Education: An End In Itself

Whenever I’ve gone to an interview, I’ve often been asked how my undergraduate major – International Relations and Political Science, with a minor in Economics – has anything to do with the position I’m applying for. This implies that my education is only relevant, if not purposeful, insofar as it has economic value. This is all the more true considering that most of the course I took included such “soft” sciences as history, philosophy, anthropology, art, and law.

I didn’t take these subjects with the intention of making a lot of money. I had no such delusions about the economic potency of a piece of paper – which isn’t to degrade degree-seeking students or the non-monetary value of their plan of study, since having any sort of post-GED degree is still better than not. It’s just that getting a degree in itself is no guarantee of financial success. An education in and of itself is not going to make you money, contrary to what was (once) conventional wisdom.

And that’s okay. Indeed, I didn’t take these courses with money in mind at all. I didn’t pursue an education strictly for monetary enrichment. I studied because these subjects interested me, because learning is important for personal and societal well-being, and because I simply enjoyed them and felt enriched through the acquiring of knowledge.

Yes, making money is important. And yes, I had the luxury of learning for learning’s sake thanks to my scholarship, which makes my perspective somewhat biased. But my point is that my education is is my education. Learning about the world is a fun, fulfilling, and beautiful thing independent of its financial rewards.

Just because my current job has little to do with my major doesn’t mean my education was a waste of time, as some have said or implied. This once again presumes that my learning only matters if it makes me money and gets me a relevant career (and it also assumes that one’s career path is linear, as if everyone should jump straight into their job of choice rather than adapt to changing circumstances or desires).

It’s unfortunate that many in our society see an education as only a means rather than an end in itself. The value of an education shouldn’t determined solely by how much money it can make for you. While being financially successful is important, being educated and well-informed about the world should be valuable, period.

By all means, learn practical things and work to find a meaningful career. I’m not opposed to that. But learning about the world along the way – whether through a formal education, informal learning, or autodidacticism – should not be denigrated just because it doesn’t fit the commercialized paradigm of our consumerist, money-obsessed society. It’s just another way that our culture commoditizes and monetizes something that should have innate value.

But that’s a different discussion for a different day. Thoughts?

Poverty in a Consumer Society

One of the consequences of living in a consumer society is that those who cannot partake in consumption are made to feel bad about it. The person who can’t afford to dine out or buy the latest goods is inadvertently alienated or even humiliated. Essentially, an individual’s worth is judged by their socioeconomic status, which is determined by where they work and how much money they make. We conflate one’s personal value with their monetary one. As if poverty wasn’t difficult enough, one has to struggle with psychological consequences.

This may go a long way towards explaining the aristocratic mentality of most corporate executives. The “underlings” are given increasingly more work with less pay and benefits, while they enrich themselves with millions for doing a job they’re already well-paid for (even if their company is doing poorly). By virtue of not being executives, average workers aren’t invested in or treated as well. Thus, their value is based on what they do and their position in the corporate hierarchy.

Consider how our media and popular culture perpetuates this sentiment. For example, how often do sitcoms, movies, and other entertainment media portray poor characters as protagonists? Occasionally, there is some financial struggle thrown in as a plot point, but by and large being comfortably well-off is seen as a gold standard, even if it’s increasingly tenuous in real life.

Of course, all this is based on my own personal research and observation, so you’re free to weigh in with you own.

Is Your Fierce Wardrobe Starving People?

From Mother Jones:

I had a surprisingly hard time finding just how much farmland the world devotes to cotton, so I contacted Stephen McDonald, a cotton analyst for the USDA’s Economic Research Service. “Of the major field crops (wheat, feed grains, rice, soybeans, and cotton), cotton accounts for about 4% of global area,” he wrote in an email. Adding in food crops like vegetables and fruit “pushes cotton even lower than 4%,” he added. Nor, he wrote, does cotton acreage approach 42 percent of farmland in either the US, Brazil, or China.

More broadly, though, Ravasio is absolutely right that we need to think much more carefully about the cotton we consume in the form of clothes. According to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO), global cotton production doubled between 1960 and 2001. In that period, some of the most hunger-prone countries on the planet shifted significant farmland to cotton for the global market, hoping to build wealth from a valuable commodity crop. Production of the fluffy fiber in Francophone Africa, for example, rose by a factor of 10 over that period. But as production ramped up, the global price of cotton plunged, the FAO report shows, driven down by abundance as well as competition from synthetic alternatives like polyester.

The price drop meant severe disappointment for cotton producers in poor countries in Africa (while US cotton growers treaded water with a boost from crop subsidies). It also meant a bounty of cheap clothes for rich-nation consumers, who have become shameless clothes horses.

