“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” Shows Us Forgotten India

India, the rising economic superpower still mired in many problems from its past, is home to 1.2 billion of the earth’s human inhabitants and one-third of the world’s impoverished people. Roughly 55 percent of India’s children suffer from malnutrition. In a land where the promise of a brighter economic future beckons, and signs of flashy progress abound, many Indian citizens, both young and old, still struggle to just survive.

Journalist Katherine Boo’s nonfiction National Book Award-winning Behind the Beautiful Forevers takes us inside an Indian no-man’s-land, providing a real-life account of those struggles. Boo, a staff writer for The New Yorker and former reporter for The Washington Post, lived in India for three years to write this book, getting to know the lives and personalities of those who call home a swampy Mumbai slum near the newly renovated international airport and a row of gleaming, glitzy hotels.

The slum’s name is Annawadi, where 3,000 souls cram themselves into 300 makeshift hovels next to a lake of sewage. Many work from before dawn until after dark in dangerous, dirty, temporary jobs. Despite the evidence of the growing economy all around them, permanent work is hard to find for many of the slum-dwellers, thanks in part to India’s notorious caste system and to corruption around every corner.

A smart, driven teenager named Abdul serves as the book’s main character. He works tirelessly sorting garbage to resell to recyclers. It’s filthy, frustrating work, but young Abdul is his family’s primary earner, supporting his mother, father and eight siblings. His work has managed to improve his family’s standard of living relative to those around them in the slum, both a blessing and an ongoing weight on Abdul’s shoulders.

Boo faithfully tells Abdul’s story, as well as his family’s and his neighbors’ stories, making you forget from time to time that she’s not writing fiction. In fact, in the first few paragraphs of the book, an event happens which shapes the narrative in such a way, you’d swear she made it up. (But she didn’t.)

Boo’s a true journalist here, reporting the facts, and not openly inserting her opinions about India’s wide economic disparity, about the excessive wealth which exists right alongside excessive pain and suffering, about the rampant corruption that infects everything. She lets you draw your own conclusions, through the stories of those living in Annwadi. And while there’s definitely heartbreak, it’s not all bad in the slum. There’s hope in Annawadi, and a striving perseverance that can inspire.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2013/11/08/book-biz-louann-lofton-inside-one-indias-slums-theres-hard-work-heartache/)

Books: On Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much

The word “scarcity” in the context of economics typically calls up thoughts about how to most efficiently allocate scarce resources. Whether we’re talking about companies turning limited inputs into profitable ventures or governments choosing where best to spend tax revenue, economics is a social science dedicated to studying scarcity.

Behavioral economics professors Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir explore this theme, but with a twist, in their book, Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. Their focus is on what they call the “scarcity mindset,” and how operating under scarcity changes the way we think, reason, and make decisions.

The authors draw parallels throughout their book between the busy, who lack the resource of time, and the poor, who lack financial resources. In both cases, they argue, scarcity “captures the mind,” and “can help explain many of the behaviors and the consequences of scarcity.”

Think about it this way: you’re busy at work, with back-to-back meetings, several huge projects coming up, and you’re still trying to finish something that should have been completed a week ago. In this state, it’s difficult to think about anything beyond what immediately needs to be done. You may attend one of your children’s piano recitals, for instance, but your thoughts are squarely on the work waiting for you back at the office. You can’t even think ahead to the next project, so by the time you actually start on it, you’re even further behind. You’ve fallen into a scarcity trap.

The authors argue that scarcity creates a “tax” on your mental bandwidth, which can have real implications on your decision-making and impulse control. And, worse, there are actual negative cognitive effects from the scarcity mindset, especially for the poor.

Quoting from the book, “Being poor, for example, reduces a person’s cognitive capacity more than going one full night without sleep. It is not that the poor have less bandwidth as individuals. Rather it is that the experience of poverty reduces anyone’s bandwidth.”

Whether you’re operating in a scarcity mindset caused by a lack of money or a lack of time, one thing is clear: scarcity begets further scarcity. The poor borrow money to tide them over and end up further in debt, and the busy push deadlines and end up further behind.

