As U.S. universities embrace the New Gilded Age, what institutions will help us to grow a better society?

Suffice it to say that American higher education, as a general proposition, is embracing the values of the New Gilded Age. A growing number of American colleges and universities are degenerating into career training centers, touting unpaid internships while charging sky-high tuition, neglecting the liberal arts, and loading up on well-paid administrators and exploited adjunct faculty while shedding full-time professors.

These trends are disturbing in and of themselves. Moreover, they raise a challenging question: If universities are heading in this direction, what institutions, structures, and networks will help us to blend research, theory, and service toward creating a better society? And how do we create decent, paying, sustainable jobs to support this work?

Of course, the fate of the public intellectual in higher education has been a subject of debate for some time now, especially since the 1987 appearance of Russell Jacoby’s important book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Among other things, Jacoby posited that sharp trends toward narrow specialization in academic scholarship were creating a professoriate that is less relevant to the major public issues of the day.

Yup, one could argue that part-time college teaching jobs, unpaid internships, “non-stipendiary” fellowships, and assorted volunteer gigs offer outlets for expression and creativity. And between individual blogs, sites like The Huffington Post, and free websites, there’s no shortage of online venues for publishing or sharing one’s work.

The problem is that most people have this weird need for food, shelter, and clothing. “Exposure” and “contacts” don’t pay for those basic necessities. A little bit of job security wouldn’t hurt either.

During the coming months, I will devote some space to exploring this and related questions, incorporating a variety of new and emerging voices on public intellectual life in this plutocratic, New Gilded Age. In doing so, I’ll be talking about educators, researchers, activists, practitioners, writers, artists, and others who share a common, understandable concern that our society has no place for them.

As a central part of this inquiry, we need to consider strategies for change. Is it possible to reverse the bad course taken by so many standard-brand universities? Or do we have to think about creating new, sustainable entities that embrace a different, better set of values? If so, how do we go about this?

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To the many readers who follow this blog because of its focus on issues such as workplace bullying, employee well-being, workers’ rights, and the like, stick with me on this one. Research and ideas matter, including within the realm of dignity at work. However, mainstream academe has not been a major driving force in calling for a more humane workplace, which means that we have to identify, support, build, and create the institutions that are eager to do so.

Worth watching: Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All”

How much inequality can we tolerate and still have an economy that’s working for everyone and still have a democracy that’s functioning? Of all developed nations today, the United States has the most unequal distribution of income and wealth by far, and we’re surging toward even greater inequality.

-Robert Reich, from “Inequality for All”

If you’re looking for an informative, insightful, and lively take on the challenging question of how the American economy threw the middle class under the bus, Robert Reich’s 90-minute documentary, “Inequality for All,” fits the bill.

Reich is now at UC-Berkeley, teaching courses in economics and public affairs, after many years at Harvard’s Kennedy School and a term as Secretary of Labor under Bill Clinton. A prodigious author, he turns to the documentary form to deftly blend economic data, income trends, political changes, tax policy, and personal stories & interviews. It’s not pure wonkishness; the film also tells us something of Reich’s interesting life story, too, and several segments exhibit his sharp wit and self-deprecating sense of humor.

As is the skill of a gifted lecturer, Reich packs a lot into the documentary in a way that doesn’t overwhelm. You’ll learn about the impact of globalization and technology on American jobs, how lower tax rates on the wealthy have had a negative correlation with overall economic health, and how the U.S. economy in 1928 (the year before the stock market crash that led to the Great Depression) looked eerily similar to that in 2007 (the year before the Great Recession). You’ll also hear a wealthy CEO talk about the destructive aspects of extreme wealth concentration, and you’ll listen to stories of people trying desperately to stay in the nation’s middle class.

I have a few quarrels with the film. For example, I think Reich was a little soft on the reasons behind the virulent anti-union tactics of some American companies during the past few decades. I also believe that he needed to spell out the fuller implications of globalization for workers everywhere.  But I recognize that choices must be made to keep a documentary within a watchable length, and overall it makes very good use of our time.

“Inequality for All” opened in theaters last year, and it is now widely available in various DVD, on demand, and streaming formats. I just watched it this week, and I am happy to recommend it.

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One of the extras in the DVD is deleted footage about Reich’s 2002 campaign for Governor of Massachusetts, in which he made it onto the Democratic primary ballot but did not win the nomination. Reich uses a chunk of the segment to explain how personally difficult it was for him to spend so much of his time chasing down people for campaign contributions.

I volunteered for Reich’s campaign the day I read an announcement of his candidacy, and I served as a Reich delegate at the Democratic state nominating convention. The deleted documentary segment doesn’t fully convey the way in which he attracted a lot of supporters who had felt alienated from party politics in Massachusetts, not to mention the fact that he ran a very respectable campaign despite getting in the race late and operating with a shoestring budget.

Life in an unequal, plutocratic society

We are living in an unequal, plutocratic society, and it is feeding an emotional dimension characterized by a dismissive lack of caring by many of the super rich and an angry, dog-eat-dog worldview for everyone else. So many of the employment policy issues I write about on this blog must be viewed against this broader, ugly canvass.

First, let’s establish the factual baseline: America’s wealth gap has reached extreme proportions. As Connie Stewart reports for the Los Angeles Times:

If you feel you’re falling behind in the income race, it’s not just your imagination. The wealth gap between the top 1% and the bottom 99% in the U.S. is as wide as it’s been in nearly 100 years, a new study finds.

For starters, between 1993 and 2012, the real incomes of the 1% grew 86.1%, while those of the 99% grew 6.6%, according to the study, based on Internal Revenue Service statistics examined by economists at UC Berkeley, the Paris School of Economics and Oxford University.

You can download the full study, led by Emmanuel Saez (UC-Berkeley), here.

