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How to ignore your family on Thanksgiving

There has been lots of advice lately on how to have a civil conversation at Thanksgiving – NPR ran a piece yesterday on “topics both Democrats and Republicans enjoy”, for example, which made me slightly annoyed and amused – perhaps because I am neither – and inspired this somewhat alternative list of ways to enjoy or otherwise ignore your family today.

  • Football, obviously. Few people actually know the rules of this game, never mind the names of the various positions of the players on the field. I personally have been watching football for more than 20 years and I still really don’t know what a tackle or a tight end is, nor exactly how to recognize a blitz. No matter, that’s not the point. The point is to choose a team and root for them blindly. Ignore the long-term brain damage.
  • If you don’t like football, may I suggest An Idiot Abroad, a ridiculous travel show from Britain created by Ricky Gervais. It’s embarrassing and awkward, obv, so relative to those situations dinner with your family will seem seamless and well-meaning. I say this even though The Office, also developed by Ricky Gervais, was on NPR’s list. Also, having a The Office marathon is really not a bad idea either.
  • Drinking. Adults can go for beer and spiked eggnog, but kids can get totally spaced out with just the normal eggnog. I’ve seen it before, it has a crazy high, especially if you add nutmeg. Buy tons.
  • The above suggestions should keep you busy up to and including the beginning of dinner. Be sure you don’t actually talk before dinner, because then you’d run out of things to say during the eating part.
  • For the actual dinner conversation, may I suggest keeping things light. For example, I plan to provoke a fun-loving conversation on who thinks the Ferguson grand jury’s lack of indictment serves justice and who thinks it exposes a broken system. It comes down to who trusts the system and who the system works for.
  • If that seems awkward, move on to white privilege in general. If there’s a denier at the table, throw out some data: black teenagers are 21 times more likely to be killed by a cop than white teenagers, for example, or if that seems hyperbolic, move on to the social mobility matrices for blacks versus whites in Figures 8 and 9 of the appendix of this paper. Nice and aggregate. I plan to use a projector.
  • Hahaha, just kidding! We don’t want to scare the kids. Instead, we’ll stick to the usual, where we enormously overconsume and simultaneously discuss upcoming diet plans, and/or vivaciously and competitively plan our impending holiday shopping whilst worrying about money.
  • For a nice surprise, sign up your whole family for spots on the bus to participate in a Black Friday Walmart protest tomorrow morning in North Bergen, New Jersey. Bus leaves at 8am. Come one, come all!
Categories: #OWS, musing

Is tourism in Haiti inherently exploitative?

I recently returned from Haiti, where I was a tourist traveling around the country for 6 days with my friends Jamie and Becky. As I spent time there, I felt increasingly aware of the difficult if not miserable spot that the country as a whole finds itself in, even though there are of course wonderful and incredibly beautiful and creative things happening too: art is everywhere.

Everyone knows about the 2010 earthquake which devastated the capital Port Au Prince – which was indeed terrible and its ramifications are still being felt – that natural disaster is really only one more thing for the Haitians to deal with, on top of a long and excruciating history of manmade, political and human disasters.

I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains while I was traveling, upon the recommendation of a bunch of my friends. It’s putatively the story of a white doctor from Boston, Paul Farmer, who is trying his best to enlist a growing group of doctors and philanthropists to help the deeply impoverished town of Cange in Haiti achieve state-of-the-art healthcare. It’s an impressive book, and beautifully written, and doesn’t shy away from frank discussions of how the United States has meddled with and manipulated the politics of Haiti to its own advantage. You should all read it.

One of the most memorable scenes from the book, at least for me, is when the writer discusses the juxtaposition of spending one day in Cange in Haiti and then flying directly to New York, or maybe Paris, but in any case a glamorous, rich, first-world city, and how it seems like two bizarrely separate worlds. Farmer says that no, in fact, it’s exactly what you’d expect – that there’s a direct line between the poverty of Haiti and the richness of New York. New York is rich in part because Haiti is poor, and we New Yorkers depend, even if invisibly, on exploitation of places like Haiti to stay rich. When you concentrate wealth in one place, you are concentrating poverty as well.

That brings me to my question today. Is it inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti?

