All Posts in the ‘Society’ Category

SHOULD WE WORK HARDER?

July 24th, 2015 | By ken in Society | 2 Comments »

CAN WE?

In America, we tend to think that success is all about individual effort. And recently Jeb Bush reinforced that idea in suggesting that our economy could be more robust if each of us worked harder.

That’s a truism, at best, but deeply misleading. Actually according to statistics collected by The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, we already work harder than others in first world countries.

Americans now put in an average of 112 more hours per year than the British, and 426 hours (over 10 weeks!) more than Germans. And there is no doubt that we feel it as, typically, our corporations, averse to hiring new workers, will redistribute workloads among existing employees whenever they can. And those that take on the extra work, as those who already have, are fully aware of the risk that, no matter how hard or effectively they work, they also face the risk of being downsized themselves.

So, yes, if we work more hours we will be more productive, but then we would need to factor in the costs of overwork: illness, alienation and anger, stress, inattention, less time with our families, resentment and, even, sabotage. Moreover, as T.M. Luhrman pointed out recently in The New York Times, workers in the U.S. already have one of the world’s highest levels of anxiety. (See “The Anxious Americans.”)

Work is perhaps the most meaningful and important of our activities. In the modern world, work is not only how we support ourselves but also how we are connected with each other, how we gain self-esteem, and how we define who we are. But, at the other extreme, when the conditions under which we work are not protected, we face the risks of exploitation and helplessness.

There is yet another risk stemming from the fact that not all work is equal or equally rewarded. The benefits of work are distributed disproportionately, as things stand, and will become even more so, as we become an even more stratified society. As a result we will become a progressively less unified, coherent and just society.

It’s better to have a job, of course, but it matters significantly what kind of job. Those who work at McDonalds or Walmart are underpaid. So it is crucial to have social safety nets and minimum wages, as well as guarantees against exploitation. Those who work in the banking and technology industries are less likely to care about the disparities – or even notice them. But we will all end up paying the cost in terms of illness, accidents, and social friction.

But thinking on that scale seems to take place in a zone that is dead to consciousness, a kind of stagnant sea, where awareness of our deeply interconnected lives tends to disappear. We don’t think about it. The media doesn’t usually report it. It doesn’t register.

That is what makes Jeb Bush’s comment plausible. And he is not alone in thinking that way.

Hypocritical Capitalism

July 11th, 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

Can We See It?

Many in the West defend “free markets,” asserting that unfettered competition produces goods and services most efficiently. But how true is it that our markets are free? And how efficient?

When capitalism takes its own picture, it inevitably smooth’s over the blemishes, like the rest of us, and hides as many of the scars as possible. As Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize winning economist put it recently: our “bankers, among the strongest advocates of laissez-faire economics, were only too willing to accept hundreds of billions of dollars from the government in the bailouts that have been a recurring feature of the global economy since the beginning of the Thatcher-Reagan era of ‘free’ markets and deregulation.”

And, then, our politics, overrun my money, compounds the problem. He provides these examples: “Congress maintains subsidies for rich farmers as we cut back on nutritional support for the needy. Drug companies have been given hundreds of billions of dollars as we limit Medicaid benefits. The banks that brought on the global financial crisis got billions while a pittance went to the homeowners and victims of the same banks’ predatory lending practices.”

“Economic inequality translates into political inequality, and political inequality yields increasing economic inequality.”

This isn’t a radical speaking or a socialist – though it can sound that way. A mainstream, respected economist, Stiglitz, is speaking facts that are all in the public record.

If we lift our eyes above our own horizon and take in China and Greece, we can see our past mistakes revived. In love with the dynamics of capitalism and its power, China converted to a market economy. And, just as capitalism provided an immense surge of productivity and wealth for the west in the nineteenth century, so did China benefit from growth and increasing prosperity. But now the Chinese are shocked to discover they can’t have the upside without the downside too. And the Greeks are discovering the consequences of corruption and inattention where the wealthy succeeded in bending the system to their own benefit.

Clearly, the system requires strong regulation and vigilant monitoring to work, restraints that our financial system fights and undermines at every possible turn. China and Greece are reminders of how vulnerable we all are. But even with strong and reliable oversight, two problems inherent in the system remain, apart from its inherent instability.

