Money Is Not Inspirational

August 19, 2011

Recently, the space shuttle program came to an end. You may have heard. Astrophysicist (and nerd-celebrity) Neil DeGrasse Tyson got pretty worked up about it. You can find a video of him being worked up here. In it, he talks about how the lack of ambition where space exploration is concerned hurts the sciences in education. He talks about how many kids wanted to be astronauts once upon a time and how this got them involved and engaged in science. I can remember this. When I was in elementary school, I desperately wanted to be an astronaut. His ramble on the subject got me thinking about how we try to inspire kids today.

All you ever hear about, be you educator or student, is how if you go to college you will make X dollars a year more than if you don’t. That’s it. Money is supposed to serve as the whole motivation for getting an education. But when I was a kid, no one ever talked about how much money astronauts made. I can’t remember ever thinking about how much any of the fantasy jobs I wanted paid. I didn’t care about the money. I just thought they would be neat things to do.

Of course, much of this is the naïveté of childhood. We were pretty poor when I was little, but money still never entered into the equation whenever someone asked me what I wanted to do. Later, in middle school and high school, I started to hear the money-first rhetoric and suddenly I wanted to be some indistinct thing called a “businessman” (I distinctly remember putting this on some career survey they had us do). Of course, I never really wanted to be that. It was simply driven home to me that money was what mattered and money, obviously, was in business. Whatever that was.

But why do we do this? I am a high school teacher and I am happy in my job. I assure you it has absolutely nothing to do with my paycheck. I have a friend who is now a lawyer. When he was in law school, he told me that I should go to law school so I could be a lawyer and make ridiculous money. My response was that I did not want to be a lawyer. I did not think I’d be happy working the absurd hours a lawyer has to work to make ridiculous money while spending all my time doing something that didn’t seem particularly enjoyable.

But I like the job I have now. Yes, the summers off are nice, but I like getting to work with kids on writing and I like teaching good books and I like that at least a few kids have made it clear that I’ve made a positive impact on their lives. But no one ever talked to me about this kind of thing when I was in school, and I think that’s a shame.

Fortunately, I was self-aware enough to know that money wasn’t the most important thing to me, but it was a close call. I wonder why we can’t talk to kids about how money might not make them happy if that’s all they go after. In fact, it probably won’t (ask my friend who now has the lower-stress and lower-paying lawyer job by choice). There is something to be said for contributing to society or pursuing your low-paying dreams in the arts or whatever else it is that really grabs you.

You hear a lot of stuff about how growing up has a lot to do with letting go of your dreams (something I disagree with, but that’s neither here nor there), but I think we’re almost reaching the point where kids don’t get to dream at all. We’ve become such a materialistic, Tea-party driven society that the only thing we really praise is the pursuit of wealth. As a result, I think we, as a society, are losing a wonderful kind of purity.

Think about when you were a kid and how your dreams gripped you. At different times, I wanted to be an astronaut, a baseball player, a scientist, and eventually a writer/English professor. Most of those things have a lot to do with curiosity. They are about pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This was what inspired me. It wasn’t money.

I grew up at the end of a time in America when everything seemed possible. Who knew where we might go in space? Who knew what we might accomplish as a people? There was real value in helping. In working for societal gain instead of personal gain. There was satisfaction to be found in cooperation and creativity and curiosity and sacrifice. As a result, our society grew and innovated and prospered. Perhaps I am being nostalgic for my childhood, but it seems to me we were happier and better for it. If I get the chance, I will try to mention this to my students.

Reinventing the World

August 5, 2011

This is a long and meandering post. I’m not entirely sure what the point is. This is the luxury of a blog.

As you, dear reader, are likely aware, I spent a good part of last month plowing through A.S. Byatt’s wonderful novel The Children’s Book. It is centered in England at the beginning of the 20th century up to WWI. The main characters are, primarily Fabians, Socialists, and similar derivatives. What they generally have in common is a desire to make the world into something different. They live in a time of enormous injustice and are generally aware of it. They hold political meetings or write editorials or participate in protests in an attempt to change their society for the better. They do not, generally, succeed, but that isn’t the point. The point is they tried, and much of what they started did lead to real changes over time.

Beyond that, there was this idea/feeling of optimism. It’s something the US really had after WWII. I can remember the last strains of it from my childhood.

And then I look at the absurd mess that is the United States right now and I am totally flabbergasted. We have now reached a point where some of our elected officials are willing to destroy the economy of our country to ensure that rich people get to keep every-damn-penny they have. There is no sense of optimism. There is no sense that we are all working together to make something new and good. There is only division and selfishness.

