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Money in America

I was saddened by two op-eds in the NYT on Friday.  David Brooks said that the only way to measure success in America is money.  Paul Krugman said that technology will mean that fewer and fewer people will have more and more of that money.

I don’t disagree with Brooks that in today’s America financial success is the main way to measure success, but I think there are still people, religious or not, who have other values, and who may value some form of personal goodness, loving your neighbor, or doing good for society in general as a higher value than financial success.  It’s interesting that although Brooks column talks a lot about religion, it does not mention the “Protestant work ethic” which is probably the most well-known description of the moral system that he says is now dead.

By Brooks’ measure, no doctor should aspire to be a family physician, keeping regular people well over time.  All doctors should aspire to be neurosurgeons, cardiac surgeons, or orthopedic surgeons, where the money is.  Everyone should be a specialist.  I suppose you could argue that the best doctors become specialists in high-paying fields, while the worse doctors have to settle for family practices.  But I think at least a few of those actually choose to be general practice doctors because they actually want to make people well and keep them that way, not just make money.

Similarly, no lawyer would ever become a judge.  Judges’ salaries are nothing compared to corporate lawyers’ or plaintiffs’ lawyers.  But somebody has to make decisions that keep society functioning.  Many judges do it, because they feel that it is a higher calling than litigating or finding tax dodges for multi-billion dollar companies.  There are lots of claims that today judges are being bought or influenced by the enormous financial power of big corporations and super-rich individuals, but there are still some honest judges.

But Brooks is right that in today’s society a good judge or family doctor no longer has the social status that he would have had a generation or two ago.  The military is another victim.  It’s pinnacle was probably after World War II, because almost everybody served, the US won, and the US was relatively unscathed by the war, compared to Europe or Asia.  The nadir was probably post-Vietnam.  9-11 helped restore some luster to the military, but still no one from a “nice” family would serve.  We have developed something of a military caste, with an officer corps drawn from military families or families not connected to the American power structure, and enlisted men drawn from the under-classes of the country, again people who are somewhat alienated from “good” society before they enlist.  They get lots of thanks, but you don’t get many people from good universities or wealthy families joining the military.  Because of the relatively small base from which to draw soldiers and the high volume and long duration of the wars they are called to fight, the military is constantly under stress.  In addition, it is now becoming a social experiment by integrating women and gays into the force.  Integration worked pretty well for blacks in the military, but that was a more democratic military with a broader cross-section of soldiers than today’s.  We will see whether that makes the social experiment easier or harder.  But Brooks is right that the relatively low pay for the military reduces its stature in American society.  many people who sing the National Anthem or America the Beautiful at sporting events think they are doing just as much to show their love for America as soldiers facing bullets in Afghanistan or some other foreign war.

In the other column, Paul Krugman says that we are going through a change in the economy and the nature of work as great that of the industrial revolution.  It is changing the whole balance of power between labor and capital with capital far outstripping labor in importance.  Manual labor is no longer being outsourced to poorer countries, it is being eliminated by technology.  A CEO can almost run an industrial empire from a computer on his desk.  Thus he reaps almost all of the profit from his factories’ production because there are no laborer with whom he has to share it.  For the last generation or so, the technological revolution created jobs in the tech industry, writing code for all the new computers, but Krugman adds that today even those jobs are disappearing.  Education is no longer a guarantee of a decent job.  Furthermore, he says we are duping our young people into going into huge debt to finance their education, which may turn out to be useless in the job market.

If they are both right, we doom the majority of Americans to a life of poverty and low self-esteem.  Neither of them addresses the issue of “celebrity,” which is a relatively new American phenomenon.  It often includes people with no special or socially useful skills who make tons of money by playing themselves of some made-up version of themselves on television and the Internet.  If money is really the indicator of social value, we find these people with almost no real value given the highest social value under the new standards.

The histories of the Roman Empire and French Revolution show similar trends, as societies abandoned the values which made them great, in both cases yielding to corruption and income inequality that eventually destroyed them.  The demonstrations yesterday in Brazil, the day before in Turkey, and perhaps last year’s Occupy Wall Street, and the Arab spring show that there may be a growing perception among the masses that the super-rich 1% is saying “Let them eat cake,” while the masses want jobs and salaries that allow them to buy bread and veggies.

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