Monday, August 04, 2008

It's the economy (that's making us) stupid

A Chronicle article highlights a collection of books pointing out that Americans are getting more stupid. Many of these books blame the internets. I haven't read any of these books, so I don't know what they all blame, but in the brief synopses provided by Benton, it seems none of these books blame the economy or business interests more directly. If there's a book out there that does connect the increase in work hours to a decline in intelligence among our citizenry, I'd love to know about it. And if there's not, and you have a thesis to write, there's a topic for you.

I personally say it's the economy that's most to blame for a number of reasons, some of them unintended consequences of a thriving citizenry. Some of them a result of the greed of our various businesses. This morning I was reading this article about a woman who finds herself in serious financial trouble. I happened to read it on the heels of the article above, and I couldn't help thinking, who has time to keep up with politics and culture if you're working two jobs to pay your bills. On the one hand, a large swath of the American public is able to not just afford the necessities of life, but is also able to afford amenities once reserved for the wealthy: more than one car, a house of their own, vacations, an extensive wardrobe, electronics, and more. On the other hand, many people have purchased those amenities on credit instead of using cash on hand. Often this spirals into needing to use credit for necessities such as groceries and housing because all of their take-home pay in going to service interest on debt. Yes, the individuals can be blamed for their own dilemma in part, but I also blame (as does the NY Times, sort of) the finance companies, who prey on people who fail to read the fine print. Imagine if these companies weren't allowed to extend credit to people already paying 40% of their income to creditors. Yes, it might mean those people couldn't buy the couch or piece of jewelry they wanted, but they might learn to put off these purchases instead.

Americans work more than many other people in the world, most notably Europeans. Back in the late 60s, people predicted that by now, Americans would be working 4-day work weeks and vacationing 13 weeks out of the year. How fabulous does that sound? Instead, we're working more. Some of us are working to pay stuff off, some are working to have more stuff, and some of us are working because of the cultural norm of the Puritan work ethic. Labor unions, who could negotiate for shorter work weeks and mandated vacation time, are weaker now than in the past. Corporations, more concerned with the bottom line than with the well-being of their workers, have taken away benefits and kept wages stagnant, all while they have record profits and pay their CEOs 400 times more than their workers. I almost choked when I heard Exxon had the highest quarterly profits of any corporation ever. If gas costs so much for us, shouldn't Exxon be hurting just a little bit?

I have to imagine that if we all had a little more leisure time, some of that time would be spent learning. Maybe we'd have time to not just listen to the sound bites on Fox News, but to look up the blog posts that debunk those sound bites. Maybe we'd have time to visit more National Parks, Historic Sites, and museums, thereby learning more about our country's history, natural resources, and culture. Maybe we'd have time to read books again. There'd be more time for kids to spend with parents and grandparents, helping to bridge the generation gap.

I realize this is all somewhat idealistic, and sadly, because most of us are working our asses off, we don't have time to fight for these things. We don't have money for our own lobby the way oil companies and credit card companies do. But I think we should fight for these things. I think we should guard our personal lives carefully before their gone and before we're all really, really dumb.