Showing posts with label volunteering. Show all posts
Showing posts with label volunteering. Show all posts

Friday, March 29, 2019

Why do many individuals voluntarily moderate their contributions to global environmental problems?

I think serious consideration should be given to the question of why many individuals voluntarily moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems. Prospects for human flourishing may well depend on the increased willingness of many more people to moderate their individual contributions to climate change. Voluntary contributions may not be enough, but what people are willing to volunteer to do themselves can be expected to have an important influence on the extent to which they are willing to impose regulation on others.

A decade ago I suggested that people who voluntarily reduce their contributions to climate change deserve our respect, but I referred to them as environmental puritans. I remember being told that terminology wasn’t respectful. Religious zealotry certainly doesn’t provide a complete explanation of  such behaviour.

Voluntary action by individuals to moderate their contributions to global problems is difficult to explain in conventional economic terms because people must know that their personal actions will have a negligible impact on global problems.

So, why does it happen?

The most cynical explanation I can think of is virtue signalling. Some firms and individuals engage in the behaviour because they obtain additional profit, or just personal satisfaction, from admiration they receive by appearing to be virtuous. Even though virtue signalling isn’t particularly commendable, good outcomes can flow from it. If companies can make higher profits by presenting an environmentally friendly image, good luck to them. If community organisations can further their objectives by bestowing honours on people whose motive is to be admired by other members, good luck to them too (provided, of course, we are not talking about organisations that infringe the rights of non-members e.g. terrorist organisations).

Leaving cynicism aside, the most obvious explanation is that people are willing to moderate their behaviour because of genuine ethical intuitions or considerations. It feels like the right thing to do and/or they consider such behaviour integral to their values and their flourishing as individual humans. It is reasonable to speculate that such ethical feelings and considerations are strongly linked to perceptions of personal identity.  Those who perceive themselves as giving a high priority to environmental protection tend to see themselves as citizens of the world. For example, of those U.S. respondents to the World Values Survey conducted a few years ago who identified with the proposition “looking after the environment is important to this person”, 83% saw themselves as “a citizen of the world”. The corresponding percentages were much lower for people who didn’t perceive looking after the environment to be important.

As shown in the chart at the beginning of this post, the percentage of people who perceive of themselves as citizens of the world is quite high in many countries. I don’t claim to know much about what is going on in the minds of those people. My guess is that when people say that they see themselves as citizens of the world, they are recognizing that they have a common interest with other humans in seeking solutions to global problems. It seems reasonable to expect people who see themselves as citizens of the world would be more likely to moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems without requiring inducement than those who identify solely as members of local communities, ethnic or religious groups, or nations.

As implied earlier, some people who moderate their own contributions to global environmental problems seem to be puritanical in their beliefs about appropriate behaviour towards the environment. That could be because of they are deeply religious, whether as followers of contemporary religions or as Gaia worshippers. It is hardly surprising to see religions urging their followers to have regard to the global environment and the well-being of future generations of humans, and to see some of adherents become environmental zealots.

It also seems reasonable to speculate that more people will voluntarily moderate their personal contributions to global environmental problems when they observe others doing likewise. They know their own personal contributions will have a negligible impact on global problems, but they don’t consider them to be futile because they feel that their contributions are part of a collective effort. Those who seek to provide an example for others, by making an unusually large contribution, may see their contribution as having a potential snowball effect.

The motivations of many of those who voluntarily modify their contributions to global environmental problems are only weakly contingent on the behaviour of others. Their behaviour seems to be motivated primarily by benevolence towards future generations of humans and other species. There is no social contract regarding voluntary moderation of contributions and there is no possibility that every human would agree to moderate their behaviour in this respect in the absence of regulation. An individual cannot induce others to moderate their greenhouse gas emissions merely by threatening to cease moderation of their own behaviour if their example is not followed. By contrast, Elinor Ostrom observed that in a successfully managed commons where access to shared resources is limited, individual participants make contingent self-commitments. The willingness of participants to follow a set of rules that has been devised collectively is contingent on other participants making a similar commitment and acting accordingly.

An important factor involved in voluntary moderation of relevant behaviour is belief that human action is causing detrimental climate change. People, like me, who believe that there is a low probability of catastrophic climate change within the next 30 years, or so, might also be willing to moderate their behaviour voluntarily as an insurance policy for following generations, provided the cost of insurance – for example, use of renewable energy in place of fossil fuels - is relatively low. More people can be expected to join the movement to moderate their behaviour if they perceive that environmental catastrophe is becoming imminent and/or if it becomes less costly to reduce the exposure of their children and grandchildren to global environmental risks.

Is coercion ever justified?

The benevolent private behaviour of environmentalists with respect to global environmental problems is often combined with advocacy of government action to compel others to modify their contributions. Any lover of liberty would find such coercion difficult to endorse, but there are strong precedents for it. One readily defensible movement that has acted similarly in the past is the movement for abolition of slavery in the 19th Century. As well as endeavouring to ensure that they did not profit from slavery, members of anti-slavery organisations advocated government action to abolish it.

If concerted government intervention is needed to avoid a global climate catastrophe, and if there is enough support by governments and citizens of enough countries to ensure that effective action can be taken, it would be difficult to argue that no action should be taken that would infringe the liberty of those individuals opposed to the intervention. Please note that there is more than one big “if” in the preceding sentence. I just want to make the point that it does not make sense for anyone to insist on the primacy of liberty if human survival is really at stake. In order to flourish, our descendants need to survive.

Do conservatives understand the motivations of world citizens?

The observation that environmentalists often combine benevolent private behaviour with advocacy of government action, seems somewhat at odds with a claim made by prominent conservative philosopher, Roger Scruton, in Green Philosophy: How to think seriously about the planet, published in 2012. Scruton suggests:
"Nothing in politics stands still, and increasingly left-wing environmentalists are dissociating themselves from the campaigning NGOs, and preferring the small-scale work that both supports and expresses the low-impact way of life. The movements for low carbon communities, slow food and permaculture have recruited many who identify themselves as ‘on the left’. Indeed, this shift away from radical, government-shaped solutions should be welcomed by conservatives, since it promises the thing that environmentalists of both persuasions need, which is a way of sharing our problems and co-operating in solving them."