Never mind that there is no evidence – none – that conservative economic policies work. What is most disgusting to me is how utterly uncharitable it all is. America has become a place where money is the only thing that matters.

You may be familiar with the concept of Gross National Happiness. It is a concept introduced by the king of Bhutan in an attempt to better measure how well the people of the nation are doing. It attempts to measure several things. Let’s look at each one for the US:

1. Economic Wellness: This is bad and getting worse. Republicans haven’t totally destroyed the economy yet, but they’re getting close. Real wages haven’t gone up in I don’t know how long and unemployment is high. No one thinks the recent deal in Washington is going to make things better.

2. Environmental Wellness: We are currently in the process of gutting a lot of our environmental standards (at least where enforcement is concerned) and it’s impossible to get any new regulations through congress because we don’t want to hurt industry. Someone remind me, again, how it is that industry has been helping the general populace lately?

3. Physical Wellness: Well, once the rest of Obamacare kicks in, things should get a little better here. That said, every year I’ve been teaching, the cost of health insurance has gone up (often matching exactly whatever raise I was given) and benefits have gone down. A great many Americans are still uninsured, and we rank near the bottom of the industrialized world in health care. But again, at least this one figures to get a little better.

4. Mental Wellness: I don’t really know much about mental wellness stats in the US, but since basically everyone is worried about losing their job, I have to believe this is kind of a downer, too.

5. Workplace Wellness: Yeah. Do I even need to explain?

6. Social Wellness: We live in a nation where religious discrimination is almost status quo. We live in a nation where sexism, misogyny and violence against women are horribly rampant.

7. Political Wellness: Oy. vey.

And here’s the thing, we could fix most all of these things. Much as the Republicans have been trying to tear apart the New Deal for decades, it freaking worked. Why can’t we do something like that now? Why can’t we make a giant investment and agree, as a society, that we want to make a better nation. Things we should do:

1. Economic Wellness: We’re going to need some kind of rational tax system. Rich people benefit from the society that allows them to be rich. In most instances this comes in the form of inherited wealth. In other instances, someone is simply lucky enough to have their particular talents valued highly by the society in which they live. A stock broker is very important in America. Less so in nomadic Mongolia. If you are rich, you are also almost certainly very lucky, thus you should pay a higher percentage of your wages to keep society going.

2. Environmental Wellness: It is time to go the route of green energy (if you don’t think global warming is real, you are an idiot, I’m just going to state that as a fact) via direct government. The US government has invested in industry infrastructure before (think railroads, among others) and it’s time to do it again. The primary problem with green energy is the upfront cost. If the government starts to offset that, suddenly green energy is much less expensive.

3. Physical Wellness: Socialized Medicine. Single Payer. Do it. I know socialism is a bad word, but if you really hate social programs, I hope you’re sending your children to private schools and hiring a private security force to take care of crime in your neighborhood. Why basic health needs aren’t considered on par with these other things is beyond me. Also, socialized medicine works way better than our current system as about a million studies will tell you.

4&5. Mental Wellness & Workplace Wellness: I’m tying these together to talk about human-friendly labor policy. Why on earth don’t we have paid maternity and paternity leave? Why don’t most of us have decent amounts of vacation time? This one would be pretty tricky as it really requires a mental shift to the idea that time can be more valuable than money. Less work would lead to less production, overall, but I don’t know why that’s a bad thing. Economies can’t grow forever. Eventually, we need to stabilize, and I would be willing to bet that most people would be way happier without the 60-hour work weeks and constant fear that you could be fired at any moment. Stronger unions would certainly help this along. Interestingly, despite this idea that lack of job-security makes people more productive, every study I’ve ever seen says the more secure a person feels, the harder they work. This comes, I suspect, from feeling like and important part of an organization instead of like a nearly-worthless cog that can be replaced at any time.

6. Social Wellness: Let’s start by trying to value all members of society equally and go from there. It would certainly help if a certain political party could drop the sexism, homophobia, and mad-crazy religious intolerance.

7. Political Wellness: This comes down to the anti-intellectualism in place right now. I don’t know how this happened, but it now seems to be decidedly uncool to have any idea what you are talking about. I suspect a lot of it stems from the political power ultra-conservative religious groups currently have. You can’t be a member of some of these sects without stomaching a lot of cognitive dissonance (I’m thinking of the things that come out of Michelle Bachman and Glenn Beck’s mouths). Basically, you can’t believe that nonsense if your willing to actually research information. Thus, researching information (also known as learning) is bad and ignorance is good. This explains how the Tea Party got so many people elected during the last go-round. If you could take care of this and get everyone thinking that it’s a good idea to listen to people like Paul Krugman (who has been very, very right about what’s been happening in the economy) because, you know, they actually have some expertise and don’t say stupid things like, “You know, where I grew up, we believed in common sense…”

So what if we did all this? Well, we’d end up with a sustainable nation where people are mostly happy. Instead, we have an unsustainable (oil is going to run out eventually) mess with high unemployment and an overwhelmingly unhappy populace. But it could change. We just need to realize, as a nation, that what we’ve been doing isn’t working. It’s time to try something else. We can reinvent the world. We have the means, we only lack the will.

