Tuesday, May 29, 2007

A piece of the puzzle

I first heard about Kiva.org on a Frontline World episode a couple months ago. It is an organization that facilitates microcredit between individuals. Basically, I whip out my credit card and give some money to a small business of my choosing in one of a variety of developing countries around the world. Kiva, a non-profit based in California, works with local microfinance institutions or "field partners" to identify appropriate loan recipients. The beneficiaries of the loans then put the monies to use creating or expanding their small businesses, and eventually pay back the loan. I, the original lender, would receive no interest. The interest is paid to the field partner to cover their operating costs. However, as of now Kiva is reporting a 100% repayment rate.

I'm the first to admit that this model is problematic in terms of combating global poverty as a whole. I have two primary concerns. The first is that microcredit doesn't address the root causes of global poverty or the institutional failures that perpetuate it. The second is that the success of microcredit could be used as an excuse to supplant rather than supplement other efforts that are being -- or should be -- made to alleviate global poverty.

However, for me as an individual, the aforementioned are nothing more than excuses. After all, I can provide a microloan and simultaneously continue advocating for what I perceive to be systemic solutions. Kiva is a means by which I can have a direct and almost immediate impact on another individual or family. The money I waste on frivolous purchases in the average month could have a tremendously positive impact on people's lives who are far less fortunate than I, and who would use the money with greater care.

Furthermore, there are notable advantages to microcredit over traditional remedies. Empowering people to become self-sufficient is a sustainable solution. At some point in the future, the same people who have lifted themselves out of poverty with my assistance may be in a position to aid those around them who did not benefit from microcredit.

Monday, May 28, 2007

What does it mean to be "qualified"?

I've been hearing about the Justice Department controversy for quite some time now, but I only recently put several pieces of the puzzle together. Here's what I figured out...it's not revelatory, but it was news to me.

On NPR, there have been several discussions about it on the Diane Rehm Show, which I often listen to on the way to work. There had been mention of the hiring of a relatively inexperienced person to a high level Justice Department position. I later found out this was Monica Goodling.

On Real Time with Bill Maher, an HBO show that mixes comedy and serious discussion about current events with a panel of eclectic guests, Maher has several times referred to "Pat Robertson's Law School" and its "150 graduates who were hired by the Bush administration." (See video below.) Sometimes it's hard to determine if Maher is making something up to serve a comedic purpose, so I wasn't sure if such a place actually existed.

Well, it's actually called Regent University School of Law, it was founded by Pat Robertson, and there have been a significant number of its graduates hired by the federal government, including Monica Goodling (read about it here). The school was founded in 1986, but not accredited until 1996. It's ranked in the fourth tier (otherwise known as the last tier) of U.S. News' 2007 law school rankings and only 40% of Goodling's class in 1999 passed the bar exam on their first attempt. To be fair, U.S. News does indicate that its bar passage rate has improved to 61%. And maybe one of their newest faculty hires, John Ashcroft, will lend some credibility to the school, since apparently he was a voice of reason within the Bush administration.

I must say I was surprised to find that even the Merriam-Webster Dictionary's definition of "qualified" is very open to interpretation...

Temperance in criticism

Anyone who knows me well, knows that I’m fairly cynical about the “greatness” of this country I live in. But in moments when emotion doesn’t get the best of me, and when I genuinely consider the opinions of those with whom I generally disagree, I find myself tempering my instinct to demonize these United States and all that they contain.

I criticize the press for not adequately reporting on the important issues of the day, which I know they’re missing because I’ve read about them in sources that I deem reliable. Then it hits me, what was mentioned in a journalists’ roundtable on NPR, and which I’ve thought of before, I’m reading about these things that are “under-reported” in the same press that I’m criticizing for under-reporting them. Even Noam Chomsky himself, someone whose intellect I’ve long admired, and whose criticism of the press is particularly strident, has littered the reference sections in his many books with the names of hallmarks of the mainstream media. He himself is relying on those who he criticizes, as am I.

I often jump down the throat of my government, with all its corruption and inefficiency sometimes tempting me to drop the “civil” from the “civil libertarian” description that I use to describe an element of my political ideology. However, even as I criticize the daily operations of the government entity for which I work, I can step back and see that when a sufficient number of citizens overtly express their displeasure with the way things are, their representatives take notice. For example, ethics legislation recently passed the U.S. House, and a similar bill has passed the Senate. Is it as far reaching as I would have liked? No, but if it remains intact after it is conferenced, and passes with the overwhelming majorities it has already received, it will be difficult for the President to veto it. A bill like this is a significant victory for average citizens who want a government more responsive to their wishes, because no lobbyist wants their influence curtailed, and few members actually want fewer perks. These bills are a direct response to voters' wishes expressed during the last election.

Lest anyone reading this think I’ve turned to the dark side and become a “patriot,” be sure that my tendency to criticize – hopefully constructively – is not at an end; however, I’m going to try to add someone to the long list of those subjects of my critical eye…myself.

P.S. While I have previously considered the thoughts I wrote about here, this column prompted me to put "pen to paper" so to speak.