Economical with food for thought

This week’s Economist says something puzzling:

The middling poor, those on $2 a day, are pulling children from school and cutting back on vegetables so they can still afford rice. Those on $1 a day are cutting back on meat, vegetables and one or two meals, so they can afford one bowl. The desperate—those on 50 cents a day—face disaster.

Puzzling because it neglects that the poverty metrics cited are “purchasing power parity” figures, pegged to 1993 US prices. That means the “middling poor” are living on the equivalent of that could have been purchased in the US, in 1993, for $2 (Pogge and Reddy set this out [PDF]). People on $2 PPP US 1993/day are not sending their children to school and buying vegetables (at least in any reasonable quantity). So to describe them as “middling poor” is tendentious in the extreme. “Tendentious in the extreme” means: “wrong”. The description of the eating habits of “the middling poor” and their less fortunate cousins in the lower categories is also “tendentious in the extreme.” Those on $1 PPP US 1993/day are not cutting out meat, ‘cos they’re not eating it.

The Economist reserves the adjective “desperate” for those on 50c (presumably 50c PPP US 1993/day). Such verbal economy leaves a vague but reassuring impression that things are not after all really all that bad. But I doubt any letters will be published next week insisting that the description “middling poor” should be reserved to those in industrial countries living on less than 60% of the national median household income (ref here).

After all, comes the standard riposte, we’re talking “absolute” rather than “relative” poverty. I think this is a bogus distinction: it lets the complexity of defining “poverty” act as a convenient buffer against the truth. New economics foundation takes life expectancy as the key determining factor in defining poverty, and defines an “ethical poverty line” of $3 PPP/day. At $3 PPP/day people in general live for their whole genetic lifespan; where poverty cuts life short, it certainly breaks human rights.

Let’s at least not describe as “middling poor” people who fall below this line. And let’s at least not restrict the epithet “desperate” to only those who live (on average) on for a couple of dozen years. Brief existences, true; but perhaps still not unworthy of fair treatment by the self-described “authoritative weekly newspaper.”

But perhaps there is a little more to say on this matter. The Economist’s enlightening account of “The food crisis and how to solve it” seems to have been occasioned by a quotation from Josette Sheeran, Executive Director of the World Food Programme. Sheeran was chosen for the job after consultation with UN Secretary General then-elect Ban Ki Moon. Apparently, there was some concern regarding her previous association with another moon, viz: Rev. Sun Myung and his Unification Church. Some unkind people have called “Moonies.”

The Washington Post writes:

Sheeran said of her candidacy, “I don’t know why personal faith has any relation or bearing,” adding: “It is a matter of record that I have no association with the Unification Church.”

This doesn’t appear to the the Post‘s view, which writes (same link):

The Bush administration [which nominated her – ed] was sensitive to the possibility that Sheeran’s former membership in the Rev. Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church would emerge as an issue in the race. A U.S. official pressed The Washington Post not to mention Sheeran’s past links to the church, saying it was inappropriate to describe her religious affiliation.

But enough of Ms Sheeran’s quasi-religious interests. They are personal matters, and irrelevant. Suffice to say that someone who thinks living on $2 PPP US 1993/day counts as being “middling poor”, is in charge of the “world’s safety net”, the World Food Programme.

Max Hiatus at DebtTribunal


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