10 posts categorized "author-Michael Weston-Murphy"

[Review] 'The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It'

August 10, 2017

In The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It (Basic Books: 2017), urban studies theorist Richard Florida offers a mea culpa of sort for the back-to-the-city movement he has long championed. In books such as The Rise of the Creative Class, and How It's Transforming Work, Leisure and Everyday Life (Basic Books, 2002) and Cities and the Creative Class (Routledge, 2005), Florida argued that, if cities hoped to thrive in a competitive global economy, they needed to attract and retain talent — "[t]he knowledge workers, techies, and artists and other cultural creatives who [make] up the creative class.:

Book_the_new_urban_crisis (002)If nothing else, Florida's timing was impeccable. By 2000, the ranks of the creative class in the United States had grown to 40 million — a third of the U.S. workforce — and many of its members had left the suburban or rural communities of their childhood and headed to cities such as New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle, where they moved into neighborhoods that had been written off by the professional class and city officials. That story was repeated around the globe, as knowledge workers and creatives flocked to already vibrant cities such as London, Paris, and Tokyo; booming Asian metropolises such as Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Seoul; and sprawling, emerging mega-cities such as Lagos, Mexico City, and Mumbai.

Indeed, today — in a stunning illustration of the power of urban centers to transform societies through what Florida dubs the "3Ts of economic development" (technology, talent, and tolerance) — more than half the population of the globe lives in cities, and the United Nations estimates that by 2050 upwards of 70 percent of the global population will live in urban areas. Little wonder, then, that in recent decades urbanists have proclaimed "the triumph of the city" (the title of an excellent book by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser), or that the future of humanity is urban.

And yet this newfound appreciation for the richness, convenience, and stimulation provided by city living has not been without costs, as gentrification, rising rents, and real estate speculation have squeezed blue-collar and service workers out of neighborhoods and livelihoods, contributed to the re-segregation of public schools, and driven huge increases in wealth and income inequality. It is an economic failure that we should have seen but didn't, and from the Brexit vote in England, to the election of Donald Trump, to the growing popularity of far-right populist parties in Europe, we are living with the consequences of that failure. The New Urban Crisis is Florida's attempt to diagnose where things went wrong — and offer a prescription for how we can recover an urbanism that works for all people, not just elites and the creative class.

If that's too conceptual, allow me an anecdote by way of illustration: As I was finishing Florida's book in Washington Square Park in Manhattan earlier this summer, surrounded on all sides by buildings belonging to New York University (where Florida is a fellow), I could see, firsthand, his 3Ts at work. Across the way, diverse crowds of college students walked to their next class or appointment while sending photos to friends on the latest app; on the corner, a well-heeled couple waited impatiently for their Uber driver; and, a group of foreign tourists were listening to their guide about the history of the square. To the "urban optimist," it was a perfect illustration of "the stunning revival of cities and the power of urbanization to improve the human condition," while for the pessimist, it might suggest just how profoundly "modern cities [are] being carved into gilded and virtually gated areas for conspicuous consumption by the super-rich...."

And that's not the half of it. The juxtaposition of boundless opportunity and desperate poverty found in so many cities has led to mounting alienation and resentment. Indeed, Florida, who counted himself among the optimists "not too long ago," argues that to truly understand this new urban crisis (as opposed to the mid-twentieth-century urban crisis of deindustrialization and white flight), we need to recognize and come to grips with the fact that cities are both "the great engines of innovation, the models of economic and social progress," and "zones of gaping inequality and class division."

Florida identifies five key factors that have combined to create this crisis: 1) the growing economic gap between so-called superstar cities — where a disproportionate share of high-value industries, high-tech startups, and top talent are concentrated — and struggling industrial cities, or what he calls "winner-take-call urbanism"; 2) the steep rise in urban housing costs, which has resulted in the displacement of countless numbers of blue-collar and service workers, not to mention the poor and disadvantaged; 3) a rapid increase in inequality and segregation driven in part by "sorting" — a phenomenon in which creatives and the well-off congregate in neighborhoods formerly favored by the working middle class, creating a patchwork of relatively small areas of privilege surrounded by large tracts of poverty; 4) the growing crisis in the suburbs, where problems typically associated with urban areas — poverty, economic insecurity, crime, and segregation — are growing and becoming entrenched; and 5) the urbanization of the developing world, often without the improvements in standards of living that accompanied an earlier wave of urbanization in the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China.

