Consumers Are Us

Government, industry, media, all consistently refer to us, not as people, but as “consumers”. Our economy is driven by consumer spending. News media report on it daily; if it is up, investors buy, if it is down, they sell. We spend not to satisfy needs. We consider shopping to be entertainment. We purchase things we neither need nor particularly want, as we respond to manipulative marketing by those who gain from our wanton spending. We are defined by our consumption.

We were not always like this. People once worked together to provide the goods and services needed to sustain their communities. They were family, friends, and neighbors, and they also were savers. They had savings accounts in their local banks, which loaned the funds as mortgages so others could buy houses in the community. I bought my home many years ago with a loan from the local bank on Main Street where it had been for 100 years. It was a 30 year mortgage with a 6% interest rate. I opened a savings account there, which paid me 5% interest even as those savings helped my neighbors buy their homes. All that changed with bank consolidation, resulting in the demise of many local banks. TD Bank, headquartered in another country, now occupies the building on Main Street.

With large financial institutions came intensive marketing and proliferation of credit cards. They enticed people with steady incomes and savings accounts to get credit cards and “buy now, pay later”. With credit card use, spending increased and debt became common. They later introduced debit cards to allow purchases through direct bank account withdrawals, further encouraging spending. Debit card expenditures result in exorbitant fees if they exceed the account balance; credit card expenditures incur high interest rates on charges carried over from month-to-month. The financial institutions reap huge profits.

Corporations use new technology to devise more effective ways to manipulate consumption. Mobile devices, the internet, and social networks provide access to personal information, which they use for “personalized” marketing. Mobile devices can function as debit or credit cards, making it easier to buy on impulse. We define ourselves by our purchases; we purchase and wear products that flaunt the logos of the stores we frequent. We spend and incur debt without asking ourselves the simple question, “Do I really want or need this?”

We eagerly consume the products that corporations foist on us. As we spend, the corporations profit; as we incur debt, financial institutions profit. Our contributions to our communities and to society diminish. One definition of consume is to waste, to destroy; our consumption fosters waste and exploitation of natural resources, creates pollution, destroys the environment, and corrupts society. We have earned the title “consumers.”

What Does Contemporary Art Say About Us?

A wall of the Museum of fine Arts, Boston, MA, shouts in blue neon, “All Art Has Been Contemporary”. The artwork, a sculpture by Maurizio Nannucci, is meant to attract attention and promote discussion. If the statement implies that art provides insights into the culture and environment of the times in which it was created, what does today’s artwork say about us and our culture? Throughout time and in changing cultures, art is inspired by the people, their lifestyle, the environment in which they live, and events that impact their lives, whether it be paintings, sculptures, music, drama, literature…

Today we live in a culture that is unique because of the revolutionary technology that dominates our lives and the industrial and urban development that destroys much of our natural environment and social structure. The technology provides continual distraction, which can insulate and isolate us, disrupt our social structure, and allow us to ignore the cost of unconstrained industrialization and urbanization. The results may be what inspire some of the art of recent times, which breaks dramatically from the art of previous eras.

Today we have paintings that splatter various colors across a canvas, with no particular form or character, and paintings that are simply a solid color, much as a wall. In an industrialized and urbanized environment we do not see much of nature; we see primarily the functional structures that support our way of life. We have sculptures in odd shapes that resemble nothing in the natural world, and are constructed of discarded materials, rubbish, the material that is easily produced and readily available. We hear music that is atonal, dissonant, anharmonic, and might simply be considerd noise. It reflects the din of the environment we have created. We have drama and literature that prefer to focus on the crude, crass, violent, most vile human behavior. In a society with few constraints, social behavior succumbs to its lowest impulses. We cannot say that none of this has occurred in the past, but we can ask whether it has ever been as prevalent as it is today.

Industrialization, urbanization, and technology are functional, not inspirational. As industrial and urban development engulf our society, we detach from nature and allow ever more of the natural beauty that once existed to be destroyed. The more we surrender ourselves to technology, the less imaginative and creative we become, and the more we substitute technology for direct contact among people, the more discordant our society becomes. Contemporary art is our mirror.