I think that may be wishful thinking. From where I sit in Australia, I don’t see left-wing environmentalists increasingly dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. There are some environmentalists who would identify as having leftish views who are disgusted with the antics of environmental NGOs and Green politicians and want nothing to do with them. But I don’t see a general trend in that direction. I do see a trend toward more alliances between radical environmentalists and people who could be considered to hold conservative views. I see alliances between farmers and radical environmentalists to prevent fracking to extract of coal seam gas, because that may contaminate ground water. I see alliances between residents of leafy suburbs and radical environmentalists to prevent higher density housing projects. I also see more people with conservative views supporting independent political candidates who want a greater national contribution to international efforts to combat climate change.

It is easy to understand why Roger Scruton would like to see left-wing environmentalists dissociating themselves from campaigning NGOs. He suggests that oikophilia, the love of the oikos, or household, is the motive that captures what conservatism and environmentalism have to offer each other. He explains:
“It is a motive in ordinary people. It can provide a foundation both for a conservative approach to institutions and a conservationist approach to the land. It is a motive that might permit us to reconcile the demand for democratic participation with the respect for future generations and the duty of trusteeship. It is, in my view, the only serious resource that we have, in our fight to maintain local order in the face of globally stimulated decay”.

However, Scruton’s response to the slogan, ‘think globally, act locally’, seems odd. He suggests that while many environmentalists acknowledge that local concerns must be given a proper place in our decision-making, they tend to balk at the suggestion that “local loyalty should be seen in national terms, rather than as the small-scale expression of a humane universalism”. He suggests that were conservatism to adopt a slogan, it should be ‘feel locally, think nationally’. He argues that doesn’t mean that conservatives are all belligerent nationalists: They think in terms of the nation state because “they recognize that, in the current environmental crisis, there is no agent to take the needed measures, and no focus of loyalty to secure consent to them, other than this one".

I am uncomfortable with the idea that local loyalty should be seen in national terms. National loyalties overlap with local loyalties in some respects, but most environmental problems seem to be either local or global. Humane universalism seems to me to be a mark of civilised behaviour.
Nevertheless, I accept that the national state is the only governance system available which has potential to deal with global problems that cannot be resolved by the voluntary actions of individuals. That doesn’t mean that I have a great deal of faith in the capacity of nation states to resolve such problems.  Perhaps voluntary action enhanced by blockchain technology offers more hope over the longer term.

Roger Scruton is correct in his assertion that conservatives think in terms of nation states. They are statists. But that is also true of Green politicians and their ardent supporters, who argue vociferously for greater action at a national level to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. In attempting to push individual nation states to rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions at a national level, Green politicians have caused a backlash from voters concerned about rising energy prices and the unfairness of being asked to make greater sacrifices than those being made by people in other parts of the world. If Green politicians want effective action to avert the global climate change disaster that they greatly fear, they will need to adopt more effective political strategies that are capable of winning support from voters who are sceptical of claims of claims of imminent environmental disaster, but are prepared to make modest contributions to global efforts as a form of insurance for the benefit of future generations.

How does Roger Scruton make a useful contribution?

Roger Scruton’s comments about the difficulty of negotiating and enforcing international agreements to combat climate change are insightful. He notes that the Montreal Protocol concerning action to combat depletion of the ozone layer of the atmosphere was successful because CFCs could be eliminated “without seriously disturbing the economy or the way of life of any signatory nation”. He notes:
“Greenhouse gases are not like CFC gases. As things stand they can be eliminated only at great economic and even greater social cost, and few nations are prepared to pay that cost. By devoting their sparse supply of global goodwill to negotiating futile treaties against emissions, the nations are wasting assets that could be spent on co-operative research into renewable energy."

I think Scruton is both too optimistic and too pessimistic in suggesting that “unilateral action on the part of a competent and law-abiding state”, such as the U.S., may end up being the only way the global environment can be defended. I take his point that the British Navy played a crucial role in ending the transnational market in slaves, but it is too optimistic to think that the U.S. could achieve much to combat climate change by acting alone. It seems too pessimistic to imply that there are no circumstances where international cooperation could result in effective action against climate change.
Roger Scruton actually points to a potentially productive avenue for international cooperation:
 “If treaties are to be effective at all they must surely be of this kind – treaties that offer only benefits, which minimize the incentives to defect, and which compensate for the principal failure of markets in the matter of global environmental problems, namely that they do not invest sufficiently in the needed research.”

Where does this lead?

The important point is that if we want individuals to moderate their contribution to global environmental problems – either through voluntary action or by supporting regulation – before environmental catastrophe is universally accepted to be imminent, then we need to make it less costly for people to take that action. A greater research effort is required to ensure that more efficient technologies become available as soon as possible.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

What is to be gained by listening to opposing viewpoints?

It is comforting to listen to people espouse views like our own. Perhaps it makes us feel that our views are being validated.

Listening to an opposing viewpoint can feel challenging. There are several reasons for that. There may be times when we are not in the mood for the intellectual stimulation involved in considering the merits and demerits of an opposing viewpoint.

A more deep-seated reason for feeling challenged arises when we identify strongly with views that are being attacked. We may even feel offended. That has traditionally been seen to be likely when views on politics, religion and sex are being criticized. Ethnicity and culture should be added to that list. People also tend to be highly offended if anyone casts aspersions on the sporting teams they support.

However, taking offence is optional. Many Collingwood supporters, and many people of Irish and Scottish descent even seem to be able to see the humour in some of the jokes made at their expense.

From my childhood memories, in the farming community in which our family lived in the 1950s, there seemed to be greater willingness to listen to opposing political viewpoints than exists anywhere today. There seemed to be widespread acceptance that you need to listen to opposing political viewpoints if you want to argue against them effectively. People steered clear of discussion of religious differences and if anyone had views about sex and marriage that were at variance with conventional morality they didn’t discuss them openly.