At the core of these challenges, writes Florida, is an economic divide that shapes our built environment and determines where we live. "Simply put," he adds, "the rich live where they choose, and the poor where they can." This reality creates a host of related problems with both short- and long-term consequences (e.g., "people who live in far-flung suburbs and endure long commutes have higher rates of obesity, diabetes, stress, insomnia, and hypertension and are more likely to commit suicide or die in car crashes").

Florida illustrates each of these challenges using the latest demographic and economic data, much of it pulled from the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto, which he leads. In fact, the book is filled with interesting graphs and charts, including one showing the number of houses one could buy in various U.S. cities for the price of a single apartment in Manhattan's chi-chi SoHo neighborhood (Memphis, Tennessee, tops the list with 38!). He also highlights his institute's New Urban Crisis Index, which reveals high levels of combined economic segregation, wage inequality, income inequality, and housing unaffordability not only in superstar cities such as Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco, but in Chicago, Miami, and Memphis. (While interesting, many of the maps and charts could have benefited from better graphic design, and most of the data cited are for U.S. cities — a weakness in a book that purports to be about global trends.)

But what most readers will be looking for is a solution (or solutions) to this complex crisis of inequality. On that score, the glass is half full (or empty, depending on one's perspective). Florida points to the tension between the kind of "urban density and clustering that innovation and economic progress require" — and a "New Urban Luddism" — as the greatest impediment to the kind of equitable development and opportunity needed to overcome rising inequality. He has little sympathy for these twenty-first-century Luddites, who live in well-off communities and neighborhoods and are quick to say no to projects that may pose inconveniences but whose benefits in terms of the greater public good are indisputable. As he writes at one point, "If we are to...enjoy a widely shared and sustainable prosperity, we must become a more fully and fairly urbanized nation."

With that tension in mind, Florida sets out seven strategies designed to foster a "more productive urbanism for all": 1) make clustering work more efficiently by switching from a property tax to a land value tax; 2) invest in urban infrastructure to support greater density and growth; 3) build more affordable housing; 4) convert low-wage service jobs into living-wage work by raising the minimum wage; 5) address urban and suburban poverty by investing in people and places and providing a universal basic income; 6) shift development policies from nation-building to city-building and mobilize behind a global effort to build more resilient, prosperous cities; and 7) empower cities and communities by devolving political power from states and national governments to cities themselves.

As wide-ranging as these solutions are, the recommendations at the core of Florida’s books are fairly straightforward: governments and the private sector need to make investments in new and upgraded infrastructure and adopt tax and land-use policies that encourage increased density. Around the world, he writes, "strategic investments in basic infrastructure can help connect [poor people] to jobs; leverage their talent and productive capabilities and enable them to become more fully engaged; and, ultimately, turn the vicious cycle of urban isolation and poverty into a virtuous cycle of urban progress." In an American context, that means moving beyond the longstanding practice of encouraging suburban sprawl and expansion into rural areas and, instead, putting a new focus on the country’s neglected urban cores — a re-urbanization movement, if you will — that creates jobs and opportunities for all Americans.

While The New Urban Crisis may not be the twenty-first-century equivalent of Jane Jacobs' The Death and Life of Great American Cities or Lewis Mumford's The City in History, it is an interesting and highly readable update of Florida's creative class concept and an excellent introduction, for those not familiar with his earlier work, to how a new generation of knowledge workers and creative class types are shaping our economy, our cities, and, for better or worse, our future. The challenges posed by this development are profound, both in the U.S. and around the world, and The New Urban Crisis is a welcome contribution to the conversation around the best ways to address those challenges.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

[Review] 'Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations'

January 30, 2017

One morning at the gym, I looked up at the TV and saw that New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was promoting his latest book and opining about the state of the world following the U.S. elections. It took me a minute, between the banter and the buzzwords, but I eventually understood Friedman's reason for writing the book: like most of us, he thinks the world is moving too fast. His recommended remedy? We all need to slow down and reflect on the causes of this acceleration so that we can more confidently (and optimistically) chart our way through an increasingly complex world.

