Wednesday, January 22, 2014
I started studying economics at the University of Maine online in the spring of 2012 in order to be able to weigh in on this conversation from a more informed place. In 2011 I had watched the culture war screaming contests intensify, sort of wished I could join my friends at Occupy Oakland, and had a few great conversations with family members brave enough to gently tell me where they thought my sound analysis ended and liberal hogwash began.
The microeconomics class I took first was great fun, tables and math I was able to make some use of this year as Art started selling paintings and t-shirts. (I also learned why a tax on yachts falls almost entirely on boat builders rather than on buyers.) There were not, as I feared there might be, assumptions with which I fundamentally disagreed. Then, a few semesters later, I moved on to macro (there was a human resources class in between). I was able to take the underlying assumptions in stride there, too, except for this one: more and faster economic growth is always best for everyone, because "a bigger pie" means more real income for anyone with income. It doesn't and it hasn't, in this country in the last 30 years (graph published by the Atlantic, from Center for Budget and Policy Priorities numbers):
So today's debate is between this guy, who I look forward to hearing on All Things Considered every Friday, with whom I think I would have no trouble finding compromise if we ever had to work together:
...and this guy, who I think has a good record (if you remember Clinton Labor Department decisions you didn't like, I'd like to know about them. honestly.) I usually agree with his analysis, but I've been getting increasingly frustrated with his rhetoric:
Back to the graph, to start, a point of agreement from both corners: something is not okay at the top. "Perverse compensation schemes on Wall Street" and superstar economics (Brooks) have led to a very few getting very rich in an age-of-the-robber-barons, pre-antitrust law sort of way.
Hey, lots of jobs in my town require the presence of one-percenters, many of whom are lovely people. No one's getting out a guillotine. I think Brooks probably supports shareholder resolutions that have come forward in recent years attempting to reign in executive compensation. To my mind, there's no way that an executive of a U.S. firm is hundreds of times better at her job than her 1950s counterpart at the same firm, or than a leader at a Japanese firm today (for this argument, remember not to confuse said Japanese firm with that country's government in the "lost decade"). Put another way, productivity gains have not all been due to the genius of top management.
"If you have a primitive zero-sum mentality," Brooks said, "you assume greater affluence for the rich must somehow be causing the immobility of the poor."
The zero-sum thing is important to understand. Conservatives often say, "look, we shouldn't be talking about who gets how big a piece of an existing pie. What we need is to make a bigger pie. When we do, everyone gets more." To the extent that the "bigger pie" conversation reminds us that we're talking about very complex systems, that's great. Gains from trade can work that way. A dollar of investment generates many more dollars of total economic activity.
But as Reich points out and Henry Ford famously understood, you've got to have purchasing power in the middle class in order for an economy to grow. I can agree to look at the bottom and top of the graph separately; at the bottom, real wages have not kept up with GDP growth as promised in the textbooks. If that has nothing to do with executive compensation, fine. I can even buy some of the arguments that changing the federal minimum wage may not be the way to change it. But it needs to change.
Brooks likes to talk about the poor, and he's well versed in relevant social science. "The primary problem for the poor is not that they are getting paid too little for the hours they work. It is that they are not working full time or at all." Hear, hear! I'm not sure how to go about changing the culture in big-firm HR strategy (the not-full-time thing predates the Affordable Care Act). I agree with Brooks that the "human capital problem" is a better bet for bipartisan legislation than a minimum wage bill, but I'm not aware of a human capital lobbying firm on K-street, so I'm not hopeful that they'll get to it.
As Reich points out, whatever we come up with for policy to address what Brooks calls human capital problems, it will cost some money and "the fiscal cabinet is bare." That missing middle class needs to be making money in order to pay taxes, too.
You're both right, gentlemen. Could you cut out the name-calling?
Sunday, September 30, 2012
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Wednesday, February 8, 2012
A few months ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I spent several hours copying information from my account, such as email addresses for folks I wanted to keep in touch with but don't normally email. I sent this email to a long list of family and friends:
Hi, friends and family,I wanted to give you a heads up, since I'm only in touch with many of you on Facebook, that I'm in the process of deactivating my account there.My reasons are:1) I spend much too much of my day on Facebook, and often don't feel good about how I've used the time.2) I'm concerned about my role in Facebook's business model. My understanding is that we users are not the customers, we are the free content providers. Our desire to connect with other people and groups is exploited to get advertising in front of us, and to generate data about us that can be sold to advertisers.If you're getting this email, I took some time to make sure I still had a way to contact you besides on Facebook, and would really like to stay in touch. Please, if you think of it, email me that awesome article, video, or picture that you posted on Facebook that you think I'd like/benefit from/be glad to see.