The civility of the participants is obviously an important determinant of the amount of heat generated when contentious political issues are discussed. From my own experience, and limited discussions with others, I have the impression that in the 1950s people were generally more intent than they are now on maintaining civility when participating in political discussions. It seemed common for discussions to end in a meeting of minds on some points and respectful disagreement on others. Occasionally, when one of the main participants was intent on giving offence, discussions would end in an exchange of insults, or worse.

Have people become more open to listening to opposing views on other contentious issues since the 1950s?  A few years ago, I would have argued that the shibboleths had diminished as the major religions had become more tolerant of each other and a revolution in attitudes had caused many people to moderate their views of sexual morality.

It now seems that the old shibboleths have been replaced as new issues have become politicised. When issues become politicised it now seems to be much more common for people to parrot the views of the leaders of their political tribe and to refuse to consider opposing viewpoints. The art of listening seems to be disappearing from the public realm.

Steven Pinker has an interesting discussion of the politicization of issues in his recent book, Enlightenment Now: The case for reason, science, humanism and progress. He refers to research by the Dan Kahan, a legal scholar, who argues that bitter public disputes over science are now “the exception rather than the rule”. The exception arises when certain beliefs become symbols of cultural allegiance. To help make this point Kahan refers to recent U.S. history regarding vaccines for Hepatitis B and the HPV virus (a major cause of cervical cancer). Both vaccines prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Hep B vaccination has apparently been accepted without much opposition, but HPV vaccination has become a political firestorm because of fears that it would encourage teenage promiscuity. Kahan suggests that the difference stems from the way the two vaccines were introduced.  Hep B vaccination was treated as a routine public health matter, but the manufacturers of the HPV vaccine lobbied state legislatures to make vaccination of adolescent girls mandatory. Kahan’s view is supported by Australian experience of a voluntary HPV vaccination program being introduced successfully without the issue becoming politicised.

Issues often become politicized when they are taken up by political leaders. For example, it seems likely that by politicising the global warming debate, Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth made it more difficult for conservatives to acknowledge the merits of any proposed policy action on climate change.

The media also plays a role in politicising issues by converting disagreement on public policy into a spectator sport.  In my view Australia’s public broadcaster, the ABC, is a major offender. The ABC’s charter requires it to inform and entertain, but unfortunately does not require it to encourage the reasoned debate and respectful disagreement necessary for liberal democracy to function effectively. In particular, the Q&A program seems to me to be designed to politicize policy debate. It entertains viewers by providing a forum for activist and conservative tribes to clash on totemic issues. Although some panellists and audience participants do their best to engage in reasoned debate, it would be difficult for any viewers to obtain a better understanding of alternative viewpoints from this program.

How can we have a useful exchange of views on issues that have become politicised? In a recent article on this blog I suggested that people who approach issues from different ideological perspectives would be able to have more useful policy discussions if they could turn their attention to what they can learn from the actual experiences of people in different institutional and policy settings. That is rarely straight forward, of course, because interpretation of experience is not immune to ideological bias. But it is still good advice!

It can also be useful to ask people to explain views you disagree with, rather than asserting that they are talking nonsense. Steven Pinker notes that when people are asked to explain an opinion they often realize that they don’t know what they are talking about and become more open to counter-arguments. That is more likely to occur when they are aware that someone is listening intently to the answer they are giving.

This view is consistent with Leah Goldrick’s conclusion in a recent article about the know-it-all syndrome. On her blog, Common Sense Ethics, Leah writes:

“Thinking is fundamentally driven by questions, not answers. This is why doubt, not certainty, is so important. Doubt is the starting place that leads us to question the assumptions that have lead us to a particular conclusion, and doubt is what drives us to learn more if we will humble ourselves enough to consider that we may be wrong. Constant learning, from a place of humble confidence, rather than a place of arrogance, is the antidote to know-it-all syndrome”.

You are more likely to have useful exchanges of view if you “assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t”. That is one of the rules that Jordan Peterson lists in his recent book, 12 Rules for Life (recently reviewed on this blog). Peterson suggests that we remain threatened by disease, self-deception, unhappiness and many other causes of suffering because we are too ignorant to protect ourselves. There is always potential for us to improve our own lives if we respect the personal experience of our conversational partners.

Some of my readers may be wondering whether there is any organisation they could joint to help cultivate a listening culture and improved communication in the community in which they live. A few weeks ago, the realisation dawned on me that for the past 16 years I have been a member of an organisation whose founder believed that “in bringing improvement in the way of better thinking, better listening, better speaking to individuals we are contributing to the improvement of the society which is made up of these individuals”. The quote is from an article by Ralph Smedley, founder of Toastmasters International, which appeared in the February 1958 issue of The Toastmaster. (The article, entitled, ‘The Toastmasters Club … Its Meaning and Values’, has been reproduced in Personally Speaking: Selections from the Writings of Dr Ralph C Smedley.)

The mission of Toastmasters is to develop communication and leadership skills of individual members so that they can achieve greater self-confidence and personal growth. The benefits that can bring to the lives of individual members are obvious but, as Ralph Smedley maintained, members of Toastmasters - now numbering more than 352,00 – also have an opportunity to contribute to “the building of a better society made up of individuals who must act in groups”.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Why donate through Opportunity International Australia?

It must have been over 15 years ago when I first began making modest monthly donations to Opportunity International Australia. Opportunity is a microfinance organisation that provides small loans to help people in low-income countries break the poverty cycle by starting their own small businesses. It also offers its clients other financial services including savings accounts and insurance.

What attracted me to Opportunity the most was the potential for money donated to be recycled to help more people as loans are repaid. Over the years I have obtained satisfaction from the information that Opportunity has sent me about transformations that have occurred in the lives of individuals who were being helped. There have been many heart-warming stories about donations being used in ways that help poor people, mainly women, to build better lives for themselves and their families.

Nevertheless, the sceptical old economist in me has been muttering that he would like to see such stories backed by more empirical data showing how the economic and social prospects of Opportunity’s clients have improved as a result of the help that they have been given.

