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 Story-Driven Policy: Worth a Try!

By Shlomo  Maital

Kevin and Nicholas

Nicholas Kristof and friend Kevin Green, Yamhill

  The latest buzzword in professional and academic circles is “evidence-based”.  As an adjective, it modifies ‘psychology’,  ‘medical care’,  ‘policy’… everything.  Everything has to be evidence based. That usually implies a large data base mined for correlations.   Problem with that is,  G-d is in the details.  Truth is in the details.  By using data, especially Big Data, we miss the stories about the “little” people… forgotten people who struggle daily with illness, poverty, crime, drugs and other afflictions.  The Talmud says, If you save a single soul, it is as if you saved the whole world.  The point, of course, is to treat every single person with huge respect and massive importance.

    Today’s New York Times has two seemingly-unrelated stories that make this point perfectly.

    In his Op-Ed piece,  Nicholas Kristof mourns  the death of his school chum Kevin Green. They grew up together in Yamhill, Oregon, and ran cross-country together.  Kevin lost a good job, went on welfare, got divorced, became obese, lived on food stamps, got diabetes, and died at age 54.  Tea Party Republicans say he “had it easy because he got government benefits without doing anything”.  Kristof notes that Kevin collected cans and bottles by the roadside, to make $20 a day for subsistence.  Easy?  Want to trade places?  Did Republican wealth “trickle down” to Kevin and help him get a good job?  Not a chance.

    In Binyamin Applebaum’s piece on Washington, “Three stories illustrate Fed’s power and its limits”,  he covers Janet Yellen (Fed Chair) and her first speech.  Instead of an academic bore, quoting data, citing equations and analysis,   Yellen, who is brilliant, told the stories of three Chicago residents struggling to recover from the recession. She used their stories to explain why she will be very very slow and cautious in ending the Fed’s low-interest policy, despite Republican pressure to do so.   I wonder if she chose Chicago, because that is where President Obama lived and worked.

     All three ‘heroes’ in Yellen’s speech are struggling, but gaining ground.  Jermain Brownlee, 40, got a job building bus seats, though he makes less than he once did in construction.  Dorine Poole lost her job, then got a new one as a full-time office manager.  She makes $20,000 a year,  far less than the $32,000 she once made before the recession, as a claims processor.  Vicki Lara, 62,  lost her job in the recession and a year later, is serving food samples in a supermarket two days a week, six hours a day.  She wishes she could work more hours.  She owed $1,200 when she lost her job, and that debt has now ballooned to $3,700, with interest.  If she worked more, the companies to whom she owes money would simply garnish her wages.  So she had to decline a full-time job.   She told the NYT,  “When I walk home to catch the bus, I see five homeless people freezing in this weather…I wish I made enough money to help them.”

     Lots of people do make enough money to help them. But if you believe it’s their own fault, why bother?  Surely, they LOVE being homeless, outside, in the freezing cold.  Who wouldn’t? 

     I would like to see story-based policy.  If you want to cut welfare as a policy,  tell me a story about a real person and real events, to back up what you claim.    When I was a professor, I wrote papers based on data.  I always felt that the REAL story was in the story itself. But when I told stories, my papers were rejected, often with biting comments – because in Academe, “story” is a swear word.  Single cases, it is claimed, prove nothing.

    Wrong.  They prove everything.  They help us understand real people, real events, real problems.  When the U.S. Congress is populated by elected representatives, half of whom are millionaires, how in the world can they understand people like kevin, Vicki, Jerome or Dorine?    They can’t.      

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Young Man, Young Woman:  Go West! Go East!  Just…Go!

By Shlomo  Maital    

           World Traveller

Each year, New York Times columnist Nicolas Kristof chooses an intern, to travel with him and report on ‘neglected issues’.  This year’s winner?  20-year-old Nicole Sganga.   In his column “Go west young people! And east!”,  Kristof makes an interesting point.

   First, a little joke.   If ‘trilingual’ means knowing 3 languages, bilingual means knowing 2 – what is a person called who knows no foreign languages?   Answer: an American.  Most Americans do not have a passport, do not know a foreign language, and do not travel abroad.  The result is an insular nation ignorant of geography and other cultures.

   Kristof notes that of all the 50 American states, the most cosmopolitan, and the best state in which to do business (according to Forbes magazine) is…not New York!  It is..Utah, the state with a large population of Mormons (Church of the Latter Day Saints), a religion not known for liberality.   Why?  Because young Mormons are required to do two years of missionary work in a foreign land, and they return speaking Thai, Mandarin, Korean and a blizzard of languages – 130 languages are spoken in commerce in Utah, as a result!

    Kristof notes that fewer than 10 per cent of US college students study overseas during their undergraduate years. 

    In my country, Israel, young people complete their compulsory army service, then pack a backpack and trek through India, South America, Thailand, anywhere, partly to cleanse themselves of the early-rising army discipline.  One result is to make Israel a very cosmopolitan nation, which I think helps our startups a lot. 

    Kristof suggests: How about if American colleges gave students a semester credit for a gap year spent in a non-English-speaking country?    

     America has paid heavily for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, bungled in part because America had little understanding of the complex cultures of those nations, cultures you can understand only by living there  and learning the language.  So simply as a matter of survival, if America wants to understand this complex often hostile world, more young Americans need to experience other nations.  It’s a matter of national security.    

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
September 2019
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