The Problem With America’s Culture of Overwork

It says a lot that there even needs to be a debate on whether or not overwork is a good thing. But as working more for less becomes the norm in American life — often unquestionably — clearly it is a discussion worth having.

Let us start by putting things into perspective: contrary to popular belief, Japan is no longer the developed country with the most annual working hours by average. That dubious distinction now falls on the U.S. As the Nation reports:

By international standards, Americans put in a lot of time on the job. Among countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, we’re above the average, clocking 1,789 hours at work in a year—more than Japan, Germany, and South Korea. Each week, the average American puts in 41 hours per week, compared to 38.4 in the United Kingdom, 36.9 in Germany, and just 32.7 in the Netherlands. We also have more workaholics: The percentage of U.S. workers who put in more than 45 hours a week is about double that of Germany, the Netherlands, or France. While we’ve decreased our workload by 112 hours a year over the past four decades, other countries have far outpaced us: The French dropped theirs by 491 hours, the Dutch by 425 and the Canadians by 215.

Doubtless, many Americans consider such a work ethic to be both morally desirable and perfectly acceptable; hence our unique position in the developed world in terms of not mandating paid maternal leave or vacation time.

One might think that all that work contributes to our status as the world’s largest economy by a significant margin. But this is yet another widespread misconception.  Continue reading

The Problem With Wealthy Philanthropists

…With a decaying social welfare state, more and more public amenities exist only as the result of the hyper-wealthy donating them. But when the commons are donated by the wealthy, rather than guaranteed by membership in society, the democratic component of civic society is vastly diminished and placed in the hands of the elite few who gained their wealth by using their influence to cut taxes and gut the social welfare state in the first place.

It’s much like how in my former home of Pittsburgh, the library system is named for Andrew Carnegie, who donated a portion of the initial funds. But the donated money was not earned by Carnegie; it trickled up from his workers’ backs, many of them suffering from overwork and illness caused by his steel factories’ pollution. The real social cost of charitable giving is the forgotten labor that builds it and the destructive effects that flow from it.

— Why the Rich Love Burning Man, Jacobin

To be clear, the issue isn’t so much about individual elites donating their wealth to humanitarian efforts; no doubt at least some of them are benevolent and sincere, and their money often goes a long way for certain causes. But the problem lies in the aggregate, when entire societies — from their political and economic systems, to their media and public education — are at the mercy of a small class of individuals that determines what resources go where, based on what conditions. Being beholden to a handful of elites is not much better than to an overpowering state; indeed, often times it is often indistinguishable.

What are your thoughts?

Boston Leads the Way in People-Centered Urban Planning

When it comes to making cities more liveable and efficient, many Americans tend to look abroad for examples, namely to places like Germany, the Netherlands, and Singapore. But it is nice to find a model closer to home, especially since it gives lie to the notion that America’s car-culture poses unique challenges that foreign cities do not face.

As PRI reports, Boston is one of the biggest and most prominent participants a new movement that is sweeping communities of all sizes across the United States. Continue reading

The World’s Most Liveable Cities in 2015

The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) has published its annual Global Liveability Ranking for 2015, which determines which cities are the best to live in based on 30 factors related to safety, healthcare, education, infrastructure, and environment. As always, the results are quite interesting. Of the 140 cities around the world assessed for liveability, the top ten were more or less the usual suspects.

The order is virtually unchanged compared to last year, with Helsinki dipping two places, Perth and Auckland each rising by one, and Zurich entering the top ten. Melbourne retains its top spot for the fifth consecutive year.

As in previous years, cities in Australia and Canada dominate the top ten, together making up seven spots. Fellow Anglophone country New Zealand maintains its usual toehold, as do small Nordic and Germanic countries.

Indeed, as the EIU observes, the most liveable places tend to be “mid-sized cities in wealthier countries with a relatively low population density” — hence the fairly low ranking of prominent metropolises like London, New York, Paris, and Tokyo.

As far as the United States is concerned, Honolulu, Hawaii once against gets the highest ranking in the country, with Atlanta, Boston, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and even Washington, D.C., performing fairly well. Once again, there is a pattern of medium-sized, relatively less dense cities doing well.