The enthusiasm of development economists for microfinance seems to have waxed and waned over the years, but recent research findings suggest that it can be an effective way to expand the opportunities available to people living in poverty who would otherwise be unable to obtain credit (or would have difficulty servicing loans at interest rates reflecting the high credit risks conventionally perceived to be involved). One particular study I have in mind, undertaken by Shahidur Khandker and Hussain Samad for the World Bank, uses over 20 years of panel data for Bangladesh. This study found that microcredit programmes resulted in increases in income, expenditure and net wealth, and increased participation in education. The results suggest that microcredit has been a particularly effective tool for reducing poverty among women.

In terms of global microfinance, the Opportunity International Network is a relatively small player, but a recent Social Performance Report indicates that it now has 3.6 million loan clients and its gross loan portfolio stands at $US 841.6 million. As indicated in the chart below, most of those loans have been made to India and other parts of Asia.

Those priorities seem appropriate from an Australian supporter’s perspective, but I would personally like to see Opportunity also establish a presence in Papua New Guinea.
Information in the Social Performance Report also indicates to me that Opportunity has been fairly effective in targeting assistance to those whose needs are greatest. A high proportion of new clients have been living in poverty, using $2.50 per day as the benchmark; new clients often have had no previous access to loans or savings facilities with a financial institution; and 94% of clients are women.

Information on the impact of loans and other assistance is currently patchy, but efforts are being made to develop appropriate indicators. The Social Performance Report provides evidence of a substantial reduction in the proportion of clients in poverty in the Philippines and of substantial job creation in clients’ businesses in African countries. One statistic which must imply impressive economic performance by clients is the repayment rate of loans – it is reported that 98% of Opportunity loans are repaid.

Rather than rounding off this post with a conclusion that any two-handed economist might be proud of, I want to do something I have never done before. I urge readers to spare $6 or more (hopefully much more) each month to make a regular donation to Opportunity. You might get a warm inner glow by giving money to other charities, but it would be hard to find anything more deeply satisfying than giving a hand-up to poverty-stricken people who seeking to build better futures for themselves and their families.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Is your altruism a scarce resource?

jacket image for What Money Can't Buy by Michael SandelIn What Money Can’t Buy, Michael Sandel argues that markets and market values have come to govern our lives as never before. He suggests two reasons why we should be worried about this: fairness and corruption.

He is concerned about fairness because the distribution of wealth matters more when money is able to buy things that were previously available free of charge to individual consumers. I don’t think this argument gets to first base because the main examples cited – quality of medical care, quality of schooling, the ability to live in safer neighbourhoods, the ability to avoid queues, the ability to avoid socializing with poor people – are things that wealth has always been able to buy.

The “corruption” issue has to do with the possibility that our attitudes towards the good things in life may change when we put a price on them. In other words, some good things are degraded or corrupted when turned into marketable commodities. One example the author cites is blood donation. He refers to a study by Richard Titmuss which suggested that purchase of blood by commercial blood banks in the US had tended to displace voluntary donation. As blood came to be viewed as a commodity that was bought and sold, this apparently had a corrosive effect on norms of altruism.

Does this matter? I think it does matter when a government decides to provide a service which displaces the efforts of unpaid volunteers and voluntary money contributions. In that instance norms of altruism are displaced by coercion, since the government services have to be paid for from tax revenue. 

Situations can also arise where commercial activities displace services previously provided by unpaid volunteers and voluntary money contributions. However, commercial suppliers would need to be seen to have considerable merit, in terms of value for money for services offered, to succeed in markets dominated by voluntary activity. I find it difficult to see a case for preventing commercial suppliers from attempting to compete in sectors currently dominated by voluntary activity. And I also find it difficult to see a case for preventing people from making monetary contributions to charitable organisations rather than donating their time, if that is what they would prefer to do.

Sandel takes exception to the views presented by economists - such as Dennis Robertson, Kenneth Arrow and Lawrence Summers – who have argued that the altruistic motive should be treated as a scarce resource that should be relied upon only where the market system breaks down. He seems to be particularly upset by Summers’ view that we should save our altruism for our family and friends, “and the many social problems in this world that markets cannot solve”.

Sandel draws attention to Aristotle’s argument that virtue is something that we cultivate with practice. He suggests that altruism is like a muscle that develops and grows stronger with exercise.
That seems to me to be beside the point. Humans also develop intellectual skills through exercise, but still seem to insist that their intellectual skills (human capital) should be treated as a scarce resource.

Perhaps this is an appropriate time for me to make a personal confession. My altruism is definitely a scare resource. While I can see merit is developing my altruistic muscles, my desire to do that tends to evaporate when I feel that my efforts are being wasted. My time should not be treated as a free good, just because I choose to donate it.

Now, it is possible that I hold that view because I am an economist and have spent too much time over the last 50 years, or so, thinking about the opportunity cost of time. But I suspect that many non-economists hold similar views.

Would you be as willing to donate your time to good causes if your altruism was not viewed as a scarce and valuable resource? 

Monday, July 1, 2013

What is so good about 'Send Round the Hat?'

‘Now this is the creed from the Book of the Bush--
Should be simple and plain to a dunce:
"If a man's in a hole you must pass round the hat--
Were he jail-bird or gentleman once."

Henry Lawson, a renowned Australian bush poet and story teller, used that verse to begin his story, ‘Send Round the Hat’. The story is based on his experience in the Bourke district of New South Wales in the early 1890s and would have been intended to be read mainly by Australian pastoral workers.

I came to re-read the story a month or so ago when I was asked to recommend some historical references for an Argentinian visitor who was interested in the cultural tradition in rural Australia of people sticking together and supporting each other in this vast harsh land. I suggested that ‘Send Round the Hat’ was excellent.   The comment that came back was: ‘Not necessarily that easy for an Argentinean to understand!’
That response is fair enough. There are probably a lot of Australians who would also struggle to understand English as it was spoken in rural Australia in the 1890s.

 Some people might even struggle to understand the message of the poem quoted above. A person who is ‘in a hole’ is in a difficult situation, often involving a financial problem. To ‘pass round the hat’ is to ask people to donate money to help the person concerned – traditionally, by asking them to place a contribution into a hat. The message is to be kind to people who are in difficulty, irrespective of their background.

