Two Roads Diverge

The first in a week-long, three-part series.

I’m doing some reorienting. Prioritizing my non-work identities and relationships. Mid-life crisis? Don’t think so, but time will tell. Check back in a year or two from now. Lao Tzu said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” I’m taking the first steps of a journey whose outcome is unknown.

So what follows, like my identity more generally, is a work in progress. I don’t expect anyone to agree with everything. Or anything.

U.S. citizens are at a fork in the woods. A fork formed by a decline in manufacturing, technology-based automation, slower economic growth, and heightened economic scarcity.

More details here, although you don’t need Tyler Cowen or me to tell you about what you’re experiencing day-to-day.

We talk at length about the trees in the woods—fast rising gas prices, exorbitant health insurance premiums and college costs, and declining home values —but hardly at all about what lifestyles are most sustainable and meaningful.

The fork has prompted a radical shift in thinking. In the U.S., throughout the 20th century, parents thought, “I expect my children to live a better, more comfortable life than me.” Today the default is “I worry and wonder whether my children will be able to live as well and comfortably as me.”

Two roads diverged in a wood and I—I worried and wondered.

Economic security seems outside of our control. The economy is in constant flux and no job is secure. We can’t get politicians to think beyond their re-election and balance our state or national budgets. We can’t get them to stop fighting distant wars. We can’t slow China’s and India’s growth. We can’t reduce our dependence on oil. We can’t get consumers to stop shopping at Wal-Mart and other big boxes. We can’t stop companies from outsourcing jobs. And there’s seemingly no way to improve parenting, fix schools, or reduce inequality.

The fork is doubly tough for adults responsible for young people. They worry, what does their future hold? “I’m worried for myself and I’m worried for you.”

If we stop or even slow down, we may be overcome with fear for the future and overwhelmed with anxiety; therefore, we fill our days with work, shopping, entertainment, new apps, Facebook.

I wouldn’t be able to write this sentence if I weren’t extremely privileged, but I wonder if these tough economic times are an opportunity to slow down and think through more carefully how we want to live, to find ways to live more sustainable, meaningful lives. Or maybe, since lifestyle choices are intensely personal, I should say, how I want to live, to find ways for me to live a more sustainable, meaningful life.

Before fleshing out those concepts, consider the perspectives of the political left and right who have distinct opinions about the causes and consequences of the fork. Competing voices in the woods if you will. And yes, I’m conscious I’m overgeneralizing. Sometimes when you’re painting, you just grab the broad brush.

The right interprets economic history and life more generally through the lens of American exceptionalism. They’re more anxious about accelerating ethnic diversity than they are global economic restructuring. They refuse to acknowledge our relative decline and are nostalgic for the second half of the 20th century when the U.S.’s economic, military, and political advantages were much more obvious. They’re in serious denial, but if you tell them that they’ll label you anti-American, because in their worldview, American exceptionalism is self-evident.

Stagnant wages and high unemployment aren’t a result of technology-based automation, economic globalization, or our consumer choices. They’re temporary anomalies. Small bumps in the road. If the Kenyan-born, Muslim president (okay, that was uncalled for) would just embrace American exceptionalism, reduce the government to a fourth of its current size and lower taxes by half, we’d quickly reclaim our rightful role as the world’s unquestioned economic superpower. Then we could pick up living large again.

Wednesday—Part 2 of 3—The left, the President, and my evolving thoughts on the fork.

Globalization’s Trade-Offs

As a result of economic globalization, goods and services—whether tax returns, x-rays, math tutorials, or credit card or airline reservation-related phone calls—are being digitized and then sent via coaxial cables under the oceans back and forth to India, China, and other developing countries where people are willing to work for far less than Amerians because the cost of living in their countries is considerably less.

Additionally, just like in major league baseball and the NBA, labor pools are much more international. Recently in the U.S., we’ve hired lots of nurses from South Africa and the Philippines, computer scientists from India and Pakistan, and according to Bureau of Labor statistics, in 2009 there were 185,234 foreign born doctors working in the United States representing 127 countries. Twenty-four percent of all medical school classes include foreign-born students.

If national borders are fences of sort, the fences are coming down.

At the same time, U.S. citizens are increasingly angry and outspoken about outsourcing and the exporting of American jobs, a sentiment exacerbated by politicians, including the president, playing to cameras. All you have to do to understand how wildly inconsistent most people are on this topic is visit the closest Wal-Mart. Few U.S. citizens have connected the outsourcing, global economic dots.

They want their jobs protected from foreign competition, but at the same time want continued access to inexpensive toys, clothes, and toothbrushes from China and other developing countries. One study asked U.S. homeowners applying for home equity loans if they would like their loans processed by a U.S. firm in twelve days or a foreign firm in ten and the vast majority opted for the foreign firm.

Arizona’s anti-immigrant law is another case in point. Many undocumented workers are willing to work difficult, minimum wage jobs that few U.S. citizens are, thereby lowering the cost of living for everyone.

Advocate for protectionist economic and more strict immigration policies if you must, but be honest about the economic costs and also insist that legislators pass a 15%-20% insourcing VAT.

Wal-Mart

I’ve never been a bumper sticker person maybe because I believe the world is too complex for five or six word assertions like “I don’t shop at Wal-Mart.” 

Do those with bumper stickers on their cars really think their five or six words are going to change other driver’s minds about who to vote for or where to shop? If not, what’s the point of advertising your politics?

To the “I don’t shop at Wal-Mart” drivers I say so what.  Wal-Mart revenues are approximately $100B a year. Do you really think your $50-$100 a week is creating change? A few years before Wal-Mart began employing millions of Chinese, Confucius said, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” But your individual impact on Wal-Mart is probably far less than a single step.

Forgive me for not applauding you.  

I don’t support Wal-Mart, but I know my decision not to shop there is inconsequential if I don’t convince others who feel as if they have to shop there to make ends meet to find smaller, more labor and environmental friendly alternatives.  

Most of the “I don’t shop at Wal-Mart” cars I see suggest the drivers are middle or upper-middle class or wealthy. Easy for the economically secure to pass on Wal-Mart because, like me, they can afford to pay more at other retailers some of whom get a pass on questionable business practices of their own because progressives are busy directing their ire at the biggest kid on the playground.

A few years ago when I was teaching summer school in central Washington my hotel was across the street from a Wal-Mart SuperCenter. I had never been in one so I ventured in under the guise of “academic research.” I was utterly blown away by the prices which were considerably less than Costco’s where I shop regularly.

Most of the families appeared poor, probably first generation Mexicans working on farms in the area. As an English speaker, I was in the minority. I thought if I were in their shoes, politics be damned, I’d be shopping there too.

They’re not doing anything illegal. 

Of course the low prices are the result of low wages in China and in U.S. stores, nearly non-existent health coverage, and other reprehensible business practices that the left has detailed in documentary’s like “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.” 

Not illegal, but unethical. But can we realistically expect law-abiding working class citizens who feel they have to shop at Wal-Mart to connect the economic, environmental, social, and geopolitical dots? What if they lean in to your Volvo with the “I don’t shop at Wal-Mart bumper sticker and say, “I’m busting my hump earning minimum wage. My only goal is for my children to have more opportunities. Someday I hope they can afford to shop at smaller, independent retailers that pay their employees livable wages.”

So I’m waiting to see a variation of the Wal-Mart bumper sticker, one that reads, “I convinced ten working class families not to shop at Wal-Mart.”

Then, I’ll be really impressed.