How Can We Include the Voices of the Poor? Ask Them.

How many times have we walked past a homeless person and tried our hardest to avoid eye contact? Why do we do that?

We often try to resolve issues without first developing a clear understanding of the situation and the parts that keep the system going. That’s human nature—we operate by limiting the information we perceive and make decisions based on those limited sets of information. Just because something may be human nature doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do something. (more…)

Taking Ownership of “Externalities”


Ewww, gross! I know, I know. If you’re like most people you probably don’t want to think, hear, see, or say the term.

I think it’s funny, not so much that the study of economics is inherently humorous, but rather that we have taken something so nuanced and complex and simplified our understanding of it to nothing more than “supply and demand.” It’s about time we became more critical of a system that has such wide-ranging effects in our lives and helps shape the way we see and interact with the world. It’s about time we became more creative in the ways we address the economic issues that have plagued us for so long that the terminology has infiltrated common language (e.g., market, globalization, economy, interest rates, taxes, etc.).

After losing interest in economics during my undergraduate studies, it was renewed the moment I discovered Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics (I definitely recommend the book and the podcast, Freakanomics Radio). As I read the book I kept thinking, “Yeah, this is an economic analysis of this situation.” Although I enjoyed the book, I couldn’t put my finger on quite what it was that made it feel like such an important read. Of course the author kept the narrative interesting—in it he writes about sex, drugs, crime, and poverty. If he had added gummy bears I’d be all in. I finally realized, though, I found his relentless questioning of established institutions the most important constant. Many of us have lost our childlike drive to ask questions. After being told something so many times, we eventually believe “it is what it is.”

The problem with passively accepting what we’re told is that, in doing so, we perpetuate and excuse a lack of understanding and appreciation of the subject matter. We often see this lack of understanding manifested as stereotypes. Now, sure, the average person needs to know exactly how a Lorenz curve describes equality about as much as the average person needs to be able to explain every part of the process that makes your hair stand up when you drag your feet across carpet or play with balloons. However, we do need a basic understanding of economic concepts. The oversimplification of economics is detrimental because it allows us to be complacent when we should be active. We tend to accept things to be true just because we have been told that in some way, shape, or form we will inevitably reach equilibrium. We believe that it will all just work itself out. This thinking is dangerous.

We live in a society where unemployment, deaths of workers, and irreversible environmental and economic damage are considered externalities (which means a secondary or unintended consequence) that need to be internalized by paying settlements and fees rather than providing a system of change to prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Let’s delve a little deeper into the concept of externalities. Wikipedia says: “In economics, an externality (or transaction spillover) is a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices, incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit. A benefit in this case is called a positive externality or external benefit, while a cost is called a negative externality or external cost.”

According to this definition, if we must reduce potable water in a rural town by 30 percent, subject marginalized communities to inhumane working conditions, or convert once lush lands into toxic waste dumps in order to produce goods for our ever-increasing consumption diet, then it just “is what it is.” What’s ironic is that this concept only truly applies to industrial and commercial organizations. If, for example, I caused half as much damage in the pursuit my own success, those “incurred costs” wouldn’t be called externalities—they’d be called crimes. While some of those crimes might only require I pay a fine or commit to community service, many would call for my incarceration. The real difference is that I wouldn’t be permitted to repeatedly commit those crimes, whereas businesses are. Now, I am not anti-business or anti-corporation. I think that a lot of companies are doing a lot of good things. I think, for the most part, we are doing the best with what we know.  But there is always room for improvement, always a reason to strive for better.

The preliminary count of fatal work injuries in the U.S. in 2010 was 4,547 (Bureau of Labor Statistics). I think we owe it to at least 4,547 families to keep working. They’re not externalities. They’re people. Let’s really look at the economic systems we have in place and make them better. Take action. Make changes. Make them work for us.


The opinions expressed in this post and throughout are intended to encourage civil discussion and invite well-reasoned alternatives. To join in, please visit our Contact Us page and drop us a line. Your contribution may be highlighted as a selected response and posted to the site at a later date.