Bookcover_Thank You For Being LateAs he explains in Thank You For Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations, Friedman, a three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, writes books (The Lexus and the Olive Tree; The World Is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century; Hot, Flat, and Crowded) "because I love…taking a complex subject and trying to break it down so…I...understand it and…readers better understand it." Reading his work, one can see the interplay between the best sellers he writes every few years and his twice-a-week musings on the op-ed page of the Times. In Thank You For Being Late, for example, he sets the table with one of his go-to subjects: Moore's law, named after Intel-co-founder Gordon Moore, who noted in 1965 that computing power had been doubling every year based on the increasing density of silicon transistors in computer chips — and was likely to continue at a similar rate for at least the next ten years. As anyone who follows tech knows, Moore's famous observation continues to bear out forty years after its predicted expiration date. And the consequences of that astounding increase in computing power serve as a backdrop against which Friedman explores three accelerating forces affecting every aspect of our lives: technology (especially cloud computing, which he calls the"Supernova"), globalization (the "Market"), and climate change ("Mother Nature").

The exponential growth in computing power and the increasing rate of innovation it drives have created, according to Friedman, an orders-of-magnitude change in digital interconnectedness, transforming how we communicate (texting, social media), shop (e-commerce), and even where we sleep (Airbnb). At the same time, he argues, the rate of change, both technological and social, enabled by this connectivity now exceeds our ability to adapt, causing many of our current political, economic, and sectarian challenges. "When fast gets really fast," he writes, "being slower to adapt makes you really slow — and disoriented."

And guess what? The world continues to speed up.

He notes, for instance, that the typical cellphone today provides SMS texting capabilities and mobile access to the Internet to anyone who can afford one, creating a previously unimaginable global exchange of goods and ideas. Residents of small towns in sub-Saharan Africa are just a text or a click away from family members in northern European cities — and everyone in between. "Globalization has always been everything and its opposite — it can be incredibly democratizing and it can concentrate incredible power in giant multinationals," he writes; "it [also] can be incredibly particularizing — the smallest voices can now be heard everywhere — and incredibly homogenizing, with big brands now able to swamp everything everywhere."

On the downside, the forces unleashed by globalization and a digitally networked world are merging with human-driven climate change to create a perfect storm of unintended, and mostly negative, consequences, with the most profound effects being felt in the most vulnerable countries and communities. Sadly, efforts to cope with the massive movement of people triggered by climate change have been woefully inadequate, not least because "when Moore's law and globalization accelerate at their current rates and your country falls behind on education and infrastructure, it falls behind at an accelerating rate as well."

The book is classic Friedman — a smorgasbord of ideas interspersed with conversations with world leaders and parking attendants. In a single chapter he might explore the potential of article intelligence, reflect on the political cataclysms of recent years, and offer policy recommendations based on lessons learned from Mother Nature. Throughout he indulges his seemingly insatiable curiosity and penchant for asking questions that border on the metaphysical. If at times it causes his narrative to feel a bit scattered — jumping from topic to topic with an alacrity that can be fatiguing — most readers won't hold it against him; in fact, it is probably what makes his writing appealing to so many.

I know: Friedman's technique is often criticized for being a form of lesson-by-anecdote that is taken more seriously than it should be. The caricature goes something like this: I was in [insert world city] for two days and took a cab to meet with [insert world leader]. While in the ride over, I spoke to my driver, who shared his view that [insert insightful comment], and all of a sudden I thought to myself: Eureka! this is the answer to [insert complex world crisis].

