Reflections on ‘Freedom’ in Our Present Time

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of freedom recently. As with so many things, different people seem to use different definitions of freedom and this complicates our collective conversations. I am not going to try to persuade anyone about the right definition of freedom. With that said, I want to highlight a few reflections on freedom that I find helpful in our present time.

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New Website Features (!)

Those of you who have previously visited my blog may notice that there are several new features on this website. These changes are necessary partly because this website began as a travel blog during my senior year in college while I was studying at the University of Ghana. (For those interested, check out some of my reflections from that time.) These changes are also necessary because this website has become a more professional outlet for me and I am preparing to go on the job market.

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Happy New Year!

Happy New Year everyone! This marks the 5th year of this blog. I initially started this blog as a way to stay in touch with friends and family during my semester studying in Ghana and when I was living and working in Kenya. Since then this space has turned into a professional output of mine. It is where I share thoughts and perspectives, of my own and others, about economics research, international development, and public policy discussions.

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Reflections on the Past Week

Like many people, I’ve spent the last week numb – and to be perfectly honest – shocked. I process best by writing and I’ve written a lot over the past week. Most of this writing won’t be shared (not on this blog anyway). I’ve thought a lot about what the role of this blog is in the wake of the 2016 election. The answer, for now, is to keep on writing and sharing thoughts. The tagline of this blog is “International Development, Economics, Policy, and Theology”. In many ways, each of these topics are impacted by last week’s election results. At the moment there is so much uncertainty about international development (what will happen to USAID?), economics (will we change the way we talk about and teach international trade?), and policy (what will the role of rigorous evaluation of policies be in the new administration?) that I, myself, am having trouble gathering my thoughts. Theologically, however, no verse of the Bible sums up my thoughts better than Romans 12.

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.

Over the past 18 months (or so) perhaps the most meaningful patterns in this world have been our political ideologies. Paul calls us to “… not conform to these patterns, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” Notice Paul mentions the human mind. He could have said heart or soul, but he said mind. To me, renewing of the mind sounds a lot like learning. Never stop learning, never stop questioning your own perspectives of how the world works – or ought to work. Be your own toughest critic. This is so that, as Paul writes, “… you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…” This sounds like the age-old process of trial and error, which requires humility so that we can see the errors in our thoughts, words, actions, and judgements.

For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is prophesying, then prophesy in accordance with your faith; if it is serving, then serve; if it is teaching, then teach; if it is to encourage, then give encouragement; if it is giving, then give generously; if it is to lead, do it diligently; if it is to show mercy, do it cheerfully.

This is Paul’s call to love and cherish diversity. Another defining factor of this election season, and particularly the campaign of the President-Elect was rhetoric that sounded quite contradictory to the sentiment Paul is writing about here. The demographics of the United States have dramatically shifted. Whether or not this is seen as a good thing depends a lot on one’s exposure to people who are “different” from them. I’ve been fortunate to spend quite some time in places where I was the obviously “different” one, so my response to the demographic change is influenced by these experiences. Regardless of our experiences, however, Paul calls us to consider the gifts that a diverse body can provide.

Love must be sincere. Hate what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer. Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality.

Read that verse again. Keep track to the numerous commands Paul lists.

“Be sincere” “Hate evil” “Cling to good” “Devote yourself to others” “Honor others over yourself” “Never lack zeal” “Keep spiritual fervor” “Serve the Lord” “Be joyful in hope” “Patient in affliction” “Faithful in prayer” “Share with those in need” “Practice hospitality”

So much of the campaign of the President-Elect failed to follow these commands. So much of what has happened since the election has failed to follow these commands. Lord have mercy.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited.

Last Wednesday – the day after the election – a friend suggested that we fast for the day. The next day, another friend reflected on the experience, “Fasting provided a constant reminder throughout the day. I am thankful for this, especially as a white male. Every time my stomach grumbled (often) I was able to think about everyone who is hurting, all the different groups of people. I would think of myself, the pain that I am experiencing is nothing in comparison to the pain and hurt and fear of others. And I even knew mine would only be the duration of a day, not years. I hope that I was hurting, lamenting, groaning WITH them.”

Never before have we had a President-Elect that has actually said so many hurtful and divisive things about members of our country. Paul calls us to “rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn”. If you are an avid reader of Paul’s letters you’ll notice a parallel to 1 Corinthians 12:26 “If one part [of the body] suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part is honored with it.” Throughout his writing, Paul is pretty clear about how Christians should react when others are hurting.

Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:

“If your enemy is hungry, feed him;
if he is thirsty, give him something to drink.
In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Remember this, today and forever. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

Summer Update

Blog posts have been fairly sparse lately. A couple major life events have taken place that (to say the least) are way more important than blogging.

