Sunday, July 29, 2012

What is higher education worth?

Colleges and universities, whether public or private, receive substantial financial aid from cities, states, and the federal government. In Boston, someone has calculated that Northeastern University receives $182 million in public support. In these days of budget constraints for all levels of government, someone is bound to come around and ask: is this money well spent?
In response, Northeastern studied its contributions to the greater Boston area. The study concludes that Northeastern's contribution is at least $340 million. Its list of benefits includes: "public open space, better informed citizens, higher voter turnout, free facilities for the public, job creation, social and economic mobility, scientific breakthroughs, educating the workforce and developing the community."
I am sure that officials at Northeastern University are well aware that a college or university education has many other benefits, which are, however, not so easily measured in dollars and cents. It is not possible to put a money value on people having better lives because they are more articulate, more self-aware, and better informed about what goes on in the world. Well educated people are better able to find answers to questions. If they encounter problems, it is easier for them to either find solutions themselves or consult someone who will be able to help them out. Educated people are capable of being more thoughtful about their lives. They are likely to make better choices for themselves, their families and the community.
The educated tend to be more politically active; they are better informed and, thus, likely to make better choices.
Education offers many sources of pleasure. Being acquainted with literature and music and the arts expands one's awareness of the world and expands the sources of satisfaction. It provides new avenues for self-expression.
One cannot put a dollar value on any of that.
Northeastern's account of its contribution to community well-being illustrates a very negative trend in our world: every day the values of things are more likely to be expressed in money terms. Values that cannot be translated into dollars and cents tend to be left aside or forgotten. We tend to say that they are "subjective" and then not pay any attention to them. More and more, the things that can be bought and sold are considered important. What cannot be paid for in the official currency is overlooked.
Our outlook on the world is thereby seriously impoverished. People go to college to get a better job, to earn more money. No one talks about college as opening wider perspectives on life's possibilities. No one seeks to provide students with a better work life – that satisfies, that strengthens pride and self-esteem, that yields more productive community members and earns them the respect of their neighbors.
How long will it be before people calculate whether it is economically preferable to have children or to remain childless, whether it is economically efficient to place your aging parents in a nursing home or to take care of them at home? How long before parents will realize that they do not profit from spending money on a good education for their children, and then refuse to finance college or graduate school? Soon citizens may decide that there is no money in voting or participating in their communities, that going to church is a waste of your time which would be better spent earning money. We have been saying for a long time that "time is money" and now we are taking this more and more seriously.
No wonder many people are depressed, aimless, and addicted to some chemical or another, or to some public entertainment or another. Because, after all, as we also have been saying for a long time, “money doesn't buy happiness.”

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Reflections about Violence

Twelve people die, killed by a heavily armed gunmen in a Colorado movie theater, the latest in a series of random shootings that have become commonplace in our country. The president and his opponent suspend their acrimonious campaign and express their deep sorrow. But they have no suggestions for what the government might do to lower the level of violence. They are prepared to accept the recurrence of mass murder as a regular feature of our life.

Pundits are quick to call for more gun control. But it is not obvious that gun control is what we need to be talking about. Perhaps the more pressing question is: "why is gun control such an incendiary issue?" Millions of Americans believe that they need to be armed in order to be safe. The gruesome evidence that being armed does not protect you against a mass shooter in a darkened movie theater has no weight for them. They live in a world of imminent mortal threats where they believe that only the weapons in their hand will allow them to survive.

Most people deplore mass shootings, a high murder rate – close to 17,000 in 2011--, but these are not the only manifestations of violence in our society. 
At least half of the daily news stories report death and destruction. Violence sells newspapers and tv news. Television entertainment, year in, year out, has a heavy dose of police and spy dramas; computer games allow us to be humans or super-humans with enormously bulky weapons blasting everything in sight. Even sports are popular for the players' violence. 
Here are some quotes from a review of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises—the film showing during the Aurora CO massacre: “Fight sequences between Batman and Bane were awesome. Loved every second of it.” (

Americans love violence. 
They also live in a world where many are prepared to inflict bodily or psychological harm on others to get what they want.

The Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, estimates that 19,000 women in uniform were victims of sexual assaults last year. Among civilians, one in four women suffers sexual assaults. 22% of women and 7% of men report having suffered violence in intimate relationships. In 2008 – 2009 28% of children in schools reported having been bullied. 6% were subject to cyber-bullying.

We barely extricated ourselves from the Iraq war and seem still unable to leave Afghanistan. While all that is going on we participated in a bombing campaign in Libya and the foreign policy experts in Washington are thinking seriously of a military attack on Iran. The US Navy has moved more ships into the waters around Iran.

The budget of the US govt for 2012 amounts to $3.7 trillion. $900 billion of that—about a quarter-- is budgeted for defense. We spend 5 times as much on defense as China (with a population many multiples of ours) and 10 times as much as Russia, 11 times as much as France and England. 
Who are we defending ourselves against?

And, coming back to the beginning of this reflection, no one speaks of the pervasive violence—both loved and abhorred by us-- that is the backdrop of daily life in the US. No one seems to regard these facts as unacceptable. Violence is accepted as a fact of national life. 
Gun violence is only one form violence takes in America. Focusing on gun control is to ignore the much larger problem that is the American love-hate relation to violence. We are ambivalent about violence. We glorify military violence but do not know what to think when a rising number of soldiers turn their weapons on themselves. We deplore violence done to us and those we love but are fascinated by news stories about violence. We spend $60 billion a year for Homeland Security to protect ourselves from the bloody mayhem we engage in playing computer games.

The first step in trying to overcome an addiction is to acknowledge it. America will not overcome its addiction to violence without first recognizing its existence. Nothing short of an extended national conversation about violence in American life will help. 
Will such a conversation purge us of the desire to inflict bodily and mental pain on others? No one knows the answer to that.

But obviously accepting violence, as we do today, will not make us into a more peaceful nation.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Private Enterprise endangers Public Safety
A report from a Japanese investigation, just out, reminds us how dangerous privately owned nuclear power plants are and how private industry corrupts government supervision.
Here are bits and pieces of the story: the Fukushima nuclear plant was owned and run by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). Many Japanese had good reasons for being distrustful of the company. In 2002, the company was caught falsifying records of nuclear power plant inspections. After a 2007 earthquake damaged a TEPCO nuclear generating plant, it emerged that the company was totally unprepared for earthquakes, even though Japan is of all countries the most prone to serious quakes.
The plant was built by General Electric and serviced by one of its divisions. One of their engineers who inspected the power plant found many safety violations. When he reported his observations, General Electric terminated him. The American company was as careless with public safety as its Japanese customer. The Japanese government did nothing; the power generation was allowed to continue in spite of serious threats to the integrity of the plant.
As in the US, Japanese government officials have a cozy relationships to private industry. When government officials retire they are often rewarded with employment in private companies. The regulators of the nuclear industry are hand in glove with the industry they are supposed to regulate. When the falsification of inspection records came to light, the government reacted limply and failed to take appropriate action to make sure that the nuclear power company would take safety measures more seriously.
The public in Japan, and all over the world, was put in danger in order to save money for the stockholders of TEPCO and to preserve the cushy jobs of government officials. In short, the regulatory mechanism failed completely.
Contrary to prevailing conservative opinion, private enterprise did not benefit the public. More importantly, and more seriously, private enterprise corrupted the governmental mechanisms supposed to step in where private enterprise fails to benefit everyone and to keep everyone safe. Not only did the privately owned nuclear power company put their own profit ahead of public safety but they managed to undercut government regulation to ensure that nuclear power plants would be safe as possible.
Once again, private industry shows itself more powerful than popularly elected governments. Private industry has no difficulties using government for its own purposes to the detriment of the public at large. Its no longer government "for the people" but for the large corporations.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The Greeks and the US