And it's true, to the extent that any caricature is. But the final chapters of Thank You for Being Late are much more substantive and give us the musings of a grounded, authentic, and, yes, deep thinker — not to mention a badly needed voice of reason in our current politically fraught climate. In the final pages of the book, for example, he visits his childhood home of St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, where he grew up in an environment of "inclusion and civic idealism." Once there, he tries to see the community for what it was and is, all the while looking for the source of its still-evident civic spirit — and for lessons that can be replicated in communities across the country. The story of St. Louis Park, he writes, "is the story of how an ethic of pluralism and a healthy community got built one relationship, one breakup, one makeup, one insult, one welcoming neighbor, one classroom at a time." While nostalgia is certainly a factor in this rosy assessment, there's more to his trip down memory lane and explorations of what happens in a community where people take the time to get to know each other and build bonds across their differences — or, as he puts it, who are willing "to belong to a network of intertwined 'little platoons', communities of trust, which [form] the foundation for belonging, for civic idealism, for believing others who [are different] [can] and should belong, too." Yes, in an age of accelerating global interdependence and contact between strangers, "the bridges of understanding that we have to build are longer, the chasms they have to span much deeper." But that is the challenge.

In our ever more complicated world, generalists who wrestle with a broad spectrum of ideas and seek to help us understand often difficult issues and events are in short supply. In the crowded (and increasingly noisy) public square of the twenty-first century, reasonable, thoughtful, and generous are not adjectives applied to many: Thomas Friedman is all three, and Thank You for Being Late offers some of his best work to date.

Michael Weston-Murphy is a writer and consultant based in New York City. For more great reviews, visit the Off the Shelf section in PND.

Capital and the Common Good: How Innovative Finance Is Tackling the World's Most Urgent Problems

November 23, 2016

Over the past decade, the financial industry has been the subject of harsh criticism — and not without cause. Disillusioned by the abuse of esoteric financial instruments and repeated examples of corporate malfeasance, large numbers of Americans have grown tired of Wall Street and what they see as the financialization of the economy. Finance, however, is only a tool, and as with any tool, it can be used for good or ill.

Cover_capital_and_the_common_goodGeorgia Levenson Keohane, executive director of the Pershing Square Foundation, professor of social enterprise at Columbia Business School, and author of Social Entrepreneurship for the 21st Century: Innovation Across the Nonprofit, Private, and Public Sectors, makes the case in her new book, Capital and the Common Good: How Innovative Finance Is Tackling the World's Most Urgent Problems, that traditional financial tools can be used to innovate solutions to some of the world's greatest social and environmental challenges and urges readers to regard finance not as an instrument of exploitation but rather as a force for good.

Central to her argument is the distinction between financial innovation — the creation of new, increasingly complex instruments of financial engineering — and innovative finance — the use of existing tools to overcome market failure and meet the needs of the poor and underserved. Divided into five thematic chapters, the book explores how innovative finance can be used to fund solutions to environmental, healthcare, financial inclusion, and disaster relief challenges around the world, as well as problems in the United States.

Revisiting Adam Smith's theory of the "invisible hand" in the context of public need, Keohane shows how financial techniques previously used in the pursuit of private interest can be adopted across sectors to benefit the common good and provide economic opportunities for those at the bottom of the wealth pyramid. "When markets fail to produce a set of broad-based and sustainable public goods," she writes, "we need a more visible hand: concerted efforts by governments, multilateral agencies, philanthropies, and, increasingly, socially minded investors to meet needs and solve problems." It is a perspective rooted in the power of agency, the core of which she describes as "aligning incentives in ways that encourage people — individuals and government leaders — to make decisions that both are in their own self-interest and benefit the society." The logical extension of this argument is that many negative externalities (e.g., CO2 emissions) can be internalized by the market with the judicious application of the right tools — for example, cap and trade — while certain failures of the market can be redressed by the deployment of hybrid incentive models such as pay-for-success bonds.

