Thursday, February 24, 2022

What is Comfortable?

When does necessity become luxury? When does comfort become affluence? Thoughts on being comfortable are this week's column for The Villager. 

Renowned bioethicist Peter Singer once published an article entitled “The Singer Solution to World Poverty,” in which he spotlighted the increasingly dire need for basic necessities of food, water, clothing, shelter, and medicine in many parts of the world. Singer suggested that prosperous and affluent people in developed countries have a responsibility to provide those necessities to the less privileged. “The formula is simple,” Singer writes. “Whatever money you’re spending on luxuries, not necessities, should be given away.”

Of course, nothing is ever simple, certainly not the challenge of solving world poverty. The beginning point to addressing Singer’s plan would be to first establish a definition of luxury and necessity. And the subjective nature of our experiences makes that nearly impossible. In 2005 when the College Board put Singer’s idea on the AP English exam and asked students to defend or challenge his plan, one clever student asked that simple question with one key example – how necessary is toilet paper? In reality and across history, such a simple commodity is clearly not necessary. That said, few people in contemporary society would agree, unless they recently installed a bidet, which should actually be considered a luxury.

Another key component of Singer’s idea is determining if redistribution of wealth and assets can, in fact, end world poverty. The history of allegedly communist and certainly socialist countries seems to indicate the answer is no. Collectivism simply doesn’t work on any large scale, though small successful communities like a kibbutz suggest collaborative societies are certainly viable. Critics of redistribution are fond of referencing the “Ten Cannots” from Reverend William Boetcker who asserts “You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.” Incidentally, that platitude is often incorrectly aligned with Abraham Lincoln, a mistake made by Ronald Reagan in his speech at the 1992 Republican Convention.

Granted, Boetcker words are simple platitudes which don’t necessarily make them valid or true. On the other hand, the ideas of Peter Singer are not simple quips, but instead the summation of decades of research and investigation. And, as a professor of philosophy and ethics, Peter Singer is an advocate for practicing what he preaches, giving away a large amount of his earnings over his lifetime. In fact, following his winning of the 2021 Berggruen Prize, Singer quickly announced he will not keep the million dollar prize, instead distributing it among his charitable foundations. Thus, it’s not easy to dismiss Singer’s ideas when backed up by his actions, and it should make us question our ideas about luxury and necessity.

As a middle-class wage earner living in contemporary suburban America, I try to remind myself that by nearly every measure, I am one of the wealthiest people in all of human history. The relative comfort in which I live and the conveniences that I take for granted as basic necessities of life could be considered luxury and even a lavish lifestyle when compared to the majority of the world’s population. In fact, compared to the record of human history, I am in many ways more comfortable, if not actually wealthier, than kings and queens of yesteryear.

What does it really mean to be “comfortable”? In a world of increasing wage and wealth gaps, the concepts of comfort and middle class have become muddled. Wharton Business School professor Nina Strohminger recently asked her students what they thought the average American worker makes annually. One-quarter of them thought it was more than six figures, and one student actually guessed $800K – the actual answer is $45K a year. The aloof nature of elite business students is unsettling to say the least, and it complicates talk of comfort. In fact, a Denver area realtor recently told the Denver Post, the measure of a “luxury home” is no longer a million dollars. In determining luxury and wealth, “it really starts at two million.”

Americans have a strange relationship with wealth and status, striving diligently for it, then liking to pretend they haven’t made it. In fact, the news and social media is filled with stories of people talking about “struggling” financially while living upper-middle class lives. Instead of calling themselves rich, affluent, or wealthy, many Americans tend to refer to themselves as simply “comfortable.” Such modesty is a rather significant understatement, though everything is, of course, relative. People can downplay affluence as mere comfort, but for Peter Singer and the world’s four billion people living on five dollars a day, that’s a bit hard to accept.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Whose Classroom?

In this week's column for The Villager, I ponder the growing interest and influence that parents, families, and community members have or are requesting in their local schools.

An interesting thing happened when schools went online last year – parents were given an insider's view of what goes on in the classrooms where they send their kids to learn. And now that the parents have been inadvertently invited into the classroom, some of them don’t want to leave.