First, I got married to the love of my life two weekends ago. It was a wonderful weekend filled with friends and family.

Second, I defended my MS Thesis and completed the requirements for my MS degree from the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University last week (presentation slides here). More posts on my thesis research will (undoubtably) be posted later.

So what is next?

For the next three(ish) months my wife and I will be living in Washington DC. I’ll be spending my time over at USAID in the U.S. Global Development Lab. Officially I’m a HESN Intern in partnership with the Global Center for Food Systems Innovation at Michigan State University. Specifically, I’m a Research Associate with the MERLIN Program (Monitoring, Evaluation, Research and Learning Innovations) housed in the Office of Evaluation and Impact Assessment at USAID.

The MERLIN Program is a fairly new initiative within USAID. It’s task is to improve upon traditional approaches to monitoring and evaluation of development projects – specifically when outputs and outcomes of development projects are not easily identifiable prior to the start of the project. The particular focus of the MERLIN Program is on projects operating in highly complex environments, where the best approach to the development problem is not well recognized, and project managers must adapt the project design over the course of the project.

Many of you who know me will understand why I’m so excited for this opportunity over the next few months. My first “job” out of college was to implement an impact evaluation on a business training program in Western Kenya. The evaluation I helped design and run was adequate but clunky and time consuming. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about data collection, survey design methods, and econometrics. The world is complex and one of the most complex and puzzling problems of our time is poverty and underdevelopment amidst unbelievable technological innovation and economic growth. I think it is through efforts like the MERLIN Program – through adaptation in design and humility about what is known – that complex problems are ultimately solved.

Finally, after the summer months, my wife and I will move to the Twin Cities in Minnesota where I will begin a PhD in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota. To fund this educational endeavor, I will work at the Minnesota Population Center (MPC) as a graduate research assistant. The MPC manages, disseminates, and harmonizes administrative and demographic data from both the United States and all over the world. For the nerdy data-savvy readers they are the home of the IPUMS, IDHS, NHGIS, and IHIS datasets.

Many exciting changes, hope to get back to blogging regularly soon!

Myanmar Days

Friends and family will be happy to know I am safely in Mawlamyine, where I will be living and working for the next three(ish) weeks. I have yet to really get in the trenches with work so for now I’ll share some pictures of Mawlamyine.

Mawlamyine is the capital of Mon State (the region MDRI, IFPRI, and MSU are administering a survey representative of the entire region) and the former capital of Burma when the British ran everything. In that time, Mawlamyine was called “Little England” because of all the British who lived here. The city’s claim to fame in popular culture is being referenced to by two famous authors. Rudyard Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” opens with the stanza:

By the old Moulmein pagoda
Lookin’ lazy at the sea
There’s a Burma girl a-settin
‘and I know she thinks o’ me.

George Orwell, Author of “Burmese Days” began his famous essay “Shooting an Elephant” with the striking passage:

In Moulmein, in Lower Burma, I was hated by large numbers of people—the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me

I was able to go for a run through town this evening and took some pictures. This is the third country (not counting the United States) where I’ve lived/worked that was colonized by the British. Notice how European it looks in places yet remains distinctly Southeast Asian:

Bardge coming into port
Barge coming into port
The boardwalk
The boardwalk
View from my room
View from my room
Fishing boat at sunset
Fishing boat at sunset
One of the Mawlamyine pagodas
One of the Mawlamyine pagodas

Escaping Death [in the Tropics]

It started after one of those nice conversations you have with someone you’ll (probably) never see again. We both exchanged pleasantries sharing about our personal histories and goals for the future. After a brief discussion about malaria and the risk (or lack there of) of contracting malaria in Kitale, it happened.

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In just over a month I will embark on a life changing experience. Ok, I must pause for just a moment, I don’t like framing the next year in my life in this sort of fantastic way. As if every moment of every day, even the most monotonous, are not life changing. To call the next year of my life explicitly life changing, is not fair to all the other seemingly unnoticed life changing moments and experiences in every day life. (This, I think, is one of the points that David Foster Wallace was getting at in the video in my last blog post.) It seems however, to be a better option than beginning, “In less than a month I will begin a perfectly normal, average year of of my life”.

The facts remain. I am going to be spending the next year of my life, living and working in Kenya. It will be the first year since the 1993 fiscal year that I will not be an enrolled student. For the first time in my life I will be geographically distant from all of my friends and family. (To date, I only know two people who I will be working with in Kenya.) I will be applying the education I’ve already had and continually adding on to it. And this next year will indeed be life changing, just like every year up to this year has been life changing.

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