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[Review] What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership

October 17, 2016

College application season is upon us, and every publication, it seems, has a list bestowing the title of "best" on this or that group of colleges and universities. But with tuition costs continuing to climb and more students than ever looking to further their education beyond high school, important questions have been raised about the value of a college education: Is it worth it? Is the admissions process fair? And what larger purpose should higher education serve? Answers to these questions are elusive.

Book_what_universities_can_be_for_PhilanTopicCornell University professor Robert J. Sternberg, author of nearly sixteen hundred academic articles and editor or author of numerous books, including Teaching for Successful Intelligence and Educational Psychology, adds his perspective to the debate over the purpose and direction of higher education with his new book, What Universities Can Be: A New Model for Preparing Students for Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership (Cornell University Press, 2016). A scholar as well as an accomplished administrator who has served in leadership posts at Yale, Tufts, Oklahoma State University, and the University of Wyoming, Sternberg uses the book to correct misconceptions about higher education and share his vision of what a university should be.

The state of U.S. higher education has been the subject of many books in recent years, providing those interested in the topic with no shortage of perspectives with which to engage. Some, such as Fareed Zakaria's In Defense of a Liberal Education (PND review) or Andrew Delbanco's College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, are historical or philosophical tracts that highlight the trends and challenges confronting American colleges and universities. Sternberg's book is different. Part professional reflection, part prescriptive blueprint, it addresses how universities and colleges can better fulfill their missions in the twenty-first century while preparing their students for an increasingly diverse and complex world.

"The purpose of higher education," Sternberg writes, "is to develop active concerned citizenship, ethical leadership, and democratic participation through the nurturance of high-level creative, critical, practical, and wisdom-based and ethical skills." With this as his starting point, he lays out a framework he calls Active Concerned Citizenship and Ethical Leadership (ACCEL) through which institutions of higher education can provide students with an "education that prepares [them] for and promotes [their] interactions with the world." Chapter by chapter, Sternberg outlines how each function in a university — from admissions and financial aid, to teaching assessments and university governance — should be structured to accomplish that goal, while sharing insights into the challenges and opportunities today's college and university leaders face.

He is critical, for example, of the narrow admission criteria favored by elite institutions and the way in which students are determined to be worthy of passing through their gates. He is likewise troubled by their reliance on standardized "aptitude" tests and overly narrow definitions of intelligence, which, he argues, are likely to lead in the long run to a "closed," stagnant, and stratified social structure. Indeed, with the country ever more divided between haves and have-nots, such an outcome is one of the challenges the ACCEL model is designed to combat, with Sternberg viewing the model as both a way to level the admissions playing field and as a tool to strengthen civic bonds and boost social mobility.

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[Review] 'The Fractured Republic: Renewing America’s Social Contract in the Age of Individualism'

September 06, 2016

Our country is at an impasse, stymied by gridlock in Washington, a highly polarized press, and an increasingly toxic social media-driven discourse. Far from being our finest hour, the race for the White House has devolved into name calling and nativist appeals to fringe elements, while leaders on both the Left and Right seem powerless to find a way forward. Many citizens, if they can bear to watch, are left wondering how we got here.

Book_fractured_republic3In an era of sound bite-driven news, serious reflection and reasoned thought often get short shrift. Which makes Yuval Levin's The Fractured Republic: Renewing America's Social Contract in the Age of Individualism all the more welcome. In it, Levin, a National Affairs editor, former staffer in George W. Bush's White House, and historian of ideas (The Great Debate: Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine, and the Birth of Right and Left; Imagining the Future: Science and American Democracy), lays out a vision for a new politics that rejects the nostalgia of both Left and Right and challenges liberals and conservatives to renew America's social contract by moving beyond the stale certainties of the status quo.