Joanne Jacobs, an education researcher, has been writing about the issue of parental interest, involvement, and control that has arisen following the pandemic. Those issues came to a head last November in the Virginia governor’s race where controversies in Loudon County Schools became a factor in Glenn Youngkin’s campaign. Observers described the rise of a “parents matter” movement and credited it with Youngkin’s surprise victory. Jacobs believes that, after a year of depending on parents to be very involved in the actual teaching of the kids, parents may have a case for more influence in the classroom.

Discussion about parents’ role in what and how students are actually taught has been brewing for a while now, emerging ten years ago with the Common Core State Standards. Countless parents were shocked to realize they couldn’t help their kids with math homework under the new expectations. Recently, parents have questioned everything from cursive handwriting in elementary schools to the study of literature for seniors. In Michigan recently, the Democratic Party was criticized for a statement on the role parents play in the education of their kids. A post on the party’s Facebook page argued "The purpose of public education in public schools is not to teach kids only what parents want them to be taught."

In one regard, the very nature of schooling suggests parents should not be in charge of the education of their children. Unless they choose to homeschool and manage the curriculum and instruction, the decision to send kids away defers that authority to others. That deference is what the Michigan Democrats meant when they clarified that the role of public schools "is to teach them what society needs them to know. The client of the public school is not the parent, but the entire community, the public." Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire made a similar claim in a Washington Post op-ed titled, “Parents Claim They Have a Right to Shape Their Kids’ Curriculum – They Don’t.” While that claim may seem inflammatory, their argument really isn’t. Education is about teaching students to “think for themselves,” even if some of those ideas run counter to the views of their parents. And in regards to many topics, parents may make decisions that aren’t always in the best interest of their children.

Similar debates are unfolding across the country, as in Indiana where late last year the attorney general introduced a Parents Bill of Rights. The fifty-page document reiterates numerous legal rights such as the opportunity to run for school board and the legal access to special education. However, the platform also makes general and ambiguous claims like “education policy and curriculum should accurately reflect the values of Indiana families.” In reality, policies and curriculum should reflect the best practices of content and pedagogy that will prepare students for post-graduate life which includes college and careers. It’s about creating a well-educated populace and fully actualized adults, not just reflecting a broad term like values. And it’s odd to envision one uniform, homogenous Indiana family which represents all seven million Hoosiers.

The transient nature of a student body and the inconsistent participation of families also makes such uniformity problematic. Even in the current era when school board meetings are politically charged and more widely attended, participation remains a miniscule percentage of a community. Thus, parent control of curriculum, standards, and pedagogy would inevitably represent only a small but vocal group. Curriculum cannot simply be adjusted year-to-year or even month-to-month, nor should it be, for that would be an inefficient model for instruction. Kids are in elementary, middle, and high school for at best five years, while staff are there for decades. Educators spend entire careers refining their content and craft, not a few hours watching a board meeting, reading a magazine article, or following a brief discussion on talk news.

In a recent editorial for the St. Louis Post Dispatch, Marita Malone, a professor and school board director advised that “Public schools must return to teaching and let parents do the parenting.” That pragmatic view is a rather astute observation that should guide this issue.

Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Walk Your Line; Don’t Cross Others’

When the supermarket service workers recently went on strike against the Kroger corporation in Colorado, some people cross the picket line and shopped there anyway. I did not. The why is my column this week for The Villager:

I did not cross the picket line. I did so out of simple respect. When the commercial service workers went on strike against King Soopers and the Kroger corporation for ten days, I did not cross the line. I did not shop there. I did not interfere in or subvert these workers’ efforts to negotiate wages and working conditions with their employer. As a middle class wage earner living in suburbia, I did not presume to know their business and fully understand the challenges they face in the workplace everyday. So, I did not cross the line because I respect the working class people of the service industry.