But given that each of the factors are weighted, each city has its own unique advantage even if it does well overall. For some it could be climate and environment, while others’ lean more towards culture or world-class education.

Meanwhile, the bottom cities are unsurprisingly places wracked by war and/or socioeconomic collapse, with Damascus, Syria, being dead last, followed by Dhaka, Bangladesh; Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea; Lago, Nigeria; and Tripoli, Libya.

The Economist, the EIU’s corporate cousin, also identified an overall dip in average liveability rankings worldwide.

[Since] 2010 average liveability across the world has fallen by 1%, led by a 2.2% fall in the score for stability and safety. Ongoing conflicts in Syria, Ukraine and Libya have been compounded by terrorist shootings in France and Tunisia as well as civil unrest in America. In Athens, austerity rather than unrest has weighed on the provision of public services, while Kiev saw the sharpest fall over the last 12 months and is now among the ten least livable cities ranked.

The following infographics show how cities have been faring over the past five years.

It is interesting to see the capitals of Zimbabwe and Nepal, each among the world’s poorest countries, seeing an appreciable increase in their liveability (albeit from a fairly low base). And even though it ranked among the lowest on the index, Nigeria’s megacity of Lagos is seeing some improvement, as you can see more clearly below.

Reporting on the results, CNN noted some positive developments in fairly surprising places.

By contrast, some regions have bucked the trend — seven Chinese cities improved their ranking over the last 12 months “largely because of a lower threat from civil unrest,” the report said. “Chinese cities saw liveability fall in the wake of riots and unrest in 2012, most notably due to widespread anti-Japanese sentiment.”

China’s top-ranked city, Beijing, moved up five places to 69 in the global ranking.

But Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests last year resulted in a 3.2% decline in livability. Though the protests were largely peaceful, some parts of the city were brought to a standstill for several months.

However “Asia’s World City” still remained three places above city rival Singapore — 46th and 49th place respectively.

“Hong Kong’s liveability has been hit by the disruptive protests that took place last year. The city retains bragging rights over its regional competitor Singapore, but by a tiny margin. In fact both cities can still lay claim to being in the top tier of liveability where few, if any, aspects of life are restricted. This has not been the case in other parts of the world, with instability and unrest features undermining the scores of a number of cities globally,” said Jon Copestake, editor of the EIU survey.

As certain parts of the world continue to develop and prosper, we may find ourselves with a larger and more diverse collection of liveability cities across the world. It is a fitting trend given the parallel growth in both urbanization and globalization; more people are moving to cities and across borders, bringing with them cultural ideas, urban planning concepts, and the like. Perhaps that is why so many great cities — including most of those in the top ten — tend to be of a multicultural and cosmopolitan character.

Granted, the EIU is hardly the sole authority on the subject of liveability. Indeed, as with most any study, its ranking has some notable caveats; for example, it does not take into account the cost of living, which means that an otherwise liveable city might be out of reach from the average person. Some have also noted an apparent “Anglocentric” bias in the results, with cities in predominantly English-speaking countries consistently ranking the highest.

So for the sake of fairness, here are the results of two other leading annual surveys measuring cities’ living conditions. As it turns out, there is quite a bit of discrepancy, though a few familiar faces across the board, too.

First up is the Quality of Living Rankings conducted by Mercer, an American consultancy specializing in human resources and financial services. Unlike the EIU’s purportedly more academic look at liveability, Mercer’s survey is apparently geared towards helping companies determine the best places to expand their operation. Nevertheless, it encompasses an extensive criteria of 39 factors, such as safety, culture, recreational opportunities, etc. New York City is used as the baseline with 100 points.

Of the 221 cities analyzed, the following made the top ten for 2015.

  1. Vienna, Austria
  2. Zürich, Switzerland
  3. Auckland, New Zealand
  4. Munich, Germany
  5. Vancouver, Canada
  6. Düsseldorf, Germany
  7. Frankfurt, Germany
  8. Geneva, Switzerland
  9. Copenhagen, Denmark
  10. Sydney, Australia

Since the survey began in 2010, Vienna and Zürich have remained first and second place, respectively; Vancouver, Düsseldorf, Frankfurt, and Sydney have more or less maintained their positions for the past five years. While the usual suspects from the EIU’s ranking gave a solid showing, it appears that Germanic countries are the ones that dominate Mercer’s index.

