Sunday, January 3, 2016

The class war on "numbers".....

This morning on NBC's Meet the Press, Chuck Todd interviewed Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul, currently a United States Senator. When asked how Paul might rise to the top of the opinion polls in the race, he responded by throwing this legitimate "dart" at the national media (summarized):
The people who quote and report the polls know nothing about standard deviation and the math that goes into polling. And we have numbers that indicate considerable support on college campuses that could prove the opinion polls very wrong.
Later in the program, Todd spent a large block of airtime opening up the findings of a joint opinion poll conducted under the auspices of both NBC's Meet the Press and Esquire magazine, to be released on Tuesday this week.
The poll focuses on the anger among the American electorate, a boiling and potentially fermenting pot shoving both Bernie Sanders (Democrat) and Donald Trump (Republican) to the top of the opinion polls. Specifically, the survey gives evidence of "white" anger, among the American voters, with women surprisingly ahead of men by 58% to 51%, overturning the standard myth that white men are the most angry segment of the American population. Both Blacks and Hispanics demonstrate a considerably lower level of anger, 43% and 48% respectively. Of course the obvious failure of institutions in the American culture, the failure to deliver on the "American Dream" that powered so many generations of dreams among middle class Americans, and the difference between established 'whites' and both slave and immigrants people of colour in their expectations were referenced as partial explanations of the data unearthed in the NBC/Esquire poll.
Later in the morning, on Fareed Zakaria's GPS on CNN, Ian Bremmer, Chair of the Asia Group, noted that anger among the American electorate will eventually give way to the act of casting a ballot, and that will eliminate Trump from serious consideration. (He did not speak of Sander's potential.)
This weekend we are witnessing anger in the streets of many cities around the globe, directed at the weekend beheadings and shootings of some 47 prisoners by the government of Saudi Arabia, under the press release that "most were Al Qaeda associates or affiliates". The Sunni Government also murdered a Shia cleric, an open opponent of the Saudi government, presumably hoping to hide his death under the blanket of the "Al Qaeda" headline. Shiites, especially in Iran, Pakistan, and even in London, are outraged. And the assassinations are serving as a cleaver opening to the world the dramatic divide between the Sunni and the Shia segments of the Islam faith.
Among the millions of refugees seeking homes and new lives there was one single drowned little boy lying on a beach on Lesbos who catalyzed world opinion. Millions of others, including thousands of deaths before his, had not roused the world to act both the end the civil conflict in Syria and to welcome displaced refugees into their home countries. Ironic, yes?
Nevertheless there is a common theme emerging in the way the world finds, reports and uses numbers. And the differences between the different groups of people engaged in the numbers "game" is startling, not to mention potentially explosively divisive.
Todd, NBC, Esquire, and the other polling agents, including most of the contemporary media, rely on such "numbers" for their newcasts, information disseminating machines that are driven by the trust of the advertising dollars whose managers purchase time on those news programs. Consequently, both the advertisers' businesses and the broadcasters' specific corporations are feeding from the same trough. It is a model similar, if not identical to, the model used by the investment corporations to attract investment dollars: what is the percentage growth number of your investments compared to the percentage growth number for our clients? is the overtly stated, or covertly inferred question driving those investment corporate ads.
Everything, according to the model, has a price, and that price can be numerically identified, without doubting the reliability or the veracity of those numbers. Trump is likely to continue to dominate the Republican nomination race, because of those numbers. Sanders has garnered some 2.8 million individual contributions to his campaign, the largest number in American political history. And, like the little drowned boy, there is a "dark horse" single number that "trumps" the massive dose of "numerical opiates" that feed the American (and also most of the other western countries) populations, calling itself news. And, because of its ubiquity, and its incessant drum beat on our consciousness, the public has come to "accept" the relevance of these numbers as the grist for their water cooler conversations, whether or not there is really any validity to them or not.
There is another not so tangential issue that emerges from this split between the public and especially the political class' deployment and even dependence on the numbers, and the lives of real people. And apparently there is a politician in Brazil who has exposed the discrepancy between the two, to his and his poor peoples' advantage.
Jonathan Tepperman's piece in the most recent Foreign Affairs publication, entitled, Brazil's Antipoverty Breakthrough, The Surprising Success of  Bolsa Familia (Family Grant) outlines the successful investment of the Brazilian government in the lives of its poorest people, through government grants, with specific attainable and sustainable requirements for their continuing.
Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, commonly known as "Lula" ascended to the presidency of his country in 2002 after having dropped out of school to provide money for his extremely poor family, taught himself to read at 10, worked his way into a factory at 14 and becoming leader of the Metalworkers' Union at 30, and at 35 founded the Leftist "Workers' Party" (PT). As Tepperman says, rather than rule as a revolutionary, Lula after listening to poor people for over half a decade, decided that they knew best what they needed.
Like a headwind in the face of conventional wisdom that poor people would squander any 'windfall' they received from the government, Lula  knew that when given the chance, destitute famoilies generally didn't squander their windfalls. Most spent their money quite rationally: especially when the cash went to mothers, not fathers, as it would under his plan, "Bolsa Familia" (Tepperman, p. 37)
In an interview with Tepperman in 2014 Lula is quoted this way:
It sometimes bothers my friends when I say this, but the number one teacher in my life was a woman who was born and died illiterate: my mother. With all due respect to experts and academics, they know very little about the poor. They know a lot about statistics, but that's different, sabe? To an intellectual, putting $50 in the hands of a poor person is charity: an academic has no idea what a poor person can do with it. But that's because at university, they don't teach you how to care for the poor. And it's because most experts have never experienced what the poor go through every day. They've never had to go to work without breakfast. They've never lived in a flooded house, or had to wait three hours at a bus stop. To experts, a social problem like inequality is only numbers.
Targetting families who earn less than about $42 per person per month, and those who earn double that amount, the program requires participants to meet several conditions (contrapartidas, counterpart responsibilities):
  • ensure that all their children between six and 15 attended school at least 85% of the time
  • make sure that any of their children under seven got immunized
  • guarantee that both mothers and children got regular medical check-ups
  • (Pregnant women are also required to get prenatal care and to breastfeed their babies.
These requirements were designed to break the cycle of the poor continuing to remain poor for generations.
Reaching some 14 million families today or 55 million Brazilians, over a decade after its launch, the program continues to give out only small amounts averaging just $65 and toping out at $200.
The cost in total amounts to less than half a percent of the country's $2.3 trillion GDP.
And the grants have doubled the incomes of Brazil's most destitute families.
Others who have observed from outside Brazil estimate that the costs of the program are some 30% less than most antipoverty programs.
Lula himself explains: When millions can go to the supermarket to buy milk, to buy bread, the economy will work better. The miserable will become consumers.
Between 2002 and 2013, the incomes of the poorest 20% rose by 6.2% while the incomes of the richest 20% rose by only 2.6%.
Over 63 countries have sent representatives to Brazil to study the program, with 40 states having taken it up including Most Latin American countries, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Morocco, South Africa and Turkey. Two cities, Memphis and New York have also implemented the program.
One wonders if and when the political class, the university administrations and the media will begin to transform their addictive dependence on "numbers" in the sociological and policy development sense and start to mine the goldmine of experience of the most neglected and most needy and also most articulate people in the world, the underbelly in the barrios of every country.
Just as the little boy on the beach is currently leading the world's leaders, by having rallied, tragically posthumously, world opinion, so too the poorest of the poor in Brazil could shed considerable light into the darkness of the abstractions that rule the political debates in many countries.

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