Education and Income Disparity

In recent decades as income disparity increased, upward mobility decreased. In the same period, quality of education deteriorated for those in lower income communities. This deterioration results when family and community income influence the quality of education. The income disparity leads to education disparity, limiting employment opportunities for the disadvantaged and increasing social problems.

The affluent can choose their communities and have the option of enrolling their children in private schools if public schools do not meet their expectations. The poor do not have those choices. Some communities offer charter schools, which allow a few students an alternative to public school. Private and charter schools have several advantages over public schools; they can select their students and control their budget, curriculum, and teaching staff. As a result, they have more freedom in accommodating student needs. Public schools must accept all students in their communities, function within fixed schedules and curricula, and live within budgets that compete with other community priorities.

Communities receive education funding from local, state, and federal governments. Local funding comes from property and/or sales taxes. Affluent communities are able to provide better resources than low-income communities. The result is that low-income communities, which have the greatest needs, may have schools with the fewest resources, the least qualified teachers, and inadequate school facilities. Federal and state funding, distributed by formula and programs to address specific factors affecting quality of education, varies from state to state. These funds do not directly address the resource advantage of affluent communities, which can afford higher salaries to lure the best qualified and most experienced teachers and provide more resources and better facilities.

Low-income communities often have more students living in environments where social problems prevail. In Income Inequality & Social Dysfunction, Pickett and Wilkinson conclude that many social problems, including mental illness, violence, teenage births, obesity, drug abuse, and poor educational performance, are more common in societies with income and social stratification, and their prevalence increases with degree of inequality. If our society continues to tolerate the conditions that increase income disparity, these problems will perpetuate.

Social problems are a drain on the economy. Better employment opportunities can reduce their prevalence. Education disparity limits the ability of the disadvantaged to be aware of, and to qualify and compete for, better employment opportunities. Might government investment to ensure education equality be an effective way to reduce social problems and income disparity?

Education and Values

The degree to which we value education determines teacher quality and the emphasis students place on academic achievement. We talk of the importance of education, but we shortchange it in numerous ways. Our teachers are often overworked, underpaid, and poorly equipped. We reduce school budgets and demand they teach classes and subjects for which they have no training. Teaching is not recognized as the profession it is, either in respect or compensation. Reports of a teacher quality problem are a reflection of how we value teachers and how we value education. We blame teachers for poor student performance even as we distract students from their studies and give them incentives to focus on other activities.

Parents and schools encourage students to participate in competitive sports with demanding schedules that leave little time for homework. Support and accolades for sports far exceed those for academic achievement. For communities, sports events are social events that often produce revenue; for working parents they replace day care. Communities may finance elaborate sports facilities, yet balk at increasing teacher salary and training. Local newspapers print lengthy articles and pictures of sports events in each edition, whereas academic accomplishment warrants only an occasional brief note.

Parents condone the use of the latest electronic devices, which may serve as learning tools, but too often are used for video games and social activities. The devices are not merely distracting. According to Lathrop and Foss in A Wake-Up Call, uncontrolled use of devices facilitates plagiarism and cheating, and too much time connected has been associated with OCD, ADHD, and symptoms similar to those of drug and alcohol addiction.

These distractions easily become a priority for students if parents and communities do not impose constraints and do not challenge poor student performance. Immigrants, who cherish education as an opportunity not available in their country, often outperform native students. Children in charter and private schools often perform better than those in public school, in part because their parents place higher value on education. Parents and communities establish the priorities, whether knowingly or by default. Compromising education compromises everyone’s future. If education is important, shouldn’t we rethink our values?

Education and Democracy

Everyone in this country is entitled to an education through high school, but that is not true in many parts of the world. We like to think there is opportunity for all, but today our public education system fails many students, handicapping their future. Academic achievement is well below that of many developed and developing countries according to the Program for International Student Assessment. Government programs to incentivize better performance include No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top, which use student scores on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and school systems. These programs typically result in “teaching to the test,” which ultimately reduces the quality of education by limiting the scope of teaching.