The authors do offer sensible solutions for this problem, which in one way or another affects us all at some point. But you’ll have to carve time out of your busy schedule to read it and learn more.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/09/19/book-biz-novel-look-effects-scarcity-lives/)

“Americanah’s” Exploration of Race and Immigration Astounds

In a world filled with constant distractions, with beeping and buzzing gadgets begging us for attention at every turn, and webpages upon webpages rife with content and opinions, why would anyone bother to read contemporary fiction? The answer, at least for me, is that well-written fiction can both entertain and educate. It can teach me something about the world around me, about the experiences of others, and most importantly, that despite our differences, we’re actually not all in this alone.

A recent study showed that reading literature (versus popular fiction) can strengthen your ability to empathize with your fellow human beings, and it’s important to realize that “literature” doesn’t just mean something published years and years ago. A book like Americanah, which was published last year and subsequently named to multiple “best of” lists by publications like The New York Times and The Washington Post absolutely qualifies.

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Written by celebrated Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, two young Nigerians struggling to escape their country for the greater opportunities available in America. We learn what it’s like to grow up poor in Nigeria, under military rule, and the various ways people there deal with this tough situation. Some seek solace in a bottle, for instance, while others believe salvation lies with the church (usually led by a preacher who curiously is much wealthier than his parishioners). For the youth, Nigeria’s limited opportunities means many of them have to look elsewhere if they hope to have a career at all.

The book is about so much more than the story of Ifemelu and Obinze, however. It’s also a classic immigrants’ tale, of the difficulty in adapting to life in a new and strange country.

Specifically, too, the book explores the complicated feelings of Africans who choose to come to America, where they must face a complex racial landscape very different than that in their home countries. One of the themes throughout the book is that for many of them, it’s when they reach America that they “feel black” for the first time in their lives, because back home, nearly everyone was. It was a new perspective I appreciated reading about.

The characters of Ifemelu and Obinze are so lifelike and so compelling that I was sad to leave them at the book’s end. I learned so much from them, and I rooted for them. And, as great fiction should do, the book left me feeling both challenged and enlightened. For that, I am grateful.

“Factory Man” Is a Fascinating Look at the Downfall of American Manufacturing

By focusing on one American furniture magnate fighting to save his company, Beth Macy’s recently published Factory Man: How One Furniture Maker Battled Offshoring, Stayed Local – and Helped Save an American Town paints an effective picture of the broader industry, which has, overall, switched to importing furniture instead of making it stateside. She also highlights the difficult, ongoing implications for thousands of displaced workers, putting faces and names to facts and figures.

John D. Bassett III, a fiery, controversial, hard-charging third-generation furniture factory owner in southern Virginia, takes center stage. He’s the great-grandson of the co-founder of Bassett Furniture. The first third of this can’t-put-down book reads like something from Faulkner, as Macy relates Bassett family history back to 1773 in Henry County, Virginia, replete with intrigue, double-crossing, and family squabbles.

John D. Bassett Sr. started Bassett Furniture in 1902 with his brother and brother-in-law. He would go on to help fund lots of other Virginia furniture manufacturers, including Stanley, Hooker, Vaughan, and Vaughan-Bassett.

John D. Bassett III was assumed by most everyone to be the heir-apparent to lead Bassett Furniture, but thanks to a fight with his then-CEO brother-in-law, he was forced out. He left to work for the competing (but still family-connected) Vaughan-Bassett.

His tenure at Vaughan-Bassett would put him face-to-face with a foe even more formidable than his brother-in-law: China. Bassett, with assistance from U.S. anti-dumping trade laws, fought for recourse against what he perceived to be unfair competition. As a result, his factories remain open today, employing workers who make furniture here in the United States. (As does Columbus, Mississippi-based Johnston/Tombigbee Furniture. Its owner, Reau Berry, is quoted several times in the book.)

This is an enormous feat, as this quote from the book shows: “Between 2001 and 2012, 63,300 American factories closed their doors and five million American factory jobs went away. During that same time, China’s manufacturing base ballooned to the tune of 14.1 million new jobs.”

I won’t give all the details away here; this story is well worth reading on your own, and John D. Bassett III’s legendary antics have to be read to be believed.

Macy presents the facts as she finds them, while expressing skepticism over outsourcing’s benefits to society. We often hear about the economic effects (lower costs for consumer goods, for example), but the hard human reality of the situation is more nuanced. She shares the stories of many unemployed factory workers struggling to figure out what’s next. Reading these, it’s impossible not to sympathize with them and not to cheer for John D. Bassett III.

(Originally published here: http://msbusiness.com/blog/2014/09/15/book-biz-compelling-story-american-maverick-fighting-fair/)