The basis of Levin's argument is deceptively simple. In its efforts to advance economic equality while celebrating the continued expansion of individual rights, the baby boomer Left looks back wistfully at LBJ's Great Society and the creation of the welfare state as a high point in postwar American politics. The boomer Right, meanwhile, pines for the perceived moral clarity of a golden past while lauding the triumph of the market in almost every aspect of our lives. Even now, a decade and a half into a new millennium, the tension between these two versions of recent history reverberates and shapes the lived reality of our public life. But while there are lessons to be learned from both perspectives, the fundamental demographic and socioeconomic conditions of the country have changed to such a degree that the political solutions of mid-twentieth century America no longer make sense. "That the baby boomers so dominate our national memory and self-image means that we don't think enough about what came before the golden age of boomers' youth," he writes, "and we don't think clearly...about how things have changed since then."

Throughout the book, Levin adopts the respective lenses of both Right and Left, recounting their many ideological battles and political skirmishes. In so doing, he suggests that two developments which emerged out of the disasters of the twentieth century have shaped who Americans are and how they think — the expansion of federal power and the celebration of individualism and personal choice. And yet, as entrenched as these two forces in American life have become, little attention has been paid to how they have combined to subvert the middle ground between them. Levin writes:

As the national government grows more centralized, and takes over the work otherwise performed by mediating institutions — from families and communities to local governments and charities — individuals become increasingly atomized; and as individuals grow apart from one another, the need for centralized government provision seems to grow….  

He further argues that Left and Right value different aspects of this dynamic, creating an ontological bind that begets an even more "hollow polity." "The Right," he observes, "wants unmitigated economic individualism [and] a return to common moral norms," while "[t]he Left wants unrestrained moral individualism but economic consolidation."

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[Review] Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

July 02, 2016

The 10,000-hour rule popularized by New Yorker staff writer Malcolm Gladwell in his bookOutliers is just another way to say practice makes perfect. But what makes us want to continue practicing? In Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, MacArthur Fellow and University of Pennsylvania psychologist Angela Duckworth makes the case for understanding personal achievement through the lens of "grit." Yes, intelligence matters, Duckworth argues, but follow-through and tenacity are just as, if not more, important.

BookImage_GritWith Gladwell-esque verve, Duckworth, a former management consultant at McKinsey who left the firm to teach seventh-grade math in a New York City public school, combines engaging stories with the latest research in her discipline, positive psychology, to explain why achievement should be understood more as a function of continuous effort rather than natural ability, all the while maintaining the reader-friendly language and cadence of pop science.

Duckworth's big idea is based on her graduate work, which she distills into two equations: talent x effort = skill and skill x effort = achievement. "Talent is how quickly your skills improve when you invest effort," she writes. "Achievement is what happens when you take your acquired skills and use them." While she acknowledges that her framework overlooks the role of luck and opportunities provided by nurturing relationships, be it a coach, parent, or mentor, her point is straightforward: concentrated long-term effort is a key ingredient in achieving any goal. "With effort, talent becomes skill and, at the very same time, effort makes skill productive."

So what is grit? Using stories from the NFL, journalism, Wall Street, and even cartooning, Duckworth argues that grit isn't just about working incredibly hard (although that's important); it's about "working on something you care about so much that you're willing to stay loyal to it." Think you've got passion and perseverance? Duckworth includes a "Grit Scale" to help readers calculate just how gritty they are. If you don't score well, despair not. You can change, she says — "grittiness" can be improved.

The "life-organizing goal" that drives Duckworth's work is to "use psychological science to help kids thrive." Her core thesis is that grit can be developed "from the inside out" — through the discovery of a passion or purpose, dedicated hours of practice, and the belief that our efforts will help create a better future — as well as "from the outside in" — through supportive anddemanding parenting, immersion in enriching extracurricular activities, and exposure to a culture of excellence.

Of course, given that economic, educational, and cultural resources are not equitably distributed in society, there's an obvious flaw in Duckworth's promotion of "growing grit" as a solution to systemic educational challenges. And while she admits that social biases and structural impediments can deter even the grittiest students, she really doesn't have an answer as to how those challenges might be addressed.

