Witnessing the “split-screen American nightmare”

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In a New York Times 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 in northwest 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. Also, by the early 1980s, the national economy overall was heading into a major downturn that would further smack the manufacturing sector.

I remember that time very well. In 1981 I graduated from Valparaiso University (also in NW Indiana) into a terrible recession. I had planned to take a year between college and starting law school, and I would spend that time living with my parents and doing odd jobs while filing my law school applications.

To bring in some money, I picked up shifts working as a stock clerk for the local drug store chain where I had spent my college summers. What sticks in my memory is how many of the women working there had become the main income earners for their families because their husbands had been laid off at the steel mills.

By the time I left Indiana for the New York City in 1982, the region’s steel industry was gasping for its life. As we fast forward to today, Hammond and many surrounding towns and cities continue to exist in the aftermath of the deterioration 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.

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This post was revised in July 2019.

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.

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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.

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Meltdown Follies continue at Goldman Sachs

In a New York Times op-ed piece that has gone viral, departing Goldman Sachs partner Greg Smith issued an ethical broadside against his now former employer, reinforcing some of the worst public impressions of the high-flying financial sector:

TODAY is my last day at Goldman Sachs. After almost 12 years at the firm . . . I believe I have worked here long enough to understand the trajectory of its culture, its people and its identity. And I can honestly say that the environment now is as toxic and destructive as I have ever seen it.

To put the problem in the simplest terms, the interests of the client continue to be sidelined in the way the firm operates and thinks about making money. . . . The firm has veered so far from the place I joined right out of college that I can no longer in good conscience say that I identify with what it stands for.

According to Smith, many clients are referred to derisively, and their financial well-being can take a low priority:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off. Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

Smith calls upon Goldman to jettison the “morally bankrupt people, no matter how much money they make for the firm,” and to reset the firm’s organizational culture.

Predictable response I

The Times reports that “Goldman Sachs took issue with the opinion piece, defending the investment bank’s practices and its treatment of clients”:

“We disagree with the views expressed, which we don’t think reflect the way we run our business,” said a spokesperson for Goldman Sachs. “In our view, we will only be successful if our clients are successful. This fundamental truth lies at the heart of how we conduct ourselves.”

Predictable response II

Christine Harper reports for Bloomberg that the stock market reacted immediately to the op-ed piece:

Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (GS) saw $2.15 billion of its market value wiped out after an employee assailed Chief Executive Officer Lloyd C. Blankfein’s management and the firm’s treatment of clients, sparking debate across Wall Street.

The shares dropped 3.4 percent in New York trading yesterday, the third-biggest decline in the 81-company Standard & Poor’s 500 Financials Index, after London-based Greg Smith made the accusations in a New York Times op-ed piece.

(Now, before we stick a fork in Goldman, let’s remember that a 3.4 percent stock decline isn’t exactly the end of the world. Let’s see how things are going at the end of the month.)

Not so predictable response

It appears that Smith was one of the good guys within the firm. For example, Business Insider reports that a former Goldman intern and analyst, Aveneesh Singh Saluja, vouches for Smith:

“I worked for GS both as an intern in 06 and as a full time analyst from July 07 to March 09. …I hold him in very high regard – he took care of us junior guys, gave us great pieces of advice, and in general came across as one of the more personable, friendly, and genuine guys on the floor.”

Saluja isn’t the only former colleague publicly vouching for Smith’s character. It’s good to see that Smith isn’t being tossed under the bus by everyone who worked with him.

When will we ever learn?

Wow, shades of 2008. Smith’s op-ed suggests that one of the world’s biggest investment houses has learned very little from the meltdown of the financial services industry. In the meantime, powerful business interests continue to lobby Congress and federal enforcement agencies, claiming the financial sector doesn’t need to be strongly regulated. (I beg to differ…)

Marshall Auerback puts this in a broader context for AlterNet:

Greg Smith’s mea culpa about Goldman should not come as a surprise to anybody who has a remote connection with the financial services industry. But to suggest that the allegations made by Mr. Smith are unique to Goldman’s culture is ludicrous. They are symptomatic of a much broader problem embedded in Wall Street culture as a whole. Goldman’s major sin was being more astute at exploiting this system than most of its competitors.

