Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Free at last...?

Earlier I blogged about the horrendous experience I had with Sprint customer service.

The saga continues. This morning my Treo stopped working. I called customer service. After a long time on the phone with them, they instructed me to go downtown to a service center, which they said could repair it on the spot in a few minutes. I went to the service center. They looked at the phone and said "We can't fix this; you have to get a new phone." I had two options - buy a new phone there in the store and start a new contract, or let them order me a new one but not have to extend my contract. Terrible choice, and I could not decide, so since I was in a hurry, I left to come back to the office.

But at lunch, I had an idea. Why not just use my old Nextel phone for this number? After all, Nextel is now part of Sprint, and I had originally transferred the number from my Nextel phone anyway. The woman on the phone was very nice, but after 15 minutes of telling me what to do, another person picked up the phone, asked for my name, number, etc. again and said "Oh, you know what, you can't transfer from a Sprint phone to a Nextel phone."

"In that case, I will cancel my account, " I replied, and she said that she would happily transfer me to account cancellation.

This afternoon, I had time to call Sprint again. The guy was nice again. He said, "Let me help you with this. How about we give you one of those fancy new Centro phones at half price and agree not to extend your contract."

"Fine," I replied, "that is a fair deal." He told me to wait while he set that up. A few minutes later, he came back on and said,

"Great, I have ordered the phone. Today is Wednesday, so let's see... you should definitely have the new phone in your hands by Monday."

"Monday?" I replied. "But I need a phone now. I thought I was going to be able to go back to that same service center I was at this morning and just pick up the phone there. What am I going to do for a phone? I am going to New York on a business trip Friday and need to have it for that."

"Oh, I am sorry, you can't pick it up at that store; that's not how it works. The only thing I can suggest is to see if a friend will lend you his cell phone or something."

Sprint has been on the ropes lately, and it is not hard to see why.

What does this have to do with philanthropy? Stay tuned....

UPDATE 11/05: They did ship me a new phone. That is the good news. But...they shipped to the wrong address. I called again on Saturday morning. After asking if I would go to that old address for them and try to find the phone, they promised to send a new one and assured me 100% it would arrive Monday morning. No phone today. I spent 1 hour on the phone with them, only to have them tell me that it will be delivered tomorrow. Hopefully.

Maybe it is a blessing to be unwired for a while.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Development and Happiness

Bhutan is one of the most backward places on earth, right? As a recent story in the Atlantic points out, TV and the internet made it there only in 1999.

But in another way, Bhutan is one of the most advanced countries on earth: the Government tries to maximize Gross National Happiness (GNH) rather than income (GDP).

For those of us who have spent our lives in the "development" field, here is a dirty little secret: lots of recent research has shown that higher incomes do not necessarily equal greater happiness.

People with incomes below the subsistence line tend to be unhappy for obvious reasons. Over 800 million people go hungry every day, and few of those people would likely call themselves happy. But billions more live above the subsistence line, and for them the research shows that higher incomes often do not necessarily translate into more happiness.

Consider this graph (click on it for greater detail). It plots GDP per capita (X axis) against happiness (Y axis). The bottom line is this: if you live in a country with a GDP per capita of $10,000 or more, you are happier.

BUT, among countries below and above this line, it makes no difference if you live in a richer or poorer country. People in India tend to be much happier than Costa Ricans, whose income is more than 5x higher. And among countries above this line, the same holds: The Irish are significantly happier on average than the Japanese, whose income is almost twice as high.

Happiness instead seems to depend much more on one's income relative to their neighbors than it does on one's absolute level of income. For example, Richard Layard reports on the following study. Grad students at Harvard School of Public Health were asked:

Which would you prefer:

A. You earn $50k per year and others earn half that.
B. You earn $100k per year and others get more than double that.

The majority preferred A!