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[Review] The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century

May 10, 2016

To critique a critic: that is the task before me. In The Reproach of Hunger: Food, Justice, and Money in the Twenty-First Century, David Rieff offers an erudite and well-researched analysis of the problem of world hunger and the challenges associated with international development. While occasionally dense, his book both exposes the contradictions of the philanthrocapitalist dogma currently in vogue and challenges readers to reexamine the causes of growing development inequality among countries.

Bookcover-the-reproach-of-hungerIn outlook, Rieff, whose previous books include Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West (1997), A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis (2003), and At the Point of a Gun: Democratic Dreams and Armed Intervention (2006), is unapologetically pessimistic. "Hunger and poverty are inseparable," he writes, "and despite the many real successes in poverty reduction in many parts of the Global South, it is highly unlikely that these gains will be sustainable if rises in the price of staple food significantly outstrip the rise in incomes of the poor as a result of sound development policies." Due to the 2007-08 global economic crisis, recent extreme weather events, commodities speculation, and the diversion of corn to ethanol production, he notes, there is a "new normal" for global food production characterized by high prices and surging demand. And "[i]f significant changes to the global food system are not made, a crisis of absolute global food supply could occur sometime between 2030 and 2050…when the world's population will have risen…to nine or perhaps even ten billion."

Central to Rieff's critique is what he sees as philanthrocapitalism's unquestioning adherence to the secular faith of progress first promoted by eighteenth-century Enlightenment thinkers, subsequently nurtured by Gilded Age capitalists, exalted by Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, and promoted today by their neoliberal acolytes. The intellectual embodiment of this hope, says Rieff, can be found in the thought and work of Bill and Melinda Gates, the development economics of Columbia University professor Jeffrey Sachs, and political scientist Francis Fukuyama's triumphalist "end of history" thesis that capitalism and democracy were inevitable following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

While Rieff seems to delight in putting a few dents in Sachs's worldview, his real aim here is to carve out space for a thoughtful critique of the historical, economic, and social forces underpinning international development as it is presently understood and practiced. To that end, he frequently challenges the "impatient optimism" advocated by the Gateses as well as their foundation's technocratic approach to the problems of global poverty and hunger. Similarly, he has little patience for those who insist that the line between the public and private sectors has been "blurred" — a trope, he says, that disingenuously ignores the ideological underpinnings of the neoliberal system, resulting in impoverished dialogue and the dismissal of intellectual alternatives.

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[Review] Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World

October 28, 2015

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau tells readers that "If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them." It is the same kind of hopeful advice that social sector veteran Paul Shoemaker offers to readers in his new book Can't Not Do: The Compelling Social Drive That Changes Our World.

Cover_cant_not_doShoemaker, founding president of venture philanthropy network Social Venture Partners International, argues that the book's intentionally ungrammatical title captures a sentiment that is ubiquitous among people working to create social change. It is not "a self-help book," he writes; "it's a help-the-world book." And whether one has just a few hours a week to devote to change work or is determined to devote a lifetime to it, everyone can do their part.

Can't Not Do opens with a call to action inspired by the loss of a good friend of Shoemaker's who died in a plane accident. "[H]is life, and even the loss of him," he writes, "galvanized my personal mission in a way I never expected." Indeed, the theme of the intensely personal serving as motivation for making the world a better place is carried through many of the stories of change presented here.

Those stories are organized around a handful of big questions: Are you a determined optimist? Who are you at your core? Are you willing to go to hard places? Can you actively listen? Do you believe 1+1 = 3? And: What is your can't not do? Shoemaker devotes a chapter to each question along with an exemplary story or two of how someone has answered that question. My favorite was, Are you ready to be humble and humbled? As Shoemaker notes, we often are humbled by our failures, and this is especially true of social change work, where the complexity of most problems is both frustrating and daunting. This shouldn't drive us to despair, but rather serve to remind us that the work is hard. "When we get humbled, really knocked back on our heels," writes Shoemaker, "it means we've gotten close enough to the real problem to truly learn what matters, to feel the problem enough that it hurts, and to show our authentic commitment to the cause." It's also important to realize the power inherent in humility. Shoemaker explores this seeming paradox by looking at a number of successful businesspeople who have focused on social change — and the power dynamics inherent in philanthropy — arguing that humility expressed as inclusivity, authenticity, and inquisitiveness is key to overcoming the challenges of social change work.