Athens is more than 5000 miles away from Washington DC. Greece is a small country with relatively few resources. Ours is a very large, rich and powerful country. In spite of the differences, there are lessons to be learned from the suffering of the Greek people.
The Greek government owes a whole lot of money to banks in Germany and France. For a long time, these banks were happy to turn over Greek loans, but in the present global financial crisis they have become much more reluctant to make loans to Greece and the Greek government is running out of money.
How did the Greeks manage to get themselves into this tight spot? The answer to this question depends pretty much on whom you ask. Some observers blame the generous social safety net and pension arrangements for Greek workers. The government paid out more money than they could afford and so they borrowed. That served to maintain the popularity of the governments in power and to get them reelected.
Add to that the Greek government's inability to collect taxes. In Greece tax evasion is a national sport. Even the local vegetable seller will not give you a sales slip. That keeps the transaction off the government's radar and enables the vegetable seller to evade sales taxes.
This is the sort of explanation that blames ordinary Greeks, but, of course, the major tax evaders are the rich in Greece, not the ordinary people who barely get by.
Also, the banks who lent money to Greece were not doing it out of the goodness of their heart. Banks in the wealthy European countries were sitting on a lot of cash. Lending it out to countries like Greece was very profitable inasmuch as interest rates on loans to Greece were higher because the loans were considered riskier.
But as long as the interest payments came rolling in, the banks continued taking the risks and lending out money. But then the 2008 financial crisis hit. The banks in the wealthy countries suddenly became reluctant to lend out more money and the Greeks were stuck with an enormous debt they could not pay back.
There is clearly plenty of blame to go around. For the sake of short-term profits the banks took excessive risks. Citizens, rich and poor, evaded their civic responsibility by not paying taxes. Governments put their narrow political advantage ahead of the well being of the country they had sworn to enhance. The European Community ignored its own rules.
Everyone was looking out for number one. And now all are losers, common people in Greece worst of all. With 25% unemployment and a seriously torn social safety net, the poor, the sick, and the elderly are suffering.
On the surface, conditions in the US seem very different. The Greek debt is 130% of the Greek national income. Our national debt is just slightly larger than what we produce. Ordinary people do not evade taxes, much. It is only the largest corporations like Exxon and GE that do not pay any taxes. US governments do not get re-elected by giving ample benefits to ordinary people. They manage to stay in power through welfare to the rich while cutting benefits to retirees and the neediest in the nation.
But in both countries the banks play a central role.
Banks originate when ordinary people and businesses need someone to keep their money for them. At other times, individuals, businesses or countries are a bit short on cash and they want to borrow some. So they all get together and establish a bank. Everyone gets what they want. The deposits of some become loans to others. It is one more way in which neighbors get together to help each other out.
Until . . . . some rich guys get together and start their own bank, not as a service but in order to make money. They take in deposits and invent all sorts of fees to make money off the depositors. They make loans and they like the risky ones because those carry higher interest payments. They start, essentially, gambling with risky loans and make side bets to insure themselves against losses. They enter transactions so complicated that even they do not fully understand them. (Doing that J P Morgan recently lost somewhere between $2 and $9 billion).
The Greek crisis, in part, is the result of huge for-profit banking just as is the 2008 meltdown whose effects we are still feeling.
The lesson? Let's go back to not-for-profit banking, to credit unions or cooperative banking. Not everything we do needs to be a way to make money. We do not have families and children to make money. For many—not for all—religion is not a source of profit. Most creative people make music, write novels, or tinker in their garage not to make money but for the pleasure of it. Most people participate in sports to be healthy or, again, just for the joy of it.
For-profit banking, the entire huge financial industry, is a big mistake. It sank Greece. It will sink us, unless we take measures to protect ourselves against their recklessness.