Competing visions of the “good life”

These days I find myself thinking about a lot of “big picture” subjects, like the future of society. (Yup, that’s pretty big picture stuff.) I  am deeply concerned about how the coming decades will unfold in terms of economic and environmental sustainability, and I believe that we will have to reassess our relationships with technology, the planet, our workplaces, and each other.

Among those who anticipated this state of affairs many years ago was John Ohliger (1926-2004), an iconoclastic, pioneering adult educator, civic activist, and public intellectual whose work I have mentioned before on this blog. John also was my good friend, and his voluminous writings, many of which were self-published through his independent center, Basic Choices, Inc., have had a strong influence on my thinking.

In essays from the early 1980s, John foresaw the dilemmas over material goods that a modern, “first world” society would face. He drew from the work of other leading adult educators to articulate two competing visions of the future for society. One vision was that of a “technological, top-down, service society” that defined “the ‘good life’ as affluence and leisure with high-tech big technology solving problems which lead to mastery of the environment.” The other vision saw the “good life” as embracing “useful work, peace, self-fulfillment, and appropriate technology leading to harmony with the environment.”

John expounded upon on how that latter vision could unfold:

My picture is of a future where we live more relaxed and more modest lives with an abundance of unmeasurable and infinitely available non-material (or better, trans-material) resources. All the travail and pressure we’re going through right now may be paving the way for that future. This future could be one where we will have a choice of “goodies”; not ones requiring scarce energy, minerals, or dollars; or ones permitting some people to get rich while others go hungry, but choices that we create with our own hearts and heads and hands among people we know and care for.

It’s fair to say that supporters of the “technological, top-down, service society” to which John referred have had their way of things, at least during the past three decades. Against this backdrop, advancing a healthier vision for society is a challenging task, but that shouldn’t dissuade us from pursuing it. In an unpublished autobiographical essay written later in his life, John suggested that a combination of spirituality, personal growth, and social action could be at the core of this transformation. I’d say he was right on target about that.

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For more about John Ohliger’s unique public intellectual role, see my book chapter, David Yamada, “The Adult Educator as Public Intellectual,” in Andre P. Grace, Tonette S. Rocco, and Assocs., Challenging the Professionalization of Adult Education: John Ohliger and Contradictions in Modern Practice (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009)

The prices we pay for stuff: A value system gone haywire?

Earlier this spring, the New York Times reported on an interesting and disturbing twist: Over the years, “wired” devices and electronics have plummeted in price, while the costs of education, health care, and child care have shot up. Here’s Annie Lowrey, reporting:

Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory. The result is that Americans can buy much more stuff at bargain prices.

Many crucial services, though, remain out of reach for poor families. The costs of a college education and health care have soared.

…Child care also remains only a small sliver of the consumption of poor families because it is simply too expensive. In many cases, it depresses the earnings of women who have no choice but to give up hours working to stay at home.

Add to that the high costs of quality, unprocessed food and good, safe housing and you have a pretty fair idea of what’s more affordable in terms of everyday needs and wants. One could say this reflects a value system gone haywire, where basic health, education, nutrition, and housing needs are harder to pay for, while the latest digital gizmos are relatively affordable.

It’s something to think about the next time you see a person who appears to be homeless talking on a cellphone.

Exorbitant student loan debt: The biggest “duh” crisis ever?

Natalie Kitroeff reports for the New York Times on the impact of student loan debt on the ability of graduates to rent or buy real estate in New York City:

For young people, moving to New York City hasn’t made much mathematical sense for decades. The jobs don’t pay enough, the internships don’t pay at all, and the rents are prohibitive by any sane standard.

But now add a new economic fact of life to that list: soaring student loan debt. More students are taking out bigger loans than ever before, and in the last 10 years alone, education debt tripled, reaching over $1 trillion. A record number of college students are graduating knee deep in a financial hole before they begin their adult lives.

She adds that some big-name economists are weighing in on the broader implications for the economy:

Economists are worried. Last month, former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers said that student loan debt was taking the life out of the housing recovery, and the Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz called the rising debt “an educational crisis” that is “affecting our potential future growth.”

I’m not criticizing the article — a good piece that includes profiles of recent graduates struggling with NYC’s real estate market and their student loan payments — when I say this:

We are at least two decades late in labeling the student loan debt situation a “crisis.”

Today, you’ll find plenty of news and commentary covering the student loan debt crisis. Elected officials are considering policy options as well. But the problem was in the making years ago, and the implications were clear to anyone who was paying attention.

In the 1980s, tuition levels began to soar above the rate of inflation, while grants and scholarships gave way to student loans as the primary form of financial aid, often at high interest rates. These trends continued largely unabated through the current economic meltdown.

Yeah, I take this one a bit personally. Over the years I’ve experienced a lot of eye rolls and sighs in faculty meetings when I’ve warned about a looming crisis in student loan debt and the role of legal education in stoking it. I’ve also been vocal on the impact of heavy debt on graduates who want to enter public service.

As with most overlooked crises, so much of the damage already has been done, placed on the shoulders of heavily indebted graduates. We’d better act quickly and meaningfully if we want to stop this one from getting even worse.

For many, the economic meltdown means shelving the idea of a true vocation

In The Four Purposes of Life (2011), Dan Millman identifies a cluster of key criteria for developing a career:

  • “Do I find the work satisfying?”
  • “Can I make good money?”
  • “Does it provide a useful service?”