I received a wide range of responses. The one that stuck with me most was a friend who thought I was fighting a losing battle in trying to opt out of social networking in general (“It's how we communicate now,” he said). He also shared that he has a software configuration that allows him to use Facebook without seeing any ads.
What changed about my life when I got off Facebook? My email response time improved, and I communicated with my mom (most important person in my life not on Facebook) a lot more. I was hoping to become a more intentional consumer of news and media, and that sort of worked. I have a hard-copy subscription to the Economist, but I don't have long enough breaks in my workday to get through very much of it. I use my iPhone New York Times app, but the Top News Stories tend to be not all that much more in-depth versions of the headlines I've already heard on NPR in my car on the way to work. I'd love to have access to the “Most Emailed” articles section, but you have to pay for that.
A couple of things happened recently that helped me decide to become an active Facebook user again. I heard a Commonwealth Club of California program about “Social Networking on the Brain,” which reminded me of two important things. One, my large “Friends” list reflects one of my core competencies, namely connecting with diverse groups of people and knowing with whom to share a question or an idea. Two, from Tiffany Shlain, director of the documentary “Connected,” it's possible to adopt personal practices that can reduce the addictive, dopamine-hit habits of checking Facebook too often or finding it difficult to log off and get something done or go to bed. She and her family do a “digital sabbath”, where everything with a screen gets shut off every Friday night and stays off until Saturday night.
While the Commonwealth Club program reminded me about the benefits to me of using Facebook, it didn't address the “I'm uncomfortable with my role in FB's business model” issue. It was the news and conversations this week about Facebook's upcoming IPO that changed my position. It became clear to me that Zuckerberg&Co have never been out to maximize ad revenue at the expense of users' experience. Some pundits were disappointed with the current revenue numbers, but their highest expectations would have given Facebook a huge share of the huge media advertising market in this country. That seems not to make the list of what Facebook is trying to accomplish, and I respect them for that. I also respect them for setting up the IPO in such a way that they won't cede control to interests that will exploit their data and their users even more.
So here (there) I am. 6 days a week.
Wednesday, August 4, 2010
when i was little i was always very flexible. i was always stretching, since i started ballet when i was 4 or 5. i was never very strong. these days i'm stronger and a lot less flexible. i've noticed that in any given season i seem to be either strong or flexible but not both.
when i was younger i had a very rich inner life. i drew pictures and wrote poems and letters to the flower fairies in my yard, i loved Holy Week church services for the way their drama affected me, and i was always imagining how to change the things i saw. these days i am so occupied with my tangible work and the people around me that some days i worry my imagination might be wilting. i like that i now more often have the ability to change things the way i imagine, but i also have such a thicker skin that i'm rarely drawn into awe and wonder. is it true that i'm either imaginative or effective but not both?
last week i took a break from my very thick-skinned, getting-things-done job and went to a meditation retreat with my dad. i meditated very little, but that's not exactly the point of this post. what i want to reflect on here is that as i've become more skilled and effective and focused in my work, i see God less. i hope to heck that is not a direct result.
we humans are complicated and noisy systems, so who knows. like strength and flexibility, this spiritual dry season is a pendulum swing, and when i take time off this fall i can meditate and journal my butt off. but wouldn't it be nice to have both?
i'm not going to start talking about God all the time. but i pray i make some effort, to be flexible as well as strong, to sit in silence and wait for awe to meet me, to come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.
Monday, August 31, 2009
this afternoon i walked north along the lakeshore and explored the east side of milwaukee. i stopped for lunch at a restaurant/bar, and settled into a booth to read the novel i've been slowly working my way through for ages. i was facing a guy sitting in the next booth over, working at his computer. when i ordered my glass of zinfandel, he looked over and said, "how can you be wearing a che guevara shirt and drinking that? that's not a people's drink!"
i discovered he was from scotland, had just resigned from teaching poetry at one of the UWs, and deduced that he had already had several beers. he had a book of philip larkin poems, and was surprised to learn i had never heard of him. during a lull in his and my conversation, one of the waitresses came up and asked me about my che t-shirt, saying she'd lived in argentina for awhile and you see his picture everywhere.
drunk scottish guy had offered to give me the philip larkin book and pointed me to a poem called "Church Going." i allowed as how my next stop was going to be the cathedral for evening prayer, and my two conversation partners both turned on me in disbelief. scottish guy said he could have predicted i was "a religious person," and both of them said they think organized religion is nonsense. it was a common conversation for me but seemed higher stakes--it was more important to me to find common ground with them because we were strangers.
i did take the philip larkin book. here's the last few stanzas of Church Going. the church is,
"A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,
Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;
A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete.