On Simplicity

February 16, 2010

I have, of late, been giving a fair amount of thought to the current make up of our consumerist society. Though I had been thinking about it for a while, it was a column in Bill Bryson’s book I’m a Stranger Here Myself that pushed me over the edge into the actual writing of a blog post. In the column (“A Slight Inconvenience”), Bryson writes about how, often, time-saving devices do anything but. That is, all these things require time to learn how to use. Also, they break. Also, they cost money, which means you need to work more (an thus have less time) so that you can buy the time saving devices and pay for the repairs on time saving devices that will allow you to work still more and acquire more things to make your life at home very convenient. At least, for the three minutes a week you spend at home when you are not asleep.

I am in more or less full agreement with Bryson on this. I am a teacher at least partly because it allows me to have more time than most people have that is not spent at work or thinking about work or doing work while at home. I would carry it even a bit farther. I hate few things more than snow blowers and gas powered lawn mowers. Unless you are disabled, I see nothing wrong with a shovel or a mower that is entirely propelled by your legs. These things rarely break and they do not require earplugs to operate safely. And really, how big is your driveway or your yard?

But there is, I think, more that can be said on this topic. I have, over the years, thought periodically about how silly old people were when they complained that our whole culture is going to hell in a hand-basket because we can get everything on the internet now and when you make a phone call to a business, it’s always a recording, and so we just aren’t encouraged to interact any more. Until recently, I always sided with those who said, “Why do I want to interact with some idiot teenager just to get the new Richard Thompson album?” But recently, I had a sort of realization…

When old people talk about those halcyon early days when all were forced to interact with each other, acquiring the basic necessities of life occurred in a completely different context. I have written in this blog before that we frequent a local farmers’ market. I cannot explain how different this is from a trip to the supermarket. At the supermarket, there are endless products designed specifically to deceive us. No one who works at the store can tell you anything about them (other than the aisle in which said products are located) and the cashiers have no useful knowledge beyond a series of numbers that should be input in the unlikely event that you purchase something that actually grew out of the ground and thus does not have a bar code plastered on its side.

At the farmers’ market, however, we purchase meat and vegetables from people we have actually gotten to know. Beyond that, we are purchasing from people who care deeply about what they are doing. They are not farmers because it provides a paycheck (often, sadly, it does not). Rather, they are farmers because they care about growing things. They see value in what they do.

You can see this kind of distinction everywhere, if you look close enough. There is the local bookstore where the people actually read good books and can recommend things. Then there is Borders, where they look at me cross-eyed when I ask for the new Michael Chabon and stock Walden in “fiction”. There are any number of chain music stores where you’ll find whatever is new, whatever is hip, and whatever is played on classic rock stations. And then there is the local music store where (until a recent steep, sad decline), I could walk in and instantly here something I’d never heard before and where everyone who worked there was familiar with even the most obscure new release (and, chances are, had listened to it already and could tell you what they thought).

I could go on, but you get the idea. This, I think is what older people are talking about. They did not come of age during a time of chain stores and giant box retailers. They grew up at a time when people sold the things they cared about. When they knew about their products. When you could talk to them and know they cared and general feel like they weren’t trying to scam you or spout some required company line about how you should really try this new historical mystery even though anyone looking at the books your picking up could tell you’d be more likely to be interested in an updated catalog of the characteristics of North American trees.

And so, I find that I sympathize. Sure, even the internet is now capable of recommending books to me that I will probably like, but, you know, sometimes those recommendations are sponsored, and so, once again, I can’t help but feel as though I might be being scammed. So, I sympathize. I understand the desire for interaction with other people. Not the incompetent teenagers we see now, but with people whose passion are the same as yours. Or if not the same, then, at least with people who have found a way to stay connected to the things they care about and who take pride in what they offer beyond what it will mean on their paychecks. There is value in that. I wish I had come of age in a society that knew better than to cast it aside.

Of course, I know this is idealized. It was probably never quite like I imagine it above. In coming back to the beginning and Mr. Bryson, though. I cannot help but wonder if it is any coincidence that at about the time we started to cast away these kinds of values, we started to have a lot more shit in our houses that we don’t really need.