Second, let’s define terms. Plutocracy, after all, is not a word used in ordinary conversation. Dictionary.com defines plutocracy in three ways:

  • “the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy”
  • “a government or state in which the wealthy class rules”
  • “a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth”

Sound familiar?

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics”

Bill Moyers has become one of the most articulate and insightful commentators on the American plutocracy. Earlier this year, he did an excellent video essay on our out-of-control wealth inequality. Go here for a preview:

The unprecedented level of economic inequality in America is undeniable. In an extended essay, Bill shares examples of the striking extremes of wealth and poverty across the country, including a video report on California’s Silicon Valley. There, Facebook, Google, and Apple are minting millionaires, while the area’s homeless — who’ve grown 20 percent in the last two years — are living in tent cities at their virtual doorsteps.

“A petty, narcissistic, pridefully ignorant politics has come to dominate and paralyze our government,” says Bill, “while millions of people keep falling through the gaping hole that has turned us into the United States of Inequality.”

The worldviews of the ultra-wealthy

One of Moyers’s associates, Joshua Holland, reports on recent studies that confirm the attitudes and status of many of the ultra-wealthy. For example:

Two studies released last week confirmed what most of us already knew: the ultra-wealthy tend to be narcissistic and have a greater sense of entitlement than the rest of us, and Congress only pays attention to their interests. Both studies are consistent with earlier research.

We’re seeing the figurative creation of gated communities everywhere in our society. Even if the physical gates are not before us, excessive disparities in wealth and power are constructing barriers that isolate the most fortunate from everyone else, psychologically, politically, and financially.

The “cult of the selfish”

How does an unequal, plutocratic society experience everyday life and community (or lack thereof)? Leo Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers International Union, writes in a piece for In These Times that America is being overcome by “the cult of the selfish”:

A cult of the selfish relentlessly assails the value of American community. And now, the cult’s cruel campaign of civic meanness is achieving tragic victories. Just last week, for example, it succeeded in getting a bill passed in the U.S. House of Representatives that would slash funding for food stamps by $40 billion . . . . Also, it secured passage of a bill in the House that would de-fund the Affordable Care Act, thus denying health care—and in some cases life itself—to millions of uninsured Americans.

Denying food to the hungry, chemo to the cancer-stricken? That is not American. . . .

It is, however, exactly what the cult of the selfish is seeking. It wants an America without community, where everyone is out for himself. Alone. Self-seeking. Self-dealing.

“American Bile”

Public policy professor and former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, who has just released a new documentary titled “Inequality For All” (trailer here) observes that he’s never seen the kind of civic hostility that we’re witnessing in this country today:

I’m 67 and have lived through some angry times: Joseph R. McCarthy’s witch hunts of the 1950s, the struggle for civil rights and the Vietnam protests in the 1960s, Watergate and its aftermath in the 1970s. But I don’t recall the degree of generalized bile that seems to have gripped the nation in recent years.

After considering all contributing factors to high anger quotient in today’s America, he concludes that ultimately “we need to look at the economy.”

Put simply, most people are on a downward escalator. Although jobs are slowly returning, pay is not. Most jobs created since the start of the recovery, in 2009, pay less than the jobs that were lost during the Great Recession. This means many people are working harder than ever, but still getting nowhere. They’re increasingly pessimistic about their chances of ever doing better.

As their wages and benefits shrink, though, they see corporate executives and Wall Street bankers doing far better than ever before. And they are keenly aware of bailouts and special subsidies for agribusinesses, pharma, oil and gas, military contractors, finance and every other well-connected industry.

The shutdown: “Workplace Bullying Gone Wild”

Cindy Waitt, director of the Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention and an important supporter of the Workplace Bullying Institute, writes for the Huffington Post that the current government shutdown is the result of classic workplace bullying tactics:

. . . Some of the members of  the 113th Congress are acting probably more irrationally than any we’ve seen in decades. But, from what I see and what I’ve learned over the years, I’d say they aren’t acting just like “nutcases,” they’re acting like what they are…workplace bullies.

. . . We currently face a government shutdown and the tactics being used by the “shutdown” gang are textbook bully tactics.

Community vs. confrontation

It adds up to an ugly, angry, confrontational culture, with the have-nots and the have-less being turned against each other. We can understand these dynamics, take on these huge disparities, and create a kinder, more just world, or we can increasingly be at each other’s throats. We have choices.

The three-pronged political attack on the very notion of retirement (except for a few)

In America, the very notion of a relatively safe and secure retirement is under relentless attack, and much of this broadside is coming from well-monied corporate interests, aided by supportive far-right politicians.

This is not by accident. Only when you connect the dots do you see a unifying force, and it’s very, very political. We haven’t been comprehending how the pieces come together because, frankly, concerns about America’s retirement funding crisis tend to be examined in silos, such as (1) Social Security; (2) public employee pension funds; and (3) 401(k) balances.

I’ve written a lot about the retirement funding crisis on this blog, but I’ve never pulled together some of the interrelated political threads. Here’s a start:

1. Attack on Social Security

Let’s open with the attack on Social Security. In reality, Social Security is among our most stable benefit programs. Although some of the concerns about the future stability of Social Security are legitimate, a relatively easy fix — raising the cap on payroll taxes that fund the program — would go a long way toward ensuring its long-term viability for generations to come.

Dave Johnson, in a piece for the Campaign for America’s Future, traces the ideological roots of the fanatical attack on Social Security:

In 1983 a couple of conservative “think tanks” developed a step-by-step plan to privatize Social Security, for the benefit of “the banking industry and other business groups.” The plan describes a strategy to convince people that Social Security is going broke and that it is a “Ponzi scheme,” to undermine confidence in the program and lead people to accept that it needs “reform.” The plan outlines methods to “neutralize” opposition. The plan involves a smokescreen strategy of saying things to distract people from seeing what they are doing.