The storyline is very simple. The author presents a series of anecdotes to explain how Bob Brothers (more commonly known as the Giraffe or Long-‘un because he was tall) has gained a reputation for passing around the hat to help others. He tells us that Bob is always the first to make a contribution when he passes around the hat and that he sometimes has to borrow money in order to do this. The story ends with Bob’s friends stealing his hat and passing it around to raise money to help him on his way back to Bendigo in Victoria to marry the girl he loves.

The story is brought to life by Lawson’s description of the characters involved and their attitudes. Most regard Bob Brothers as a nuisance, or pretend to. One of the characters, Jack Mitchell, is even permitted to suggest that Bob is ‘is one of those chaps that is always shoving their noses into other people’s troubles’ because of ‘vulgar curiosity and selfishness’. According to Jack’s theory, Bob makes his collections because he is ambitious and likes public life.

Fairly early in the story, Lawson has Bob explain his philosophy as follows:
"The feller as knows can battle around for himself," he'd say. "But I always like to do what I can for a hard-up stranger cove. I was a green-hand jackeroo once meself, and I know what it is."
Bob was saying that he does what he can to help strangers in need because he knows what it is like to be one. The ‘feller as knows’ would have a great deal of local knowledge and networks to support him. A ‘hard-up stranger cove’ is a stranger with little money. A green-hand jackeroo is an inexperienced worker in the pastoral industry.

The main reason why I consider ‘Send Round the Hat’ to be excellent is because Lawson is using the story as a gentle way to suggest to his readers that kindness involves helping strangers as well as your mates (friends and people you know well) and fellow members of trade unions, religions and ethnic groups.

The anecdote that makes the point most strongly, in my view, is the description of Bob’s attempt to take around the hat for the benefit of a sick Afghan camel driver:
‘Some years before, camels and Afghan drivers had been imported to the Bourke district; the camels did very well in the dry country, they went right across country and carried everythink from sardines to flooring-boards. And the teamsters loved the Afghans nearly as much as Sydney furniture makers love the cheap Chinese in the same line. They love 'em even as union shearers on strike love blacklegs brought up-country to take their places.
Now the Giraffe was a good, straight unionist, but in cases of sickness or trouble he was as apt to forget his unionism, as all bushmen are, at all times (and for all time), to forget their creed. So, one evening, the Giraffe blundered into the Carriers' Arms--of all places in the world--when it was full of teamsters; he had his hat in his hand and some small silver and coppers in it.
"I say, you fellers, there's a poor, sick Afghan in the camp down there along the----"
A big, brawny bullock-driver took him firmly by the shoulders, or, rather by the elbows, and ran him out before any damage was done. The Giraffe took it as he took most things, good-humouredly; but, about dusk, he was seen slipping down towards the Afghan camp with a billy of soup.’

The point being made was that Bob was even prepared to pass the hat around among bullock-drivers - a notoriously tough and profane group - asking them to make a contribution for the benefit of an economic competitor belonging to a different religious and ethnic group.

‘Send Round the Hat’ might not be great literature, but it makes some important points about the inclusiveness, or otherwise, of Australia’s cultural heritage of supporting people in need. After re-reading it I am still of the view that the tradition of passing around the hat has always been largely about ‘looking after your mates’. However, I greatly admire Henry Lawson’s attempt to promote higher ideals.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Should advertising be allowed in schools?

Nicola has sent me a message presenting the following views and providing links to a range of different web sites discussing the issues involved:

‘A school should be a simulating learning environment for our children. We trust our schools with our children to provide them with an opportunity to learn and grow. The school breaks this trust by allowing corporations to influence and manipulate their minds. As adults we have the ability to be critical of advertising, however, a school environment is one of trust, therefore, children are more likely to take the advertising at face value. Furthermore, the advertising appears to be endorsed by the school that heightens its power when compared to other contexts.

America has led the way on this form of advertising in schools. The present push by the major supermarkets to put advertising billboards on our school gates and in our schools in the form of voucher collectors is the first step. The use of TV screens with commercials and product placement in our classrooms is not far behind this. Is this the direction we want to take our education system and the welfare of our children?

There should be a blanket ban on advertising in schools as it exploits our children. In the interest of your children, please speak to your children's school management and lobby for the removal of banners and voucher collection.’

It seems to me that this is a matter that should be decided by parents’ organisations in individual schools. If parents think that some form of commercial sponsorship is an appropriate method of fund raising, why should I object?

However, there is probably no harm in expressing a personal view. In my view schools must be really desperate for ways to raise money to allow commercial organizations into schools to give prizes to kids for singing advertising jingles. What is the world coming to?

For further explanation of what Nicola is writing about, see this story in ‘The Australian’. There is a paper here discussing the methods of modern marketing being applied in schools.

I neglected to say that Nicola Moir is a Sydney artist.  The emphasis of her work is on what she describes as 'the forgotton spaces we inhabit between work, home and leisure' - 'the spaces where we come together as a community'. Her web site is well worth visiting. Among other things it might prompt you to consider whether you really are 'a happy little vegemite'. (For the benefit of non-Australians, the vegemite song is probably the most successful advertising jingle ever aimed at children in Australia.)

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Do all well-being indicators tell similar stories at a regional level?

I have previously noted that there is a tendency for many different well-being indicators to tell similar stories in international comparisons. The most obvious reason for this is that well-being is related to socio-economic circumstances. People who live in countries with relatively high average incomes could be expected to have good housing, better health outcomes, greater life satisfaction etc.

It would seem reasonable to expect a similar pattern at a regional level within countries. Regions that have a high rating on an indicator, such as subjective well-being, might also be expected to have a fairly high rating on a range of factors that are known to be related to well-being.

There is an excellent facility in Victoria (Australia) to test whether this is the case. The site, known as Community Indicators Victoria, enables visitors to look at relationships between a large number of variables across local government areas (LGAs). I used the double data map facility to examine the relationship between subjective well-being (SWB) and a range of variables that I thought might reasonably be expected to be correlated with SWB. The SWB measure used is the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index combines satisfaction with life as a whole and satisfaction with various domains of life (standard of living, health, achievements in life, community connection, personal relationships, safety and future security).

