. We don’t do it, though, because we are blind to the problem, and we believe that hard work and persistence can solve any problem.

This is not about self-sufficiency or lack of a work ethic. I think we’ve reached the point in history where we can begin to say that hard work does not guarantee success. Someone working two minimum wage jobs for a total of 50 hours a week does not lack a work ethic. Let’s be honest, here. In our current system, success is only possible for those born into a position where it can be achieved. My wife and I are examples of this. In reality, luck, geography, and salary play far larger roles in our success than hard work does, and the same goes for access to food.

The cost, availability, and quality of food is based entirely on where one lives in the United States. In Mississippi, the food insecurity rate is 22%. Two-tenths of the population of Mississippi isn’t sure where their next meal is going to come from. Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, Alabama, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Maine, Oregon, and Kansas round out the list of the 14 states that are more food insecure than the national average. Additionally, there is absolutely no county in the U.S. where the minimum wage is the same or greater than a required living wage. Just last month, the average cost of food for a family of four was approximately $1,070.00 (USDA). That’s about two weeks worth of work for someone being paid an average of $9 – $10 an hour. Once you start factoring in housing, transportation, health insurance, clothing, utilities, and entertainment, the struggle becomes clear: food is expensive.

Access to food for most people in the United States is dependent on being able to afford it. We have long since stopped being an agrarian society, and most Americans depend on some means of distribution for their food, and that’s where the problem is. If there is so much food that 31% of it is being thrown out, but there are still people in the country who are hungry, then there are at least two ways of fixing the problem. First, minimum wage must be fixed to a rising cost of living. If a family of four needs $22 an hour to live, then that family has to earn $22 an hour. As the cost of living increases, the wages should increase. If the cost of living goes down, wages should stay static. Second, we need broader access to food beyond what top-down economics or charity can provide. I believe we have to focus on this in order to create long-term, sustainable solutions to hunger.

We must begin looking at ways of ensuring people will always have food. We should support and nurture neighborhood gardens and co-ops. We should allow people to grow food and have a few animals in the suburbs. Some communities have enacted local currencies and barter systems. We need to de-industrialize farming and be more diverse with the crops we grow. We need to spend money on infrastructure and moving towards more sustainable transportation methods, the costs of food distribution will go down. We need to bring food selling back to the centers of communities and away from the big box stores. We need to get violence out of our communities. And while we do this, we need to continue to be charitable.

Food is not a commodity. It is a necessity. Perhaps the most necessary one. If we can work with other countries to help devise systems of food growth and management, then surely we can do the same here. Access to food should no longer be dependent on whether someone was lucky enough to be born in a particular location at a certain time. Access to food should be an implicit right of being born, period.

What I’m saying is that during this holiday season — this one right now — let’s stop thinking about just giving $1, $5, or $10 at the grocery store and start thinking about what we can change to ensure that those donations are no longer necessary. Again, this is not about people lifting themselves up by their bootstraps, or self-sufficiency, or spending more on social safety nets. This is about changing the very nature of a system that causes the problem so that bootstraps and safety nets become obsolete and nobody will need to live hungry again.

Thinking my way through a carbon tax

A few months ago, I posted here about sustainability. That is, the economic and environmental idea that one should attempt to maintain a level of living without relying on growth metrics. Sustainability is a key metric in understanding whether a socio-economic or environmental decision is likely to lead society to ruin, or give it a chance to breathe a little longer. Humans are in a position where we need to begin taking very seriously the signals we are receiving from nature and act accordingly. I think that the recent drive by Energy Independent Vermont towards a statewide carbon tax is a result of them taking the signals seriously. That’s the right thing for them to do, and I agree with their intent. The question I’m left with is whether it’s the right place to start.

What I’m concerned about is whether the carbon tax system being worked out in the state is the right way to go about moving Vermont towards a more sustainable relationship with fuel and energy. Certainly, I believe that something has to be done. According to Limits to Growth, published in 2004, economically viable oil and natural gas reserves will be mostly depleted by the middle of this century. Even if you happen to be a climate change denier (which you really shouldn’t be), reserves of fossil fuels are what they are. Somewhere between 35 and 50 years from now, we could be looking at a situation where there is a real shortage of oil as opposed to one driven by economic politics. When that happens, we are going to need to be ready to transition to some kind of alternative.

To me, there are two categories of energy needs we will need to account for. The first is for buildings. The second is for travel. For buildings, we need to supply the means to heat and cool them, which is fairly straightforward. It also happens to be where most of our energy goes: generally speaking, buildings use more energy than vehicles because of the constant regulation of temperature. For vehicles, we need to find a way to make them run without incurring an insurmountable expense to their operators and without relying on fossil fuels. I want to look at buildings first, because it’s the most straightforward.