This strategy for attacking Social Security was spelled out in a 1983 document from the Cato Institute (previously named the Koch Foundation), with Heritage Foundation input. You can read the original document for yourself, it is titled Achieving A Leninist Strategy. Please, if you have time, read the entire document (in particular the section “Weakening the Opposition”) to understand the strategy that has been unfolding in the years since . . . .

To far-right zealots, there is nothing more objectionable than a government-sponsored program that is working. Such is the case with Social Security, and hence the virulent efforts to destroy it and the support it provides to millions of retirees.

2. Corporate role in sabotaging public sector pensions

Stories about severe underfunding of America’s public employee pension plans are now becoming a daily occurrence in the media. As Matt Taibbi writes in a major piece for Rolling Stone magazine, this is pitting “private-sector workers who’ve mostly lost their benefits already against public-sector workers who are merely about to lose them.” A more insightful inside story, Taibbi suggests, is how Wall Street has looted public pension funds:

One of the primary reasons why public sector pension programs are so underfunded is that they fell prey to those who invested pension monies into the Wall Street casino, and they accordingly lost billions when it fell to pieces five years ago . . . .

It turns out, according to Taibbi, that the massive underfunding of public pension systems has been “caused almost entirely by the greed and wide-scale fraud of the financial-services industry – particularly with regard to state pension funds.” He continues:

. . . In February 2011, [economist Dean] Baker reported that, had public pension funds not been invested in the stock market and exposed to mortgage-backed securities, there would be no shortfall at all. He said state pension managers were of course somewhat to blame, but only “insofar as they exercised poor judgment in buying the [finance] industry’s services.”

In fact, Baker said, had public funds during the crash years simply earned modest returns equal to 30-year Treasury bonds, then public-pension assets would be $850 billion richer than they were two years after the crash. Baker reported that states were short an additional $80 billion over the same period thanks to the fact that post-crash, cash-strapped states had been paying out that much less of their mandatory ARC payments.

3. The 401(k) retirement “system”

Lynn Stuart Parramore, in a piece for Alternet, writes about who wins and loses when 401(k) accounts supplant pensions as a primary source of retirement funding:

Thirty years ago, as laissez-faire fanaticism took hold of America, misguided policy-makers decided that do-it-yourself retirement plans, otherwise known as 401(k)s, would magically secure our financial future in the face of gyrating markets, economic crises, unpredictable life events, stagnant wages and rampant job insecurity.

. . . There were red flags along the way. 401(k)s were originally supposed to supplement pensions, but clever corporate cost-cutters decided that voluntary individual accounts would replace them.

. . . Reality check: . . . . (T)he financial crisis destroyed America’s retirement fantasy. . . . Today, the balance in our retirement accounts falls wildly short of what we need to keep us from destitution in old age, much less to secure a comfortable existence.

To fill in the details, Parramore summons data from a new Economic Policy Institute Retirement Inequality Chartbook that provides “dozens of charts that examine retirement preparedness and outcomes by income, race and ethnicity, education, gender and marital status.”

Earlier this year, the National Institute on Retirement Security, a non-profit, non-partisan research and education center, released a 28-page study, The Retirement Savings Crisis: Is It Worse Than We Think?, by labor economist Nari Rhee, which lays out the alarming data. Here are the major findings:

New NIRS research finds retirement savings are dangerously low, and the U.S. retirement savings deficit is between $6.8 and $14.0 trillion.

…The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $3,000 for all working-age households and $12,000 for near-retirement households.  

The findings confirm that the American Dream of retiring comfortably after a lifetime of work will be impossible for many. Based on 401(k)–type account and IRA balances alone, some 92 percent of working households do not meet conservative retirement savings targets for their age and income. Even when counting their entire net worth, 65 percent still fall short.

The role of individual thrift

All too often, the retirement savings crisis is described as the cumulative result of individual failures to save money. To be sure, many people in a position to save could have done, and could be doing, better in terms of personal savings levels. Too much of America’s “prosperity” has been built on buying stuff we don’t need, financed by easy credit.

But the easy credit has been extended, like cheap crack cocaine, by those who want to get us hooked early and deeply. Furthermore, the disappearance of pension plans, the flattening of personal income, high unemployment, and growing inequality of wealth in society are significant, contributing factors toward this individual “failure” to save for retirement.

Potential solutions

Increasing, not decreasing, Social Security payments and the creation of public pension systems for all are among the fixes that have been floated by policy experts in retirement funding.

But before we can get to these policy solutions, we must educate ourselves as to what and how this happened. We need to understand how we got to such a precarious, frightening place where Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the leading authorities on this subject, believes that “most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees.”

 

Witnessing the “split-screen American nightmare”

In a New York Times online op-ed essay, “Crumbling American Dreams,” political scientist Robert Putnam (Harvard) returns to his hometown to assess the current state of America:

My hometown — Port Clinton, Ohio, population 6,050 — was in the 1950s a passable embodiment of the American dream, a place that offered decent opportunity for the children of bankers and factory workers alike.

But a half-century later, wealthy kids park BMW convertibles in the Port Clinton High School lot next to decrepit “junkers” in which homeless classmates live. The American dream has morphed into a split-screen American nightmare. And the story of this small town, and the divergent destinies of its children, turns out to be sadly representative of America.

The rest of his essay describes a familiar set piece for middle America, featuring the disintegration of manufacturing industries around his hometown that once provided sources of steady, decent-paying jobs for high school graduates. The disappearing industrial base has translated into human want and suffering on a significant scale.

My hometown, too

I’ve seen a Port Clinton-type scenario before.