The relationship with some relevant variables was strongly positive, as I had expected. The LGAs with higher average SWB also tend to have higher ratings in terms of: satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering.

However, the relationship with some other relevant variables was negative. These included household income (Census data), food security, satisfaction with work-life balance and acceptance of diverse cultures.

The explanation seems to lie mainly in differences between rural LGAs and those in Melbourne or close to it. The LGAs with highest average SWB tend to be rural. There seems to be an association between high average SWB and the relatively strong community networks in the rural LGAs. The variables for which a negative relationship was observed, such as household income, tend to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

When I was growing up in country Victoria the people where I lived used to say that Melbourne might be a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there. They were smiling but they weren't joking. People who live in rural area seem to be highly satisfied with their lifestyles. Perhaps an ideal lifestyle can only be obtained by earning a big-city income and living in the country.

A report prepared a few years ago by Bob Cummins et al, looking at SWB by statistical sub-division (SSD) over Australia as a whole, indicates that the SSDs with the highest levels of subjective wellbeing were all rural and those with the lowest subjective wellbeing were all inner-city. The authors noted that subjective wellbeing is generally lower in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants and that the most important domain driving this is connection to community.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is Australia's mateship ethic being lost in the big cities?

This question was raised by Shona in a guest post about volunteering in the eastern suburbs of Sydney. I don’t feel qualified to provide an authoritative answer, but that feeling does not always prevent me from providing comments on other matters outside my area of expertise. Perhaps someone will tell me if my comments are wide of the mark.

Mateship was identified by Russel Ward as an important component of the ‘Australian identity’ – the ideas about themselves that Australians tend to identify with - in his book, ‘The Australian Legend’, first published in 1958. Ward suggested that this mateship ethic stemmed mainly from the loneliness of life in the Australian inland. In his later book, ‘Australia’, Ward explained mateship in these terms:

‘In reaction to their loneliness, to the sundering distances and to the harshness of nature, men tended to help and trust each other. This is not to claim of course that Australians are in fact notably more altruistic than other people, but merely that they tend to value collective aid and mutual aid more highly than do, for example, Americans; just as they value less highly rugged individualism’ (1967: 9).

I am not entirely comfortable with those comparisons with America. I agree that Australians probably do tend to place less value on rugged individualism than do Americans. For example, surveys show that the percentage of Australians who consider it to be important to encourage children to develop qualities of both independence and determination is lower than in the US. However, Ward himself claimed that ‘fierce independence’ was a component of Australian identity. Ward also observed in ‘Australia’ that in the third quarter of the 19th century Australian political sentiment was ‘strongly individualistic and not markedly either collectivist or nationalist’ (p 79).

Has the propensity of Australians to form voluntary associations for mutual benefit been any greater than that of Americans? I doubt it. Remember the observations of Alexis de Tocqueville in ‘Democracy in America’ (published in 1835) :

‘Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations. They have not only commercial and manufacturing companies, in which all take part, but associations of a thousand other kinds, religious, moral, serious, futile, general or restricted, enormous or diminutive. The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools’ (II, 2, V).

Ward seems to be on firmer ground in suggesting that the early dominance of large-scale grazing properties in the Australia farm sector (in contrast to the dominance of smaller-holder agriculture in the US frontier until about 1870) led to a situation where much of the work was done by people – shearers, drovers etc. – who did not perceive their interests to be closely aligned with those of property owners (p. 60). This can be linked to the subsequent development of trade unions, major strikes, the rise of the Australian Labor Party and the advance of state collectivism – which tended to displace voluntary associations for mutual benefit.

It is worth noting at this point that mateship has a downside as well as an upside. The downside of mateship is that it can mean ‘looking after your mates’ at the expense of other people. For a long time this aspect of mateship supported racial discrimination, compulsory unionism and abuse of trade union power, high trade barriers protecting some industries at the expense of others, discrimination against women and various forms of corruption. Some aspects of this negative form of mateship are still evident in the activities of some interest groups, as well as some politicians, unionists, businessmen and public servants in the big cities as well as the rest of the country.

At last I think I am now ready to focus on the positive side of the mateship ethic and the specific question of whether it has been lost in the big cities. Volunteering is more common among those living in parts of the states outside the capital cities (38% of those surveyed by the ABS in 2006 versus 32% for the capital cities). When I look more closely, however, the difference is most marked in Victoria and New South Wales and non-existent in Queensland - the state with the highest average rate of volunteering (38%). In both Sydney and Melbourne, 30%, of those surveyed were engaged in volunteering, but in the rest of the two states the proportion was 41% in Victoria and 37% in New South Wales.

There are strong reasons based on self-interest to expect rates of volunteering to be higher in small rural communities than in major capital cities. In a small rural communities people are exposed to greater risk of natural disasters such as bush fires and floods and depend to a larger extent on voluntary help from each other to avoid harm to their families when disaster threatens. In most small communities people who had a reputation for free-riding (sponging on their mates) would probably not be denied help in the event of disaster, but few people would be prepared to take that chance.

Would people in Sydney and Melbourne show a strong spirit of mateship if these cities were threatened by a major disaster? I’m not sure. When a substantial part of Queensland was flooded earlier this year, it was obvious that many people in the rural areas showed great acts of kindness to each other. As the flood waters approached Brisbane I wondered whether this community spirit would be replaced by an attitude of just helping family and close friends. Such concerns were unwarranted. After the flooding many people in Brisbane volunteered spontaneously to help strangers to clean up their properties. This suggests to me that the best aspects of the mateship ethic is still alive and well in Brisbane. I can’t be as confident that people would help each other to the same extent in the event of a disaster in Sydney or Melbourne – but I hope I am being too pessimistic.

I rarely write a postscript so soon after writing an article. However, after checking the World Values Survey data on qualities that parents consider important in children I found that the situation has turned around between 2000 and 2006/7 surveys. In the later survey 64% of Australians identified independence as a desirable child quality versus 54% in the US. The percentages identifying determination/perseverence as desirable were 50% among Australians and 40% among Americans. That suggests to me that Australians might now place a higher value on rugged individualism than US citizens.