I will be pondering this phenomenon in future blog posts, but in the meantime, if this topic interests you, I strongly recommend Daniel Gilbert's Stumbling on Happiness, which just came out in paperback. It sums up much of the recent research, and is very funny to boot.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Lots of Silver Bullets

People sometimes ask me if we need official aid institutions or big foundations if GlobalGiving exists. They say GlobalGiving is much more efficient, open, transparent, and direct, and that it has much better feedback loops. I am flattered by their question. But after nodding smugly to them, I have to be honest. Improving economic, social, and environmental conditions requires a plethora of different organizations mobilizing ideas, energy, and money in many different ways for many different activities.

This morning a reporter called me to ask my opinion on eBay's new Microplace, and how it compares to Kiva. He was breathless about the potential of micro-credit and at the same time was breathlessly hoping to stir up a battle between Microplace and Kiva. At the end, he asked me "Which one would you recommend I personally use?"

"They both have a role," I replied. "They do different things in somewhat different ways. Microplace gives you a financial return, but provides at first glance seems to provide less of a direct connection to the borrower than Kiva. Kiva provides no financial return to the lender but seems to provide a more direct connection to the borrower. Both go through intermediaries to actually lend out your money, but they work with their intermediaries in different ways."

"And what about micro-credit in general?" he said. "Should I only do micro-credit? Is that all it takes to improve lives?"

"Well," I replied, "improving lives requires a wide range of things. In general, good jobs are by far the best way to pull people out of poverty. But getting people into good jobs requires different things in different circumstances. First, basic literacy is a huge factor (especially for women) in being productively employed in the modern economy. So you may want to support education.

"The same with health: it is hard to be productive or hold down a job if you are constantly sick because you drink dirty water or if you suffer from malaria, or if all your assets were wiped out in a flood. If you have a basic education and are healthy, in some cases you can increase your income by taking out small loans and starting your own business.

"In other cases you are better off taking a job with a growing company. And the pace at which companies can grow and offer employment is in part also dependent on a country's trade and other macro policies, along with their roads and other infrastructure.

"So improving lives requires a mosaic of different things that you can help with. Some of those activities, especially basic education and health require donations, since they do not directly produce revenue. Other activities are more appropriately financed by credit or even equity. And other activities require no money but they do require activism to change things such as trade policy in the developed world (which reduces incomes in many poorer countries because it suppresses crop prices.)

"The bad news is that there is no silver bullet -- not philanthropy, not microcredit, not policy reform, or anything else for that matter.

"The good news is that you now have multiple avenues for getting directly involved to a degree that was never before possible. Pick whichever one is most gratifying to you personally and go for it, whether it be GlobalGiving, Kiva, Microplace, or domestic alternatives such as DonorsChoose or Modest Needs."

The paradox is this: to take action, individuals often have to fall in love with a specific organization, initiative, or idea, and become almost fanatic in their support for it - sometimes to the exclusion of other things. But real change happens when a lot of different people fall in love with a lot of different things.

It happens, in other words, when you have well functioning marketplace.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

It's not about the mileage...

"Oh, it's not really about the gas mileage, it's about the power. This thing has 340 horsepower, and will do zero to sixty in under six seconds, and I can still feel good about it." - new owner of a Lexus hybrid.

When we started GlobalGiving a few years back, there was much fanfare about the concept of social return on investment. The idea was that philanthropic donations are analogous to financial investments, except that the return is social in nature (# of children educated, workers trained, etc) rather than financial.

But I soon realized that most people do not use an "investment" mentality to make decisions about their philanthropy. Instead, I found, philanthropy is much more like consumption than like investment. People derive immediate gratification from the act of donating and supporting a group. Often a donation is much more about the donor than the donee.

Katherine Fulton of the Monitor Institute agrees that philanthropy is not like investment. A couple of years ago, she defined philanthropy as "an expression of values" by the donor. I thought this was right on, and I started using her definition instead of my own.

But lately I have started thinking that maybe we are saying the same thing. Consumption often is an expression of values, not simply a calculated act of getting the most for your money.