In a recent column for the Denver Post, writer, part-time professor, and aspiring politician, Krista Kafer explained why she crossed the picket line. In her somewhat curt and straightforward manner, she said she crossed the line because she needed groceries and the labor dispute wasn’t her business. “It’s not personal,” she says. People who choose to cross picket lines do so out of one of two positions – privilege or principle. Kafer’s choice was clearly one of privilege, which she cleverly masks in principle. While Kafer argues that she crossed the line because she wasn’t a pawn in the game, she let her privileged principle blind her to the role she plays as a consumer. And, of course, she capitalized on the opportunity by crafting a column out of it. Despite claiming she had no stake in the issue, Kafer actually did take a side, supporting the Kroger corporation over the people who work the aisles.

Growing up in the river town of Alton, Illinois, outside St. Louis, I lived near three steel mills, two automotive plants, several refineries, and numerous manufacturing plants. I grew up around Owens-Illinois Glass, Alton Boxboard, Olin Brass, and numerous other factories whose collective bargaining agreements with their workers built much of the middle class in the areas around St. Louis. My father worked in labor relations for decades, albeit from the management side. But through the experience of my community and my father’s job, I learned a great deal about labor, about contract negotiations, about work stoppages, and about collective bargaining. It’s where I learned to not cross a picket line. As a point of disclosure, I should note that while I am a teacher, I am not a member of the local education association.

As a young man, I came of age during the 1980s and the Reagan Revolution, and the first political leader I supported to succeed the Gipper was New York Representative Jack Kemp, the original compassionate conservative. As a former NFL player and a resident of Buffalo, Kemp had an authentic understanding of the working class. As co-founder and president of the AFL Players Association, he had a deep understanding of labor. Kemp knew well how collective bargaining simply makes sense. Why would anyone go it alone when everyone knows there’s strength in numbers? It’s not for naught that Ben Franklin reminded the colonists, “we must all hang together or we will surely hang separately.” Collective action in pursuit of just goals is an American tradition.

I live across the street from my local King Soopers, and for twenty years I’ve shopped there, sometimes daily. My children grew up knowing the names of the produce stockers and the deli counter workers who chatted with them, often letting them sample the selections. By contrast, I suspect Krista Kafer’s experience working many years for politicians inside the DC Beltway has left her aloof to the everyday lives and working conditions of service workers. She knows little of the people she passes in the aisles. Kafer said the contract negotiation is not her fight. If so, she should have stayed out of it; instead she chose a side. She chose to interfere and subvert the service workers association’s ability to negotiate a contract.

If people like Ms. Kafer want to understand the workers she disrespected, the essential workers she dismissively walked past on their picket line, then she might consider reading some books about the history of organized labor and the challenge to create a middle class for the working class. As an English teacher, I’d recommend she check out Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed. Or perhaps she could simply talk to the people she has so casually dismissed.

I respected the picket line, and I always will.


Thursday, February 3, 2022

Groundhog Day - An Existential New Year

I've posted about Groundhog Day the movie before, and it's this week's column for The Villager:

Ever since the 1993 film from Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, the term "Groundhog Day" has become synonymous with mundane repetition and mindless redundancy in our daily lives and jobs. The term has become the punchline for people describing the empty and repetitive nature of their jobs or even their lives. However, the film was never really about that. Instead, the message of the movie about weatherman Phil Connor is about rebirth and the chance every day to make our seemingly boring repetitive lives whatever we truly want them to be.

Let’s face it, by February 2, New Year’s resolutions are fading, fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.

The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke. That realization is actually at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense, and the absurdity of it all can lead us to feel our entire existence is meaningless. In the movie Phil spends many years in that disgruntled fashion, viewing his life as a cruel joke. However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity to get it right.

Granted, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable — who wouldn’t at least consider that? He seizes the opportunity, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. Even hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while. A pivotal moment finds Phil sitting quietly in the cafe reading, when he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks out a teacher and begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details, hopes, and dreams of the people in his life.

Groundhog Day is a film with a message — each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”

Thus, rather than a sad story about emptiness, the film and the day are a great chance to re-think and embrace the rich potential of our lives every day we live. Think about it. And perhaps even consider watching Groundhog Day to brighten and warm up the dark days of winter.