Our government was established as a representative democracy, which can serve all its members only if all participate. To sustain a truly democratic society, quality and equality of education are important. To our capitalist society, job training may seem most important, but maintaining a democracy requires a comprehensive education for all. A representative democracy requires informed citizens who must evaluate social, political, and economic issues, proposed solutions, and their potential impact. They need to convey their concerns to their elected representatives and monitor their responsiveness. To perform these functions effectively, so that both society and individuals benefit, citizens require a basic education in the humanities.

Lack of proper education allows a well-educated elite to influence social, political, and economic institutions to favor their interests over those of the less educated. In Why Nations Fail, Acemoglu and Robinson discuss how a government controlled by an elite segment of the population can produce extractive, repressive institutions that ultimately lead to failed nations. They conclude that successful democracies require inclusive, progressive institutions that benefit all members of society.

We are at risk of allowing a well-educated elite to gain control. Intensive lobbying and campaign funding by large corporations and well-funded individuals have caused government to become more partisan and radicalized in recent years. As a result our economic recovery is favoring the wealthy, increasing income disparity, and dismantling the social safety net. If we do not provide a comprehensive education for all, do we risk becoming a failed democracy?

Equal Justice Under Law?

I was working in Washington DC during the Clinton era in what was, and still is, a divided city. On an afternoon I was spending with my daughter and grandson, we found ourselves in front of the Supreme Court Building looking up at its inscription, “Equal Justice Under Law”. A young man walking by confronted us and asked angrily, “What does that mean?” pointing to the words carved into the façade. Instinctively, I replied, “It’s an ideal to strive for.” With that he responded, “Good answer!” and continued on his way. Hoping he was satisfied, we were greatly relieved when he left.

Recent news reports on the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the 1963 Supreme Court ruling that indigent defendants in criminal cases have a right to a lawyer paid for by the state, reminded me of that encounter. Our schools teach that our system of justice is a system of laws, which apply equally to all without discrimination. That ideal is expressed in the inscription. Although our views on whether particular laws are just may differ, we expect our system of justice to approach this ideal. Gideon was an attempt to reduce discrimination against indigents, but is there “Equal Justice Under Law”?

Gideon does not guaranty a competent or well-paid lawyer. The state provides great resources for prosecutors. They are more likely to convict a defendant with limited resources than one with independent resources to retain highly competent defense attorneys. Well-defended criminal cases can be lengthy and costly, both for the state and the defendant. This often motivates states to restrict support to indigent defendants. Under such circumstances only the wealthy are likely to receive justice.

The July 2010 Justice Policy Institute report: A Capitol Concern:The disproportionate impact of the justice system on low-income communities in D.C. notes that Washington, DC has the greatest income inequality of any major city in the country. The average income of the top fifth of households is 31 times higher than that of the bottom fifth of households. It also has some of the highest poverty and unemployment rates. Although total crime rates have fallen, police resources have increased, leading to increased arrests for low-level and non-violent offenses. These arrest policies disproportionately affect the low-income communities. A person living in a poor neighborhood just a short distance from where “Equal Justice Under Law” is inscribed might have good reason to ask an outsider “What does that mean?”

Who Answers to the People?

The ongoing protests and uprisings in the Middle East are nearly continuous in our daily news, as rebel factions challenge their existing governments. The rebels represent those disillusioned by autocratic, corrupt governments supported by powerful elites, who exploit people and resources to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The bulk of the population suffers widespread poverty, unemployment, religious and sectarian rivalry. Similar uprisings are occurring now in Brazil, where the benefits of its rise in economic power are extracted by the few to the detriment of most of the population. We tend to shrug off these events assuming it cannot happen here, but is that true?