Some might add factors such as work-life balance, geographic location, and the like, but overall, I’d say that Millman’s three criteria are useful guideposts for most people. And during much of the last half of the 20th century, as America’s post-WWII economy went into high gear and fueled the nation’s growing middle class, having some choice over one’s vocation became a realistic option. Against the backdrop of a robust economy and labor market, people could start thinking about work as being more than a source of income.

Today, however, the scarcity of good jobs is limiting our vistas considerably. Especially for those who have struggled with layoffs and unemployment, finding work that “merely” pays the bills understandably outpaces job satisfaction and notions of service as individual priorities. Millions are just trying to get by.

True, the world doesn’t “owe” anyone a satisfying job that pays well — at least in an individually entitled sense. But we are being ill-served by a labor market that has deteriorated to a point where securing even an okay job is proving difficult for so many. Instead, let’s embrace, as a worthy aspiration, the idea of decent work for all, rather than being quietly resigned to the dog-eat-dog era unfolding before us.

Working Notes: On trust at work, income inequality, and the fate of U.S. democracy

Dear readers, here are three studies worthy of our attention:

1. APA Work and Well-Being Survey

The American Psychological Association’s 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey reveals that a lot of American workers distrust their employers. Here’s a brief summary from Good Company, the newsletter of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence:

Despite the rebound in the U.S. economy and an improving job market, nearly one in four workers say they don’t trust their employer and only about half believe their employer is open and upfront with them, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2014 Work and Well-Being Survey released today.

While almost two-thirds (64 percent) of employed adults feel their organization treats them fairly, one in three reported that their employer is not always honest and truthful with them. “This lack of trust should serve as a wake-up call for employers,” says David W. Ballard, PsyD, MBA, head of APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “Trust plays an important role in the workplace and affects employees’ well-being and job performance.”

2. Thomas Piketty’s Capital

It’s not every day that a tome on economics is rising to the top of the bestseller charts, but French economist Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2014), an exhaustive study of income inequality in some 20 nations (including the U.S.), is doing just that. Using over a century’s worth of income and tax return data, Piketty provides a thorough, data-driven assessment of how unbridled capitalism has led to huge concentrations of wealth benefiting the super rich.

Piketty’s call for more progressive wealth tax and income tax rates to reverse these deep inequalities may play better in Europe than in the U.S. However, as Jennifer Schuessler reports for the New York Times, he is not calling for the end of capitalism:

…Mr. Piketty, who writes in the book that the collapse of Communism in 1989 left him “vaccinated for life” against the “lazy rhetoric of anticapitalism,” is no Marxian revolutionary. “I believe in private property,” he said in the interview. “But capitalism and markets should be the slave of democracy and not the opposite.”

The book is becoming a sensation within economic and policy circles, with many hailing it as a seminal work toward understanding modern economics. For an extended review essay of Capital by Paul Krugman in the New York Review of Books, go here.

3. Gilens & Page on American Oligarchy

Political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page have conducted an extensive empirical study confirming what so many have believed through observation of, and participation in, our political system: America is becoming an oligarchy ruled by the wealthy, rather than a democracy in which political power is shared. The BBC did a quick summary:

The US is dominated by a rich and powerful elite.

So concludes a recent study by Princeton University Prof Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Prof Benjamin I Page.

This is not news, you say.

Perhaps, but the two professors have conducted exhaustive research to try to present data-driven support for this conclusion. Here’s how they explain it:

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on US government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence.

In English: the wealthy few move policy, while the average American has little power.

The study (go here for pdf) will be published this fall in Perspectives on Politics.

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Hmm, we’ve got widespread worker distrust of employers, widespread wealth inequality, and widespread differences in political power between the wealthy and everyone else. It doesn’t take much to connect the dots, does it?

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.

The dignity of a living wage

Across America, labor activists and other progressives are calling for a higher federal minimum wage, often citing the personal financial challenges that confront low-paid retail and fast food workers. The current minimum wage is $7.25/hour, though some states have adopted a slightly higher one. Advocates are calling for a new minimum wage ranging from $10.00 to $15.00 an hour.

Whenever a minimum wage hike is proposed or debated, opponents claim that doing so will reduce jobs. At the far end of that spectrum, virulent opponents of any minimum wage law claim that such government mandates are “job killers.”

Yes, I suppose if you got rid of the princely $7.25/hour minimum wage, you could take the same hourly rate and pay three people $2.00/hour and still have a $1.25/hour as a bonus for the CEO. But that’s not “job creation,” it’s exploitation. Take away the minimum wage and you get a labor situation like that in Bangladesh, where wealthy corporations pay factory workers a pittance and subject them to dangerous working conditions. (After all, American factory jobs moved overseas to avoid paying workers good wages and benefits!)

Current minimum wage and low-wage earners often find themselves having to access public benefits such as food stamps to get by. The low minimum wage means, in effect, that American taxpayers are indirectly subsidizing corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s and their shareholders by supporting living expenses for workers who can’t afford to live on their paltry paychecks alone.

Above all, we need to frame this debate in terms of human dignity. Okay, so maybe that high school senior from an upper middle class family who works part-time to earn spare cash can get by on $7.25/hour. But for those supporting themselves and others, a full-time job at least should pay for the basics. In fact, let’s remember that Congress’s intent behind enacting the federal minimum wage law during the heart of the Great Depression of the 1930s was to provide a living wage. It’s a shame that we have to invoke the hardship of our last systemic economic meltdown to remind ourselves of that.

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