Reasons it is:

  1. First and foremost, as Americans we can choose to visit Haiti, and then return after 6 days. Haitians cannot choose to visit us for 6 days, even if they had the money to do it. And again, that discrepancy is directly due to U.S. foreign policy.
  2. American tourists like myself are impossibly rich and powerful compared to the people we interact with in Haiti. That creates a weird and deep distance between people. It means that everyone on the street is aware of me and nobody fucks with me because the consequences for them would be dire. That’s what power looks like. As a result, t may be impossible to actually have a normal human relationship with a native Haitian.
  3. As a white person, you pay something like 10 times the normal costs of anything, which is both strange and totally understandable, but in any case it means that you are seen as a piggy bank by anyone with a service or a good to sell, which is pretty much almost anyone you meet.
  4. There aren’t very many tourists in Haiti. All the white people we met there were there on religious or charitable missions, or worked for the UN, or were trying to set up businesses along the lines of Etsy for Haitian folk art, or are themselves art collectors. That adds to the uncomfortable sense of dependency you feel as a tourist.
  5. When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.
  6. There’s a reverse sex tourism industry in Haiti, which is to say that middle-aged white women are known to go to Haiti as well as the Dominican Republic to pay for sex with young men. That fact further clouds the possibility, at least for me, of even having a single conversation in which the goal is non-transactional. How do you know if your joke is actually funny? Or if the cultural exchange you are happily engaged in is truly reciprocal? How could it be?
  7. Conclusion: it is in fact inherently exploitative to be a tourist in Haiti, and it’s not something you can choose not to participate in.

On the other hand, here are a few reasons I’d argue against my own conclusion:

  1. First and foremost, you are what you are as an American, even if you’re not in Haiti. You are just more aware of what that means to Haitians when you are in Haiti. In other words, if the decadence of ample food, and wifi, and excellent health care is in part due to the impoverished state of Haiti, maybe it’s good you are made aware of that.
  2. Haitians desperately need money, and tourists have money. If lots of tourists went to Haiti, it might be better for Haiti than a bunch of money coming in the form of aid.
  3. My friend Becky came with us to Haiti, and she stayed a few extra days and connected with a Haitian biologist and nerded out completely in a national park (she’s a huge biology nerd and nature photographer). It seems to me that, if it is possible to cross the human divide, and get out of a transactional conversation and into another place, it might happen in the context of a scientific discussion.
  4. I’m not a biology nerd, but I love music. I felt like the closest I came to normal human interaction was through discussing and enjoying live music.
  5. It’s really fun to travel, even if you learn sad things. You become more aware and more grateful, and you bring that back to your community and your family. There’s something to be said for simple cultural awareness. Plus, now I really care about Haiti, which maybe is irrelevant, but may someday become relevant, who knows.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Update. A comment from Jamie:

Fundamentally, I do and always have agreed to your point of exploitation. I knew we would be weird voyeurs going in to the trip, and as we discussed on the last day, Cathy, we were both acutely aware of how it would look if we started taking pictures of Haitians and the streets from inside of our fancy 4-by-4. It’s a complicated dynamic. And I think you’re right that it is nearly impossible to have a normal, balanced relationship there; I felt similarly while traveling around West Africa. It’s like we have a bank account and a green card attached to our foreheads, and it can be difficult to trust that someone is seeing us beyond that. Even if they have no ulterior motives other than being our friend, that trust is hard to grasp and hang on to.
All of that said, however, I do believe that it is incredibly important to spend time in countries and cultures that are different from our own. And I believe even more fervently that we should visit those countries with a mind to experience and enjoy rather than “save” it through mission-based organizations. That’s not to say that all aid is bad aid (on the contrary, many aid orgs and NGOs are very, very important!), but I do push back against the notion that one should always attach a mission to a visit. I’ve found that going somewhere as a volunteer or aid worker puts an even bigger wall between cultures (“I am here to help you because I have the means to help you and it is clear you can’t help yourself”). I strongly believe that just sitting, listening, and learning without the motive to “save” is one of the only ways of conducting a fair and balanced cultural exchange. I want to listen first, not fix first. Once I listen, and begin to understand (as if I ever could…), only then do I feel comfortable enough to think about working in/for a country.
Additionally, on the notion of choosing to vacation in a non-traditional spot that is so clearly economically and politically struggling, is it better to only travel to first world, highly developed countries and ignore that others exist? Should we blindly trust the media (and all of our friends, relatives, etc) that constantly tells us that a country is “bad” and avoid them? How will we change the discourse surrounding cultural and economic imbalances without having any first-hand experience? Are we perpetuating a notion that we are “too good” to visit a country that is struggling to stand on solid ground?
It’s all a complicated notion. And on a specific note, I’d love to open the floor a little on your #5 exploitative point (“When you are at a hotel, you are being served by Haitians. It’s impossible not to see the historical racial symbolism of this, given that Haitians were brought from West Africa as slaves to the French, and not to mention the more recent history which has made American influence so undermining.”). True. I think it’s important that we are aware of that dynamic. On the other hand, what would it look like if we were being served by ex-pats? Would we not be rebelling that we are not supporting Haitians and the native economy? That the ex-pats are just making a place for other ex-pats to work and remove all Haitians from the operation? Tricky. I’m interested in hearing both of your thoughts on that.