There are industrial, commercial, and residential buildings. Each are perhaps constructed differently, but all need to be able to regulate the environment within them to make sure the people who are inside are safe and happy. This requires energy. For these buildings, there need to be efforts to make them energy efficient and eliminate fossil fuels from their heating and cooling methods. There are currently incentives in place for the energy efficiency, but with a two-year waitlist for homes, more needs to be done. As far as the elimination of fossil fuels, the only two reliable alternatives at this point (for Vermont) are electric heating/cooling systems or wood-based heat (either pellets or cord wood). From a carbon perspective, electrical systems powered by renewably-generated electricity would be the best: no carbon released into the air at the building, and fossil fuels are not required for the generation or maintenance of electricity. Pellets and cord wood are probably going to be more common in homes until weatherization can be completed. So for buildings, we have a path of migration away from fossil fuels and towards relatively sustainable alternatives. Vehicles are a little more difficult.

In order to make the shift away from something, there has to be something available to shift towards. In the case of vehicles, the only currently practical option for commuters in rural communities would be electric vehicles: either personal or mass transportation. Electric vehicles are getting better, but their range leaves much to be desired. If the only affordable model gets around 80 miles per charge, then rural communities need to look at methods by which the charge can be maintained. The range of electric vehicles will improve over time, but it may not be until we are already out of fossil fuels. Right now, however, shifting to an electric vehicle might be sustainable from an environmental perspective, but not from a personal economic one. The good ones are expensive, though the relative price — related to gasoline-powered vehicles — is going down. Still, in the near term, the entrance cost of an electric vehicle is larger than the perceived benefits of shifting away from fossil fuels, and my in fact be prohibitive to certain demographics.

Remember, the goal is to not only find away to migrate away from fossil fuels, but to do so in a proactive way that is socio-economically sustainable as well as environmentally sound. Certainly, a statewide tax on the consumption of fossil fuels will create a market-based incentive to shift away from them, but only in the structure segment is there something viable to shift towards. In terms of travel and farming and logging and landscaping, the carbon tax simply increases the cost of doing business and makes things more difficult for homeowners, commuters, and those who rely on fossil fuels for work. Yes, there is a money back component, but there is such a delay between the carbon tax cost and the refund that it doesn’t help in the day-to-day, and if a balance isn’t found it could lead to the collapse of a home, a farm, or even a rural community. Granted, that is likely to happen when fossil fuels are depleted anyhow.

While this is all just a thought exercise, I believe that there is a gap between the carbon tax and the shift away from fossil fuels that needs to be looked at. Market-based economic incentives work because there are alternatives already on the market place. In the case of fossil fuels, the alternatives are not mature enough to be equivalent and are likely to cause near-term sustainability problems as consumers work to incorporate higher cost travel and maintenance figures into their living budgets. Additionally, people who have chosen to live remotely in more rural areas may be beyond the range of the available vehicles.

Possible remedies to this include the following:

  1. Ensure people have access to public transportation options that fit their employment needs and are cost-effective: provide funding for mass transit (rail, bus) on regular schedules to and from major employment centers
  2. Ensure the costs of more carbon-friendly vehicles/transport options are not prohibitive: tax breaks, refunds, deductions for purchasing vehicles; statutory pricing models; subsidized trade-in deals;
  3. Provide additional kick-backs or wage increases (above just income-based) to people whose employment relies on fuel and who have no other option (loggers, truck drivers, rural commuters, etc)
  4. Invest in infrastructure (fiber optic, roads, bridges) and economic incentives to ensure that there are jobs were people live; companies who allow people to work from home get more back from the carbon tax, perhaps; free Internet access for all VT citizens; remote office centers for larger employers (the state, insurance companies, etc)

Whatever we end up doing, we have to find a way to transition from fossil fuels to other energy sources for our buildings and our travel needs. It’s just a necessity at this point and there’s no arguing it. The method we choose to attempt that transition is what will make this successful or not, what will allow us to be ahead of the fossil depletion or fall victim to it. What we choose for a method should be able to meet our needs for the next decade, but also still be viable through the next 30 years.

System thinking series: What is sustainability?

I had an encounter on Twitter the other day that woke me up to my use of words in conversation that some would consider jargon. I’m new to doing the tweets, and the 140 character limit strangles me somewhat. In this case, he was talking about the austerity in Greece. I commented that his solution for the problem in Greece — e.g. trickle-down economics spawned through tax breaks to lure the wealthy back to the country — was not sustainable. I talked about economic cycles and I talked about feedback loops and oscillations and he called me a clown, essentially, and muted me.

