Sunday, March 22, 2015

Three more books: the good, the bad and the fascinating

Linda Polman: The Crisis Caravan This was the best book of the three that I'm behind writing about, and possibly the most depressing book I've read in recent memory (which is definitely saying something). Linda Polman rips to shreds any possible notions we might have that humanitarian aid is either humanitarian or aid. Left in the wake of this book is the notion, basically, that there is nothing we can do. In our family, we have a little joke (it's not really funny), that if you read too much, or think to hard about what you can and can't eat ethically, you'll be stuck living on nuts and berries ala Talking Heads. If you read this book, you'll be left thinking the world should be supporting the nuts and berries of the world. Famine? Oh well, nothing we can do. Refugees? Tough shit. War torn places? Yup, we got um. Nope, not gonna do anything. Ultimately, that's not Polman's point, but she makes it clear that right now humanitarian aid is not functioning the way we a) want it to and b) think it is functioning.

I didn't know this, but from the beginning, humanitarian aid had two different tracks. Florence Nightingale (remember her from school?) believed that aid wasn't aid if any warring parties benefited. Like, if people were at war and injured and needed help, they shouldn't get help. "The higher the costs of a war, the sooner it would end," summarizes Polman. Aid was for civilians. She advocated for strengthening government institutions like hospitals and training for doctors. If private institutions came around and took care of this, it relieved the government of their duties and responsibilities. Henri Dunant believed aid was for everyone, soldiers and everyone. Individual, untrained volunteers trying to help out wounded soldiers was inefficient and ineffective. An organized private initiative would save the government money later by helping reduce pensions paid out to injured soldiers. Ultimately, Durant won this battle and the Red Cross was established, followed by the Geneva Conventions which took on these principles: "a presumed duty to ease human suffering unconditionally." The aid organizations that do this work promise neutrality- not choosing sides, which means not cooperating with either side more than the other, impartiality- giving aid "purely according to need," and independence- from politics, essentially. Those are the principles, at least.

The aid industry is booming. There are thousands of aid organizations. But it's not clear that they're really doing the work that they "should" be or even think that they're doing. Refugee camps get set up with every intention of being temporary only to last indefinitely and become recruiting and training grounds for warring factions. Black markets in the camps end up funding the armies and prolonging wars. Members of the factions go to the camps, rest up, and go back out to fight. Supplies are diverted from the most needy in the camp and go straight to the battlefield. Sometimes countries won't even let the aid organizations in until they've paid "taxes" of supplies to the ruling government that is causing the need to for camps in the first place. Polman demonstrates one particularly devastating example in regards to the amputations in Sierra Leone. Aid came when the amputations started. So the amputations continued, and the aid continued. It was that cynical. No missing limbs, no money from the NGOs. Polman describes how most famines are actually government wrought. The most dramatic, the more money. Drought and poor soil isn't really the cause of famine. But dramatic famine brings money and relief. Starving children in Africa doesn't sell unless there is a story. It's gross.

This is an amazing book. It's a horribly depressing book. Polman doesn't have an answer other than that she wants us to ask more questions. She wants the countries funding aid to ask questions and she wants donors (individual, corporate, etc.) to ask questions. She wants us to think about whether aid helps, hurts or both. We should. We should think about whether we can ever truly be neutral, especially in war. We should think about what kind of stereotypes were are both believing and feeding into when we are "aiding" poor people in the global South. We should think about what we are enabling when we go into war zones.

Nicholas Lemann: The Big Test Sometimes books are just so promising and so unreadable. Nicholas Lemann has written one of these. Sadly, I've accumulated $2.00 of fines at the library trying to figure out what to write about this book. Basically, Lemann is trying to tell the story of the standardized test: something "so familiar and all-encompassing that it seems almost like a natural phenomenon, or at least an organism that evolved spontaneously in response to conditions. It's not. It's man-made." Great! I love it! Tell me about it! But, no, actually, maybe not. If you want to learn the story of the SAT and how it came to be and why it is how it is and what it has done to America, you and me both will have to go somewhere else.

William Poundstone: Priceless If, on the other hand, you want to learn about how we think about prices and values (which are not the same thing), William Poundstone's Priceless is a great book. There is a ton in here that I couldn't begin to explain, but it's about psychology and economics and a weird thing called psychophysics which is apparently a real thing, not some hocus pocus, and how we think about what something (including ourselves) is worth. Some of it sounds like hocus pocus, and when explaining complicated theories that smart math-y people have figured out, Poundstone wisely includes some fo the tests that they've used to prove their theories- it's amazing how often I read them and was like, oh, yeah, I totally would have picked the (stupid) option that proved that, too! For example: "Every year, thousands of kids aspire to become a pro athlete, despite long odds and near-certain disappointment. Why? It's easy to list names of athletes who beat the odds and became rich and famous. Now try to name some guys who went out for the NBA or NFL and never made it. Can you name any? Hmmm maybe the odds aren't so bad after all..."

There are some words in here you might have heard of- anchoring, heuristics, etc. and lots you probably haven't- preference reversal? adjustments? prospect theory? Each individual piece will make you go aha! And then at the end, you (me) might be thinking- wait, I knew this stuff! You didn't. Poundstone just explained it so well that you've internalized it. Like the fact that normally, economics is about absolutes- a billion dollars is a billion dollars and a million dollars is a million and a billion is more than a million so you should be happy with a billion if you have that and you "only" had a million before. But test after test is says that we don't feel things in absolutes- we feel things in relatives: "The human reality is that a billionaire who's loft half is fortune [five hundred million dollars if my math is right] can feel destitute, and a $5,000 lottery winner can feel on top of the world. It's all about contrasts." There are a lot of things, theories, examples like this. It's fascinating and I would really recommend this book. You might feel a little stupid when you get to the part about how companies are getting us to spend money by using the theories. Or you might feel a little smarter- why do you feel bad about making x salary but not that same amount of money when it's translated to y dollars/hour? You might use the information to not buy something. Or you might just chuckle- I'll NEVER be fooled like that!! (Spoiler: yeah right.)