 

Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing

I am old in Haiti

I am old in Haiti. This fact dawns on me slowly over the six days I am there, because there is so much to take in. Mostly I figure it out because I am constantly amazed by how beautiful and healthy everyone looks. But then again, I keep finding myself thinking, people who are 24 often look healthy and beautiful. It’s when you’re 54 that you begin to show signs of wear and tear. I will reserve judgment until I see older folks.

But then, after a while, I realize how few people I’ve seen that are 54, or even 44, or even 39. Almost nobody, in fact. Every now and then a very old person will cross the street slowly, hobbling with a stick for support. On my 6th day there I tried to figure out exactly how old such people were. Maybe not much older than me, in fact.

The statistics, which I don’t look at until afterwards, back up my observation. A third of the population is below the age of 15, half of the population is below the age of 20, and 70 percent of the population is below the age of 30. Probably the places I went, the cities, skew even younger. It looks like about 25% of the women of childbearing age are pregnant, and all of the women are of childrearing age. The population has tripled in Haiti since 1950 and it isn’t slowing down. If anything it’s bumping up because of the devastating 2010 earthquake – women tend to replace their lost babies by even more babies after such events.

This matters because the Haitian land is overpopulated. In fact it’s worse than that: the land suffers from a severe erosion of its topsoil, due to deforestation over the years. In part – get this – Haiti was deforested to repay the debt to France for letting them be free back in the early 1800’s after the (world’s only successful) slave revolt. But it’s continued since then, and when you chop down all your trees, the rains take away your topsoil, which means your land slowly becomes desert. For the most part that’s what it looks like when you drive through. The result is not very much agriculture, and when you combine that with a fast-growing population, you get an horribly unsustainable situation.

In spite of all these problems, and in part because of them, the Haitians I came across seem incredibly nice to me and to each other. Trucks, people, motorcycles, cars, and 4-by-4’s compete for space in the one-lane roads in Port Au Prince but everyone stops dead when a young child needs to cross the street. It is a society that cherishes safety and looking out for one another.

When the water and soda sellers come to our public bus window to offer us drinks, and someone wants a cake instead, or to buy minutes for their cell phone, there’s a scramble by the nearby vendors to find the cake seller or the roaming Digicelwoman. The sellers at each stop form a collective that look out for each other, because if they didn’t look out for each other they’d all be screwed.

The same is true for with any resource. A UN worker we met explained that microfinance researchers are frustrated by Haitians when they try to estimate the impact of their loans, because they keep finding that a family has borrowed money and given it to another family. But if they didn’t share resources locally, all the families in a given neighborhood would be risking too much. It is better to be known as a generous person so that in a time of scarcity people will be generous to you. Your reputation is your most valuable asset.

When I think about how we live here in New York – where I don’t know most of my neighbors’ names, and nobody can see what happens behind closed doors, and we hoard resources except in our most immediate family – I feel like we’re missing out on something valuable. At the same time, privacy is nice, and I don’t think most Haitians have much of that. Not to mention a healthy middle age.

Categories: musing

Inflation for the rich

I’m preparing for my weekly Slate Money podcast – this week, unequal public school funding, Taylor Swift versus Spotify, and the economics of weed, which will be fun – and I keep coming back to something I mentioned last week on Slate Money when we were talking about the end of the Fed program of quantitative easing (QE).

First, consider what QE comprised:

  1. QE1 (2008 – 2010): $1.65 trillion dollars invested in bonds and agency mortgage-back securities,
  2. QE2 (2010 – 2011): another $600 billion, cumulative $2.25 trillion, and
  3. QE3 (2012 – present): $85 billion per month, for a total of about $3.7 trillion overall.

Just to understand that total, compare it to the GDP of the U.S. in 2013, at 16.8 trillion. Or the federal tax spending in 2012, which was $3.6 trillion (versus $2.5 trillion in revenue!).

Anyhoo, the point is, we really don’t know exactly what happened because of all this money, because we can’t go back in time and do without the QE’s. We can only guess, and of course mention a few things that didn’t happen. For example, the people against it were convinced it would drive inflation up to crazy levels, which it hasn’t, although of course individual items and goods have gone up of course:

united-states-inflation-cpi

Well but remember, the inflation rate is calculated in some weird way that economists have decided on, and we don’t really understand or trust it, right? Actually, there are a bunch of ways to measure inflation, including this one from M.I.T., and most of them kinda agree that stuff isn’t crazy right now.

