Week 5 – Chile.
Living in Santiago brings history to life. Chile is only 25 years removed from the 17-year military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, one of the most controversial, complicated and painful dictatorships of Latin America, and responsible for the deaths of over 2,000 “disappeared,” civilians kidnapped and likely killed by DINA and the military. For a generation impacted by his military rhetoric, nighttime curfew and policies, Pinochet and the remnants of his impact can be felt throughout Chile. To this day, there are mothers, daughters and wives searching for their loved ones in the Atacama Desert, where many innocent communist sympathizers were detained and often murdered. Every Chilean has their respective opinion on the dictatorship (or as some call it, the military takeover). For all I know, walking through Providencia each day, I conceivably pass ex-military members who have taken the lives of other Chileans in their past and still have not been apprehended.
One of the most interesting classes I’m taking here is entitled “The Chilean Economy: History, International Relations, and Development Strategies,” taught by Professor Rolf Lüders. Lüders, a member of the famous Chicago Boys, is written about in many modern history books. Serving as Chile’s Minister of Finance under Pinochet, he helped to overhaul the economy from a socialistic, closed-market model under Allende to the neoliberal, capitalistic, free-trade economy of today.
I’m learning a tremendous amount, and working my butt off in this exciting class. However, while I think Rolf is a great guy and an incredible professor, I somehow found and continue to find myself frustrated after each class. In fact, I’ve never been more aggravated or unsettled in an academic setting. After writing this column, I think I’ve figured out why.
Each class, we analyze multiple models of economic development. We look at the advantages of free trade, of comparative advantage and of capitalism. We think about and try to find the best way to lead a society and to maximize utility. Yet something continually frustrates me. In economics, everything has a trade-off. There is no perfect system, there is no perfect model. In order to provide more social benefits, we often lose the greater benefits of capitalism and growth. Conversely, by creating a purely capitalistic system, we increase poverty and inequality. I currently believe that communism and pure socialism are too difficult and costly to implement. As history has shown time and time again, most people get poorer under this sort of governance, not to mention the lack of freedom and the potential for corruption in a centralized government. At the same time, in accepting capitalism, we take on an idea of capitalist realism, where we justify the idea that poverty must persist in society. In all of our brilliance as a country and as humanity, we have yet to create a U.S. or a world free of poverty, free of homelessness, free of starvation and/or thirst, free of inadequate sanitation and inadequate health. And, ultimately, we rationalize this decision by believing that there isn’t a better system.
Unfortunately though, the system, even if it is the best out of other options, is rigged. The idea that one can make the American Dream a reality or that we live in a complete meritocracy is a sad fallacy. As I see everyday in Santiago and in the U.S., your opportunities and your chances are heavily based on the circumstances in which you’re born, whether that is one’s family, one’s country of birth, one’s race or gender, one’s education and especially one’s socioeconomic status. As shown time and time again, we don’t all start on an equal footing. Looking back, it is easy to connect the dots and applaud ourselves for the things we achieve, whether it’s admission to Stanford or a lucrative job; however, in reality, many of our wage differences have more to do with luck and privilege and less to do with how hard we worked to get to that point. As Stanford students, it’s easier than ever to do this, as upon graduation, we stand on the highest rungs of privilege, arguably without having done the prerequisite work to completely deserve it.
We suffer from a culture of complacency. The idea of letting someone starve on the street or be without housing is crazy, yet we passively accept this reality in our day to day life, because it has been normalized. So, thus, if we know that the system is rigged and leads to the loss of basic rights for many, the question is: What do we do about it?
Here’s an attempt at an answer. In so many ways, we are a byproduct of our society. And, as individuals, we are weak, but as a collective, we are incredibly strong. As a group, society and culture, we have the ability to work together and use our compounding abilities for great good, as well as great evil. Just as we have the ability to create a crystallizing, compounding culture of fear and animosity, we also have the ability to utilize this group dynamic to create a moral culture. And I see the capacity of society to do great good and great evil most clearly in Chile, from the power of fear and miscommunication under 17 years of brutal dictatorship to the power of simple good deeds that I see every day, from a boy giving his seat up on the metro to an old lady, to a young woman giving her sandwich to a homeless man on the street, no questions asked.
And, when we really think about it, changing our society and culture is not as crazy as it sounds. We already do things in our society that would make no sense to past generations, from using inherently worthless paper dollar bills and credit cards to represent great value, to spending hours of our time creating a social media presence online. Society and culture is fluid and our values and morals can change. Thus, while it is difficult to do, changing the culture around these ideas of poverty and inequality may just be the best way to solve the problems of basic human rights. We may not be able to find a better system than capitalism, but we can change the way we interact with our brothers and sisters, and in that way, solve these bigger problems through effective giving. There is nothing holding us back from valuing each other and valuing alleviating poverty and inequality more than the benefit of buying another car or other luxury good. There are already programs in place, such as GiveWell, that focus on how we can engage in the most effective giving.
As Stanford students about to enter into the real world, we need to share in this responsibility in creating a moral society. We can do this by devoting a life to researching how we can best give effectively. We can do this through realizing that much of what we earn will be through our educational and access privilege of even just living in a country with so many rights and privileges. We can do this by refusing to be complacent, by refusing to just settle for the current economic reality that there will always be people lacking basic human rights. And, by doing this, all together, we can turn aside this culture of complacency, and be that first domino that changes the culture around us. Ultimately, just as we have created a society in which smoking a cigarette is taboo, we have the ability to create a society where doing nothing to support the homeless or those without basic human rights is taboo as well. It is all in our control: We have enough food to feed our world, we have enough housing to house all the people in the world, we just have to say that enough is enough and create a culture of research and effort towards selflessness before ourselves.
Contact Kyle D’Souza at kvdsouza ‘at’ stanford.edu