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[Review] 'In Defense of a Liberal Education'

August 07, 2015

Book_in_defense_of_a_liberal_education_for_PhilanTopicToday the word liberal is encumbered by partisan connotation. Viewed through a broader lens, however, its meaning is more expansive. Derived from the Latin root liber, the word's etymology has been associated with freedom and liberty, whether political, economic, or social. In many ways it is a very American word, both in substance and style. In his classic Democracy in America, the French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville posited, "Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom." To which Fareed Zakaria might add, learning to exercise one's freedom in a responsible way is the raison d'être of "liberal" education.

In his latest book, In Defense of a Liberal Education, Indian-born Zakaria explores what this very American concept has meant in the past — and what it means in the increasingly globalized world of the twenty-first century. The book's main arguments were born out of Zakaria's 2014 commencement address at Sarah Lawrence College. In that address, Zakaria acknowledged that his deeply held views on the subject were grounded in his own journey — one that took him from a childhood in Mumbai to Yale University, to national acclaim as a columnist for Newsweek, a host for CNN, and a respected author. The result is both a summary of the ongoing and often contentious debate about the value of a liberal arts education in a world obsessed with technology and anxious about its consequences as well as a very personal meditation on the ways in which liberal education has shaped his life.

Zakaria begins the book with a brief history of liberal education, from the Greeks and Romans, through the Islamic Middle Ages and the Renaissance, to the development of the modern American university, itself a hybrid of the British collegiate and German research models. From the development of the "quadrivium" (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy) and the "trivium" (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) in late antiquity and early Middle Ages, to the Yale Report of 1828 (a document written by Yale College faculty in defense of the classical curriculum), Cardinal John Henry Newman's publication of the Idea of a University in1852, and Charles Eliot's transformation of Harvard into America's premier research university in the early twentieth century, Zakaria provides a solid context for understanding the evolution of the liberal arts in America.

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[Review] 'The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations'

June 18, 2015

In his poem "i thank You God for most this amazing," e.e. cummings wrote that "now the ears of my ears awake and / now the eyes of my eyes are opened." It is precisely this sense of clarity that comes to mind when reading The Social Profit Handbook: The Essential Guide to Setting Goals, Assessing Outcomes, and Achieving Success for Mission-Driven Organizations (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2015) by David Grant, former president and CEO of the New Jersey-based Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

Cover_the_social_nonprofit_handbookAs Grant notes, the world of the twenty-first century increasingly is defined by metrics and data. The social sector is no exception, and calls for better and more timely measurement of its activities have become a feature of the landscape. Gone are the days when funders were content to let intuition and anecdotal evidence guide their funding choices. Donors today — both institutional and individual — are keen to move the needle on large, seemingly intractable societal and environmental challenges, and in attempting to do so they have become ever-more interested in data that can demonstrate the impact of the programs and organizations in which they have invested. As a long-time admirer and teacher of poetry and literature, Grant relishes the complexity of this brave new world and applies his nuanced perspective toward a keen assessment of what it means for the field. "Social profit," he writes, "is about desired social benefits, and so it has to be defined locally depending on what a community of people values and what they need. It will never have a fixed or standard measure, and efforts to create one will get bogged down in endless quibbles and conflict about measurement itself."

According to Grant, efforts to measure social impact are fraught with challenges with which the for-profit world does not have to contend. Trying to balance multiple bottom lines, for example, is necessarily more complex than having to worry about a single one, he notes, especially given the fact there is no single agreed-upon unit of "social profit." Rather than focus on quantitative measures, therefore, Grant emphasizes qualitative "formative assessment." While not ignoring quantitative performance measures, he favors "soft measurements" and argues that a true assessment of social profit demands "a combination of pertinent metrics and a qualitative description...that can only be created by the people who are providing and receiving it."

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