So did QE1, 2, and 3 have no inflationary effect at all? Were the haters wrong?

My argument is that it indeed caused inflation, but only for the rich, where by rich I mean investor class. The stock market is at an all time high, and rich people are way richer, and that doesn’t matter for any inflation calculation because the median income is flat, but it certainly matters for individuals who suddenly have a lot more money in their portfolios. They can compete for New York apartments and stuff.

As it turns out, there’s someone who agrees with me! You might recognize his name: billionaire and Argentinian public enemy #1 Paul Singer. According to Matt O’Brien of the Washington Post, Paul Singer is whining in his investor letter (excerpt here) about how expensive the Hamptons have gotten, as well as high-end art.

It’s “hyperinflation for the rich” and we are not feeling very bad for them. In fact it has made matters worse, when the very rich have even less in common with the average person. And just in case you’re thinking, oh well, all those Steve Jobs types deserve their hyper-inflated success, keep in mind that more and more of the people we’re talking about come from inherited wealth.

Categories: economics, modeling, musing

Going to Haiti next week

I’m off to Haiti next week, for a week, with my buddie and bandmate Jamie Kingston. I was trying to figure out what to do with the blog while I was gone, and so I asked sometimes-guest blogger Becky Jaffe to cover for me (some of you may remember her Hip Hop’s Cambrian Explosion series which to this day gets traffic) but by the time I’d explained my trip, she’d decided to come along too! Which is awesome. We’re staying at the Hotel Oloffson in Port au Prince:

It has a room called "the Mick Jagger room".

It has a room called “the Mick Jagger room”.

So two things. First, if you know of fun stuff to do in the Port au Prince area, please tell me. I tend to like talking to people, and music and crafts, and Becky and Jamie are more into nature and insects.

Second, if you have a lovely or inspiring suggestion for what should happen to mathbabe next week while we’re away, please tell me!

Categories: Becky Jaffe, musing

Workplace Personality Test for the NY Fed

I’ve got a list of things to write about here on mathbabe, and they include the Carmen Segarra secret tapes as well as workplace personality tests. I’ve decided to do a mash-up just for fun, imagining what Carmen had to go through to get her job.

Update: you can send someone the link to this personality test here.

Categories: musing

People hate me, I must be doing something right

September 30, 2014 32 comments

Not sure if you’ve seen this recent New York Times article entitled Learning to Love Criticism, but go ahead and read it if you haven’t. The key figures:

…76 percent of the negative feedback given to women included some kind of personality criticism, such as comments that the woman was “abrasive,” “judgmental” or “strident.” Only 2 percent of men’s critical reviews included negative personality comments.

This is so true! I re-re-learned this recently (again) when I started podcasting on Slate and the iTunes reviews of the show included attacks on me personally. For example: “Felix is great but Cathy is just annoying… and is not very interesting on anything” as well as “The only problem seems to be Cathy O’Neill who doesn’t have anything to contribute to the conversation…”

By contrast the men on the show, Jordan and Felix, are never personally attacked, although Felix is sometimes criticized for interrupting people, mostly me. In other words, I have some fans too. I am divisive.

So, what’s going on here?

Well, I have a thick skin already, partly from blogging and partly from being in men’s fields all my life, and partly just because I’m an alpha female. So what that means is that I know that it’s not really about me when people anonymously complain that I’m annoying or dumb. To be honest, when I see something like that, which isn’t a specific criticism that might help me get better but is rather a vague attack on my character, I immediately discount it as sexism if not misogyny, and I feel pity for the women in that guy’s life. Sometimes I also feel pity for the guy too, because he’s stunted and that’s sad.

But there’s one other thing I conclude when I piss people off: that I’m getting under their skin, which means what I’m saying is getting out there, to a wider audience than just people who already agree with me, and if that guy hates me then maybe 100 other people are listening and not quite hating me. They might even be agreeing with me. They might even be changing their minds about some things because of my arguments.

So, I realize this sounds twisted, but when people hate me, I feel like I must be doing something right.

One other thing I’ll say, which the article brings up. It is a luxury indeed to be a woman who can afford to be hated. I am not at risk, or at least I don’t feel at all at risk, when other people hate me. They are entitled to hate me, and I don’t need to bother myself about getting them to like me. It’s a deep and wonderful fact about our civilization that I can say that, and I am very glad to be living here and now, where I can be a provocative and opinionated intellectual woman.

Fuck yes! Let’s do this, people! Let’s have ideas and argue about them and disagree! It’s what freedom is all about.

Categories: musing, statistics
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