The first is that it produces inequality, which is a constant threat to democracy. Not only is the distribution of wealth massively skewed, and corruption encouraged, as a result, but also many workers suffer from insecurity and our fragile and frayed safety nets.

The second is the reckless exploitation of the planet. For a while, mesmerized by the cheaper goods our super-charged economy provided, we scarcely noticed the depletion of the planet’s resources, the pollution, the degraded conditions under which we are forced to live, the stunted lives, and illnesses. The rewards of capitalism distracted us, and it seemed a price worth paying.

We all too easily forget to costs and the risks as we celebrate prosperity. And we look the other way.

Perhaps the problem is that it just takes too much effort to remind ourselves of the risks, and we tune out. To be sure, those who benefit most from the system encourage us to look the other way. But we also have to keep in mind facts we would rather airbrush out of our minds.

The Real Problem with Work

June 28th, 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

Foe Men and for Women

A recent study suggests that the chief problem facing women at work is no different from that facing men. It is not balancing the demands of home and the job. It is, simply, too much work.

According to research conducted by two business school professors: “men were at least as likely as women to say the long hours interfered with their family lives.” But the truly astonishing finding: “they quit at the same rate.”

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom – as well as the prolonged conversations about how companies could become more gender friendly. Adjustments like flexible schedules or working at home often end up penalizing women who are seen as lacking the commitment to sacrifice as much as men for their careers. Indeed, the company that invited the research started out presuming that they were losing more women, an assumption belied by the facts.

According to a report on this research in The New York Times, “Men and women dealt with the pressure differently. Women were more likely to take advantage of formal flexible work policies, like working part-time, or to move to less demanding positions that didn’t involve serving clients or earning revenue for the company. Men, on the other hand, either happily complied, suffered in silence — or simply worked the hours they wanted without asking permission. About a third of them, according to another paper . . . would leave to attend their children’s activities while staying in touch on their phones. They also developed more local clients to reduce travel or informally arranged with colleagues to cover for them. Decisions like these tended to get men promoted.”

Men are expected to be devoted to their work, and women to their family. A female associate said: ‘When I look at a female partner, it does leak into my thinking: How do I think she is as a mother in addition to how do I think she is as a partner? When I look at men, I don’t think about what kind of father they are.’”

These are stereotypes, of course. But they are also prejudices, whose impact is vastly augmented as the volume of work in our society continuously ramps up. Men and women alike suffer from overwork, and it is getting worse. “The time Americans spend at work has sharply increased over the last four decades,” the Times noted. “We work an average of 1,836 hours a year, up 9 percent from 1,687 in 1979.” This is substantially above the norms for other industrialized western countries.

The researchers said that when they told the consulting firm that had hired them to research the problems faced by their female employees, they found a bigger problem: long hours were taking a toll on both men and women. But “the firm rejected that conclusion. The firm’s representatives said the goal was to focus only on policies for women, and that men were largely immune to these issues.”

They did not want to know, perhaps because they were not prepared to do anything about it

To be sure, those speaking for “the firm” on this were almost certainly men. The official view was at variance with the research findings. But it would very difficult for firms to change their attitudes towards work as their competitive advantage often depends on the forms of exploitation that had become standardized and taken for granted.

It is the new norm.

THE SIMPLE SOLUTION TO INCOME INEQUALITY

June 18th, 2015 | By ken in Society | 1 Comment »

And Why it’s Unlikely to Work

It is a no-brainer, basically: a progressive rate in income taxes, along with estate taxes that target the super wealthy.

In a new book, the British economist, Anthony Atkinson, leaves no doubt these are the keys to fixing the problem. According to a review by Thomas Piketty: “the spectacular lowering of top income tax rates has sharply contributed to the rise of inequality since the 1980s, without bringing adequate corresponding benefits to society at large. We must therefore waste no time discarding the taboo that says marginal tax rates must never rise above 50 percent.” (See his review of Inequality: What Can Be Done?.)

He calls it a “taboo,” suggesting that he knows resistance to the idea is beyond logic or reason – and would be very hard to change.

Reagan in the US and Thatcher in the UK were responsible for drastically lowering the tax rate on the wealthy back in the 80’s. In the UK the top rate was reduced from 83% to 40%. In the US, it was reduced to 28%. But how did the idea of changing these rates become taboo? Why did economists fall into line behind this idea?

