Friday, August 7, 2009

Buying Local

Money is very important. You should not waste it by paying too much for the goods you buy. So people drive out to the edge of town to go to the big box stores where prices tend to be very low. They want to get as much as possible for the money they have.

But now come the "buy local" people – you can find them in many cities and towns in the United States. They tell us to avoid the big box stores where the prices are really low. Instead, they tell us we should go to the smaller stores in our neighborhoods owned by one person or a family. Their prices may well be a bit higher, so why should I go there and "waste my money"?

Here are some reasons for thinking that buying from the local retail store is not wasting your money.

The local store has been there for a long time. Every time you go there, the same people wait on you. After a while they know your name; you know theirs. They get to be like your neighbors on the street. You get to know a bit about their families and their kids. They are part of the local community. You may know some of the people in the big box store but the odds are they will not be there very long. Buying in the box store is doing business with strangers.

There used to be a locally owned hardware store near my house. When I had a question about some problem in the house, the hardware store owner would be helpful--until a large chain came into the neighborhood and put him out of business. The employees in the large chain are, by and large friendly, but they often do not know a lot and do not stay on the job for more than a few months. The people in the chain hardware store never become part of the neighborhood.

You may pay a little bit more in the small store but that money is not wasted. It is the price you pay for living in a neighborhood where you know people and are known by them. It is the price you pay for getting free and competent advice when you have home maintenance problems.

Add to that that the low prices in the big chain store depend in part on employees making very little money. The money you save at the big chain store often comes out of the pocket of people just like yourself -- people who are trying to make an honest living. It is not wasting your money patronizing businesses that treat their employees decently.

It is important not to waste money but paying the very bottom price is not always a good policy. Quality of life is tough to measure but is surely worth some pennies.

Going to school to make money?

Everyone knows that money is very important.

Everyone equally believes that "money does not buy happiness."

But many people, including many"important" people, do not understand that, however important money is, a lot of things are much more important.

Take love.

Take friends and family.

Since summer is slowly coming to a close and schools are starting again, it is time to think about the importance of education. Many people -- important people like legislators or college presidents -- keep telling us that the goal of education is to equip people to fill the jobs in the community. In other words, education is valuable only for the money. If it should turn out that the price of education is higher than the money it would bring in, you would be better off being uneducated and ignorant. If school does not make you rich, remain ignorant.

But surely that is not right. Ignorance is not justifiable. It is not bliss, it is not good under any conditions. So we need to think some more about why education is good. It is not just good for the money it might help you earn.

Education may get you a better job – a job that may not pay more but that is much more interesting. But jobs are interesting only if you are interested in what the job provides. You must first be interested in things before a job can be interesting to you. School may benefit you by opening your mind and arousing your interests in all sorts of things you did not even know about before. The benefit here is being interested. An interesting job may not pay terribly well but it leaves you feeling that you did not waste your time doing it. That is worth a lot.

Think of a young couple who settled down to have several children. Often it is the mother who stays home to bring up their children; but these days frequently also the father quits his job to stay home with small children and look after the house. Was their education wasted because they do not have the job the education supposedly prepared them for? A good education should equip you to be a better parent.

An education that prepares you for a job but does not prepare you to live your life well is a very poor education indeed. If all you learn is how to keep books, how to manage employees, how to invest money, or how to draw up a business plan, your school did not give you value for your money. A good school will communicate to you the excitement of learning new things. It will give you an understanding of a larger world in which many exciting things go on which you might want to know about or participate in. A good school will enlarge your horizon.

An education will expand the scope of your interests. After work is done there will be many other things you want to do or experience that you learned about in school. Away from your job there will be many things you will want to share with family and children. When the work life comes to an end and you look at another 20 years or more of healthy life, you may spend 20 years in front of the tube, mowing the lawn or walking the dog, or you can keep busy with many different interests and activities some of which you first encountered in school.

Traditionally, in the US, education for everyone was thought to be important because everyone was going to vote and, as a citizen, participate in public deliberations. If the country was going to be run by all adult citizens—to be sure for a long time only adult white males—all citizens must be as well educated as possible. They needed to know American history, they needed to know something about science and they needed to be citizens whose minds were as well developed as possible, who would think as clearly as possible about national and local affairs. Education for most of our history was not about money but about being free by running our own country.

Today college presidents assure the business community that our college are turning out future employees well prepared for the jobs there are. Our students are no longer considered as future citizens learning to be autonomous and helping to run the country. They are now looked at as employees, as people who take orders, and for that, get paid.

When education serves only to make money, democracy and our traditional freedoms are in danger.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Poverty is Not Good For you

Everyone knows that poor people have more health problems than people who are well-off. Many poor people also do not live as long as people in better economic conditions. Poor middle-aged men have much low life expectancy than rich ones. The same is true for poor women and the discrepancies in life expectancy between the poor and the rich have grown in recent years.
We understand the reasons for this: poor people can't afford to see a doctor. If they work they usually do not get health insurance from their employers. Many poor people work several jobs and wear out their bodies prematurely. Good food is more expensive. Vegetables, especially organic ones, are really pricey. Soda is cheaper than milk. Poverty is enormously stressful. It is more difficult to have a well organized life with regular of home-cooked meals when you are constantly struggling to make ends meet. Poor nutrition, spotty healthcare, and a life full of stress all work together to shorten lives.
But now comes news of the Perry Preschool Project. In the 1960s researchers took African-American children, born into poverty, and assigned some of them to a high-quality preschool program .while others received no preschool education whatsoever. They then followed these children, who are now in their 40s, into adulthood. Those who were assigned to the preschool program were more likely to have graduated from high school and less likely to have had problems with the law. Men and women who had attended the preschool program as infants showed more are self-control as adult and more perseverance in the face of challenging tasks. They were able to lead better lives because their personalities were stronger.
It is not too difficult to think of reasons why children, especially children growing up in poverty and targets of racial discrimination, should thrive as adults after they attended the high quality preschool program. Small children need attention. What better attention than to have adults take them seriously by teaching them various skills, social and intellectual. Being attended to regularly during these early years leaves an important message: You are an important person, you are valuable, you have reasons to be proud of yourself. Children who learn that when they are small are less likely to be discouraged when life becomes difficult. They are more likely to take themselves and their goals seriously enough to persevere until they succeed. They are less likely to sabotage themselves by getting into trouble with the law.
Most poor children-- white and black -- do not get that sort of attention. And thus they grow up more likely to be easily discouraged, to be easily distracted from long range goal by momentary temptations. Their adult lives often show the consequences of these early neglects.
This is not only about poor people, it is about all of America. We like to say of children that they can become president but we know, if we only think about it, but that is not true. Poor children are held back by the poverty. Their abilities to not develop as fully. Their health is likely to be worse. Their future is gloomier from the very beginning.
If we want to be serious about America as a country that offers opportunities to everyone, we need to be more serious about poverty. Instead of giving billions and billions to bankers who then get a million-dollar bonuses for Christmas, we need to start another “War on Poverty” to put an end to poverty as we know it.