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round."
i only read this once i got home. i had spent some of the last hour hearing stories from folks at the cathedral after the eucharist on the feast of st. aidan, stories that did in fact involve rood-lofts. i got to this last stanza and really wished i could discuss it with scottish guy, because i agree perfectly with this perspective and it makes me itch--to let the sheep into the churches, to plead to keep the incense, to get rid of sniggering and frowsy-ness. i gravitate to church largely because i once heard it was ground proper to grow wise in. my work is helping it stay that way - i like that i spend my days both with the folks who mistrust and look sideways at the church, and with the faithful remnant keeping up the 150-year tradition of daily mass in the cathedral of all saints. my place is between them, like Jack Sparrow at the end of the first recent pirates of the caribbean movie, showing that we're not as far apart as we think and bringing into relationship. or, as I added to my facebook profile awhile ago, helping people who have stopped talking to start talking again.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
and then, on that day whose every movement we remember, it is quiet for awhile.
brother roger of taize says “in the long silences when it seems nothing is happening, we strengthen ourselves within, it is there that the best in us is being built up.”
it's certainly true that death creates space. sometimes we say we have a friend-shaped hole in our heart when a friend has died. those holes, those long silences, bring us to a thin space, connect us to the ground of our being, like holy wells—the hole is painful but it provides access to intimate feeling and knowledge of the Holy.
i'm a person who tends to see both sides to everything—how every experience has dark and light, the yin and yang. this makes me less bouncy on easter, but hopefully provides some hope on good friday! in fact, the last time i gave a reflection on this station of the cross, i was a senior in highschool, and my grandfather had just died. i was into hindu mysticism and rainer maria rilke, and i gave a happy, chipper reflection about how jesus leaving his body was cause for celebration.
this year my good friday hope is about falling in love. somehow, in a nonlinear, poetic way, jesus' descending to the dead and my own falling in love feel like similar movements. maybe that would sound horrible if jesus had been a friend i knew, physically here, in person, who i had lunch with last week. or maybe not. not that i rejoice in not having him around anymore. but that both events drop me down, make a holy well of my heart. the falling and feeling the depth is painful, but i think that may be only because it cuts away layers of protective thoughts, worries and fears. we worry that all that stuff that makes it hard to know what we're feeling, that clouds over our hearts, like the demons jesus cast out—we worry that's who we really are and we don't want to let it go. the hole that love leaves only love can pass through.
i've been telling the story about why i plan to moving away at the end of this school year. it's an important story so i've wondered how to tell it well. one friend, coaching me on this, said,
“start with the part about 'i'm in love.'”
she was right. if i say that i open my heart and my listener to a place of deep vulnerability and connection. i'll feel how i'm taking a leap of faith, going to join my partner working on a sailing ship. i'll feel how he's taking a leap of faith in inviting me, and how we're both scared. i'll feel how much we want to take good care of our ship, our crew, and each other, and how disappointed we'll be if we fall short. and the feeling that comes to reassure me, even when he's far away, that we're moving in the right direction, has that holy depth, the hole that love makes. it makes a pretty good story.
being in love, trying to step into the role and the work that my love calls me to, feels a lot like being a disciple. love of this dying savior, redeemer, and brother changes a lot of things. when Kent and i were on vacation a few weeks ago i sat at the cabin one afternoon while he was off hiking, and the song from Jesus Christ Superstar came to mind, Mary Magdalene singing of Jesus, “I don't know how to love him./ I don't know how to take this” she says, “I don't see why he moves me/I'm the one who's always been/so calm, so cool, no lover's fool/running every show/he scares me so.” love makes us somehow less in control but more responsible since we're called into caring for more than ourselves.
my love reassures me when i need to be brave, and especially since we're far apart i see that's also how jesus reassures us. it's a challenging reassurance, as jesus left us with work to do. we want to do well by him for he loves us so much and because living more as he did would be so rich and satisfying. brother roger says that in his death “Jesus stands at the door of every human heart and knocks: Do you love me? Will you remain with me to watch and pray for the people of the earth who are suffering?” He asks, can i make a hole in your heart that will be a direct line to the deepest love and suffering there is?