18 September 2005

problems have solutions

the new york times this morning has an interesting article on the geographic persistence of poverty, which raises more questions than it answers. but while i understand that taking a macro perspective is a choice, folks who are reporting on this stuff might do well to check out things like the history of the empowerment group as an antidote to the idea that these problems are somehow totally intractable.

i have been rethinking quite a lot of my comparative-advantage whingeing during the past few days, while re-reading mountains beyond mountains, which book tells the story of paul farmer, an md/phd, a university professor, an infectious diseases specialist, and the founder of partners in health.

the important similarity between peter murray and paul farmer is that they have managed to navigate the comparative advantage trap that is such a comfortable affliction for so many well-off and/or well-educated do-gooders. there's a problem, of course: i'm not sure we're all like peter and paul (what an alarmingly perfect pair of biblical names!). in kidder's book, farmer reports that he sleeps four hours a night. i seem to remember peter writing a thesis in four days, finishing up at swarthmore while running the business in norris square. he went through life in those days with charisma just oozing out of him and bags under his eyes.

it can't last forever that way -- but then, it seems as if it doesn't have to. a frenzied pace can and must give way to something different; in the cases at hand that means acting in a more hands-off way after a certain period. the important thing is not to artificially limit one's hands-on time, the period during which you are going to give your life and your comfort away because it needs to be done and there are no institutions to do it for you.

[so what's my hands-on time gonna be?]