As far as U.S. cities are concerned, Honolulu once against performs fairly well at 36th place overall, but trails behind San Francisco (27) and Boston (34). Indeed, all the best cities in North America are Canadian; after fifth-place Vancouver are Ottawa, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary.

In Asia, Singapore takes the top spot, followed by Japanese cities Tokyo, Yokohama, Kobe, and Osaka. For the Middle East and North Africa (e.g. the Arab World), Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Muscat (the capital of Oman) are the only ones to make it into the top 100. Oceania’s best cities are exclusively Australian, while Sub-Saharan Africa’s best city for quality of life is Port Louis, the capital of the island nation of Mauritius (which itself is one of the most stable developed African countries). Cape Town and Johannesburg, both in South Africa, round up the top three.

If you haven’t had your fill of liveable cities, we come to the third and final big index on the subject: The Monocle Quality of Life Survey, carried out by global affairs and lifestyle magazine Monocle. Conducted annually since 2007, this year’s edition was apparently the “biggest shake-up” yet, as it introduced 22 new metrics — such as international travel routes, public library systems, and good lunch options — that led to big changes in the top 25.

Without further ado, here is Monocle’s take on the best places in the world to live.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Interestingly, the results of this index are a lot more diverse than the other two. No country has a majority of top cities, though Australia and Germany enjoy a plurality with two spots each. We also see Japan perform a lot better, not only taking the top spot (which is an unusual for both an Asian city and a metropolis), but capturing two other high spots. (And this time, Portland, Oregon, leads U.S. cities.)

Taken together, the results of these big three surveys (and to be sure, there are a few other rankings out there), show a clear consensus: places like Vienna, Melbourne, Sydney, and Zurich are clear models to follow. Countries like Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland seem to know a thing or two about how to create great cities. Whether for cultural, economic, or political reasons, these nations, and their leading urban centers offer, a lot to learn in a world of rapid urbanization.

We would do well to continue analyzing them — assuming of course that what makes cities great is something that can be clearly conceptualized and implemented, rather than an amalgamation of various historical, geographical, and sociocultural factor that are not so neatly emulatable. What are your thoughts?

The Cheapest and Most Sensible Solution to Homelessness

You guessed it (I think): giving homeless people housing. It sounds so deceptively obvious, even a bit humorous, yet it remains a relatively novel concept in the long fight against chronic homelessness. As I discussed in a previous post, a few cities have been experimenting with giving chronically homeless populations permanent housing; these initiatives have been met with great success, both ethical and economic (not only do people get the shelter they need, but cities and states save money on homelessness-related policing, incarceration, and emergency hospitalization).

Back in May, the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness, which looked at three counties in the state, found the annual cost of giving homeless people a residence and a dedicated caseworker was $10,000 per person — about one-third less than the $31,000 currently spent every year per homeless person (again, on policing, jailing, etc.). Similar recent studies found large financial savings in Charlotte and Southeastern Colorado by just providing housing. Continue reading

Has Technology Done More Harm Than Good for Job Growth?

Advances in technology, ranging from the 19th-century cotton gin to the latest cutting-edge robots, have long been cited as leading factors in the decline of both employment and quality of work. But a recent study from Deloitte, a major consultancy based in the U.K., has challenged this common narrative, arguing that on the contrary, technological innovations have created far more jobs — and far better lives — than are credited.

From The Guardian:

Their conclusion is unremittingly cheerful: rather than destroying jobs, technology has been a “great job-creating machine”. Findings by Deloitte such as a fourfold rise in bar staff since the 1950s or a surge in the number of hairdressers this century suggest to the authors that technology has increased spending power, therefore creating new demand and new jobs.

Their study, shortlisted for the Society of Business Economists’ Rybczynski prize, argues that the debate has been skewed towards the job-destroying effects of technological change, which are more easily observed than than its creative aspects.

Going back over past jobs figures paints a more balanced picture, say authors Ian Stewart, Debapratim De and Alex Cole.

“The dominant trend is of contracting employment in agriculture and manufacturing being more than offset by rapid growth in the caring, creative, technology and business services sectors”, they write.