Every individual choice we make, when compounded in the aggregate, can have drastic consequences elsewhere in the world that we can’t even fathom. Our perceptions are just too limited.

Poverty in a Consumer Society

 

Its doubtless that being poor is not easy. Though money isn’t everything, it certainly helps. Worrying about food, shelter, and healthcare – to name only the barest of necessities – can take a horrible toll on one’s psyche and dignity. Indeed, I think that’s an aspect of poverty that often get’s overlooked: struggling to survive is bad enough, for obvious reasons, but what about the sense of insecurity, humiliation, and fear?
 
I’ve discussed the overall psychological aspect of poverty before, so at this point I’m more concerned about the plight of the poor within a specific context: our heavily materialistic consumer society.
 
The United States is unequaled in the sheer number and variety of luxuries that pervade its marketplace. We have products, services, and options that don’t exist in many parts of the world, or even in many wealthy nations. In fact, most of the defining brands of modern consumer societies worldwide – Coca-Cola, McDonalds, Nike, and Apple, to name only a few – are American in origin. We invented or refined the mass production (and thereby consumption) of food, film, automobiles, and other goods. Our success as a society, and our unrivaled projection of soft power, is perhaps most attributed to our entrepreneurial and economic acumen.
 
Setting aside the cultural hegemony that America retains over most of the globe – an issue to be discussed in a future post – one has to consider: what’s it like to be left out of such a society? In a country where advertisements and commercials pervade every interaction and activity with unparalleled creative marketing – from TV ads, to web adverts, to billboards – how does one cope with the pressure to take part?
 
One has to consider the social pressures as well – peers and coworkers buying the latest gadgets, enjoying higher quality goods, or joining one another to dine out or watch a film; people who can afford cruises and vacations, nice homes, doctor’s visits, and their own transportation. You see it in the glamour of popular culture, which at the very least portrays comfortably middle-class families with the stereotypical amenities of the “average American.”
 
Thus, you don’t have to be explicitly press-ganged into participating in the latest wave of consumption, which nowadays occurs with relentless frequency: you see it all around you, in some form or another, and can’t avoid the alienation at not being a part of it. You either take on the subsequent debt, or experience the palpable sense of exclusion and degraded self-esteem.
 
The American Dream that defines our ideal state of existence in this society is ultimately a consumptive one. It’s all about reaching a state of material and financial prosperity, a condition seen as representative of personal and professional success. Being impoverished is a result of individual failure, a sign of capriciousness, negligence, or laziness (if not all of the above). If you can’t attain the dream, you’re not only left out of a universally idyllic condition, but you’re made to feel responsible for it. You didn’t work hard enough. You’re ill-disciplined. You’re probably a welfare sponger or drug abuser. It’s literally insult to injury.
 
This isn’t to say that all poor people are victims of cruel misfortune, as we’ll always find cases of people who did in fact lead themselves to ruin (though even then we must ask what other factors might have lead to this self-destruction). But not every poor person is a parasite, delinquent, or free rider – indeed, the overwhelming majority are not. It’s a testimony to the aloofness between the “haves” and the “have nots” that so many people would prescribe to such a callous and inaccurate view. Poverty, like most social ills, is far to complex for such crude caricatures.
 
I’m also not suggesting that the poor are all miserable wretches, or that dignity cannot coexist with financial hardship. By my own accounts, most people of modest means are only more emboldened to improve their lot in life, and to find their meaning and sense of worth elsewhere (as we all should). But that doesn’t make the hardship any better. Some would say that life’s obstacles build character and impart valuable lessons. True as that might be, it’s a flawed way of justifying inequity. We don’t need to struggle from day-to-day to count our blessings or develop integrity.
 
People in most of the world may have it much worse than our poor do – and even then, there are some areas of this country that are exceptions – but that doesn’t make social dysfunction any less troubling. It’d be as absurd as claiming that blacks during the Civil Rights movement should just accept their unjust conditions, since those in Apartheid South Africa have it comparatively worse.
 
Ultimately, I’m not rallying against materialism, wealthy people, or capitalism. I’m not really rallying against anything. I just want to point out the painful juxtaposition that exists between our pervasive consumerism, and the large class of Americans who remain painfully separated from it, with all the psychological and personal consequences that follow. It’s cruel enough to be poor, but it’s crueler still to be poor in the midst of inescapable material temptations that remain out of reach. Perhaps that’s why most of the world’s most unequal societies, including our own, have higher rates of social problems.

Black Friday

More like Black Thursday Night, given how the event has been pushed back all the way into Thanksgiving itself. As if it weren’t enough that many retail employees were having to return from their vacation early the next day (often for long shifts), they’re having to rush out the door halfway through Thanksgiving celebrations as well.