Although our system of government is presented as a representative democracy, in recent decades well-financed corporate lobbyists have successfully influenced politicians to support policies that benefit the wealthy and the corporations. Following the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, corporations have license to fund political campaigns as freely as individuals, further exaggerating their political influence. The result is deregulation and tax breaks, which benefit corporations and the wealthy at the expense of the poor and the middle class. High unemployment allows employers to hire people at low wages, offer few if any benefits, and extract hours of unpaid labor. Jobs often are exported overseas to countries of extreme poverty, which allow cheap labor and worker exploitation. Our unemployment rate is highest among young people. Even those with college degrees, finding themselves with huge debt, must accept low wage jobs. Who are the representatives for these people?

With its laissez-faire approach our government now functions as a corporatocracy allowing corporate leaders and shareholders to extract the nation’s wealth for their personal benefit. The government answers to corporations, corporations answer to no one, and no one answers to the people. Social media foster exploitation through addiction and distraction. Intensified partisan politics and pervasive “us vs. them” attitudes decimate any sense of community and social responsibility. Our deteriorating, underfunded public education system does not produce the thoughtful, informed population, willing and able to participate, to allow democracy to flourish and prevent corporate exploitation.

Corporations use intensive lobbying to limit government regulation and interference in their practices. It is easy for those with money and power to influence politicians, who then use propaganda to hide their true agenda from uninformed voters. As economic benefits accrue to fewer and fewer people, more may become disillusioned, depressed, and desperate, with some resorting to crime, substance abuse, and suicide. Might the negative social impact of government complicity in exploitation and profiteering someday create a crisis here similar to those happening in other countries, where no one answers the needs of the people?

Robots Or Us?

In 1949 Norbert Weiner, a mathematics professor at MIT and founder of the science of cybernetics, wrote an essay on the machine age, in which he considered the consequences of technology. In his conclusions he stated, “the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do … if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently.”

A recent New York Times article reviewed one of the latest hot technologies, the development of robots to provide comfort, care, and assistance for the elderly and disabled. Some day the robots could bathe, dole out medication, provide companionship, and perform myriad other chores. Families would be relieved of the burden of providing care or of hiring caregivers, raising moral and ethical issues.

Should we entrust anyone to the impersonal care of robots? Would we want to interact with robots rather than humans when we get old? Do we need the human touch? Robots can substitute for us in performing boring, repetitive, and laborious tasks. They can be designed to act and respond like humans in particular situations. But they cannot provide the comfort and understanding, the warmth and empathy that is unique to living, feeling beings.

Is technology conditioning us to substitute mechanical for human touch? We are comfortable with technology, which makes it easy to communicate remotely, but it substitutes for direct personal interaction. Texting and tweeting is more often superficial or inane rather than substantive and our devices are addictive. People walking along or sitting together at a restaurant, talking or texting on their cell phones rather than interacting with their companions, are a common sight. Parents at school presentations often are more attentive to their cell phones than to their children’s performances. Behavior once considered rude, now seems almost acceptable.

Are we becoming narcissists? If so, perhaps we will be content with robots as friends and caregivers. Even now they can take over some chores and allow us more free time. They soon may free us of responsibility for care of elderly relatives and perhaps even our own children. Today children spend their early lives in day care, and then move on to school, sports, and other organized activities with minimal personal interaction with family members. This is a necessity at times, but often a choice. If robots are able to provide child care, will we choose to start and end life in the care of robots?

What will we become as people and as a society if we continue to devalue personal interaction, and robots become readily available to free us of responsibility for others, allowing us total self-indulgence? Will we prefer robots, rather than friends and relatives who may be less compliant, to indulge us? Will we affirm Weiner’s conclusions?

Chained!

In the ongoing government budget debacle the Obama Administration is offering the Chained-CPI as an option for reducing government expenditures. What is the “Chained-Consumer Price Index (C-CPI)” and why should we be concerned?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics calculates the CPI to estimate the effects of inflation on the cost of living. They define a market basket of goods and services and periodically calculate the change in its cost over time relative to a base time. The CPI determines the annual cost of living adjustment (COLA) to be applied to Social Security benefits, veteran benefits, pensions, and other benefit programs. The CPI also is a factor in determining worker compensation and federal tax rates.