My boyhood hometown of Hammond, Indiana was a busy working class and middle class city during the 1950s and 1960s. During the heart of those years, the area’s steel mills served as a reliable source of steady jobs for (mostly male) high school graduates. And thanks to high demand for steel and to collective bargaining, it was possible to raise a family on a mill worker’s wages.

But all that started to change in the mid-to-late 70s, when the number of shifts declined and layoffs increased. By the time I left Indiana for the East Coast in the early 80s, the steel industry was gasping for its life. As we fast forward to today, Hammond and many surrounding towns and cities continue to struggle with the death throes of the region’s industrial economic base.

Purple problem?

Putnam first came to public attention with the publication of Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000), in which he chronicled the decline of the country’s civic, religious, and political organizations and urged the renewal of these community bonds. This has become a defining theme of his work since then.

True to his other writings, in his Times piece Putnam is hesitant to assign primary blame for the economic gulf in our communities on the basis of politics, instead suggesting that more systemic, bipartisan forces have been at play:

The crumbling of the American dream is a purple problem, obscured by solely red or solely blue lenses. Its economic and cultural roots are entangled, a mixture of government, private sector, community and personal failings. But the deepest root is our radically shriveled sense of “we.”

Behind the “split-screen American nightmare”

While I agree that responsibility for our current condition must be shared among many stakeholders, I wish that Putnam would acknowledge that powerful political and economic forces have widened the gulf between haves and have-nots, cut away the middle class, and — to use Putnam’s words — hastened the “radically shriveled sense of ‘we’.”

As I’ve written before, evidence of societal inequality keeps piling up, and the economic “recovery” has largely benefited the most fortunate. Many thoughtful commentators have argued that the U.S. has become a plutocracy, a society in which the game is rigged for, and controlled by, the wealthy and powerful — at the expense of democracy, genuine opportunity, and a compassionate safety net.

Some might suggest that “plutocracy” is over the top. After all, even the poorest Americans live under conditions that millions of people in other parts of the world would gladly accept. Furthermore, upward mobility remains within the grasp of some, despite growing obstacles.

But the gaping wealth gaps cannot be ignored. Until we aggressively address the political, economic, and social dynamics creating these societal headwinds, we’ll be seeing many more modern-day versions of Port Clinton, Ohio, and Hammond, Indiana, during the years to come.

Suicide and the Great Recession: Will we heed the tragic warnings?

In this era of the Great Recession, suicide has become a leading cause of death in America, especially among the middle-aged, and it is to our shame as a society that this reality is not an ongoing, dominant focus of our attention.

Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report documenting the alarming crisis:

From 1999 to 2010, the age-adjusted suicide rate for adults aged 35–64 years in the United States increased significantly by 28.4%, from 13.7 per 100,000 population to 17.6 . . . . The suicide rate for men aged 35–64 years increased 27.3%, from 21.5 to 27.3, and the rate for women increased 31.5%, from 6.2 to 8.1 . . . . Among men, the greatest increases were among those aged 50–54 years and 55–59 years, (49.4%, from 20.6 to 30.7, and 47.8%, from 20.3 to 30.0, respectively). Among women, suicide rates increased with age, and the largest percentage increase in suicide rate was observed among women aged 60–64 years (59.7%, from 4.4 to 7.0).

The report prompted a lot of media coverage upon its release, but now it has faded into the shadows of the news cycle.

Boomer suicides and the economy

Suzanne Gerber, blogging for Next Avenue, associated the dire economic situation and related pressures with rising suicides rates among Boomers:

Noting that suicide rates tend to rise during times of financial stress — and 2008 might go down in the history books as one of the worst years in modern American history — Dr. Ileana Arias, CDC deputy director, acknowledged, “The increase does coincide with a decrease in financial standing for a lot of families over the same time period.”

Arias further observed that the spike in suicide rates could be a reflection of a combination of stressors specific to baby boomers. As the sandwich generation, many of us, while fighting our own financial battles, are also taking caring of aging parents, many with dementia, and providing economic and emotional support to our adult children, who are having difficulties launching their own independent lives.

Thomas H. Maugh II, in a 2011 piece for the Los Angeles Times, reported on an earlier CDC study indicating that among working people ages 25-54, suicides increase during bad economic times and decline during more prosperous times.

Everyone is familiar with stories of businessmen jumping to their deaths from window ledges during the Great Depression. New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicate that those stories, sometimes viewed as apocryphal, have a strong basis in fact: The rate of suicides rises during times of economic hardship and declines in periods of prosperity.

The earlier CDC study included statistics from the Great Depression of the early 1930s and subsequent economic crises. As Maugh further reported:

Overall, the study — which did not distinguish between men and women — found that the suicide rate was 18 per 100,000 adults in 1928, the earliest year for which data are available, and climbed to 22.1 per 100,000 in 1932, the last full year of the Great Depression. That 22.8% jump over a four-year period is the largest in history.

Since then, the suicide rate has been dropping, with much smaller increases at the end of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal (1937-38), the oil crisis (1973-75) and the double-dip recession (1980-82).

As I have written previously here, when reporter Louis Uchitelle began researching his book The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences (2006), he did not anticipate that he “would be drawn so persistently into the psychiatric aspect of layoffs.”  But he soon understood that the “emotional damage was too palpable to ignore.”  For the suddenly unemployed, “a layoff is an emotional blow from which very few fully recover.”

Not “Set for Life”

The emotional costs of unemployment are vividly evident in a disturbing and important 2012 documentary, “Set for Life,” which tells the stories of Baby Boomers who have lost their jobs and who are trying to find work in the midst of our recessionary economy.

“Set for Life” is the work of journalist and producer Susan Sipprelle, assisted by filmmaker Samuel Newman (bios here). It centers on the ongoing sagas of three fiftysomething individuals searching for work, supplemented by interviews with experts and information that put their stories in context.

