Are You Happy?

On Friday, I went to see two Iranian documentaries playing at the British Museum. The second of these documentaries, directed by Ali Tamadon and entitled “Are You Happy?”, sees the film crew visits different areas of the country and ask local families this most fundamental of questions. Throughout the 50+ minutes of tape, the range of responses continued to surprise me. Most people — perhaps out of shyness, naivete, or sheer optimism — claimed to be happy in their lives. A few of the more nuanced responses stood out to me:

– A middle-aged mother discussed how happiness and sadness are two sides of the same coin. To know one, you must know the other.

– A teenage boy, squirming in front of the camera, confesses to being unhappy, full stop, but begs the director to not force him to reveal why.

– An old woman, who looks to be in her 80s, talks of hardships and the deaths of her loved ones. She prays to Allah that she will be taken to a place where these burdens will be taken away.

– A Tehran-based documentary filmmaker claims he is happy only when he is allowed to speak his mind and express freely what he sees around him.

The film never bored. The camera frames were beautifully set and simple, showing the interviewee in his home with his family in the background. It drove the point home to me that happiness (or contentment, as I prefer to think of it) is a mindset and is only tangentially linked to actual events of your life.

This truth was echoed in the memoirs of a young autistic savant, which my friend Stephane sent me. Called Born on a Blue Day, it describes the life of 27-year-old Daniel Tammet, the oldest of nine children born to a poor East London family. Tammet’s childhood could be seen as brutal: several bouts of epilepsy, Asperger’s syndrome, poverty, homosexuality, and social dislocation at home and school. Despite all this, he manages to find a decent life for himself by just being upfront, embracing his savant abilities, and openly admitting his quirks and apparent ineptitudes.

This focus on happiness is particularly useful in a time when material excess is increasingly the norm in the developed world. Clothes, appliances, furniture — even houses, for that matter — are increasingly made to be disposable. Fat middle-aged Americans are now making way for fat Chinese children. Almost 1/3 of the food purchased and brought home in the UK is thrown out. Something doesn’t seem right.

This debate has even entered the academic world. While studying at the London School of Economics, I came across the work of Richard Layard, one of the university’s professors who has pioneered a branch of economics that he refers to as “happiness economics.” Rather than allocating resources to maximise wealth, Layard argues that they should be allocated to maximise people’s happiness. A simple enough premise to argue for, but how do these models differ? When measuring optimal economic outcomes, he claims that neo-classical economics fails to consider (or purposefully disregards) the psychologically damaging impacts of inequality, the implicit costs of our evolving tastes, and our path dependency for material objects which we have grown accustomed to. The effect is a society which works harder than it should and is less happy (Incomes contribute to greater happiness, studies suggest, only up until $10-15,000 US dollars annual income… maybe that’s why so many Japanese are committing suicide…)

And Layard is not alone in the academic world. Other economists, such as Cornell University’s Robert Frank, argue for an entirely new form of taxation which is based on consumption rather than earnings (Look out for his book Luxury Fever for a more detailed explanation). Frank argues that high wage-earners who save their money should not be disincentivised from being productive; tehy are, in fact, facilitating future investment (either directly or through middlemen such as banks) by saving what they have earned. On the other hand, the more they consume, on average, the more they should be taxed, with items considered most luxurious taxed at the highest rate. This way, non-productive consumption could still have a place in the market, but its social cost (in terms of the inequality it produced) would be more properly reflected.

The Rise of Personal Branding

One of the themes of these blogs will likely end up revolving around how pornographic I think the developed world is today. Particularly in places like London, the drive to “make it” and distinguish yourself from your peer group can be pretty strong. Everything seems to be a commodity which is either for sale or for exchange.

My week’s comings and goings have been good subject matter for reflecting on the different ways that people go about representing themselves and relating to others. The idea for a blog came about on Thursday when I was reading an article in the Financial Times by Stefan Stern about a woman who charges £1200 ($2400) for a series of 3 personal branding consultations.

Working in corporate branding, I’m fairly well-acquainted with the concept (and, for the record, think that it is quite useful for organisations or for personal corporate profiles). At the same time, I find it a bit odd to apply the concepts to one’s personal life. Brands are means of communicating messages more concisely and more efficiently; they help organisations differentiate themselves and build a legacy that lasts from one leader to the next.

However, I also believe humans to be inherently inconsistent or even paradoxical (and that is often what makes me find them interesting). We are not meant to produce consistent messages as humans or else how would we be allowed to evolve or even change our views on life.

When talking to a friend about my idea for this blog, he turned to philosophy and debated the choice between being who we are and being who we want to be. Ulitmately he argued that our identity — our meaning — is a choice which we make for ourselves consciously. There are no right or wrong answers in his opinion, but the caveat is that we must be accountable for the direction that we eventually decide to take (or for the decision to remain indecisive).

I like this answer, and I suppose that this is the closest thing to a “personal brand” that I’ll ever get. It places me somewhere between the person I am and the person I want to be — fallible to the end but always cognisant of my ability to improve.

My Favorite Photograph

“As photographs give people an imaginary possession of a past that is unreal,” Susan Sontag wrote, “they also help people to take possession of space in which they are insecure.”  I look back now on the five or six years when I traveled and photographed extensively as an extended effort to find my place in the world.  Many of the photos now have come to represent the trips themselves; experiences not captured by my camera often need to be refreshed to me through friends that I met along the way.