The Chained-CPI modifies the cost of this market basket by assuming that price increases cause consumers to seek cheaper options and therefore, spend less than they would otherwise; e.g., instead of buying a big name brand product, the consumer will purchase a cheaper store brand. Using the Chained-CPI rather than the CPI results in a lower COLA. This is assumed to be a more accurate representation of consumer spending. What is not acknowledged is that the cheaper market basket represents a forced reduction in standard of living.

Government policies, as well as increasing market demands, promote inflation, so the COLA is typically an increase. If defined by the Chained-CPI, the new COLA will be less than one determined by the CPI, reducing increases in wage and benefit payments. It also will slow increases in federal tax brackets resulting in higher taxes for those with increasing incomes.

Each year as prices increase, and consumers opt for a cheaper market basket, the Chained-CPI would reduce the COLA accordingly, and lock consumers into further reduction of purchasing power and living standard. If the Chained-CPI becomes the new standard, some consumers eventually will reach a point where there is no cheaper option. The only option is to do without. This process will drive those on marginal subsistence into further poverty, hunger, failing health, disability, unemployment, premature death.

When asking about my benefits at the local Social Security office, I saw an elderly woman who was retiring from her job as a cleaning woman. She was told that she would receive $512.00/month in benefits. As she lived alone and had no other sources of income, she was entitled to food stamps and a waiver of the Medicare deduction. Even with these additional benefits her income would be well below the federal poverty level of $931/month for a single person. About 15% of the population, approximately 46 million people, are surviving on incomes at or below poverty level. What flexibility do these people have for reducing costs?

If the Chained-CPI becomes the standard for determining COLAs, most of us will be “chained” to a continuous reduction in standard of living, with the poorest, most vulnerable, suffering the most. For them there are no cheaper options.

Why?

The perpetrators have been subdued, one dead, the other seriously injured. Life in Boston returns to normal with defiant determination not to allow the Boston Marathon bombing to alter life in the city. Two young men, seemingly with everything to live for, chose a path of destruction for themselves and others. Why?

They were part of a family of refugees from Chechnya that came to the USA about a decade ago. The younger was about 8 years old, the older about 15. The older brother seemed to have more difficulty than the younger in adapting to life here. That is not unusual. Any foreigner entering a school system here would have difficulty both adapting and being accepted by classmates. In lower grades it might be easier than in high school; younger children may be more open to newcomers than those of high school age who have formed groups of friends or cliques, which can be unwelcoming to newcomers. This may explain the apparently different perceptions people had of the two brothers.

The younger seemed to integrate well with classmates, as noted in positive views expressed by teachers and classmates. Perceptions of the older brother were mixed; he was known to be uncomfortable with American culture and to claim not to have even one American friend. Although the brothers had relatives in this country, there were no close relationships once their parents returned to Chechnya. One uncle indicated a family rift was responsible. Without a family support system, any difficulties in assimilating in the new culture could be exacerbated. Though not excusing the end result, it may help in understanding their vulnerabilities.

The relationship between brothers might have become more like father-son, with the younger under the influence of the older brother. As the older brother was experiencing disillusionment with American culture without close family or community for comfort and stabilizing influence, he might entertain extremist concepts. He was vulnerable, but what was his impetus to act? There is a major step between entertaining such concepts and executing them.

He chose to sacrifice his life and his brother’s to lash out at a highly visible symbol of American culture. Did he come to believe his own life could serve no greater purpose other than to make such a statement? We may never know the answer. Isolation can lead to radical thoughts. Although few who feel isolated would act on such thoughts, when some do it can be tragic as they lash out at innocent people.

A person needs family and/or community to relate to, people to provide comfort and stability in difficult times. Immigrants in new cultures often achieve this by creating their own ethnic communities in their new country, providing a familiar environment from which to ease into the new culture. For those who have difficulty, it is a comforting haven. It does not seem the brothers had any such refuge. Instead they found refuge on the internet and social media where they found recipes for vengeance, leading to the ultimate tragedy.