A comparison of active membership of voluntary organizations in the US and Australia does not suggest that volunteering is more important in one than the other. Americans are about twice as likely as Australians to be active members of a church, but Australians are about twice as likely as Americans to be active members of a sporting organization. (That lines up with the view that sport is the national religion of Australia). Active membership of 'Arts, music and educational' organizations and charitable organizations is much the same in both countries.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Why are people reluctant to volunteer at playgroups in the eastern suburbs of Sydney?

This post - the 300th on this blog - is a guest post by Shona. This is the fourth post in a series on volunteering. Earlier contributions can be found here, here and here. Shona has provided the following additional comments:

My thoughts continue down the path of not why do people volunteer, but rather, why don’t people volunteer.

I loved your reference to Australian mateship ethic, described by Russel Ward, in your comments on my first contribution. Having recently studied arduously for my citizenship test, I too am familiar with the ideas about the harsh environment bringing people together. Perhaps our playgroup is suffering from the opposite of this. We live in the affluent eastern suburbs of Sydney – a beautiful but densely populated area, hardly a harsh environment to live. As you know more about Ward’s work perhaps you could discuss this aspect further. Has the mateship ethic been lost in the large conurbations?

The dynamics of playgroups are unique in many ways so I’m not sure the theories relevant elsewhere apply. People with young children moving into the area look up the local playgroup and head there straight away – even more so than people who have lived here for years before starting families. People moving into the area see it as the best way to make friends and connect.

Playgroups are a unique form of volunteer community groups – any action of one person has an immediate effect, one that can be benefitted from by that person immediately, but also shared by the free riders. Still, this is perhaps more tangible than other volunteering efforts such as environmental or social work, where someone’s actions don’t necessarily result in direct benefits to the individual. That to my mind is altruistic action and I commend it – if only I had more time! That is when the dynamics of volunteering that you write about are more relevant.

I’ve noticed two breeds of volunteers – obviously I am going to place myself in the more favourable of the two groups. One which selflessly carries out work with little fuss, without taking the task or themselves too seriously (I could go on but I won’t). And the other, where they take the role far too seriously and make it almost political or personal. I had a conversation with a friend at playgroup a few years ago. She had been heavily involved in the local surf club and as a result, was put off from volunteering for any other community organization. When I asked her why, she said that it became all too political. (I have some other great examples, but I don’t want to bore you or embarrass anyone concerned). It only takes one bad experience or story of another’s experience to put someone off.

Back to my original point – I still cannot understand why people don’t volunteer, whether this is for the session they attend, in whatever form, or to a more long-term role. I agree, the timescales of a bigger role may put people off. Maybe some people do such a great job, they think it is a hard job or a hard act to follow (I say that in regard to two day leaders that have just finished an eight month stint and not myself!). I’d be interested to discuss any other barriers. One friend also suggested that people won’t commit (even for a month) if they are thinking of moving out of the area. Given this is an expensive area to live, this could be the reasoning for many attendees. However, at least two of our volunteers last year were both here on a temporary basis (not knowing how long for) and both have moved back overseas.

Monday, May 23, 2011

How well can volunteering be explained by a naive economic model?

I should begin by defining what I mean by a naïve economic model. The naïve model I have in mind is a conventional neoclassical model, with a few bells and whistles added. The bells and whistles are necessary because so called ‘rational economic man’ who is the basis of conventional neoclassical economics doesn’t practice altruism. There are probably still some economists who claim that everything everyone does is for a selfish reason, but I am not one of them. While I recognize that a lot of people do a lot of noble things for their own satisfaction, I see no reason to doubt people when they claim to be motivated by altruism.

So, in terms of the naïve model I have in mind, the objective functions that individuals follow in making choices take some account of the well-being of other people (i.e. I am assuming interdependent utilities). That means that individuals might volunteer to do something even if they perceive that this involves some cost to their own well-being. The extent that they do this would depend on the net cost in terms of loss of individual well-being and the extent that their actions affect the collective benefit they seek to obtain by volunteering. The main potential source of net loss of individual well-being would be the value to the individual of opportunities foregone from use of time in volunteering, which would be offset to the extent that the individual obtains satisfaction from volunteering, or from recognition of her efforts. The effect of individual actions on the collective benefit being sought would depend on the size of the group seeking the collective benefit. In a large groups the actions of each individual tend make a small contribution to the objective being sought, so there would be a greater incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others.

The naïve model suggests to me that people would tend to volunteer to a greater extent when they had fewer opportunities for paid employment. It therefore suggests that volunteering would tend to decline if workforce participation increased. It also suggests that volunteering would be a substitute for other forms of charitable giving – people with time on their hands would tend to volunteer their time and people in well-paying jobs that give them little leisure would be more inclined to put their hands in their pockets to make financial donations. It also suggests that people would tend to volunteer to a greater extent in small, well-defined communities (e.g. country towns) where their efforts are more likely to be recognized that in major urban centres where individuals are more likely to get lost in the crowd.

How well does this naïve model explain volunteering in Australia? Not particularly well. The first point I noticed when I looked at the relevant section of the Productivity Commission’s recent report on ‘Contribution of the Not-for-profit sector’, is that there has been a consistent upward trend in rates of volunteering across all age groups over the last decade, although this has been offset to some extent by a decline in the average number of hours volunteered. This has occurred at a time when labour force participation has continued to increase.

As might be expected, ABS data show that volunteering rates are higher among women than among men. The difference is confined mainly to the 35-44 year age group – when most female volunteering could be expected to be associated with school canteens etc. People with young children are the group most likely to volunteer regularly, but they spend fewer hours per week volunteering than do people with older children and older people without children.

Again, as expected, the rate of volunteering is higher outside capital cities than within capital cities. But the difference is not huge. The rate for regular participation in voluntary work was 19% in capital cities and 23% outside capital cities in 2006.