Highlights from Minding the Workplace: 60+ popular and notable posts

I’ve updated and revised the “Popular and Notable Posts” page of Minding the Workplace. Here are 60+ posts that represent some of the best of this blog:

Workplace bullying and related topics

January 2012 — “Puppet master” bullying vs. genuine mobbing at work

December 2011 — At-will employment and the legality of workplace bullying: A brutal combo punch

November 2011 — The “bully” label: Too stigmatizing, too mild, or too inevitable?

October 2011 — The Healthy Workplace Bill: What’s it all about?

September 2011 — Should you confront your workplace bully?

September 2011 — Should workplace bullying be a criminal offense in the U.S.?

August 2011 — When the bullying comes from a board member

July 2011 — Post-Traumatic Embitterment Disorder and workplace bullying

May 2011 — Nurse writes about bullying by doctors, and other doctors respond

April 2011 — Female-to-female workplace bullying: Homespun theory on an imperfect storm

March 2011 — America’s Bullying Culture

February 2011 — Workplace bullying: A recommended book list

December 2010 — Bullied at work? Avoid making these common mistakes

December 2010 — Ten ways to stop workplace bullying

November 2010 — Understanding the bullied brain

November 2010 — Helping targets of workplace bullying: The need for an integrated counseling approach

July 2010 — With Time and Parade, the workplace bullying legislative movement goes mainstream

April 2010 – The workplace bullying suicide of Jodie Zebell, age 31

March 2010 — The school bullying suicide of Phoebe Prince, age 15

December 2009 — Workplace bullying in healthcare  (series of 4 posts — this is the first)

November 2009 — The Role of Unions and Collective Bargaining in Combating Workplace Bullying

August 2009 — After being bullied at work, what next?

August 2009 — Employers, their lawyers, and workplace bullying policies

March 2009 — Workplace bullying bill introduced in Massachusetts

March 2009 — Massachusetts public employee unions successfully negotiate workplace bullying provision

Jan. 2009 — Immersion in the Twisted World of Abuse at Work

Dec. 2008 — The U.S. Workplace Bullying Movement at 10

Management practices, HR, organizations, etc.

October 2011 — Can workplace incivility ever be healthy?

October 2011 – The “exit parade” as a worker termination protocol

September 2011 — How lousy organizations treat institutional history

July 2011 — Great organizational leaders enable and empower others

May 2011 — Brain science and the workplace: Neuroscience and neuroplasticity

October 2010 – What if we applied the Golden Rule at work?

July 2010 – Is your workplace psychologically and ethically healthy?

May 2010 — You want good leaders?

January 2010 — Work and Workplaces of the New Decade: Notes on a “Dignitarian” Agenda

July 2009 – NWI’s “Eightfold Path” to a Psychologically Healthy Workplace

January 2009 – “HR was useless”

Academic workplaces (including workplace bullying), higher education, etc.

August 2011 — What is academic tenure?

April 2011 — The culture of academic work: On conformity, bullying, and disappearing jobs

August 2010 – Did workplace bullying trigger the suicide of a University of Virginia literary journal editor?

June 2010 – Law schools and the legal job market

February 2010 – The University of Alabama-Huntsville shootings and the academic workplace

November 2009 – The legality and ethics of unpaid internships

February 2009 – Workplace bullying and mobbing in academe: The hell of heaven?

Economy, politics, etc.

December 2011 — Is our psychologically ill economy led by psychologically ill business leaders?

September 2011 – From “punk-styled kids” to airline pilots, is Occupy Wall Street the start of something big?

November 2010 – When Boomers retire (or try to): America’s coming train wreck

March 2010 – Echoes of 1930s Europe: Emerging Mobs

February 2010 – Jobs, Unemployment, and the Great Recession

Employment and labor law

December 2011 — Has tackling discrimination led to a more elitist society?

November 2011 — Confidential settlements in employment cases: Poof, as if nothing happened

July 2011 — Can an apology prevent an employment lawsuit?