Does anyone else see the irony in having a day of appreciation followed immediately by one of rapacious greed? To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with material enrichment or the taking advantage of good deals, especially in these difficult times. But I’m always disgusted by the great lengths that people and companies alike go through to get what they want.

It’s sad that so many people were forced to work the very same night they were spending time with their families, or – like many of the guests at my own Thanksgiving celebration- had to look forward to ten hour or more shifts beginning early the next morning. It’s even sadder to see people engage in an often injurious frenzy for material stuff right after presumably reflecting on the importance of family, good health, and basic amenities.

As a friend and I concluded, this sort of thing is largely typical of our society. We hold onto traditions and values we deem sacred, yet discard or suspend them whenever it proves expedient. I for one I’m not keen latching on to so-called traditions, given that many of them are really retrospective revisions that are actually nowhere near as unchanged as we romanticize.

Nor am I being anti-capitalist or anti-materialism either. I’m just as interested in getting nice luxuries for myself as anyone else, though I try to stick to the bare minimum as far as getting what is functional rather than chic (though I understand that’s subjective, so for all I know I’m quite gaudy about these things to other, more austere individuals).

I just have an aversion towards the immense level of desperation and selfishness that is so evident in this ritualization of consumerism. People getting injured or even killed by stampedes or outright fighting; rudeness, shoving, and even altercations in pursuit of highly-sought after goods. It represents the worst of our greed, even if these extreme examples are exceptions to the norm, and occur – more obviously at least – just once a year.

Plus, I just find it impractical, even barring my philosophical and visceral reasons. As an article from US News has discerned, Black Friday just isn’t worth the trouble in most cases, which is frankly the main reason I’ve never partaken in it.

Many discounts will continue long after Black Friday is over. While certain so-called “doorbusters” are available for a limited time only (and in limited quantities), many deals will continue throughout the holiday season. (And, in fact, some, such as free shipping at online stories, are often available throughout the year.)

The best deals are only available to a few people. Those doorbusters aren’t available in endless supply, which is why people line up so early in the hopes of being among the lucky few to snag one. While stores vary in how many doorbusters they keep in stock, Best Buy’s ad specifies that stores will sell a minimum of 10 Lenovos for $180, for example. Circulars featuring Black Friday ads often contain information on the number of doorbusters, which helps shoppers gauge how competitive the day will be.

When you do score a discount, it often just leads to more spending. If you’ve ever impulsively bought a muffin to go with your coffee, or surprised yourself by buying a whole new outfit when you meant to get only a shirt, then you will understand why research shows that shopping leads to more shopping.

Shopping can be broken into two phases, researchers say. In the first stage, people question whether they want to make a purchase. When they decide that the pros outweigh the cons, the “buying phase” takes over. “Once that happens, a roller coaster of shopping can begin,” says Uzma Khan, assistant professor of marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and one of the study’s authors. The researchers call the phenomenon “shopping momentum.”

That means shopping sales can have the unintended consequence of leading to even more purchases, including ones that aren’t on sale. Plus, many of the items that aren’t doorbusters aren’t even good deals, which is one reason shoppers should bring their smartphones and use them to compare prices on products before making purchases. (Certain apps, such as Pricegrabber’s, make it easy to scan barcodes and see if a better deal is available elsewhere.)

Sales that get you to buy something you wouldn’t have purchased otherwise are not good deals. It’s just like the old joke: A woman brags to her husband about how much money she saved on a pair of shoes, and then he points out that she didn’t save any money, she spent it, because she really doesn’t need the shoes. The bottom line: Only take advantage of discounts when they’re on items you would be purchasing anyway, even without the deal.

Frenzied buying almost never leads to smart shopping. One-day sales, midnight madness, and other sales techniques that spur quick decision-making tend to be disorienting and lead to over spending, says Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist and author of coauthor of Gen BuY: How Tweens, Teens, and Twenty-Somethings Are Revolutionizing Retail. “They’re training [consumers] to purchase even though they may not be ready,” she says. “If people are buying for fear or anxiety that it won’t be available, then they’re less likely to make good purchasing decisions.”

Here are some alternative ways to spend your Black Friday: Giving back or volunteering, eating turkey leftovers, and getting an early start on Christmas movies. Most of the discounts will still be there when you’re ready to hit the stores.

I’m not trying to be anti-consumerist snob. If people, such as some readers out there, want to take advantage of these deals whatever the cost, go for it. Far be it from me to preach or guilt anyone out of it. It’s simply not my thing, and I don’t think it’s worth its cost in time, money, and the loss of human decency that often transpires. Take that as you will.