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A recent LSE report holds up literature as an untapped form of sociological or “development knowledge,” one that can succeed at assessing and capturing development issues “better” than policy research. The title makes a claim for the utility of literature in ameliorating the “crisis of representation in development research”: “The Fiction of Development: Literary Representation as a Source of Authoritative Knowledge.” And the authors argue that NGO or World Bank reports on, say, African leadership or development in Egypt, fall short by failing to account for complexities like the legacy of colonialism or cultural conflicts captured with nuance in postcolonial novels by writers like Chinua Achebe or Ahdaf Soueif (whose name is unfortunately spelled incorrectly as “Ahdad” in the report—a telling moment that perhaps signals the limits to the sociological/utilitarian approach to literature, however well-intentioned?).

What’s the significance of one small typo compared with the larger intervention and call for more dialogue between the humanities and social sciences, and for the acknowledgement of different forms of knowledge, voices, and narratives? Curiously, there is virtually no mention of the field of literary studies in all the praise of novels: it is a missing form of expertise in the scenario of an unmediated social scientific ‘discovery’ of literature. And, predictably, the caveat “nor is it that we think novelists should be put in charge of development ministries” reduces the consideration of a diversity of expertise once again to banishing fiction—its writers and scholars—to irrational, second-class intellectual citizens.

In the news coverage of this policy report by The Telegraph on Nov. 6, 2008, we read that policy makers need to emphasize the hard line between emotion and rationality, fiction and fact. Quoting Tom Clougherty, policy director of the Adam Smith Institute:

‘There’s a problem. Fiction works by appealing to people’s emotions, not their intellect or rationality.’

He said issues like poverty and international development were ’emotionally charged’ and consequently solutions often failed to take into account hard, unpalatable facts.

‘Years of aid won’t sort out fundamental problems,’ he said, concluding: ‘Fiction absolutely can’t replace factual, evidence-based analysis.’

Positing such a crisis scenario—‘what if artists were to run the world!’—as a threat to the rationality of hard social science is unnecessary, even gratuitous: and only makes the call for taking literature and interdisciplinarity seriously seem disingenuous.

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The term ‘unbanked’ sounds distinctly zombie-like.  But it refers to the evidently 28 million Americans, heavily Latinos and African Americans, who don’t have bank accounts.  Two very different articles that appeared in the New York Times Magazine of Nov. 9, 2008 tackled the question of ‘how do we find ourselves in this financial crisis’ by considering people who fall outside the banking and credit system altogether.  Rob Walker’s short piece, “Social Currency,” covers the phenomenon of pre-paid credit cards such as the Visa Rush Card, which offer the convenience, and more distinctly, the status, of plastic.  With sexy endorsements by the likes of Russell Simmons, these cards are meant to make one look affluent and also offer an alternative to the high fees involved with check-cashing.  What’s striking about this piece and the more extensive one on check-cashing businesses by Douglas McGray is the tendency to glamorize as “financial subculture” the anti-establishment, profit-hungry establishments catering to low-income neighborhoods that can’t afford the rigid standards and hidden or punitive fees of traditional banks and credit cards.

Here is McGray on the rise to success of Tom Nix, a southern Californian entrepreneur and co-founder of a hugely profitable chain of check cashers and payday lenders:

“They built a whole new financial subculture, which now includes regional giants like Nix, national brands like Ace Cash Express, Advance America and Check ’n Go and thousands of local chains and anonymous corner stores — more outlets, in total, than all the McDonald’s restaurants in the United States plus all the Starbucks coffee shops. Inside, it’s like banking turned upside down. Poor customers are commodities, deposits are irrelevant, bad credit makes for a good loan candidate and recessions can be boom times. Add up all those small transactions and throw in businesses like pawnshops and auto-title lenders, and you’ve got a big industry — $100 billion annually and growing. Nix alone pulled in $28 million in fees last year.”

Of course, he includes a critique of the exorbitant fees charged (30 times the annual interest rate of a normal credit card for “payday loans” that offer 2-4 week cash advances.)  But the title of the article is telling: “Check-Cashers, Redeemed.”  And, of course, it is moving to read about the ground-up initiatives of hiring locally within the neighborhood and operating with absolute transparency–no hidden fees–and certainly this question of low-income, pseudo-banking iniatives is worth exploring.  But given that the poor pay the penalty for poverty in all aspects of life, from groceries to banking,  wouldn’t it be novel to consider instead venues for encouraging and enabling saving?  The innovative post-office savings systems of the U.K. and India, for example, make use of neighborhood outreach; somehow it’s hard to imagine the U.S. postal service selling more than Elvis stamps.