One of best known examples of this is the popularity of the Toyota Prius. By most analyses, it takes many years of driving to recoup the extra cost of the the hybrid engine, despite the much higher miles per gallon. When you ask people why they buy the car despite the long pay back period, they will often say "Oh, well I bought this thing just to show I care about the environment."

Here is another example. I recently bought a Subaru Outback. It is a very popular car among people who care about the environment, and I have been amazed at the "brand" that this car has built among environmental activists. I like this car for performance reasons (it will go anywhere, winter or summer), and I like being a card-carrying member of the enviro-community. But here is a paradox: My Subaru gets lower gas mileage than many BMWs.

And last weekend while at the Solar Decathlon on the mall in Washington, DC, Mari and I ran into a friend. She told us she was going to install solar panels on her roof. I told her that we had considered that but that the payback period was so long it did not seem feasible. "Oh, I am not doing it for the pay back, I am doing it because I like the idea of solar power."

So consumption is often "an expression of values," too, just like philanthropy.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Uh oh...time to stay home

I am sick and tired of flying. I fly so much - back and forth to the west coast all the time, up and down the east coast occasionally, and then overseas a couple of times a year. I can't stand the airport, the waiting lounges, the crowded planes, the long waits, the jet lag and the arriving in Oakland at midnight and having to drive 45 minutes to get to my hotel in Palo Alto.

It turns out the earth can't stand me flying so much either.

Today, I took an eBay-sponsored carbon footprint test here at the PopTech conference. The average American has a carbon footprint of about 9.5 tons per year, it tells me.

The good news is that I walk to work instead of commuting each day, so I don't burn any fossil fuels on my commute. I feel pretty smug about that. On the other hand, I drive out to West Virginia most weekends to get away from the city. Overall, I feel like an average emitter, and that's what the test tells me.

UNTIL...I take into account my flying. All of my flying adds another 33 tons per year of carbon emissions. This makes my carbon emissions FOUR TIMES the national average.

I had heard that flying was one of the biggest culprits in carbon emissions by individuals, but I had not fully grokked that until I took the test.

Boy, now I really *have* to get serious about flying less.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

How it works

In case you have been wondering:

Monday, October 15, 2007

The DALY show

Did you know?
- Thanks to investments in global health futures, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is likely to overtake Microsoft in earnings next year.

-In a dramatic move, KBR (formerly a subsidiary of Halliburton) is repurposing all dedicated military support operations, betting future earnings on investments in clean water and basic health infrastructure.
If you had been reading the blog over at the Center for Global Development, you would know know these things.

Friday, October 05, 2007

A Pickup Truck Full of Giraffes

Yesterday I went to a CGD seminar by Gregory Clark, author of the new and highly acclaimed A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

Clark presented many provocative slides that upset conventional wisdom about the dynamics of economic growth, social welfare, and happiness. But he spoke so fast that it was often hard to grasp the logic or even the points he was making. And then at the end he summed it all up into one big theory and sat down.

It being a (friendly) academic setting, the panelists immediately went at Clark with an aggressive slate of questions and doubts. I have to admit I was sympathetic with the questioners. His thesis seemed rickety, even though the individual points were very interesting.In the first few rounds, Clark handled the questions well and good naturedly.

And then he did something highly unusual and candid.

He said, "Listen, this book took me twelve years to write, and it was murder. Many times I did not think I would finish it. I had all of these novel facts and insights but could not come up with a way to pull them all together.

"Sometimes I would get two insights connected to each other, but they would be contradicted by a third. And then I would get the first and third insights in harmony, but the second one would not fit. "

And then:

"It was like having a pickup truck full of giraffes and trying to get them all to duck at the same time when you're driving under a bridge."

This image brought a wide smile to my face and was so endearing I will definitely buy his book.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Real Facebook

While pondering the phenomenon, I realize that many younger users have never seen a real facebook. For their edification, here is the back cover of mine from 1978-79.

You had to buy a facebook back then. Mine cost $2.50, which equals about $7.75 in today's dollars.

By contrast, is free (not counting lost productivity at work for users).

My how far we have come (or gone)...