While I feel very strongly that my opinion of his solution is correct, I do feel kind of bad that I got jargony with him without ever taking the chance to explain what I meant by “sustainable,” and “feedback loops,” and “oscillations.” So, to rectify that, I’m going to take a few chunks of vertical pixel space to define these terms as I use them, because — let’s face it — I’m going to use them again.

To that end, today’s entry will be about sustainability.

Sustainability

It’s a simple word, to be honest, for which most people understand the meaning, but it’s the way in which it is used in reference to economics when it becomes new or unfamiliar. It does not show up in the lexicon of typical economic discussions regarding minimum wage, inflation, free-market, etc. Where it does show up is when systems-thinkers talk about the economy. Systems-thinking gives a perspective that takes into account not just cause and effect to, but that looks at causal loops, accounts for mitigating issues, and models a system to try and determine where to best apply a solution — e.g. find “Leverage” — that has the best possible outcome.

This definition of a sustainable society is the one I’m thinking of when I speak of sustainability: “A sustainable society is one that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'” (2012, Meadows). In other words, if a decision we make about the economy compromises future generations’ needs, it’s not a sustainable decision. If building more factories requires more resources that will deplete those same resources for the future, should we build? If drilling for oil in the arctic could further deplete oil reserves and cause pollution, should we drill?

System thinking says that the questions of whether to build or whether to drill are not adequately answered by looking at immediate needs, but by looking at the impact of the decisions on the future. This is the idea that you think seven generations ahead when you make decisions like this. In this way, economics from a systems perspective looks different than from a more standard perspective.

Most pointedly, standard economics systems all deal with a central issue of prosperity. Either prosperity for the individual, or prosperity for the state. Prosperity is either achieved through unlimited growth and earnings potential (capitalism, et al) or security of needs provided by the state (communism et al). None of those systems asks the necessary questions about what will happen in the future. If we spend resources now on a quest for unlimited growth and earnings, what will be left in 100 years, 200 years? If we spend resources now to ensure all members of society are taken care of now, will we have enough to take care of future members of society? These are questions about sustainability.

In 2002, Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and Jorgen Randers revisited their 1972 book Limits to Growth to see if any progress had been made. The results were, as you may have guessed, disappointing. However, in the penultimate chapter, the authors present a scenario that they ran through their computer model (WORLD3) that achieves sustainability. What it calls for will not be easy to come by.

The scenario requires an effort to curb population growth through birth control and greater equality in rights among men and women of all nations, an increase in land yield, and the protection of agricultural land from industrialization and over-farming. This scenario caps the world population at a steady 8 billion with sustainability achieved on or about the year 2020.

LtG_scenario-9
2002, Meadows et al. Output of a chart generated by the WORLD3 computer model showing sustainability achieved by the year 2020.

While this was encouraging news in 2002, we have probably already missed our deadline and now must work hard to achieve an economic plan that we can maintain in perpetuity, one that will leave resources available for future generations while also meeting our current humanitarian needs in this generation.

On a global scale, we must adopt a way of thinking that leaves behind the need for growth, competition, and unlimited prosperity and replace that thinking with ideas that lead to sustainability, equitability, and stability.

 

References

  1. Meadows, Donella H. (2012). Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update. Chelsea Green Publishing. Kindle Edition.
  2. The Long Now Foundation (http://longnow.org)
  3. The Next Systems Project (http://thenextsystem.org)
  4. Donella Meadows Institute (http://www.donellameadows.org)

Why I’m voting for Bernie Sanders (and maybe you should, too)

I want to take this space to be clear about why I’m voting for and defending Bernie Sanders. After reviewing his voting record and speeches, after knowing him for more than 20 years as a statesman from my home state of Vermont, I’m very confident that — while these are my interpretations — they are spot on.

People are not the means to profit

Bear with me, I’m going to start off sounding a bit Marxist, but then I’ll get to where I want to be. In a free-market, capitalist system, the people are the means to generate profit for those in power. If they happen to make a living at doing it, or if they are lucky enough to be in a position to claw their way to the top, that’s fine with the system, but it’s not necessary for the system to be happy.

For example, the idea of a minimum wage was created so that workers could make enough to stay healthy, but not quite enough to rise up from their station. This increases their profitability (a healthy worker is a profitable worker). A capitalist system requires at least three tiers of people: those at the bottom, those in the middle, those at the top. The free-market capitalism creates an illusion that anyone who is at the bottom could end up at the top, but it’s essentially a ponzi scheme where those who start in control gain more control through the efforts of those beneath them. The bottom line (or top line, if you will) is that this kind of system is designed to create profit, but profit that not everyone can partake in.

A government designed to protect this kind of system will necessarily pass laws that ensure the highest profitability for those at the top, while making sure that those at the bottom are passably cared for, but only to ensure prosperity for others. This is the government the United States currently has in place. It feels like a democracy, but it’s not really. It is, as Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Former President Jimmy Carter have said, an oligarchy.