In an October Huffington Post blog post introducing the documentary, Sipprelle observes that having worked hard and done many of the right things, her protagonists believed that they were “set for life.” However, recent years have taught them a harsh lesson to the contrary:

While the three main characters in Set for Life search for work in today’s daunting job market for older workers, they suffer financial woes, self-doubt, and health concerns. Thrust by the recession into a quest they never expected to face late in life, they ponder deeper questions that are relevant to everyone: What defines my self-worth? What is my definition of happiness? Can I reinvent myself? Can I prepare for and accept change?

Retirement

As I have written often here, the idea of a relatively comfortable and stable retirement is disappearing for many middle-aged Americans. According to economist Teresa Ghilarducci, one of the nation’s leading experts on retirement policy, “(i)t looks like most middle-class Americans will become poor or near-poor retirees,” adding that “(t)he baby boomers will be the first generation that will do worse in retirement than their parents.”

Ghilarducci’s comments appeared last year in The Week, a weekly news magazine, as part of an informative piece spotlighting a largely neglected Boomer retirement savings crisis. Unfortunately, most workers have not built 401(k) accounts sufficient to fund a comfortable retirement; the average 401(k) balance “is just over $60,000,” according to The Week. Even worse, “(m)ore than half of U.S. workers have no retirement plan at all.” Social Security payments “averaging $14,780 a year for individuals and $22,000 for couples” won’t bridge the gaps.

In sum, for many workers, the American Dream is no more. The assumption that working hard and playing by the rules would lead to a decent job and a relatively comfortable retirement has been demolished. Unless we do something dramatic, many Boomers are staring at what Thoreau termed as “lives of quiet desperation.”

Student loan debt and suicides

It’s not just older workers who might feel crushing economic burdens and see little way out. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Student loan levels have skyrocketed over the past three decades, and now the labor market is not producing enough good entry-level jobs to absorb heavily-indebted graduates, many of whom owe $100,000 or more in principal alone.

Europe

If we need more evidence of this deeply human crisis, the meltdown of the European economy has been linked to rising suicide rates of workers who see no escape from their plight.

Last year, Barbie Latza Nadeau reported for Newsweek (link here) on increasing suicide rates in countries such as Italy, Greece, Spain, and Ireland – all of which have been in the throes of severe economic crises even worse than that in the U.S. She observes that “(i)n the countries most affected by the euro-zone crisis, depression is on the rise and suicides are spreading.” In addition, amid widespread unemployment in these countries, governments are cutting back on social support services for the jobless and those in need of assistance:

“The main reason for the rise in suicides is the recession and now austerity—both making hard times more difficult and reducing funding for mental-health services,” says David Stuckler, a Cambridge professor who coauthored a report on the health effects of the economic crisis in Europe. “Usually an epidemic is thought of as a short-term increase in a disease—by that criterion, suicides would be an epidemic.”

Nadeau began her piece with three stories of three Italian workers who committed suicide due to their personal financial struggles. I suggest checking it out if you want a clearer sense of the human costs of the recession.

“The Lives of Others”

In the motion picture “The Lives of Others” — a dark depiction of life in communist East Berlin before the fall of the Berlin Wall — we learn that the East German government stopped counting suicides in 1977. Instead, people who died by suicide were called “self-murderers.”

It was an easy way of dismissing the widespread despair and fear caused by an inhumane system that contributed to the world’s second highest suicide rate. East Germany, of course, was under a communist rule that sucked freedom and enterprise out of everyday society. When life under that oppressive regime caused people to sink into hopelessness, the government decided it was time to blame the victims.

To some, this historical factoid might justify touting unbridled capitalism as a panacea to heavy-handed government. However, while I have little use for communist systems, America’s suicide statistics remind us that extreme despair transcends economic and political ideologies.

Response I: Creating jobs and reinforcing our safety net

We have to create jobs, while maintaining programs for those in need.

When America faced the Great Depression of the 1930s, the federal government enacted the New Deal legislation that created a stronger social safety net, including the minimum wage, Social Security, and public insurance for our bank accounts. It also created massive public works programs, funding everything from construction projects to artistic works. Ironically, it was this influx of government spending, followed by the huge increase in public expenditures necessary to fight the Second World War, that saved capitalism and put America on path for its greatest era of prosperity.

Today, many large corporations are sitting on piles of cash, and the stock market has fully recovered from the massive hit it took during the meltdown. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate improves in tiny, incremental steps at best.

It’s not as if we’ve run out of important, meaningful work that needs to be done. If corporate America and Wall Street won’t create jobs despite their abundant earnings, then let’s tax their wealth and use the proceeds to put people back to work, fixing our bridges and roads, building connective public transportation systems, educating our children, providing affordable health care, safeguarding our communities, and caring for our elderly.

Response II: Forging a healthier society

More broadly, we need to forge a society that too often worships individualism and selfishness into one that more deeply values community, dignity, opportunity, and peace of mind. As Suzanne Gerber states:

Whether it’s biochemical or situational, the net result is the same: People are stressed to the max, financially struggling, pessimistic about their prospects and don’t have the traditional means of support previous generations relied on to get them through wars, epidemics and economic downturns.

In the past, people had family and community to turn to for support and strength and hope. Today we’re a fractured society, with families strewn around the country or globe, and our ancestors’ belief that “family is glue” all but eroded. Even people who didn’t have close family had strong religious convictions or a network of neighbors. We’re a Velcro society, and we all know what a weak substitute that is.