July 2011 – When bad employers retain thuggish employment lawyers

September 2010 — Supporting freelance workers: A policy agenda from Sara Horowitz

February 2010 — In federal employment discrimination claims, race and sex of judges matter (a lot)

September 2009 — Bullied at work, then bullied by the legal system

January 2009 — “Radical Middle Newsletter” supports dignity at work agenda

Careers, lifespan issues

December 2011 — The lessons of nostalgia

September 2011 — “Should I stay or should I go?” Career insights from Seth Godin and The Clash

June 2011 — How’s this for an epitaph? “She lived a balanced life”

December 2010 – Does life begin at 46?

May 2010 — Will our avocations save us?

Is our psychologically ill economy fueled by psychologically ill business leaders?

It’s not often when mental health experts and business management scholars start to sound alike, but a December workshop address by therapist Michael Britton and a recent business ethics article by marketing expert Clive Boddy seem to be very much on the same page. Both address the twisted psychological dynamics driving the current economic crisis.

Our manic economy

In the Don Klein Memorial Lecture at the annual workshop of the Human Dignity and Humiliation Studies network held in December (blog post here), psychologist Michael Britton described our current economic condition in psychological terms.

Our economic system has taken on “bipolar” qualities, said Britton. Using terms and phrases such as “excited,” “frantic,” “crash and burn,” “disregard for reality,” and “disregard for empathy,” he described an economy grounded in constant consumption and concentrations of power.

Britton said that instead of worshipping at the altar of national GDP and high unemployment, we should “reduce resource stripping” and emphasize how everyone can contribute to society and live a “materially decent life.”

Corporate Psychopaths

Of course, if our economy is psychologically ill, then we should search out the root causes. Clive R. Boddy of the Nottingham Business School believes that the behaviors of corporate psychopaths have fueled the economic crisis.

He makes the case in a 2011 article in the Journal of Business Ethics, “The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Business Crisis” (link here). Here are a few snippets:

Although they may look smooth, charming, sophisticated, and successful, Corporate Psychopaths should theoretically be almost wholly destructive to the organizations that they work for.

…Researchers report that such malevolent leaders are callously disregarding of the needs and wishes of others, prepared to lie, bully and cheat and to disregard or cause harm to the welfare of others….

***

The Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis is that Corporate Psychopaths, rising to key senior positions within modern financial corporations, where they are able to influence the moral climate of the whole organisation and yield considerable power, have largely caused the crisis. . . . (T)he Corporate Psychopath’s single-minded pursuit of their own self-enrichment and self-aggrandizement . . . has led to an abandonment of the old fashioned concept of noblesse oblige, equality, fairness, or of any real notion of corporate social responsibility.

***

When presented to management academics in discussion, the Corporate Psychopaths Theory of the Global Financial Crisis is accepted as being plausible and highly relevant. . . .The message that psychopaths are to be found in corporations and other organisations may be important for the future longevity of capitalism and for corporate and social justice and even for world financial stability and longevity.

Felons vs. Bosses

These commentaries echo a 2005 study conducted by psychologists Belinda Board and Katarina Fritzon comparing individuals housed in a British psychiatric hospital who had been convicted of serious crimes to managers and executives. As reported by George Monblot for the Guardian (link here):

On certain indicators of psychopathy, the bosses’s scores either matched or exceeded those of the patients. In fact, on these criteria, they beat even the subset of patients who had been diagnosed with psychopathic personality disorders.

The psychopathic traits on which the bosses scored so highly, Board and Fritzon point out, closely resemble the characteristics that companies look for.

As 2012 approaches

During the three years I have hosted this blog, I’ve written a lot about the devastating effects that bullying bosses can have on individual psyches and careers. As these commentaries and studies show, many of these individuals also are wreaking havoc on our larger economic and social infrastructures.

Personally, I’ve got nothing against enterprise, entrepreneurship, and even a fair profit. And I’m not looking for a witch hunt of bad managers and executives. Instead, maybe it’s time we use the language of human resources and simply say that our “plans have changed” and that “we’ve decided to go in a different direction.”

Heaven knows it’s time we did so.