“Machines will take on more repetitive and laborious tasks, but seem no closer to eliminating the need for human labour than at any time in the last 150 years”.

Citing a century-and-a-half of historical data from the U.K., the researchers found a precipitous decline in “hard, dull, and dangerous” work — such as agriculture and clothes washing — to less physically intensive jobs focused on “care, education and provision of services to others”. Continue reading

U.S. Government Rules Against Bans of Homeless People Sleeping Outside

Boise, Idaho is one of a multitude of cities across the United States that prohibits homeless people from sleeping or camping in public spaces. Following a lawsuit against the city brought by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty (NLCHP), the U.S. Department of Justice weighed in with a statement of interest that could greatly impact local policy towards homeless people well beyond Boise.

The crux of the DOJ argument is that these bans violate the Eighth Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment. The reasoning is as follows:

When adequate shelter space exists, individuals have a choice about whether or not to sleep in public. However, when adequate shelter space does not exist, there is no meaningful distinction between the status of being homeless and the conduct of sleeping in public. Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless.

According to the New York Timesthis is the first time in twenty years that the Justice Department has gotten involved in this “still-unsettled” area of law. In doing so, the federal government is basically warning cities across the nation to treat homelessness more humanely. Either lift the bans, or ensure that there is adequate shelter space and housing so that homeless people do not have to sleep outside in the first place. Continue reading

No Matter What You Do, a Living Wage is a Must

Amid demonstrations and public pressure by lowly paid fast food workers, the state of New York has become the latest jurisdiction to increase the minimum wage, this time to $15 an hour. In response, many grumbled upon the unfairness of having burger flippers and fry cooks make as much as EMTs, firefighters, and other “more important” occupations.

In response to this pushback, a paramedic publicly shared his own thoughts on the matter, which have since gone viral. Here it is in its entirety.

Fast food workers in NY just won a $15/hr wage.

I’m a paramedic. My job requires a broad set of skills: interpersonal, medical, and technical skills, as well as the crucial skill of performing under pressure. I often make decisions on my own, in seconds, under chaotic circumstances, that impact people’s health and lives. I make $15/hr.

And these burger flippers think they deserve as much as me?

Good for them.

Look, if any job is going to take up someone’s life, it deserves a living wage. If a job exists and you have to hire someone to do it, they deserve a living wage. End of story. There’s a lot of talk going around my workplace along the lines of, “These guys with no education and no skills think they deserve as much as us? Fuck those guys.” And elsewhere on FB: “I’m a licensed electrician, I make $13/hr, fuck these burger flippers.”

And that’s exactly what the bosses want! They want us fighting over who has the bigger pile of crumbs so we don’t realize they made off with almost the whole damn cake. Why are you angry about fast food workers making two bucks more an hour when your CEO makes four hundred TIMES what you do? It’s in the bosses’ interests to keep your anger directed downward, at the poor people who are just trying to get by, like you, rather than at the rich assholes who consume almost everything we produce and give next to nothing for it.

My company, as they’re so fond of telling us in boosterist emails, cleared 1.3 billion dollars last year. They expect guys supporting families on 26-27k/year to applaud that. And that’s to say nothing of the techs and janitors and cashiers and bed pushers who make even less than us, but are as absolutely crucial to making a hospital work as the fucking CEO or the neurosurgeons. Can they pay us more? Absolutely. But why would they? No one’s making them.

The workers in NY made them. They fought for and won a living wage. So how incredibly petty and counterproductive is it to fuss that their pile of crumbs is bigger than ours? Put that energy elsewhere. Organize. Fight. Win.

Writing for EMS1.com, an online network for emergency medical services (EMS) personnel, Arthur Hsieh weighed into the subsequent debate about who deserves a decent salary or wage.

Continue reading

What Countries Fear The Most

Depending on where you live in the world, your foreign policy priorities will vary wildly. That is the conclusion of a 40-nation study conducted by the venerable Pew Research Center, which asked respondents to report their levels of concern about the following international threats: global climate change; global economic instability; ISIS; Iran’s nuclear program; cyberattacks (be it on governments or private institutions); tensions between Russia, its neighbors, and the U.S.; and territorial disputes between China and its neighbors.