With Reagan and Thatcher, the wealthy began their contemporary, sophisticated effort to dominate the political process, as corporations and their associations learned how to influence congressmen, regulators, and other government officials, while getting more involved in political campaigns. That, together with the new power of the investment industry, essentially made economists into agents of business. They have become, with some rare exceptions, the advisors, philosophers, and courtiers of our new elite, making it hard for them to challenge what their patrons want to hear. That is what makes it taboo

Piketty, in his review, notes other reforms that could affect inequality. “At the core of [Atkinson’s] program is a series of proposals that aim to transform the very operation of the markets for labor and capital, introducing new rights for those who now have the fewest rights. His proposals include guaranteed minimum-wage public jobs for the unemployed, new rights for organized labor, public regulation of technological change, and democratization of access to capital.”

The point is that the rules, the policies and ideas that underlie income inequality are neither unworkable nor unthinkable. They can be challenged. They may be taboo to other economists who know what side their bread is buttered on. But others are coming along with newer ideas and different constituencies.

The public conversation is changing, but up until now silence from mainstream economists not only signaled disapproval, but also proscribed conversation and debate. Taboo is a somewhat strong way to describe the limits on talk, usually implying the risk of disgust or horror or revulsion. That may apply to economists, and sometimes it may also rub off on the public who would usually not feel that level of intensity.

But perhaps a new tradition of populist economists is in the making, not only less easily intimidated, but actually eager to change the terms of debate and confront what have been “taboos.” Perhaps the issue will be raised in the un-coming U.S. election.

WHY SO MUCH FINANCIAL CRIME?

June 1st, 2015 | By ken in Society | No Comments »

Too Much Money

If money is our universal solvent, allowing us to exchange anything for anything else, we seem to have reached the point where virtually all other values are dissolved as well.

The financial industry, awash with cash, is desperately looking for ways to use it to make more money, and the banks, staffed with smart, ambitious bankers, are ceaselessly searching for new ways to outdo their competitors. Fraud, insider trading, manipulating rates, cronyism, etc. etc. have become standard practices.

Reflecting on this, recently, The New York Times noted that “for the world’s biggest banks, what seemed like the perfect business turned out to be the perfect breeding ground for crime. The trading of foreign currencies promised substantial revenues and relatively low risk. It was the kind of activity that banks were supposed to expand after the 2008 financial crisis.”

“But like so many other seemingly good ideas on Wall Street, the foreign exchange business was vulnerable to manipulation, so much so that traders created online chat rooms called ‘the cartel’ and ‘the mafia’.”

Even worse, a new report suggests, corruption is increasingly accepted:
“Nearly one in five respondents feel financial service professionals must sometimes engage in unethical or illegal activity to be successful in the current financial environment. One in 10 said they had directly felt pressure ‘to compromise ethical standards or violate the law.’ And nearly half of the high-income earners say law enforcement and regulatory authorities in their country are ineffective ‘in detecting, investigating and prosecuting securities violations.’”

Add to this the fact that those who regulate the industry are largely hamstrung by a political process dominated by donors to political campaigns, not to mention the lobbyists who eviscerate efforts to impose restraints. Moreover, they know that when they leave their under-funded government jobs, lucrative opportunities await them as they work to thwart their successors.

The larger picture includes how money is overwhelming other values in our society. Scientists succumb to the temptation to falsify data to make a splash. Job seekers amplify their resumes. Cheating on campuses is on the increase.

Recent indictments of FIFA officials for bribery, point to the fact that soccer, like other sports, has become a huge and profitable industry. To be sure, the players make good money but the billions generated by TV coverage eventually filter down to the officials changed with regulating the business, selling their votes to those who stand to make yet more money from the game.

There has always been corruption, and, no doubt, there always will be. But the financialization of our world, the sheer scale and complexity of global business, along with the inexorably growing disparity between the rich and poor, has dramatically changed the problem.

Just as global warming has crept up on us to the point where now we are virtually helpless against the storms and floods that wreak havoc on our lives, corruption has become pervasive, and we are in danger of simply accepting it as a feature of normal life.

Many have been concerned about the effect of the growing wealth gap: cynicism, hopelessness, resentment, the erosion of ambition – and the potential rise of class warfare and revenge. But here is yet another effect: the normalization and increase of crime and corruption.