Suicide is a scary, intimidating, and complicated topic, and it makes many of us uneasy. But a nation’s suicide rates should be among the prime indicators of its collective health and well-being. We need to “own” these statistics, understand what’s behind them, and do our best to respond to them. This will enhance our lives a lot more than obsessing over stock market reports and enabling corporations whose leaders don’t give a hoot about the rest of us.

***

This blog posts builds upon, draws from, and integrates a good half dozen pieces written over the past two years. It is a sad testament to the state of things that the ties between mental health, suicide, and the economy continue to be so relevant. 

America’s economic meltdown continues for millions: Articles worth reading

The human costs of our ongoing economic crisis continue to mount. If your primary impressions of the economy are shaped by the rise in the Dow Jones Average, you might be wondering what I’m talking about. But for countless millions of others who are more concerned with the challenges of paying their bills, feeding their kids, saving for the future, and finding work, crisis remains an apt way to describe this economy.

I’ve collected a number of articles and blog posts that help us to connect the disturbing dots:

Bob’s cousin

Bob Rosner, blogging for Workplace Fairness Weekly, writes about “Broken Hearts: Unemployment’s Devastating Impact“:

Last week my cousin died of a heart attack. After working continuously for the first two-thirds of his career, recently he’d bounced from short term jobs to stretches of unemployment. This cycle is tough enough on someone just starting out a career, but for someone in their early 60’s, it can literally be a heartbreaker.

Read what he has to say about maintaining hope through the 4 “Ps”: perspective, pride, pals, and possibilities.

Profits over people — by a longshot

But hold on, it’s not as if our economy remains in complete meltdown mode. Nope, that just applies to the vast millions who are struggling to make ends meet and to secure decent work. Derek Thompson, business writer for The Atlantic, sums up the situation in meaty blog post:

Here are two things that are true about the economy today.

(1) The Dow Jones industrial average is poised to set a new record as corporate profits stretch to all-time highs.

(2) There are still fewer working Americans today than there were before the start of the Great Recession.

He goes on to explain:

When the economy crashes, we all crash together: corporate profits, employment, and growth. But when the economy recovers, we don’t recover together. Corporations rack up historic profits thanks to strong global demand, cheap global labor, and low interest rates, while American workers muddle along, their significance to these companies greatly diminished by a worldwide market for goods and people.

The forgotten

Although the official unemployment rate continues to improve very slowly, overlooked in those figures are the millions who are no longer included in the counts. Annalyn Kurtz reports for CNN.com:

An often overlooked number calculated by the Labor Department shows millions of Americans want a job but haven’t searched for one in at least a year. They’ve simply given up hope.

. . . These hopelessly unemployed workers have just been jobless so long, they’ve fallen off the main government measures altogether.

. . . Five years ago, before the recession began, about 2.5 million people said they wanted a job but hadn’t searched for one in at least a year. Now, that number is around 3.25 million.

The future of retirement

As I’ve written frequently here, the demise of retirement as a normal lifespan experience may be one of the longer-term effects of our economic condition. Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for the New York Times, offers a thorough look at the future of retirement in the U.S.:

While retirement has assumed myriad forms across the country, many economists and other experts on retirement see some common, increasingly worrisome trends. A growing number of workers are convinced they will not have a comfortable retirement. A Boston College study in October found that 53 percent of Americans were “at risk” of being unable to maintain their pre-retirement standard of living once they retire, up from 30 percent in 1989. A study last May by the Employee Benefit Research Institute found that 44 percent may not have enough money to meet their basic needs in retirement.

Burdening next generations

As the cost of a college education continues to climb, student loan debt rises with it. Martha C. White reports for Time on the economic repercussions of massive student loan debt:

The broader economic implications are troubling. Graduates struggling to dig out from a mountain of student debt also tend to put off getting married, buying homes, and having kids. And since a bigger chunk of their income will go towards servicing the mortgages or car loans they are able to obtain at higher rates, they’ll have less spending power when they do eventually buy big-ticket items like homes and cars.

And that’s not even addressing the psychological impact of mountainous debt and reduced hopes. Cryn Johannsen of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project writes about the spectre of suicide in connection with student debt:

Suicide is the dark side of the student lending crisis and, despite all the media attention to the issue of student loans, it’s been severely under-reported. I can’t ignore it though, because I’m an advocate for people who are struggling to pay their student loans, and I’ve been receiving suicidal comments for over two years and occasionally hearing reports of actual suicides.

Inequality = more stress and illness

America’s wealth gap is widening despite the supposed economic recovery, reports Rick Newman for U.S. News & World Report:

The problem, however, is that the recession raised the bar for success while leaving fewer haves and more have-nots. America as a whole may be just as wealthy as it used to be, but the wealth is being shared by a smaller slice of the population. And that rearrangement may end up being permanent.

In this piece for BillMoyers.com, Theresa Riley interviews epidemiologist Richard Wilkinson, an authority on the destructive public health consequences of societal inequality:

The pattern we’ve found in our research is quite extraordinarily clear. More unequal countries, the ones with the bigger income differences between rich and poor have much more violence, worse life expectancy, more mental illness, more obesity, more people in prison, and more teenage births. All these problems get worse with greater inequality, because it damages the social fabric of a society.

The end of the American dream?

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate in economics, assessed our economy in the context of the November election:

In this election, each side debated issues that deeply worry me: the long malaise into which the economy seems to be settling, and the growing divide between the 1 percent and the rest — an inequality not only of outcomes but also of opportunity. To me, these problems are two sides of the same coin: with inequality at its highest level since before the Depression, a robust recovery will be difficult in the short term, and the American dream — a good life in exchange for hard work — is slowly dying.

Stiglitz’s public policy prescriptions “include, at least, significant investments in education, a more progressive tax system and a tax on financial speculation.”

Goodbye to trickle-down economics?