The naïve model would not predict that employed people would be more likely to volunteer than unemployed people. For women, although those in full-time employment had the lowest rates of regular volunteering, those who were employed part-time had higher rates of regular volunteering than those classified as unemployed. For men, rates of volunteering for those in full-time and part-time employment were the same and higher than for those who were unemployed.

The most surprising departure from the naïve model relates to donations of money as a substitute for donation of time. I know such substitution does occur, but it doesn’t show up at an aggregate level in the ABS survey data. Volunteers are much more likely to have donated money or contributed financial assistance to someone outside the family in the last 12 months than non-volunteers.

In order to explain non-volunteering we seem to need a model of behaviour that recognizes that volunteers and non-volunteers have different personal characteristics. It seems that non-volunteers tend to have relatively weak links to the community in general. The evidence suggests that they are much less likely to have attended a community event recently. They are also less likely to agree with the proposition that most people can be trusted.

Other posts on volunteering:
This is the third in a series of post on volunteering. In the first post, Shona discussed her experience in a volunteer role in a community playgroup. In the second post I discussed some research on the determinants of volunteering.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What does research show about determinants of volunteering?

In the preceding post, What determines who volunteers?, Shona discussed her experience in getting parents to volunteer to help in running a play group. In this post I discuss some Australian research which suggests that volunteers fall into several distinct groups.

A paper by Sara Dolnicar and Melanie Randle, ‘What Moves Which Volunteers to Donate Their Time?’ uses data collected from a national survey of volunteer work conducted by the Australian in 2000 to segment the ‘market’ for volunteer work. The authors use motivations as a basis for statistical techniques that enable them to identify distinct subgroups of volunteers.

Six sub-groups were identified as follows:

• Classic volunteers are involved to do something worthwhile, gain personal satisfaction, and help others. They are older, less frequently active in the workforce, and very active in their volunteering efforts.

• Dedicated volunteers contribute the most hours per year to an average of six volunteering organizations.

• Personally involved volunteers appear to participate in volunteering temporarily, as long as (most probably) their child is part of an organization that relies on parental support.

• Volunteers for personal satisfaction and altruists (two sub-groups) are motivated by gaining their own satisfaction and represent the least distinct segments, with altruists doing the most work in the area of befriending and listening to people.

• Niche volunteers are young, new to volunteering, highly educated and state a variety of rather atypical reasons for volunteering, like feeling obliged to volunteer and having slid into volunteering rather passively, gaining work experience or as a result of religious beliefs.

These research findings are interesting but they don’t shed a great deal of light on the issues that Shona raised. The potential volunteers that Shona was most interested in would be in the ‘personally involved’ sub-group. The question is why some people become more involved than others.

Perhaps the people who are most involved are motivated, consciously or unconsciously, by the feelings they get from volunteering. Recent research findings suggest that it feels good to be good (but I am not sure that we needed researchers to tell us that).

It seems to me that human nature has evolved in such a way that people have a natural desire to contribute voluntarily to activities that are best undertaken collectively. If that makes sense then perhaps it would be more productive to try to explain why a substantial proportion of people are reluctant to volunteer. One idea that has crossed my own mind from time to time as a member of voluntary organizations is that I don’t want to be left ‘holding the baby’. (That expression might not be entirely appropriate in a discussion of volunteering in play groups, but for some reason I can’t resist using it.) It may be worth exploring whether people would be less reluctant to take on onerous voluntary roles if they had some assurance that they could readily pass them on to other members after a defined period.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

What determines who volunteers?

This post stems from a discussion I had with Shona a couple of days ago. I had to admit that although I strongly support volunteering I don’t know much about it, or about the characteristics of people who volunteer versus those who free ride on the efforts of others.

Shona agreed to write this guest post about her experience in the hope that it might lead to further discussion of this important issue. Shona writes:

I’ve been involved in a volunteer role at my local playgroup for two and a half years now and over that time I have taken an interest in the types of people that volunteer compared to those that don’t.

The whole point of a community playgroup is that everyone pitches in and helps, thus keeping operating costs to a minimum whilst providing maximum benefit to the kids. There are parents and carers that take on more formal roles, key holders, treasurer, secretary and co-ordinator. But this in theory should simply provide other parents and carers a framework in which to enjoy playgroup. Simple game theory in practice – everyone contributes a small thing for everyone’s greater gain.

Every time someone vacates one of these formal roles, it is my job as co-ordinator, to fill them. I watch people, I see who comes regularly, I look at who pitches in. I also notice those that turn up late, leave early, and make sure they are no-where to be seen when help is required (we’re not talking anything major here, just cutting up fruit for morning tea, putting toys away, etc).

My approach is to narrow down suitable candidates; it is futile asking the group as a whole – no-one ever comes forward, in fact, if we were in a school yard, you would actually see a line of individuals take a huge theatrical step backwards. I approach people individually, quietly, and ask them if they would take on a small role. I think I have about a 30% success rate. The interesting thing is the dynamics of the group that says yes and the dynamics of the group that says no.

The people who I think will say yes can be described as follows. They have a child of an age where they are not clingy or over-dependent on their carer. They attend regularly, either weekly or more than once a week and know many of the other attendees. They have also been attending for more than 6 months and therefore know how the playgroup works. They attend both for their kids benefit, and their own – they have made friends and appreciate the adult interaction. They generally have good communication skills and have contributed more than their share during their visits.

Amazingly, after they say no (on the grounds that they don’t attend regularly), they stop attending as regularly as if to prove they can’t commit to something.

The people who do say yes surprise me every time. They often have two kids, the youngest usually new-born or very young. They are often new members, but do attend regularly, usually more than once a week. They don’t necessarily know how playgroup works but want to learn. I feel guilty accepting their gracious help – but I guess I am one of those people too.

In writing this, I realise it is quite clear cut. Those that have attended for a long period are used to free riding – why contribute? Someone else will step up. Those that are new aren’t aware of the free-riders, they want to contribute and make connections within the community. Finally, I suspect that the longer a person stays in any of the formal roles, the less likely other people are likely to step into those roles. Perhaps we should only have day-leaders (the face of those official roles) on a very short rotation.

My two years are up, it is time to move on, but any tips I can provide my successor (should I be able to find one), would be more than welcome.