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Andy Warhol, Boredom, And Poverty

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AEI’s Arthur Brooks offers up an interesting take on solutions to poverty. He thinks the key lies in “boring things,” and his inspiration is artist Andy Warhol.

I often ask people in my business — public policy — where they get their inspiration. Liberals often point to John F. Kennedy. Conservatives usually cite Ronald Reagan. Personally, I prefer the artist Andy Warhol, who famously declared, “I like boring things.” He was referring to art, of course. But the sentiment provides solid public policy guidance as well.

Warhol’s work exalted the everyday “boring” items that display the transcendental beauty of life itself. The canonical example is his famous paintings of Campbell Soup cans. Some people sneered, but those willing to look closely could see what he was doing.

Warhol’s critical insight is usually lost on most of the world.

Brooks goes on to explain that our brains are wired to notice the new and novel, not the mundane. A soup can is a soup can is a soup can, unless it’s Warhol’s soup can. But what does any of this have to do with economics and poverty? Arthur Brooks:

The very best example of the Warhol principle in policy is international trade. If it is progress against poverty that we’re pursuing, trade beats the pants off every fancy development program ever devised. The simple mundane beauty of making things and exchanging them freely is the best anti-poverty achievement in history.

For more than two decades, the global poverty rate has been decreasing by roughly 1 percent a year. To put this in perspective, that comes to about 70 million people — equivalent to the whole population of Turkey or Thailand — climbing out of poverty annually. Add it up, and around a billion people have escaped destitution since 1990.

It isn’t fancy programs, large amounts of foreign aid, long thought-out, heavily researched international policies that defeat poverty; it’s basic free market economics. Make it easy for people to create jobs and sell stuff, and poverty decreases.

Trade doesn’t solve every problem, of course. The world needs democracy, security and many other expressions of American values and leadership as well. But in a policy world crowded with outlandish, wasteful boondoggles, free trade is just the kind of beautifully boring Warholian strategy we need. Americans dedicated to helping others ought to support it without compromise or apology.

Read “Andy Warhol as a guide to trade” at AEI.

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Elise Hilton Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.