Here is a map of the top threats perceived in each country, courtesy of The Atlantic:

Note: Malaysia and Venezuela both cited climate change and economic instability as top concerns.

The following chart breaks down the percentage of respondents that marked each a particular threat, with underlined figures reflecting the second-most pressing concerns.

You can see a more colorful and interactive version of the above chart at The Guardian

Needless to say, these results say a lot about a country’s political, social, and geographic circumstances. It is pretty clear why Ukraine and Poland would rank Russia as their top concern, given both current tensions and a long history of conflict with their larger neighbor. For similar reasons, Israel is most concerned about Iran, and Vietnam has many scruples with China (indeed, tensions between those states have been on and off for millennia).

Moreover, there are several clear regional trends: worries over climate change is strongest in Latin America, Africa, and Asia — in other words, the developing world. In contrast, fear of ISIS is most evident in the developed nations of North America, Western Europe, and Australia, as well as countries in the Middle East.

Somewhat surprisingly, economic instability is a secondary concern in many places, which might reflect the relative stabilization of most countries’ economies. A more cynical interpretation is that people are far more wrapped up in the sensationalism and gripping brutality of terror groups like ISIS than of more far-off and difficult to perceive threats like climate change or the economy.

Cyberattacks remain the least worrying for most citizens of the world, at least for now; things might change as technology because ever-more integrated into everyday day, or once a high-profile and calamitous cyberattack rouses greater attention and concerns.

Though Iran’s nuclear program was only a top threat for Israel, in more than half of the countries surveyed, a third or more respondents identified it as a matter of concern. (Note that this poll was conducted prior to the recent nuclear deal, so there is no telling how that has impacted public opinion.)

It is worth pointing out that this poll was only carried out in 40 of the world’s nearly 200 countries; thus it is more an approximation of collective global opinion. Much of Africa and Asia is left out, though it is safe to say that climate change would remain a top matter of concern, given the pattern among other developing states. (Central Asia would probably be a mixed bag.)

Given that climate change is a far more existential threat than ISIS (at least for any nation not near or involved with interstate tensions), this poll seem to confirm a longstanding psychological observation: as I noted in my statement about economic instability, it is far easier for people to be worried about something they can clearly identify and label as bad, then something that is harder to pinpoint, visualize, and understand. A brutal terrorist group is simpler and more visual than the complex dynamics — and for that matter solutions — regarding economics and climatology.

What are your thoughts?

 

 

The Return of the American Slum

From The Atlantic comes yet another sobering confirmation of America’s economic and social decline. As rising inequality, government austerity, and declining employment continue apace, poverty is naturally rising, becoming more concentrated and self-perpetuating than ever.

The number of people living in high-poverty areas—defined as census tracts where 40 percent or more of families have income levels below the federal poverty threshold—nearly doubled between 2000 and 2013, to 13.8 million from 7.2 million, according to a new analysis of census data by Paul Jargowsky, a public-policy professor at Rutgers University-Camden and a fellow at The Century Foundation. That’s the highest number of Americans living in high-poverty neighborhoods ever recorded.

The development is worrying, especially since the number of people living in high-poverty areas fell 25 percent, to 7.2 million from 9.6 million, between 1990 and 2000. Back then, concentrated poverty was declining in part because the economy was booming. The Earned Income Tax Credit boosted the take-home pay for many poor families. (Studies have shown the EITC also creates a feeling of social inclusion and citizenship among low-income earners.) The unemployment rate fell as low as 3.8 percent, and the first minimum wage increases in a decade made it easier for families to get by. Programs to disassemble housing projects in big cities such as Chicago and Detroit eradicated some of the most concentrated poverty in the country, Jargowsky told me.

As newly middle-class minorities moved to inner suburbs, though, the mostly white residents of those suburbs moved further away, buying up the McMansions that were being built at a rapid pace. This acceleration of white flight was especially problematic in Rust Belt towns that didn’t experience the economic boom of the mid-2000s. They were watching manufacturing and jobs move overseas.

Another reason for this growing problem are ineffective, if not counterproductive, policies at both the state and federal level.  Continue reading