At other times, elements of the pornographic — which Sontag talks about so much in her own thinking on photography — come to mind.  The photographer striving to capture, or even to own, the experience he has just had or the person he has just met.  In some ways, just like sex, this pursuit ends not in elation or an essential discovery but in the death of the very nature of the experience itself.

I took this photo about three years ago, and it still hangs in my flat as my favorite photograph.  I took it out of a car window when driving through the Uyuni salt flats in Bolivia/Chile.  It is so abstract that I often don’t register it as a photo.  The small road in the left middle ground reminds me of the fact that man has been there, yet remains pretty trivial compared to the landscape itself (just like the small boats, temples, or people hiding in corners of Chinese watercolour landscapes).

Microfinance 101

A friend of mine works at a law firm in London which does pro bono work for microfinance organisations. She, like a few others I know, want to know more about the intended and actual impacts that microfinance is argued to have in developing countries. Here is my take and some (hopefully) useful links to learn more… Please leave your own comments or other good links in the Comments section below…

The Basics

At its heart, microfinance tries to employ market-based principles to produce developmentally-progressive results. The guru of microfinance is a Bangladeshi professor called Muhammad Yunus, who started an organisation called the Grameen Bank. As the legend goes, around thirty years ago, Yunus came across a group of female basket weavers in his home country who were prepetually in debt because of the high interest rates that local loan sharks were charging them to buy the materials they needed. Unable to get out of debt, these women could never save enough money to invest more substantially in their craft business. Yunus sympathised and loaned them about 25 dollars to get out of debt; to his surprise, they quickly repaid the debt in full. This basic concept laid the groundwork for a concept which serves about 50 million borrowers and another 50 million depositors (with even more growth projected over the next decade).

In the beginning, microfinance worked a lot like a typical bank does, except with much smaller loans/deposits (most less than $100) and with alternative means for establishing collateral (because they don’t have any!). Loans are most often given to rural women who are assembled in small groups, whose collective credit rating depends on each of the members repaying their loans. This forces them to monitor each other and to help them out with business advice or support.

Since then, these microfinance concepts have been expanded to include the urban poor, HIV/AIDS and other sufferers, and even marginalised groups in the developed world such as immigrants and even schoolchildren. Still, the market is estimated to only be meeting between 5 to 10% of estimated demand.

But microfinance has also been challenged by some as a means of keeping poor people in debt or that it does not even reach the poorest of the poor (when these groups should simply be given humanitarian relief). The pressure to repay these loans has resulted in reports of suicides and continued patronage of loan sharks. In other words, it does not empower people but keeps them in a cycle of debt-fed poverty. Others argue that microfinance organisations have simply taken the place of loan sharks and formalised what used to happen on side streets and alleyways. Still others argue that the supposed gender impacts are negligible or even regressive.

Current Microfinance Debates and Trends

There is no doubt that the breadth of microfinance institutions (MFI) around the world has expanded in recent years. A noted example is the Mexican MFI Banco Compartamos which was just publicly listed and gave shareholders whopping returns while being accused of charging excessively high interest rates on its loans to poor people.

Simultaneously, mainstream investment banks have begun loaning increasing amounts of their money to MFIs in developing countries so that they have the funds necessary to grow more quickly. These banks get a set rate of return on their “big” loans (often less than their traditional loan rates) without having to do the work on the ground collecting all of the repayments/deposits and drumming up customers.

So is microfinance just like any other commercial activity or is it a developmentally progressive concept that happens to be market-based? Alex Counts, the current CEO of the Grameen Bank, argues that this is a “false choice”. It can be both, or neither, he claims. In a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Counts argues that microfinance moves into previously untapped markets and helps deliver a number of financial, business, and social services to people who had previously not been reachable. Counts terms this microfinance benefit as that of a platform rather than a product. Thinking long-term and high yield (many users) but low margins (low profits per user), microfinance can get preferential regulatory treatment and develop trust in its users and in the general public.

My view is that — as with every growing industry — new microfinance propositions will emerge quickly, but the market will soon choose the “winners” among them and kick the cowboys out. As the industry matures, regulations will become more streamlined and this more easily monitored and reported. In a recent lecture I went to in London, Alex Counts sums up his view: “Microfinance is firmly rooted as non-profit but is just a fairly efficient way of promoting growth and jobs.”

For an overarching review of 90 academic studies of microfinance, check out Nathaniel Goldberg’s December 2005 article “Measuring the Impact of Microfinance: Taking Stock of What We Know”

For all things microfinance, check out: http://www.microfinancegateway.org/

My Dissertation on Chinese Property Rights

Trying to understand how China has managed its economic development over the last 35 yearsis no simple task.  But what I find most fascinating about economic development is how leaders are able to bring the general population along with them on the journey.
It certainly does not hurt to bring extra money into people’s pockets, but what about those who do not benefit from new political decisions?

This is the question I tried to understand more fully in my research while at the London School of Economics.  My dissertation looked at how different sectors in China (government, business, and civil society) coped with and kept in check each other’s vested interests as they set out to redevelop China’s cities after almost a half century of Communist oversight.  I looked specifically at a massive mixed-use development project called Oriental Plaza in the heart of Beijing (at Wangfujing) and specifically at how workers and businesses jockeyed with government officials during the construction period and how they coped with the shift from state-owned urban land to privately held land-use rights.

The result shows how institutions can be cultivated incrementally and creatively to achieve results that might not be ideal but are ideal for the given moment in time.

You can download the pdf here: http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/DESTIN/pdf/WP81.pdf