Evidence of economic inequality keeps piling up

Class warfare is a reality, and it is being visited upon the middle class and the poor. The dots keep connecting over and again, and it’s important to see how data, politics, and public policy interact:

The Poor

Whether using a traditional or new measure for gauging poverty, over 15 percent of Americans are officially poor, reports CNN’s Tami Luhby (link here):

There were more than 49 million Americans living in poverty in 2010, under an alternative measure released by the Census Bureau Monday.

That’s 16% of the nation, higher than the official poverty rate of 15.2%. The official rate, released in September, showed 46.6 million people living in poverty.

The new measure “includes various government benefits and expenses not captured by the official poverty rate.”

The Near Poor

There are millions more living on the brink. Jason DeParle, Robert Gebeloff, and Sabrina Tavernise report for New York Times (link here) on a significant group of Americans classified as “near poor”:

They drive cars, but seldom new ones. They earn paychecks, but not big ones. Many own homes. Most pay taxes. Half are married, and nearly half live in the suburbs. None are poor, but many describe themselves as barely scraping by.

New U.S. Census methods for calculating poverty label the near poor as those with less than 50 percent above the poverty line:

Perhaps the most startling differences between the old measure and the new involves data the government has not yet published, showing 51 million people with incomes less than 50 percent above the poverty line.

They conclude: “All told, that places 100 million people — one in three Americans — either in poverty or in the fretful zone just above it.”

The Shrinking Middle

Lucia Mutikani reports for Reuters (link here) on a Stanford University study of 117 metro areas, finding that middle-class neighborhoods are shrinking:

The share of families living in middle-income neighborhoods has dropped to 44 percent in 2007 from 65 percent in 1970, the Stanford University study showed.

. . . The study found that the proportion of families living in affluent neighborhoods doubled to 14 percent in 2007 from 7 percent in 1970.

During the same period, the share of families in poor residential areas increased to 17 percent from 8 percent.

The Expanding 0.1 Percent

Robert Lenzner, writing for Forbes (via Yahoo! News, here), explains that the top 0.1 percent receive roughly half of the capital gains, thus pointing to Bush-era capital gains tax cuts as chief culprits in benefiting America’s wealthiest:

Capital gains are the key ingredient of income disparity in the US– and the force behind the winner takes all mantra of our economic system. . . .

Income and wealth disparities become even more  absurd  if we look at the top 0.1% of the nation’s earners — rather than the more common 1%. The top 0.1% —  about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million — are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400.

It’s crystal clear that the Bush tax reduction on capital gains and dividend income in 2003 was the cutting edge policy that has created the immense increase in net worth of corporate executives, Wall St. professionals and other entrepreneurs.

The impact on economic recovery

Even Business Week understands that widening inequality makes genuine economic recovery even harder, as David Lynch writes (link here):

The public discussion about the widening gap between rich and poor hasn’t been this loud since the Great Depression. . . . What many are missing is the actual impact rising inequality is having on the U.S. economy. Hint: It isn’t good.

. . . Thus the growing chasm in the U.S. between the haves and the have-nots has serious consequences. Societies that manage a narrower gap between rich and poor enjoy longer economic expansions, according to research published this year by the International Monetary Fund.

. . . Expansions fizzle sooner in less equal societies because they are more vulnerable to both financial crises and political instability.

Discrediting the messengers

Occupy Wall Street has spawned a nationwide (nay, worldwide) movement protesting this massive inequality. Thus, it’s no wonder that efforts are underway to discredit the movement. For example, Jonathan Larsen and Ken Olshansky report for MSNBC (link here) on a major lobbying firm that wants to take on the Occupiers, but only if the price is right:

A well-known Washington lobbying firm with links to the financial industry has proposed an $850,000 plan to take on Occupy Wall Street and politicians who might express sympathy for the protests, according to a memo obtained by the MSNBC program “Up w/ Chris Hayes.”

The proposal was written on the letterhead of the lobbying firm Clark Lytle Geduldig & Cranford and addressed to one of CLGC’s clients, the American Bankers Association.

CLGC’s memo proposes that the ABA pay CLGC $850,000 to conduct “opposition research” on Occupy Wall Street in order to construct “negative narratives” about the protests and allied politicians.

Stay alert

These are defining dynamics of our age. When will we get it, and when we will do something about it?

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