Michael Maine is the founder and chief strategy officer of Menrva Labs, consulting with small businesses and non-profit organizations to build sustainable social change by increasing social consciousness, helping realize their potential by working with them to identify goals, build strategies, and carry out those strategies. Follow Michael on Twitter at @michaelbmaine and @menrvalabs.

Oh Wait, There are Other Types of Immigration?

The latest discussion on immigration has largely focused on the illegal immigration of people crossing over into the United States from Mexico. After taking a backseat into issues regarding our financial crisis, healthcare reform, and political tactics, the passing of immigration law SB1070 in Arizona has rekindled the discussion on immigration and our need to find an effective and just solution. Supporters of the law believe that the law will discourage illegal immigrants from entering the state. Critics believe that the new law will encourage discriminatory actions and encourage racial profiling. I will not focus on the new law enacted in Arizona, but rather take a broader perspective of how immigration affects the United States in a global economy.


I, Too, Have a Dream

When a colleague recently asked me, as an African American male, what I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King Junior’s dream, I told him I couldn’t answer that question without an essay of a response. The significance of that dream is so tremendous, and the effects so wide-ranging, I honestly don’t think it would be fair to respond, “Oh, it’s important.” An answer like that would fail to capture the magnitude of that dream, and how I feel it has affected my life and the lives of so many others. So, with that said, consider this my answer…

What do I think of King’s dream? One thing is for certain: I think it is very worthy of celebration. His dedication to civil rights, his charismatic leadership, and unwavering energy helped ignite one of the largest social movements in human history. However that dream was not his alone, but rather the culmination of many like-minded individuals who wanted to move towards a world free of racial oppression. Dr. King was not the first person to have a dream of Black kids and White kids playing in the same playgrounds together­ – learning in the same class rooms together­ – experiencing life together. No, there were many people who shared in that dream a sense of hope and the idea that we had transcended the ideology that race was the determinant factor of social mobility, academic attainment, and intellectual ability. In that dream, there was a message that we were ready to step forward – together. That dream was then, and remains today, an inspiration for us to reach our potential as a collective group of people.


Why the boycott in National Marriage Boycott?

I just signed the “National Marriage Boycott” pledge. A group of students at Stanford University began this movement with the simple idea that until everybody has the right to marry whomever they chose, the students will choose to not get married. I too, feel that equal rights should be just that – equal rights. At the National Marriage Boycott website, you can offer your support by signing the petition, creating a profile, and ordering their “equality ring”. I spoke with the president of the organization and she told me one of the biggest obstacles they are running into is getting people to sign the petition not because people don’t want equality for the LGBT community and everyone, but because the petition has the term “boycott” in the title. She asked me what significance I thought the word boycott might have in people’s unwillingness to sign the pledge. Her question really made me stop and think about the word boycott and people’s association with it. Many people have issue with the marriage boycott because they have issues with same-sex marriage, whether they be personal or religious. Others are on the fence on whether they want to support, resist, or take no part in change. But what is it about boycott stopping those who otherwise would be supporters of the cause?


Empathy Vital Not Only to Helping Others, but Also to Helping Ourselves.

How many times has somebody genuinely wanted to help you with a situation, but because they weren’t members of the same social class you dismissed them by saying something along the lines of, “How can you truly care? You don’t understand what it’s like to be (insert identity here)?” Or maybe you said, “You’ve never had to (insert struggle here).” I too am guilty of misinterpreting a person’s willingness to help as a showcase of condescendence in my past.  And, I too, was wrong.

Yes it’s true that unless you have experienced the exact same events, exact same reactions, and exact same outcomes, you can’t truly understand exactly how somebody feels. However, one of human beings’ greatest accomplishments is the ability to empathize. It doesn’t take the exact same experiences to empathize with someone. Not everybody has genial intentions all the time, but simply having a different background does not necessarily make a person insensitive to others’ concerns.