Measure for Measure

the latest blog post via Measure for Measure.

The expression “bottom of the pyramid” was first used by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt in his 1932 address, The Forgotten Man. “These unhappy times” he decried “call for the building of plans that rest upon the forgotten, the unorganized but the indispensable units of economic power…that build from the bottom up and not from the top down that put their faith once more in the forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid.”

Today, and with less implied applause, the phrase is ubiquitous amongst development, charitable and social enterprise circles to describe those living in relative or absolute poverty according to their income. In innumerable papers, articles and blogs the term is used to describe the target population of our collective interventions. At nearly every conference I attend I come away with the acronym “BoP” ringing in my ears. And to be honest it sticks.

The question on my mind is why is it so popular? Income measures and approaches represent a pretty narrow sense of poverty. Isn’t it time to update our thinking about what makes a person “poor” and, in doing so, update our lingo?

So why is income, which at first blush might appear a clear, objective way to assess poverty, insufficient?

For starters, income alone misses a great deal of what it means to be poor. In his seminal book, Development as Freedom, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen brought attention to the phenomenon that despite higher per capita incomes, African American men were decisively outlived by men from Kerala, India (once both populations had made it out of childhood). Sen questioned not just the relative poverty of African Americans – within the USA versus their white counterparts – but also their absolute poverty when judged by such a vital aspect of well-being as life expectancy.

Moreover, as the excellent Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI) point out, poor people themselves describe their experience of poverty by more than just income. The poor are likely to highlight poverty as meager health, under-nutrition, lack of adequate sanitation and clean water, social exclusion, low education, bad housing, as well as intangible notions such as shame and lack of dignity.

So why are we so wedded to “BoP”?

Part of the reason might be that it has become interchangeable with the word poverty and people using it tend not to consider it an income-only definition. But there remains a nagging feeling that many remain skeptical about wider definitions of poverty, happier to stick with what is familiar and seemingly simple.

Perhaps a kinder explanation is that income is seen as a “least bad” proxy for other dimensions of poverty. There is some sense to this, but as Sen’s example shows it does not hold in all cases, and we can do better. Alternatively, non-income measures are described as operationally infeasible, too complex for their own good or constructed arbitrarily.

It is true they are more complex, and I also hold little stock for happiness measures of well-being, which are generally too prone to adaptive expectations. But in advances like OHPI’s multi-dimensional poverty index and the UK Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Equality Measurement Framework, we are arming ourselves with new and powerful tools to think about poverty and/or inequality by more than income alone. Both are constructed with the practitioner in mind, and as holistic assessments of what it is to be poor offer considerably more than just income. Intriguingly, the MPI does not even use a direct measure of income as part of its index.

What’s more, income assessments themselves are no picnic to collect. Simply asking about income is notoriously unreliable, and, with the exception of recent rapid poverty assessment tools, have historically required lengthy and costly surveying in order to extract reliable data.

So isn’t it time we dropped the BoP tag and modernize our language? Doing so might also encourage us to modernize our assessments of poverty, moving toward multidimensional analysis which tells us more about the many and varied ways in which someone can suffer from poverty. And what is the fallout to enhancing our language, definition and measurement of poverty? Who knows, we might just start to target more suitable interventions and solutions as a consequence.


Judge Rejects Jonathan Frieman’s Corporate Personhood Carpool Lane Argument; Appeal Vowed

Re-posted from Moral Low Ground

Jonathan Frieman vows to appeal "as far as is required." (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Jonathan Frieman vows to appeal “as far as is required.” (Photo: Brett Wilkins)

Corporations are people when they donate unlimited amounts of money to super PACs and buy elections but not when they ride in carpool lanes, it seems.

A California man fighting a traffic ticket for driving solo in a carpool lane proffered a most unusual– and potentially landmark– defense in a Marin County court on Monday.

Jonathan Frieman, 56, of San Rafael was cited last October for driving solo in the carpool lane on Highway 101 in Novato. Under California law, a vehicle must contain two or more passengers in order to legally use such designated lanes. Frieman was cited $478 for the violation.

But Frieman, a progressive political activist, has devised a bold plan to challenge not only his citation, but also the very notion of corporate personhood. It turns out that Frieman just happened to be driving with corporate incorporation documents in his car when he was pulled over for the lane violation, and under state motor vehicle code, corporations are legally considered people. Therefore, argues Frieman, there were technically two people in the car and he wasn’t breaking any law.

Ford Greene, Frieman’s attorney, presented his client’s case before Marin County Superior Court Judge Frank J. Drago in San Rafael on Monday afternoon.

“What we’re talking about here is a pretty simple case,” Greene said, citing California Vehicle Code Section 470, which states that “‘Person’ includes a natural person, firm, copartnership, association, limited liability company or corporation.”

Greene, who is also a San Anselmo town councilman, asserted that the charge against Frieman should be dismissed, “since a corporation is a person and Mr. Frieman was traveling with a corporation.”

“The evidence is undisputed, the signs say carpool is 2 or more persons,” Greene pressed, arguing that the carpool law is “unconstitutionally vague.”

“A citizen should not be left to guess when he is in violation of a statute,” Greene argued.

Judge Drago disagreed, citing the “intent of the legislation,” which is “to relieve traffic congestion on highways” and to encourage people to carpool.

“The goal is to reduce the volume of traffic on the highway,” Drago said before finding Frieman guilty and imposing a $489 fine.

Frieman said he planned on appealing the decision “as far as is required.” After his court appearance, Frieman told Moral Low Ground that his ultimate goal was to “get folks to learn more and understand the absurdity of corporate power as evidenced by their personhood.”

Frieman never mentioned Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the 2010 Supreme Court decision affirming that corporations are people, money is free speech and as such, corporations and other special interests are entitled to spend as much money as they please influencing the outcome of American elections via “electioneering communications.”

Frieman vehemently denied that overturning Citizens United was part of his agenda. His case “has nothing do with Citizens United,” he emphatically told Moral Low Ground when asked about the landmark ruling. “The conflation is such an aberration that it is, in a sense, a distraction.”

But earlier comments by Frieman leave no doubt where he stands on the issue of corporate personhood.

“Corporations are imaginary entities, and we’ve let them run wild,” he told Pacific Sun last week. “Their original intent 200 years ago at the dawn of our nation was to serve human beings. So I’m wresting that power back by making their personhood serve me.”

An Interracial Family. In a commercial. Gasp.

The depressing news about society: Cheerios actually had to disable the comments on this YouTube video because there were so many racist comments about the interracial family in their commercial.

The good news about a corporation: Cheerios is standing behind this commercial. They told Gawker, “At Cheerios, we know there are many kinds of families and we celebrate them all.”