If, however, the system takes the point of view that people are not simply profit centers, you start changing the problems that we need to solve. Instead of asking “What should minimum wage be?” you ask “What wage is required to ensure people can live?” Instead of asking “How do we ensure all people buy health insurance?” you ask “How do we ensure our citizens stay healthy?” Instead of asking “How do we secure constant economic growth?” we ask “How do we ensure all citizens are able to prosper?”

The system that Bernie advocates, the questions that he asks, the solutions he puts forward: these all point to the fact that he does not see people as sources of profit, but the raison-d’etre of government itself.

The government should be in service to the people

This is a sort of standard, bread-and-butter position that all United States politicians should have. It is, after all, a primary tenet of our founding documents. Most of them will say things that imply they believe that the government is “for the people and by the people,” but their actions speak otherwise.

If a politician gives more concessions to your lobbyists than your constituents, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician dismisses claims of racism or police brutality as one-off problems rather than systemic, she does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician refuses to admit the impact of humans on the environment, he does not believe the government is in service to the people. If a politician accepts money from corporations, panders to Super PACs, votes to protect her donors, and is out of touch with reality, she does not believe the government is in service to the people.

It is the people, 300 million very real, non-abstract entities — and not the ideal that politicians claim to follow — that government is meant to protect. If the mantra is only spoken, but the actions denote otherwise, the government is broken.

Sanders is a politician who has never wavered from his belief that by and for the people is more than a nice story to tell in school. His actions first as mayor of Burlington, VT, then as representative for the State of Vermont, then as Senator, and now as candidate for president show us that he is on our side. Free education, equitable taxes, universal health care (not just a rule forcing people to buy insurance from a third party), and accountability for those in power are all present in Sanders’ issues and talking points on the campaign trail.

Government should ensure justice, well-being, and freedom for all its citizens

Another very basic tenet of government, and another one that — theoretically — the United States is based on. There isn’t a politician currently in Washington who will tell you that the U.S. is not just and free and healthy. That is, no one other than Bernie.

Bernie knows that the systemic racism on display throughout the country, the poor access to health care, the over proliferation of non-whites in prison on trumped up charges, and the dwindling economic possibilities are evidence that the U.S. does not live up to its own rhetoric. He knows this so well, in fact, that his entire platform is built around these core beliefs.

Economic, criminal, and social justice, Sanders says, are on parallel paths. He understands that economics are one of the means by which oppression is enacted and that corruption in the criminal and social justice systems are another. He is looking to transform all three from weapons of the entrenched to vehicles for the disenfranchised.

He is for a single-payer health system so that people will no longer be forced to buy health insurance, but will have it covered with their taxes. He is for an extensive overhaul to family medical leave so families can be physically and emotionally healthy without need to worry about their jobs. He is pushing for vast criminal justice reform that removes racism from policing and puts an emphasis on community building instead of for-profit imprisonment. He is for free tuition for all public colleges and universities. He is against gerrymandering: — long used to divide and conquer minority neighborhoods — the process that ensures districts are populated with the constituents a politician wants and can easily pander to.

Oppression is unconscionable

I come to my culminating point, and the reason why I support Bernie Sanders for president. Bernie is a man who has shown that he will stand in the way of oppression, no matter the form. He has voted against war, but also voted to improve the care of veterans who go to war. He stands against armed violence while still supporting the spirit of the second amendment. He has stood up for the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the ostracized, the stepped-on, and the poor for all of his political life. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to do so.

The issues he faces as president will sound different than the ones he’s stood against, but in reality they are shockingly similar. While this is evidence that our system is truly rigged to support oppression in all of its forms, it is a situation which which Bernie is not unfamiliar. Whether it’s the right for black, latino, and Native Americans to be truly free in their persons; the right for women to have control over their own bodies; the right for the workers to have control over their own lives; the right for students to have control over their own education: Bernie will stand on the correct side of each of those battles. He will unwaveringly defend and shout down the naysayers. He will be successful.

Why? Because history has shown us all that Bernie has always been right in his thinking. The more people get to know him, and the more his record is revealed, the more it will become clear to us, to the politicians, to the corporations, to the world that Bernie Sanders has always had this figured out.

Urge Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Please sign my petition to get Senator Patrick Leahy to support Bernie Sanders

Just a quick plug for my survey over at change.org.

Senator Leahy currently supports Secretary Hillary Clinton for president based on a verbal agreement made to her seven years ago. I believe that given the voting records of Senators Leahy and Sanders, and Clinton, Leahy and Sanders are more closely aligned than Leahy believes. Additionally, I believe that Leahy owes it to the state of Vermont and its citizens to support their adopted son, Sanders, in his bid for president.