The policies that led us to this widening gap between the haves vs. the have-less and the have-nots have been at least 30 years in the making, with “trickle-down economics” being the policy mantra of the era. This concept held that if wealthy people could keep more of their money and businesses could be freed of regulatory safeguards, the benefits would trickle down to everyone else. The centerpiece of trickle-down theory was that tax cuts to the wealthy would give a jump start to America’s economic engine, an assumption rebutted in a non-partisan Congressional Research Service report discussed in this Huffington Post piece.

If you’re interested in learning more, read some of these articles and start connecting the dots for yourself. We’re at a critical economic juncture in America, and the well-being of all but the most fortunate is at stake.

Before the Fall of 2008: It seems like another epoch ago

Think back to four years ago.

Spurred by a corrupt housing market and easy credit, the economy was in a nosedive amidst credible fears of a total collapse. By October 2008, billions of dollars of wealth had disappeared, a lot of it from the already modest retirement accounts of everyday people.

The world of work was about to be profoundly affected. Job losses and layoffs started mounting quickly, first in the private sector, then in the public and non-profit sectors. Within a year, the official unemployment rate would edge on double digits. Those fortunate to keep their jobs would experience added stress at work and, very possibly, reductions in pay and benefits.

The presidential campaign was occurring against this backdrop. There remained the looming question of whether America was ready to elect a black President. Sarah Palin would experience a meteoric rise and fall, the latter with a big assist to Tina Fey. The Tea Party and Occupy movements weren’t even a part of our vocabulary.

For me, before the Fall of 2008 looks a lot like September 10, 2001: The day before our world changed.

Fast forward

Four years later, we’re still paying for the greed, excess, and irresponsibility that led us into this mess. And I challenge anyone, regardless of political affiliation, to find anything genuinely uplifting in the substance and rhetoric of the current campaign season. As for many of our business leaders, they continue to rake it in — the wealth gap in American keeps widening — while they vigorously oppose regulatory safeguards intended to prevent yet another meltdown.

I honestly don’t know how we’re going to chart a new course, but I’m certain that we must if the coming decades are to be good ones for the vast majority of people. As I’ve suggested before, for a lot of reasons — political, economic, psychological, environmental, spiritual, you name it — we’re at a fork in the road, choosing between a New Enlightenment and a New Dark Age.

I fear the latter but hope for the former.

Labor Day 2012 soapbox: Workers, meltdown politics, and workplace bullying

Recent annual editions of What Color Is Your Parachute?, the hugely popular job-hunting manual by Richard N. Bolles, open with a new chapter titled “How to Find Hope.”

It’s a not-so-subtle admission in this otherwise upbeat book that many people have been so demoralized by the economy and job market that they must first pick themselves off the ground before diving back into the search for work and a fulfilling livelihood. As this Labor Day weekend approaches, I take it as yet another small sign of how things have changed.

Four years ago, on the eve of Labor Day 2008, we were just weeks away from a rapid escalation of the economic meltdown. When things really started to go bad, they did so at a surreal pace that taught us how quickly a 401(k) plan can disintegrate. (Do you remember the news coverage back then? How many of us were asking, what the —- is going on?)

This catastrophe was not caused by school teachers, assembly line workers, retail clerks, firefighters, nurses, labor unions, radical professors, or even — heaven forbid — trial lawyers. No, this was courtesy of the financial masters of the universe on Wall Street, with a big assist from their allies in Washington D.C.

And today, we’re still sorting through the human rubble.

Disappearing middle

Thank goodness we’re not Greece. There still are millions of Americans who have good jobs with decent pay and benefits.

But those numbers are dwindling. In particular, our middle class is shrinking, with a few moving into the top, and many more joining the economically vulnerable.  A major study recently released by the Pew Research Center (link here) concluded that we are living in the “lost decade of the middle class.” The official unemployment rate hovers at around 8 percent, and the unofficial rate — including the vastly underemployed as well as discouraged job seekers no longer tallied in the official one — falls anywhere from 15-20 percent.

New vocabulary

The times even have spawned additions to our economic vocabulary:

Four years ago, the term “99ers” may have sounded like the name of a sports team. But now it refers to individuals whose unemployment benefits — extended during the recession to 99 weeks — have expired.

Four years ago, “underwater” was an aquatic term. Now, of course, it refers to a mortgage balance — in many cases, despite timely payments — that exceeds the declining value of the home.

Four years ago, I’m not even sure if “new normal” had a common meaning. Today it refers to accepting a higher official unemployment rate, say, 8 or 9 percent, as the new normal, replacing the “old” normal of maybe 3 or 4 percent.

Let’s get political

How targeted is this assault on everyday workers? Folks, it’s no longer about shared sacrifice or belt tightening when times are tough. Rather, in some circles it’s about paying rank-and-file workers as little as possible while top executives and shareholders reap the benefits of their labor.

If you need evidence of this, look at the recent strike at the Caterpillar plant in Joliet, Illinois. As reported by Steven Greenhouse for the New York Times (link here), management strong armed the union into accepting wage and pension freezes despite record profits and a 60 percent raise given to the CEO! Need more? Talk to veteran employees of major commercial airlines, who in the post-9/11 world of air travel took huge pay cuts to help the industry survive, while in many cases high-ranking airline executives were collecting obscene bonuses.

Perhaps you’re not surprised that I’m very concerned about the economic and social policies supported by the Romney-Ryan ticket. The hard right has so taken over the GOP that mainstream conservatives of 30 years ago would be branded as traitors to the cause today. Of course, I can’t promise that re-electing President Obama is going to result in dramatic progress either. But at least the Democrats aren’t serving up — as a featured convention speaker — the likes of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who repeatedly boasts proudly about being a union buster.

Workplace bullying and politics

I respect the fact that some readers do not subscribe to my generally liberal political beliefs. But especially for those who found this blog because of their own experiences with workplace bullying, I ask them to consider the possible connections.

No, I’m not claiming that all Republicans are bullies and all Democrats are nice people. Far from it. I don’t see hard correlations between individual political beliefs and how people treat each other at work. Applied to my own political leanings, I readily admit there are some liberals I wouldn’t want to work for in a million years, while there are some conservatives I would trust and respect as my boss without qualification.

Nor do I suggest that workplace bullying is limited to the big bad corporations. As I’ve noted here, some of the worst workplace abuse can be found in do-gooder non-profits, labor unions, and government agencies.

But on a systemic, policy level, yes, differences emerge.  For example, the two most powerful organizations opposing the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill (HWB) are the Chamber of Commerce (a GOP favorite) and the Society for Human Resource Management. In Massachusetts, another powerful business lobby, the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, opposes legal protections for bullying targets.

In the meantime, labor unions and civil rights groups have been the leading sources of organizational support for the HWB.

It’s not as if opponents of the HWB are promising to discipline or dismiss the aggressors, in return for us dropping our support for legal reform. To the contrary, some are claiming that existing laws are sufficient to protect bullying targets, which they know isn’t true unless they’re listening to lawyers who don’t understand employment law.

Others complain that legal protections against severe workplace bullying would serve as “job killers” by undermining productivity and the spirit of healthy competition. But what’s “productive,” “healthy,” and “competitive” about interpersonal abuse?

There are honest differences of opinion as to where the law should draw the line on legal claims for workplace bullying. But shouldn’t it be wrong to treat another human being so abusively as to destroy one’s psyche and livelihood?

What will it take?

Yup, as we approach this Labor Day weekend, the world of work and workers faces very serious challenges.

And the stakes are too important for us to throw in the towel. Somehow, we must forge a more humane consensus about how people should be treated at work. Let’s claim human dignity as our starting place for employee relations and go from there. That embrace still leaves us to sort out the complicated questions of workplace laws, policies, and practices, but at least it recognizes the essential humanity of labor.

After all, it’s hard to get the details right when the core values are absent.

***

My law review article, “Human Dignity and American Employment Law” (free download here) contains a more detailed exposition on human dignity and the workplace. Ironically, I was completing the final manuscript right at the time the economy was melting down in Fall 2008.

Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz warns of gated communities, deep insecurities, and political extremism

In an interview with AlterNet’s Lynn Parramore (link here), Joseph E. Stiglitz — Nobel Prize winning economist and author of the newly published The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future (2012) — urges that massive economic inequality in America threatens the nation’s very core.

It’s a lengthy, substantive interview, well worth a full read. Here are some highlights:

Deepening inequality since 1980

Stiglitz notes that although comparative figures to other eras are not available, data going back to 1980 clearly show the widening wealth gaps between the wealthiest Americans and everyone else:

But we do have data sets that go back more than 30 years and what is clear is that the share of the top 1 percent has almost tripled since 1980. So, this kind of inequality at the top has unambiguously gotten much, much, much worse. We also have data on the extent to which there’s been a hollowing out of the middle class. The data that recently came out from the Fed indicated that we’ve wiped out 20 years of increases and wealth for the middle American.

The nightmare scenario

And more of the same will lead us to a very bad place:

But if we go down the route that we’re going, we’re going to a world where people live in gated communities. We already have by far the largest fraction of our population locked up in prison. We will have an increasingly insecure society. Americans will be facing insecurity, of economic insecurity, healthcare insecurity, a sense of physical insecurity. We will be worrying politically about the role of extremism. Extremism on the right, extremism on the left.

On capitalism

Stiglitz isn’t ranting against capitalism. Rather, he’s looking at who has benefited from massive inequalities, and at what costs:

Well, capitalism does have a lot of strengths, including producing things that are very innovative. But what drives capitalism is the profit motive. You can profit not only by making good things, but also by exploiting people, by exploiting the environment, by doing things that are not so good. . . . And if you look at the people at the top, what is so striking is that the people who’ve made the most important creative contributions are not there.

Younger voices

Student responses to his book talks have been telling:

I guess the thing that was most moving in a number of the talks that I’ve given is the large number of young people that have come to the microphone and asked questions where you can sense their sense of despair, their sense of frustration at being saddled by student loans, their sense of job prospects being not very good.

. . .And these were, you know, intelligent kids, who obviously played by the rules, done everything right, worked hard at school. But they were hitting the kind of frustration that you shouldn’t be getting from young people. To me, that was really heart-rending. And it came from not just one kid. Not in just one talk.

Paths toward change

Will the American people start to get it and demand a fairer economic system and appropriate regulation? Stiglitz sees two paths toward understanding and eventual responses:

In my book, I described this very comprehensive economic agenda. . . . What I try to put forward are two hypotheses of how that might happen. In one of them, what I call the “1 percent” will finally realize that it’s in their enlightened self interest, rightly understood, to care about the rest of society. . . . And the other one is that the 99 percent realize that they’ve been sold a bill of goods. And they realize that some of these ideas that we’ve been talking about — trickle-down economics that destroy the interests of the poor, the middle class — are just wrong.

So what’s new?

To anyone paying close attention to economic trends over the years and the impact of the Great Recession, much of what Stiglitz is saying is hardly news. And yet, it’s important when leading thinkers validate what people are seeing and experiencing in their day-to-day lives.

This helps to remind us that many of the economic challenges that folks are dealing with are not due to their own failings, but rather are elements of systemic forces that threaten our individual and collective well-being.

***

AlterNet has become the leading online source for news and commentary from a progressive angle, bringing together original content (such as the Stiglitz interview) and materials published elsewhere. You can read more about AlterNet’s mission, content, and readership here.

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